Women as Change Agents: Money & Influence

By: Cat Rabenstine

On May 24, 2018, Northern Trust co-hosted an intimate panel conversation with the American Red Cross Tiffany Circle about the growing economic power and influence of women and the positive change we make in the world. The event featured moderator Marguerite H. Griffin and panelists Denise Barnett Gardner, Nancy Searle and Marty Wilke.

The statistics about women as philanthropic change agents are powerful. Women are expected to control two-thirds of private wealth by 2020 (MarketWatch, May 2017). In 2009, nine years ago, a Harvard Business Review Article stated, “Women now drive the world economy,” (Harvard Business Review, Sept 2009).

The influence comes not only from access to wealth but also how women choose to invest. Studies show that women give more, and do so with a socially conscious outlook.

In March 2018, The Economist stated that “84% of women said they were interested in “sustainable” investing, that is, targeting not just financial returns but social or environmental goals.”

According to Debra Mesch, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy, in an interview with Make it Better, “In the top 25 percent of combined income and assets, women give 156 percent more than men.”

“Every woman up here uses her superpowers for good,” said Marguerite Griffin to open the panel conversation. And it’s true. The panelists created change by combining their economic power with their talents and drive for change to create an exponential impact in our communities.

Marty Wilke, recently retired general manager of CBS 2 Chicago said, “We had the recession, we had the newly introduced iPhone, Facebook had just hit their 1 million mark. In that ten-year experience of mine in running two news organizations, I was a product of change that was coming at me from every angle.” Resistance to change comes out of fear, said Marty, but when done right, it is incredibly rewarding.

Women continue to gain an influence and make an impact.

“[It is] Important to know the change you want to accomplish and really own that change,” said Nancy Searle, who raised $60 million dollars in a year to open new schools in Chicago. “It was just an idea that I had that got us going.” Nancy looks at the intersection of her passions and values to determine which organizations to support with her time and talent.

A real turning point for many individual donors, was when Warren Buffet decided to donate to other foundations and organizations rather than starting his own. But, the collaborative nature of philanthropy is complex and full of opportunity. “You have to have thriving nonprofits to have a really thriving city,” said Denise, who hopes over the next twenty years to continue to develop ideas that will have an impact even if she’s not the one leading them.

Women are giving back with their treasure, but also their time, talents and their “turn-up” – their ability to get other people to turn up to support a cause.

As women philanthropists look to the next generation of change makers, they watch millennials constantly asking, “What are we doing to change and influence the world?” As Nancy said, we’ve seen “the power of one,” – the ability for one voice on social media to mobilize thousands more voices toward change.

Thank you to Northern Trust and the Tiffany Circle for co-hosting this incredibly meaningful conversation filled with an abundance of wisdom and advice for fellow women philanthropists. Keep your eye on what your end game is. Take a step back and take another look at what’s going on from a new angle. And, build consensus and plan for change.

Read the original article on the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois blog.

Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction

International Organization for Migration publication, “Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction Practices for Inclusion.” July 2017. Chapter: Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction: American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois

By: Cat Rabenstine

The work of the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois is rooted in the preparedness, response and recovery of communities affected by disasters as geographically vast as tornadoes and as isolated as home fires. The mission is carried out by a workforce of whom 90 per cent are volunteers who see a need in their community and who are driven to respond. The most common disaster response in this region is to home fires. By definition of who is doing the work (local community members) and how it’s done (on the ground), the work is localized.

Though it may be the largest humanitarian organization in the world, the Red Cross is grass-roots in its service delivery. The Red Cross is everywhere — in elementary school classrooms teaching children how to practice fire drills at home, going door-to-door to install smoke alarms in homes with volunteers speaking the language of the residents, and at the sites of home fires, assisting families with their immediate needs during a dark moment.

The Red Cross is committed to the resiliency of all communities in the face of disaster, in particular vulnerable migrants. Therefore, addressing the needs of migrants is woven into each aspect of the organization’s service delivery.

Read full article, “Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction: American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois”

Northern Illinois Woman Saves Life With CPR, Receives American Red Cross 2018 Good Samaritan Hero Award

Published on Make it Better, April 2018

By: Cat Rabenstine

Kate Dzierzanowski, a client retention specialist for Knox Insurance Agency in St. Charles, remembers looking at the clock on Nov. 6, 2017, at 4:45 p.m. while at work. She thought the day was winding down. Then, she heard a loud noise and looked out the window to see a car had run into the guardrail right outside her office. She immediately leapt into action.

She screamed “Call 911” to her colleague and ran outside to the car. She saw smoke in the vehicle and, having never experienced an accident like this before, wasn’t sure if the car was on fire and possibly about to explode. This fear didn’t deter her from intervening.

She went to the passenger side and yelled, “Turn off the car,” which was still running. When she got no response, she ran to the driver’s side, facing traffic, and tried to get the driver’s attention. She was determined to get him out of the car. He was still unresponsive so she tried to hail help from drivers passing by. She said she was almost in tears at this point, she was so scared. Two people pulled over and one of them checked the driver’s pulse. When they realized he had no pulse, they quickly lifted him out of the car. Someone yelled, “Who knows CPR?” Dzierzanowski responded, “I do.” She started compressions on the spot. She said, “I remember thinking to just keep going until something happens.”

Dzierzanowski knew exactly what to do because, in December 2015, the former owners of the insurance agency where she works closed the office for a day to have the entire staff certified in CPR. At the time, she thought, “I have so much to do, I will never use this.” Two years later, her CPR instructor called Dzierzanowski and told her how proud she was after reading the story of her life-saving actions in the news.

As Dzierzanowski looks back on that November day, she said she remembers flashing lights, her hands on the driver’s chest, and watching his mouth to see if it was moving. Help arrived in less than 15 minutes and the man was taken to the hospital. He survived the crash thanks to her bravery and quick thinking.

Dzierzanowski says that she and one of her coworkers often look out the window at the street where the accident happened and ask each other, “Did that really happen?” It seems surreal now. Dzierzanowski believes it’s what anyone would do. “I don’t feel like I’m a hero,” she says. “I feel like I did what was right at the moment and I think anyone would have done what I did if they had been in that situation.”

The Good Samaritan Award is presented to an outstanding individual(s) who courageously and selflessly responded to an unusual, significant, or unexpected crisis.


Multimedia Samples

On Air Interviews:

Cat Rabenstine as spokesperson for the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois after flooding hit Naplate and Ottawa, Illinois. Live Phoner with Fox Chicago – July 13, 2017

Videography Samples – Recorded and edited by Cat Rabenstine


Production | Edited by Cat Rabenstine

Sample of photography | Headshot for Chicago Athlete

Quoted Interviews:

‘Hats for Houston’: Elmwood Park school embraces opportunity to help

Dog woke man who warned residents about massive Woodstock apartment fire

“The American Red Cross responded and provided toiletries and comfort items to the displaced residents. They were providing lodging to 43 people from 32 units, 20 to 25 of which were destroyed, said Catherine Rabenstine, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois.

‘In this case I think we provided people with financial assistance to find a hotel to ensure that they have a warm, comfortable place to stay tonight and for a couple days,” Rabenstine said. “We provide assistance families need to meet their immediate needs when they’ve lost everything.’

Rabenstine also said the group brought in breakfast and lunch for the residents and for emergency crews. Firefighters were at the location through Saturday afternoon.”

Read the full article here.

Family appeals for donations for themselves and neighbors after fire destroys homes

Ashley Sellars cried as she stood outside her grandmother’s Austin home and watched 40 years of memories go up in flames.

The fire started in an apartment building down the block Dec. 3 and spread to two other houses. As firefighters rushed around her, Sellars thought about all the family dinners her grandmother had hosted every Sunday.

By the time the fire was out, the brick home Sellars knew as the family fortress was gutted. All their belongings were gone.

Sellars’ 90-year-old grandmother, known in the neighborhood as Mrs. Bailey, bought the building with her late husband. As devastating as the fire was, Sellars said her grandmother embraced her family and assured them that things would be alright.

“She told me she hasn’t cried yet and I’m trying to follow her lead, but it isn’t easy,” Sellars said this week.

While searching for anything that was salvageable, Sellars said she saw her next-door neighbor sifting through ashes of her home. “She was outside crying and rummaging through her baby’s burned items,” Sellars said.

The baby is about 6 months old, and the neighbor also has a 6-year-old daughter, Sellars said.

She said she and her family decided to appeal for help for her as well. They have started a GoFundMe page asking for cash donations and contributions of shoes, clothes and whatever else people might need to put their lives back together.

“We are asking not only for ourselves but also for the occupants of the house next door,” the Sellars family says on the GoFundMe page. “We need any donations.”

For now, the displaced family is being given temporary shelter with the help of the American Red Cross.  “The Red Cross came and after I talked to one of their workers I found out that this happens to several people during this time of year,” Sellars said.

She said the ordeal has been especially tough for her 36-year-old brother Brandon who has autism.  “Autistic people need consistency,” Sellars said. “Things have to be in the same place and you can’t change their routine suddenly. This is really difficult for him.”

Catherine Rabenstine, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois, said a fire in the home is the biggest threat to families. The agency responds to three to four fires a daily throughout the year, she said.

In Chicago and northern Illinois, the Red Cross has responded to about 69 home fires so far during the month of December, Rabenstine said.

Most home fires can be prevented with regular upkeep and use of smoke alarms, she said.

In the the case of the fire that destroyed the Bailey home, Fire Department officials said the extra-alarm fire was being investigated as possible arson.

Neighbors have speculated the fire may have been set by a squatter in the apartment building.  Community members had been trying to get it boarded up because squatters had been living there for the past couple of years, neighbors said.

On the GoFundMe page, the Sellars family asks for donations of shoes, coats and winter accessories and said they can be dropped off at the following locations:

— First Corinthian Baptist, 922 South Keeler Ave.

— Chicago International Christen Church, 211 South Laflin St.

— Clara’s House, 650 W. 63rd St.

— Whitney Young High School, 211 S. Laflin St.

“There’s always a blessing in the storm,” Sellars said. “I’m glad everyone made it through unharmed. Possessions can be replaced but life can’t.”


Red Cross helps residents of Oswego Township apartment fire

Local and regional organizations are assisting the victims of a Nov. 6 apartment building fire that displaced 24 families in unincorporated Oswego Township.

The apartment building is located in the Shore Heights Village apartment complex off Light Road, immediately east of Augusta Road.

Catherine Rabenstine, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois, said Tuesday that the Red Cross provided victims with “assistance with food, lodging and other immediate needs.”

“We go right to the scene of the emergency and open individual cases for families so we can help walk people through their immediate needs and provide resources,” Rabenstine said. “In this case, we also opened a reception center, where families could come for Red Cross resources the day the home fire took place.”

The Kendall County Community Food Pantry and the St. Vincent de Paul organization also offered assistance, Rabenstine said.

Rabenstine said the Oswego community has united in the aftermath of the fire.

“Responding to disasters like a home fire is a community effort and the Oswego community truly has come together to make sure the people affected have what they need,” she said.

Rabenstine recommended people who want to help visit redcross.org and make a financial donation, schedule an appointment to donate blood or apply to be a Red Cross volunteer.

Oswego Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief John Cornish said Tuesday that most of the damage caused by the fire was contained inside the two-story 24-unit apartment building. The building was constructed in 1972, according to Kendall County property records.

Cornish said the fire started in the wall of an upstairs apartment where a maintenance worker, who had been working on a pipe, and a resident unsuccessfully attempted to put it out before calling the fire department.

“The fire spread up the wall and into the attic,” Cornish said.

The fire caused extensive damage to four upstairs apartments, while the downstairs units experienced water damage, according to Cornish.

“There was smoke damage throughout the building,” he noted.

Cornish said firefighters were summoned to the blaze at 10:36 a.m. and remained at the scene until 2:30 p.m.

No residents or firefighters were injured, he said.

Brian Holdiman, Kendall County’s building code official, said Tuesday that he deemed the apartment building uninhabitable after inspecting it Tuesday morning. He said he spoke with representatives of the management company for the complex, and that the company is having a contractor and the insurance company evaluate the building on Wednesday.

“I would assume that they can rebuild the structure, but I won’t know for sure until I got those reports from the contractor,” Holdiman said.

The units at the ends of the building suffered the least damage, Holdiman said.

“There’s not a lot of smoke damage or water damage in the end units,” he said.

However, Holdiman said another question mark is the electrical system in the building, as well as the HVAC system, and he wants those looked at before he deems it safe to turn the power on in the building.

“Until we have those systems evaluated, I don’t feel safe letting anybody turn the power back on,” he said.

After the building is evaluated, and it’s deemed safe, the building officials “most likely” may allow residents to occupy the end units, he said.

John Etheredge contributed to this story


Red Cross Monitoring Airports and Ports of Entry

Executive Order on Immigration and Impact on Travelers

On Friday, January 27, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration indefinitely barring refugees from entering the United States, suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days, and blocking citizens of seven countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. As a consequence of the order, some travelers to the United States were stopped at airports in the United States and abroad.

American Red Cross Response

The American Red Cross is monitoring conditions at airports and ports of entry in collaboration with local emergency management officials in order to assess the need for food and canteen services for stranded travelers and detainees affected by the executive order. Health, mental health, and spiritual care services are also at-the-ready.

“Our fundamental principles guide us to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found,” said Celena Roldan, CEO of the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois. “We are working with local officials to continue to monitor the situation. First and foremost, we are a humanitarian services organization, dedicated to the inclusion of and aid to all people.”

The Red Cross is also prepared to utilize the Reconnecting Family Links (RFL) program for detainees, stranded travelers and families that have been separated internationally.

Read the full article:

Red Cross Monitoring Airports and Ports of Entry


American Red Cross of Illinois

Chief Operating Officer, Chicago, IL, 8/2018 – Present

  • Manages business operations for the second largest region of the American Red Cross including expense management, real estate operations and strategic planning with a nine-person operations team
  • Manages special initiatives for the region including the Sickle Cell Task Force, and two committees for the Greater Chicago Board of Directors: DE&I Board Committee and the Biomedical Services Board Committee

American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois

Regional Marketing Programs Manager, Chicago, IL, 8/2016 – 8/2018

  • Manages regional marketing projects and strategies, including multimedia and social media efforts.
  • Deploys to disasters to assist with public affairs.

Kinship Foundation

Communications Associate, Chicago, IL, 1/2012 – 8/2016

  • Established marketing and communication strategies, including a crisis communication strategy for a leadership transition within the first quarter of employment, social media and community management
  • Coordinated complex events (Kinship Fellows: $47.5K budget; Searle Scholars: $100K budget) attended by high-level stakeholders and valued clients, including supervising a summer assistant during the month-long training program in Bellingham, Washington
  • Responsible for budgets throughout a project’s life cycle including: negotiating and executing vendor contracts, tracking ongoing program purchasing in real time, reporting project budget to actuals, and providing estimates for future planning
  • Designed layouts for Foundation-generated reports, hard copy collateral, and web ads including the Annual Report and Kinship Conservation Fellows recruitment campaign

Various NGOs and communities

Communications Consultant, Palestinian Territories, 7/2010 – 6/2011

Cara Chicago

Career Resource Manager & Volunteer Manager, Chicago, IL, 10/07 – 5/09

  • Supervised 50+ volunteers and an intern; recruited for and facilitated monthly trainings for new volunteers
  • Taught classes for adult learners and coordinated department monthly training schedule
  • Empowered students by redesigning curriculum to establish a student-led portfolio creation process

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Young Adult Volunteer, Kerala, India, 8/06 – 7/07

  • Taught Spoken English and created/facilitated need-based workshops in village of Mavelikara
  • Edited publications for local economics-focused non-profit, Vichara, and maintained blog
  • Lived in community with teachers and students associated with a local college in a small, rural town

John Felice Rome Center

Service Learning/Study Trips Coordinator, Rome, Italy, 8/04 – 7/06

  • Organized logistics, prepared large budget and chaperoned at least 8 Study Trips each semester in Italy, Africa, The Balkans, the Torino Olympics and Northern Ireland
  • Established volunteer sites for students through out Rome and maintained relationships with each site to facilitate student orientation and continued program support
  • Teacher’s Assistant for Human Rights in Rome course


Medill Northwestern University, 2010

Masters of Science in Journalism

Business Reporting & Interactive Storytelling concentration

Editor-in-Chief of Medill Innovation Project

Loyola University Chicago, 2004

Bachelors of Arts in English, minor in Peace Studies

Gannon Scholars Woman Leader Award, 2004


  • Young Professionals in Nonprofits (YNPN) Leadership Institute Participant, 2015. Year-long training program for nonprofit emerging leaders.
  • Community Management Certificate, 2013. Certified Association Executive credit.
  • Organizational Behavior and Leadership course, 2013. Keller Graduate School of Business, DeVry University.


Public Narrative – Board Treasurer. Chicago, July 2020-November 2021.

One Million Degrees – Coach. Chicago, April 2016-July 2020. 

Palestine/Israel Delegate – Interviewed and met with Palestinian and Israeli organizations to learn about the conflict; facilitated by the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Israel & Palestine, March 2009.

Jesuit Refugee Services International Office – Edited the three main publications of the international office. Vatican City – 2007-2008.

McDermott, Will & Emory Law Firm Intern Edited documents, including honing language in translated documents (legal and administrative) for attorneys. Rome, Italy – Fall 2006.

Youth Organizing Institute, Discussion Leader Facilitated reflection groups among Eastern European youth activists and community organizers at an annual conference sponsored by The University of Bologna. Vukovar, Croatia – October 2004


Proficient in: Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe Creative Suite, Final Cut Express, Soundslides, Audacity, Mac & PC operating systems, Community Management platforms (Ning, Google+), The Databank (CRM), various Content Management Systems, various webinar platforms (GoToWebinar, Cisco WebEx), Prezi, SurveyMonkey, MailChimp, Vimeo/YouTube, WordPress, Sprout Social/Hootsuite, and social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Familiar with: HTML/CSS.

Promo video for Christian Peacemaker Teams

“A beautifully made nine-minute film focuses on the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the South Hebron Hills.”
Independent Catholic News

“Produced, filmed and edited by journalist Catherine Rabenstine, the nine-minute film features CPT’s Palestinian partners who nonviolently resist the Israeli military occupation in Hebron/Al Khalil and the South Hebron Hills.
Plan Be

“I consider the presence of CPT really something great. They support the Palestinians and the nonviolent resistance,” says CPT South Hebron Hills partner Hafez Hereini in the new video, “An Introduction to CPT Palestine.”
Christian Peacemaker Teams

Click here to watch the video on YouTube.

Local farmer discusses life in West Bank village

Abu Moammar is a farmer in Iraq Burin, a village near Nablus in the West Bank, whose land has been confiscated by Israelis. He told us about life as a farmer in the village.

Watch a video of Abu Moammar discussing life in Iraq Burin (English with Arabic subtitles).

Edited video, assisted with filming and interviewing.

Thanksgiving: A prime rib dinner and no burning trees

November 1, 2011

Last year wasn’t my first Thanksgiving abroad, a holiday that is oh-so-North American that celebrations overseas usually take on a little local flavor.

In Kerala, India, we were treated to curried barbecue chicken and the most delicious mashed potatoes I may ever taste. I wore a navy blue churidar to that meal. In Dublin, our Irish hosts had a special meal cooked up for our group of college students on a social justice study trip. We arrived after dark and left patches of snow on the carpeted stairs as we tromped up to the second floor, where we ate family style. In Rome, I wore chic black and ate Chinese food at a restaurant in Monte Mario. Each time the food was warm and delicious and I felt thankful to be among friends thoughtful enough to make Thanksgiving part of their week.

Last year I celebrated Thanksgiving with hummus and pita in Bethlehem, Palestine, while my mother and younger brother made prime rib and Yorkshire pudding in Madison, Wis.

Finish the article on The Mennonite.

One foot in, one foot out: a tour of a Palestinian village

Last week I took a walk through a friend’s village near Bethlehem. The sky was blue and spotted with clouds. It was chilly but the sun peaked through with surprising radiance.

First, he (let’s call him Ahmed) showed me a 4×4 inch cement track that follows one entire length of the village, coming within yards of the school. This tiny bit of cement will, maybe within the year, become part of The Wall built by Israel in this case to separate their settlement from the Palestinian village nearby.

We walked up a dirt road to two demolished houses, the foundation of one home holding the remains of its former walls. The army demolished the houses, saying they posed a security threat. One family lived in a tent for a few months before building a new house.

Standing on top of the rubble, I saw the huge Israeli settlement homes looming above on the highest, closest hill. The houses looked huge and stable, capped with the ubiquitous red roof, a characteristic of Israeli settlement buildings.

Click here to read the entire article on Mondoweiss.

Stories from the Holy Land

I’ve lived in the Holy Land for the last seven months. This is my last week in Bethlehem before I head to India for a month, so I’ve been taking care of business. My apartment is nearly packed up: a pile of donations, a pile to leave with friends and a pile to take with me.

Just a few days ago, I went to the Jordanian Consular office in Ramallah to get a visa for my upcoming trip. After traveling two hours to get there, it was closed.
I made a new friend, a guy who also needed a visa and was equally disappointed to find the office locked.

The policeman guarding the embassy immediately sauntered over to chat with us, gun slung over his torso like a shield.

Click here to read the rest of “Stories from the Holy Land” by Cat Rabenstine for Mondoweiss.

Two council members arrested for attending peaceful protest

On September 24, 2010 at 4:30pm, two villagers from Iraq Burin, a village near Nablus in the West Bank, were arrested by Israeli soldiers.  A checkpoint was erected at the entrance to the village in the morning of the same day.

In response to these arrests and the killing of two young men by Israeli soldiers in March 2010, Iraq Burin is launching a website: www.iraqburin.wordpress.com.

The soldiers identified the two men, Iman Qadous, 45, and Yousef Qadous, 50, both village council members, from a photo taken during one of the weekly peaceful demonstrations held in Iraq Burin since November 2009, protesting Israel’s confiscation of their land.

The soldiers said they were arresting the two men for having attended the demonstration.  Villagers do not know where the men were taken or for how long they will be gone.

In March 2010, two villagers, Mohammed Qadous, 16, and Usaid Qadous, 19, were killed with live ammunition when Israeli soldiers entered the village after the weekly demonstration.

Read the detailed report about the killings filed by the UNESCO Chair on Human Rights, Democracy and Peace at An-Najah University.

FEATURE STORY: Why don’t big Chicago companies use the bankruptcy court here?

View Out of State Bankruptcy in a larger map

Out of seven companies with headquarters in Chicago that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, six of them, including Merisant Worldwide Inc., Sun-Times Media Group Inc., General Growth Properties Inc. and Tribune Co., filed elsewhere, seeking to gain an advantage that favors the company.

Companies may choose to file for bankruptcy protection where they are headquartered, where they are incorporated or where they have operations.  According to experts, this permits what lawyers call “forum shopping,” the practice of choosing a court believed to be more hospitable to your case.

“The companies won’t admit it, but it is forum shopping,” declared Sumner Bourne, chair of the Commercial Banking and Bankruptcy Section of the Illinois State Bar Association. “It’s not a stretch to say Delaware is more corporate friendly.” Three of the four Chicago companies filed there.

“I think it’s clearly forum shopping,” agreed Ronald Barliant, chair of the Bankruptcy and Reorganization Committee of the Chicago Bar Association. “They are taking advantage of the provisions in the law that allow filings other than where the business is. “They’re definitely choosing between alternative forums.”

The practice flies in the face of the “fine professional reputations of the judges of the Chicago court, which serves the Northern District of Illinois, and of the sizable contingent of experienced bankruptcy lawyers here.” Barliant said, “I’ve practiced all over the country. Chicago bankruptcy bar is the best in the country.”

On a mid-sized case, Barliant added, “a Chicago company filing outside Chicago adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to each case.”

So why do big companies here perceive an advantage in going to Delaware or New York, where General Growth filed?

Bankruptcy experts attribute the trend to a federal appeals court decision after the big Kmart Co. bankruptcy case here in 2002.

A Chicago bankruptcy judge allowed the big retail chain, in settling with its creditors, to give payment priority to critical vendors, certain suppliers deemed vital to the company’s future but considered unwilling to do business with a customer that hadn’t been paying its bills.

Capital Factors Inc., a Kmart unsecured creditor that was not deemed critical, appealed this decision.  In 2004, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, housed in the same Dirksen Federal Building as the Bankruptcy Court, ruled that there was insufficient proof that it was necessary to prefer the critical vendors, and therefore Kmart should not have been permitted to do so.

Kmart was required to recover payments already made to critical vendors in order to pay all unsecured creditors more equitably, in accordance with the appellate court ruling, which does not apply beyond the four-state Seventh Circuit.

Lawyers say the ruling doesn’t mean that critical vendors cannot be preferred in the Chicago Bankruptcy Court. Barliant declared, anyone that looks at the issues and understands that issue knows it’s still possible to pay critical vendors. It’s just a question of doing it the proper way.

However, Barliant explained, “some debtors avoid the district [Northern District of Illinois] because of a misunderstanding of this. For others it’s an advantage because they have an excuse not to pay their critical vendors.”

Barliant argues that the single most important factor in this forum shopping is whether the interpretation of federal bankruptcy law in the filing state is favorable to what the company wants to do in the case.

Critical vendor law is an example of how two courts interpret the law differently, said Bourne.

“Though companies still may favor critical vendors in the Northern District of Illinois, the type of evidence [required here] is not something you can do quickly,” Bourne went on.  But in Delaware, he said, “there’s a lot of discretion for the debtor. The debtor doesn’t have to come up with much reasoning at all.”

Lynn M. LoPucki, a bankruptcy expert currently teaching at Harvard Law School, believes the bankruptcy courts have been corrupted by competition for big cases.

He said in an interview, “the Chicago judges initially thought they could compete, but competition requires a willingness to ignore the law and put a thumb on the scale for the lawyers, managers and DIP [Debtor in Possession] lenders who bring cases to the court.  I think that after Kmart, the Chicago judges simply realized that they were not willing to do what it took to compete.”

Since 2004, 11 out of 13 big Chicago-based companies headquartered in Chicago that filed for bankruptcy protection chose New York or Delaware. The two that filed in Chicago were the smallest of the lot, with fewer employees and lower revenues.

In May, LoPucki told the House Judiciary Committee that the Delaware and New York bankruptcy courts must be doing something to attract 70 percent of all bankruptcy cases filed under Chapter 11, which provides for corporate reorganization, usually meaning reduction of debt enabling the company to continue operating.

The result, he testified, is that Chapter 11 is evolving a bias, a bias that is in favor of the people who control the choice of the court: the managers of the company, the professionals who represent the company, and whoever finances the bankruptcy. But every bias in favor of someone is a bias against someone else. And the people on the other side of this bias are the creditors, the suppliers, the employees, the landlords, the tax authorities, the dealers, the communities, literally hundreds of thousands of people. It is not a level playing field for the rest, LoPucki averred.

Chicago companies provided watery responses when asked why they filed outside the Northern District of Illinois.

Gary Weitman, senior vice president of corporate relations of Tribune Co. said, “This wasn’t a difficult decision and involved no deliberation. Tribune Company is incorporated in Delaware, hence any filing has to be done there.” In fact, that’s not a requirement of bankruptcy law. Kmart was not incorporated in Illinois.

Tammy Chase, director of corporate communications for Sun-Times Media Holdings LLC, said of the company’s Delaware filing, “Judges are experienced, the courts are experienced.  You know you’re going to get a judge that knows that law.” Chase expects the process will be smooth and expeditious in Delaware.

Merisant spokeswoman Katie Wood said, “The debtors in possession [companies in bankruptcy] are all based in Delaware. The judges are specialists in this area.”

Jim Graham, a spokesman for General Growth Properties, said, “Most companies that file bankruptcy have a number of choices for where they can file bankruptcy. In making a determination, many factors are considered, including but not limited to, the business of the company, the legal issues that need to be addressed in the bankruptcy, the existing bankruptcy law in the various jurisdictions, the expertise of the judges in the various courts, and the location of the parties involved. These factors, and others, lead companies to choose Delaware, New York and other jurisdictions for filing.  He did not specify which factors led General Growth Properties to file in New York.

I’m sure the debtor would give a canned response,” commented Bourne of the Illinois State Bar Association, “because they don’t want to make it look like they’re forum shopping. At the same time,” he acknowledged, “they can make a choice.”

Many companies incorporate in Delaware because its law is known for being corporation-friendly and it has a well-respected court system experienced in handling business disputes.

To Kenneth Ayotte, associate professor of law at Northwestern University, the bankruptcy-filing trend is “most likely a case of forum shopping for expertise. A minor screwup can kill off the firm.

However, he added, Chicago has dealt with these cases. I’m not really sure why it’s happening now.

The big global, theoretical problem with it is that it distorts the legal system, said Barliant. “In every other area of law we require cases be decided in the location where they have some connection other than just the filing of articles of incorporation. It’s inconsistent with all other areas other than patent cases. Even in patent cases any district court can hear them.  We just don’t do this with any other area of American law.

FEATURE STORY: Sears Holdings Corp. struggles to compete and lacks concise strategy

In the midst of the holiday shopping season during a recession, Sears Holdings Corp. is plodding along compared with other retailers.

Analysts say more cost-cutting looms if Sears fails to solidify a competitive strategy.

William Dreher of Deutsche Bank AG said Sears has made progress with Internet sales, but “unless they start selling thousands of stores, they’re going to have to figure out something to do with them. The survival and success of their stores cannot be accomplished through the Internet alone.”

Sears Holdings operates Kmart and Sears stores domestically and in Canada, with 324,000 full-time employees.

In the year ended January 2009, Sear’s same-store sales were down 11 percent, after declines of 4.5 percent and 3.1 percent in the preceding two years.

Gross margins, which improved in 2004 following Sears’ merger with Kmart, have since been stagnant between 23.36 and 28.66 percent, ahead of low-margin Wal-Mart Stores Inc. but not competitive with other large retailers.

According to Tom Aiello, division vice president of public relations, Sears is focusing on innovative Internet sales strategies, including the ability to buy products, from small items to large Craftsman tractors, via smartphone using the Sears2Go application.

In a press release Dec. 8, Sears announced that it was ranked third by Experian Hitwise in overall Web traffic for a multichannel store retailer for the week ended Nov. 28, 2009, which included Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving.

So customers are visiting Sears’ site, but are they buying?

Revenue decreased to $10.2 billion in the third quarter ended Oct. 31 from $10.7 billion in the year-earlier quarter, a decrease of 4.4 percent, still beating analyst expectations.

Sears net loss in the third quarter narrowed to $127 million, or $1.09 per diluted share, compared with a net loss of $146 million, or $1.16 per diluted share in the same quarter a year prior.

“Sears is a strange one because they really don’t communicate,” said Dreher.

“Their strategy is not traditional. They make little to no effort to communicate what that strategy is,” he continued. Dreher noted that Sears is buying back shares, focusing on expanding its margin, and playing with store prototypes such as mygofer.com, where customers order products online and pick them up at a warehouse.

What Sears is not doing, said Dreher, is bringing in new brands and exciting products, making investments and solidifying a permanent CEO–all signs that Sears is stagnant, in his view.

The lack of new brands “leads us to the conclusion that brands don’t want to do business with Sears,” said Dreher, who believes chairman Edward Lampert might be moving towards taking the company private.

They seem to be all focused around assets and not around operations,” said Dreher.

What Sears might do, analysts suggest, is eliminate stores that are under-performing and solidify a strategy to differentiate itself from competitors like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp.

“Everyone recognizes Sears as a turnaround,” acknowledged Tom Aiello, division vice president of public relations. There are things we’re doing that are unique and customer-driven that we believe are the right things to do in the market.”

Kim Picciola, analyst for Morningstar Inc., believes Sears will continue to experiment with things like online shopping and new kinds of promotions and services like lay-away. Also, Sears will continue to try to leverage its Kmart stores base, said Picciola.

However, she added, I don’t think they have the formula figured out quite yet and they’ll continue to work on it. It’s going to be an uphill battle. I think it’s very hard to compete with Wal-Mart on price so Kmart really needs to have something that differentiates them in consumers minds.”

According to Ayat Shukairy, managing partner of Invesp Consulting, “Sears.com has gone through a number of changes throughout the years, but increasingly they are trying to position themselves as a retailer that is the one-stop shop for all the family needs. Although Target and Wal-Mart still provide the grocery element, Sears has also carved the niche of providing large appliances in addition to toys, clothing, electronics, etc. That’s a big distinction that sets the companies apart.”

Sears began its holiday sales much earlier than other retailers, starting after Halloween.  “Black Friday was a very positive day,” said Aiello, with very strong customer traffic.”

Picciola said, “It’s going to be a difficult holiday for them. Retailers are being very competitive on price and consumers are responding to promotional activity. That will be a challenge for Sears over the next month or so.”

Customers are as undecided on Sears as the analysts are.

“We grew up on Sears,” said Daphne Bennett during a shopping trip to Sears on State Street. Sears has been around, I think they’re gonna stay around.”

Another shopper, Gail Katz said, It’s expanded, it’s not a mom and pop shop anymore.” Katz says she usually finds good deals at Sears, particularly when it has sales and specials, but worries how the store will do given the economy.

While customers like Bennett and Katz find the appeal of Sears in its history, other customers, like Larry Simmons, find the prices too high or do not find what they need at Sears. Simmons said he believes the prices have increased through the years and chooses to shop elsewhere.

Picciola said, “When it comes to Sears, some of their hard-line brands still have strength.” With the merger of Kmart and Sears, the company routed some of its reputable brands, like Kenmore appliances, to off-mall Kmart stores.

Analysts surveyed by Yahoo Finance have mixed recommendations. Three rate the stock buy or outperform, three rate it sell or underperform, and one rates it hold or neutral.

Analysts polled by Zacks Investment Research estimate earnings of $1.27 per diluted share for the current year ending in January, but look for $1.60 per share next year.

Sears trades around $71, compared with a 52-week high of $79.75 and a 52-week low of $34.27.

FEATURE STORY: Long-time Illinois manufacturer avoided bankruptcy

It was an American success story, until the family divided.

Max Gerber immigrated to Chicago from Poland in the early 1900s. Though without a plumbing background, he took a leap and started a plumbing distribution business in 1929 called simply Max Gerber. In 1932 he opened his first factory in Kokomo, Ind. His company, now called Gerber Plumbing Fixtures LLC, was expanding quickly. A few years later he bought a company that he moved to Delphi, Ind., a third business in Woodridge, N.J., and a fourth in Alabama.

When Max Gerber died in 1953 at 56 years old, his family inherited an extraordinarily successful business. Harriett Lewis, Max’s daughter, ran the company until her death at age 84 in 2001. Ila Lewis, her daughter, then took over, relinquishing her role in 2008.

Lewis says the “beginning of the end” was in 1999. The family received a $75 million offer for the business but refused it. Some family members decided they wanted out of the business, so the company bought them out for $30 million. This buy-out required the company to borrow $15 million from its bank.

“When a company spends a lot of money it should be for the benefit of the company, but it put the company in tremendous debt,” Lewis said.

In 2002, Gerber was well known as a trusted distributer to industry professionals. It focused on two business segments: vitreous china, 65 percent of sales, and brass faucets, 35 percent. Lewis said that, around this time, sales were between $111 million and $114 million, but profit was “an ever-moving factor.”

“That number [profit] looks great until you look at the balance sheet, and then it really doesn’t matter,” she said.

Burdened by debt, Gerber had to close a factory in New Jersey and lay off more than 150. The family was struggling while Gerber’s investment banker searched for an equity injection or a buyer.

Stanley Dreyfuss, director of purchasing at SG Supply Co. in Calumet Park, has been a distributer for Gerber for over 25 years. “I knew that there were some financial problems,” he said recently. “I didn’t know the extent of them. The Lewis family, it was their livelihood, it was their history, so they were doing everything they could to keep things happening.”

In 2003, Globe Union Group Inc., an international manufacturer of plumbing products headquartered in suburban Woodridge, purchased nearly all of Gerber’s assets, paid off its debts and retained many of the employees, investing more than $30 million over the next four years.

The buyout came just two weeks before Gerber was going to file for bankruptcy protection.

The president of Globe Union, Michael Werner said, “They didn’t know they were in trouble until after they were in trouble.”

Dreyfuss commented, “I think what they realized is that whatever level of financial problems they had were things that the new owner could help them with: an infusion of cash and ideas; and I think in the long run, it was the best thing for them.”

Globe Union closed the Delphi, Ind. factory and the Alabama pottery, opened a new factory in Laredo, Texas and moved most production to China. The Kokomo, Ind. plant was converted to a distribution center, until mid-2009, when it was closed.

Mitchall Rasky, turnaround team leader with The Private Bank and Trust Co. in Chicago, said that even after the buyout he felt anxious about the company’s hesitation to close factories, and believed that Werner left the Kokomo factory open about 18 months longer than he should have in a desperate attempt to preserve as many jobs as possible.

Under Globe Union, Gerber developed a three-fold strategy. It globalized the manufacturing to reduce costs and improve quality. It introduced over 800 new products, including its gravity-fed Lynx and Viper toilets, “High Efficiency Toilets” like the Avalanche, and hundreds of “green” water-saving faucets and toilets. In an August 2009 issue of Consumer Reports, two Gerber toilets were rated as “best values among top performers.” And finally, Gerber focused on helping its customers sell more by setting up more distribution centers and simplifying the ordering process.

Globe Union’s revenue was approximately $125 million in 2002 before it decided to take on foundering Gerber. Werner banked on two strengths of Gerber: its professional brand reputation and its customer list.

In 2009, Gerber’s sales will be a little over $100 million, with Globe Union’s total revenue exceeding $750 million. Though Werner did not provide exact numbers, he said Gerber’s sales grew nearly 20 percent and multi-million dollar profits were posted between 2003 and 2009.

Russell Atchetee is the kitchen and bath business unit manager at Coburn’s Supply in Texas a firm that has ordered Gerber toilets for over 40 years. Atchetee said Gerber could easily sell its products in “big box” stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s, but it supported the wholesaler instead. “Having done business for so long,” he said, “they become part of the household and you always assume they’re gonna be there. Their emphasis is still on the professional.”

“Like all manufacturers,” Atchetee continued, “they’ve had some production issues over the years. I think initially when they were purchased by Globe Union, they had quality issues, but they did address them.”

Globe Union is dealing with the recession with resilience and surprisingly, success. Kevin McJoynt, director of marketing at Globe Union said, “A depression is a terrible thing to waste.”

Gerber products are typically considered second to lines like Kohler. In this recession, more customers are buying Gerber because it is sold more cheaply to wholesalers, according to Werner. Distributers of Gerber products make more money on their sale and customers buy a product highly rated by Consumer Reports but less costly than the top-line brands.

Werner says 2009 will be Gerber’s most profitable year.

Gerber now has manufacturing facilities in Laredo, Texas, Shenzhen, China and Weifang, China and distribution centers in Bridgeton, N.J., Woodridge, Ill, City of Industry, Calif, Montreal, Canada and Weifang, China.

“Our goal was to take a company with a great heritage and to resurrect it, revive it, and we’ve done that,” said Werner.

Jack in the Box Inc.’s quarterly and annual profits rise

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Jack in the Box Inc.’s fourth quarter profit increased 51 percent, soaring above analyst expectations, but sales dropped and the company expressed caution about 2010. The stock dropped 7.6 percent.

The San-Diego based restaurant company that operates Jack in the Box and Qdoba Mexican Grill franchises, four of which are in Chicago, had net income of $40.6 million, or 70 cents per diluted share, in the quarter ended Sept. 27.  That compared with a net income of $26.9 million, or 47 cents per diluted share, in the same quarter of the prior year. The estimate by analysts polled by Yahoo Finance was 55 cents per diluted share.

Quarterly sales were $540.3 million compared with $582.7 million in the year-earlier quarter, a decrease of 7.3 percent.

In the fourth quarter Jack in the Box initiated two promotions, including offering two of its burgers for $1.00 each.  It continued its rebranding plan including menu innovation, enhanced facilities and improvements in guest service.

“We do know that we need to offer compelling value especially in this very competitive market place.  We want to offer value that doesn’t erode our margins.  It’s really about profitable sale,” said Linda A. Lang, Jack in the Box’s chief executive officer and chairman of the board, in a conference call.

Lang said of expanding the Qdoba business, “We don’t want to go into these retail centers without tenants being adjacent to us. When the economy improves, we will ramp up growth.”

R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar Inc., said, “I’m pleased with the fourth quarter results. They did a good job navigating a tough environment. The thing that I liked was the reimaging program: revamping the interior and exterior of stores. This might have a meaningful benefit, maybe not next year but the year after.  I look at that as a positive.”

Jack in the Box expects earnings of $1.90 per diluted share to $2.10 per diluted share for the year ending in September 2010. Analysts polled by Yahoo Finance estimate earnings of $2.32 per diluted share, and sales of $2.44 billion.

Net income in the 52 weeks ended Sept. 27 was $118.4 million, or $2.05 per diluted share, compared with $119.3 million, or $2.01 per diluted share, in the year earlier. Revenue fell 2.7 percent to $2.47 billion from $2.54 billion.

Jack in the Box’s stock closed Thursday at $18.50, down $1.53.

Burr Oak Cemetery for sale

Read full article – Northwest Indiana Times

CHICAGO | In a bankruptcy court hearing Tuesday, Judge Pamela S. Hollis gave permission for Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings of Illinois, L.L.C., owner of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, to sell the cemetery that became infamous this summer for a grave desecration scandal.

Perpetua filed for bankruptcy protection in September in the wake of a criminal investigation. The company told Hollis it had hired American Cemetery/Mortuary Consultants Inc. as a consultant to assist in selling the cemetery.

Attorney Robert Fishman, of Shaw Gussis Fishman Glantz Wolfson, in Chicago, said Perpetua doesn’t yet know of any buyers but hired a consultant with expertise in cemeteries.

“All the pressure of the world is on us,” said Fishman during the hearing, when Paul J. Gaynor, chief of the Illinois attorney general’s Public Interest Division, expressed concern too much money is being spent on court costs.

Gaynor said he wants to ensure “as much as possible for victims. The state is concerned about people and families.”

Burr Oak Cemetery opened its gates at 9 a.m. Monday to more than 50 lawyers representing claimants in the grave desecration scandal. The cemetery has been closed to the public since the scandal broke this summer.

Attorney Larry Rogers Sr. of Chicago firm Power Rogers Smith, representing claimants, said the goal of opening up the cemetery for legal counsel was to provide the opportunity to locate family gravesites for his clients.

He lamented it was difficult to find anything useful because many graves are unmarked and a database being compiled by the sheriff’s office is not yet complete.

The cemetery has a primarily black clientele. Among prominent Chicagoans buried there are Emmett Till, Dinah Washington along with Negro League baseball players Jimmie Crutchfield and John Donaldson.

Bankruptcy filings on the rise

Chicago bankruptcy filings increased 38 percent in September from a year earlier. There is no sign of decline.

“I can only predict there’s more to come,” said Kenneth Gardner, clerk of the Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court.

In September 4,302 cases were filed, compared with 3,121 a year earlier and only 1,884 cases in September 2007. Last month’s Chapter 11 filings, mostly used by corporations seeking to reorganize while protected from creditors, increased the most. There were 34 Chapter 11 filings in September 2009 compared with 14 in September 2008.

This jump could be attributed to the increasing number of individuals forced to utilize Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of their high income or large debt, a result of the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. “I think this is going to continue until the recession runs its course,” said Chicago bankruptcy attorney Jay Fortier.

Chapter 13 filings by wage-earners, however, decreased to 992 in September from 1,052 in September 2008. In Chapter 7, liquidation, 3,152 cases were filed last month, compared with 2,055 a year earlier.

Bankruptcy filings peaked in 2005, in anticipation of the tighter restrictions on bankruptcy enacted that year. After a sharp decline in 2006, filings have increased each year at an annual rate of about 40 percent.

Kara Krystavel, public service team trainer at the Chicago Bankruptcy Court, said that on the last day of September alone, 481 new cases were filed.

Paul Bach, a bankruptcy attorney in Chicago, said there’s no simple answer for why there is an increase in bankruptcy filings, but he agreed with Gardner’s comment that bankruptcy filings won’t decrease anytime soon.

On Writing and Inspiration

Each new book I open has provided a goose-pimply sense of inspiration. I’ve chosen very intentionally which books to read this year, knowing they’ll help frame my journey and provide possibly much needed respite from reality.

A moment of inspiration strikes and I run to my room or search hurriedly though my bag for my lone mechanical pencil.

Inspiration is strange. Shashi Deshpande in Small Remedies writes about the awkwardness of moving into a families home for an extended stay, which is often how I feel at the hostel or while visiting a friend’s family. She says, “This is like my first few days in the hostel, when the thought of being with so many strangers was daunting, my loneliness emphasized by being in their midst.” Within the first few pages of her novel, I was hooked.

People often ask what inspired me to volunteer in India. What planted the idea? I think my mother is right; it began with our world map shower curtain. Pastel colors delineating each country, some of which were renamed and lines re-established in those years of my childhood. I remember being scared of Berlin after hearing about the wall coming down. Africa was a vast and confusing place, bigger than the United States but mysteriously powerless in my mind. India was not on my radar.

Freshman year of college I did a research project on the Indian and Pakistani population in Chicago, focusing my study on the Devon area, filled with restaurants, fabric stores and ornate jewelry shops. During one of my excursions, I bought a non-English Indian newspaper and was asked by the shop-keeper in honest, dumbfounded curiosity, “Are you Indian?” Maybe that was the moment for me. My strange moment of inspiration.

Now I’m in India and I experience strange moments daily. Waking up to the fusion of melodies that collide when the neighboring temples and churches all celebrate simultaneously. Smelling the next meal being cooked. Cinnamon colored sunsets and green, fruit-filled landscapes. The man who delivers curd by bike and the woman who cooks rice for the kids at the Lower Primary school in a tiny wooden hut over a huge pit of fire.

Inspiration comes as a mix, a masala containing beauty and harshness, pleasure and frustration.

Many of the women I live with are in the hostel because their houses and families were hurt by the Tsunami. The teachers at the LP school are from the poorest class in India, most are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) because they say, “that party supports the poor.” Recent rains flooded streets and homes. “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) are being constructed on prime farmland, bought at a low price by companies from farmers deep in debt. Chikungunia hurts the poor children and senior citizens with already weak immune systems. Women can’t leave their homes after six in the evening. College students study what will afford them the best job rather than what they find interesting.

These are inspirations in a different way. These moments make me feel lucky to have a United States passport. I realize that being a citizen of a superpower affords more opportunities than I can list. But my “Western” world view is extraordinarily limited. India is teaching me about extremes: happiness and sadness, hunger and fulfillment, need and desire.

The other day as I read “The Hindu” newspaper, Ammamma said, “Hair is darker. You are becoming an Indian.” I stood up to eat lunch, spooning rice into my mouth with my fingers and slurping curd from the palm of my hand. I cannot believe that I am in India…