Pulichino Tong Business Building Honors Alum
By Geoffrey Douglas
He was from northern New Jersey, the middle child of Italy-born parents. A mediocre student in high school, he says, “I was just trying to figure out what I could be good at.” His father guessed that he might make a decent engineer—“because I was better at math than English.” So, without any better ideas, he applied, as a senior, to Lowell Tech.
That was nearly 50 years ago. His path since then has not featured many stops related to engineering. Nor has there been anything mediocre about it.
“I was a late bloomer,” John Pulichino ’67 told a gathering of finance and management students on the UMass Lowell campus several years ago. “But if you believe in yourself and set attainable goals, it’s amazing how it’ll all come together for you.”
He enrolled at Lowell Tech in the fall of 1963, an outsider in important ways: “I was one of the few who lived in a dorm, who didn’t go home on weekends; and my black shirts and slacks—the North Jersey look—were kind of a clash with the white shirts and loafers I saw all around. I was a little different, I guess.”
But he adjusted—pledged a fraternity, built a social life, formed friendships that would endure to graduation and a few that would last a lifetime. “There was a sense of community there. I came to see it as home,” he says.
In the course of all this, he says, “I began to understand that engineering wasn’t for me. It was a process of discovery, of just better understanding myself.” He graduated in the spring of ’67 with a degree in industrial management.
The 70s found him at Polaroid, where he would spend 11 years—first in industrial engineering, later in planning and finally in marketing. They were some of the last good years for the company, a time when instant cameras were still in vogue and yearly sales were still rising. But the downswing was already in sight.
“It was a wonderful experience and provided me with a strong managerial foundation for what was to come,” Pulichino says. “But it was also the time when digital imagery was entering the market, ultimately replacing Polaroid’s film chemistry format. That, among other things, would prove to be the company’s demise.”
In the early 80s, a recruiter came calling. The company was American Tourister, among the country’s best-known manufacturers of durable, mid-priced luggage. Pulichino, though still a young man, brought a broad background to the table; in less than three years, he was president and CEO.
“Here I was, still in my 30s, running a $100 million business, involved with distribution, sales, planning and marketing—a lot of the areas I’d been active in at Polaroid,” he says. “We opened over 150 retail outlets and created a Special Products Division to market accessory bags for hand-held video devices. It was quite a challenge.”
In 1993, American Tourister was sold to Samsonite, and a year later Pulichino moved on. This time the company would be his own: Innovation Luggage, a New Jersey specialty luggage chain with 60 retail stores. The company prospered, and expanded west, adding 40 more stores in seven years.
Then 9/11 happened.
“In four days, revenue dropped in half and stayed there,” he says. “We lost our store in the World Trade Center. There was a ripple effect across the whole economy. People just stopped traveling.”
The company went into Chapter 11, downsized, rebounded, then was sold in two parts. Pulichino, who had been living in New York City, moved to Florida. And life took on a whole new direction.
His wife, Joy Tong, an industrial designer whom he’d married 12 years before, had founded, in 1984, Group III International Ltd., a small boutique wholesale company that marketed fashion travel bags. It was a nice, successful niche business, he says, but with limited growth potential.
“I thought I had retired—until one day she said to me, ‘Come help me with my business.’ So I said, ‘Okay, fine, I can do that.’ ”
The result was a partnership that merged Tong’s design skills with her husband’s business experience and the retail contacts he had developed over the years. It didn’t take long to bear fruit: a 2003 licensing agreement between Group III and Wenger, maker of the 100-year-old Genuine Swiss Army Knife brand, has generated a company that, since 2003, has done more than $400 million in sales. With offices in Florida, Taiwan and Mainland China, Group III now distributes more than 60 products through Target Stores alone.
“We started out as a small entrepreneur business,” says Pulichino, “that’s now grown to the point where we’re approaching $100 million a year in sales. And the great part is, I get to work side-by-side with my wife. She handles the design end of things, while I take care of the sales and marketing side. It’s a wonderful partnership.”
The couple recently sold a majority share of Group III to a Florida-based private equity firm, though the company remains intact—with Pulichino still in the CEO’s seat and his wife still the creative director. In the meantime, he says, the two of them have widened their scope to support other causes. Ranking high among these has been his alma mater and its students.
“For the longest time, years and years after I left, I never paid much attention,” he says. “’Oh, they don’t need the money,’ [I thought]. They get all they need from the state.”
He has come to see things differently—partly through recent visits to the campus (his spring 2006 visit, when he addressed finance and management students, was his first in 30 years) and partly, he says, as a result of his lifelong friendship with fellow alumnus, Phi Gamma Psi fraternity brother and one-time Polaroid colleague Charlie Hoff, a long-time major donor to the University, whom he credits as “probably the number-one inspiration” behind his choice to become active as a donor.
“Charlie’s a good friend, whose giving goes back a lot of years. He was the one who really got me engaged. Joy and I started out small, but we always knew that when the time was right we would make a more significant commitment. When we made the decision to sell the company, we knew that time had come.”
He had come to understand in the meantime, he says, that things aren’t as they used to be: “The state isn’t paying what it once did. The students I talk to today, they’re all strapped—20, 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars in loans, that’s a huge burden to take on before you even see your first paycheck. We just felt we needed to do something to help these kids get through school.”
They have indeed done something. The Pulichino/Tong Family Foundation Scholarship Fund, established this January, has committed $4 million to benefit students of UMass Lowell’s Robert J. Manning School of Business. The fund will be open to non-residents and residents alike, freshmen as well as upperclassmen—a nod, says its alumnus donor, to “that New Jersey kid, all those years ago, who had to pack his bags to come to school.”
The University, in turn, has agreed to name the new building at the Manning School in honor of the couple: the Pulichino Tong Business Building.
“The naming of the building is a fitting recognition for the leadership role John and Joy are playing in the transformation of this University,” says Vice Chancellor for Advancement Edward Chiu. “Their extraordinary gift will have an incredible impact on the lives and careers of countless students. It’s a wonderfully vivid testament to their belief in our educational mission.”
Having his and his wife’s names on the building will be “an honor, a very nice honor—it’s hard not to appreciate something like that,” Pulichino says. “But the real point, the biggest reward, will be to see some of a number of deserving students graduate from the business school with the assistant of our scholarship fund.”