Neal Weiss was chosen as the first recipient of SouthCoast Media Group’s Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs Leadership Award.
Some of life’s most important lessons come early and stick with us. For New Bedford businessman Neal Weiss, life’s lessons hit hard in the mid-1980s when his wife was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that left her mentally and physically disabled until her death four years later.
At the time, Weiss’ two sons were 3 and 6. He was working as a salesman in Brookline, commuting from the family’s South Dartmouth home, for an electronics company that was just beginning to explore a new and untested field of fiber optics.
For four years, Weiss lived with daily uncertainty — of what would happen to his wife, his family, and his career.
But when the clouds finally cleared, he had a new perspective on life, one he says had more empathy for the daily family struggles people encounter, as well as a strong desire to share his passions and good fortune.
“The good news about bad news is that it puts your life in perspective very quickly,” Weiss said. “You realize that there is family, friends and your health; nothing else really has value.”
Today Weiss runs his own fiber optics company, has been married to his second wife, Marjorie Waite, for 22 years, and is a generous and passionate supporter of the local arts and music communities, a wrestling coach and mentor for New Bedford area youth, an education advocate, and a community and business leader.
For his contributions to making this region better, Weiss was chosen as the first recipient of SouthCoast Media Group’s Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs Leadership Award and will be honored at an April 23 event at the Whaling Museum. Nominations for the award came from the community with the winner selected by representatives from the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Fund, SouthCoast Media Group and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts.
“When we established the Jacobs Leadership Award last year, we wanted it to celebrate the virtues that we believe have allowed Irwin and Joan Jacobs to have such far-reaching impact,” said Bob Unger, editor and associate publisher of SouthCoast Media Group, which publishes The Standard-Times and the SouthCoast Business Bulletin. “We are so pleased that Neal Weiss was chosen as the award’s first honoree. His entrepreneurial and innovative spirit, boundless energy and generosity make him a model of what great business leaders should be.”
“I think Neal is a great choice,” said Craig Dutra, president of the Community Foundation and member of the award selection committee. “He is a business leader that has been involved in a variety of charitable organizations. He is a great president of the New Bedford Education Foundation, which is part of our organization. He is a very philanthropic man who runs a successful business and has a record label.”
Although he has started two businesses, one technical and one creative, Weiss, 67, refers to himself as a reluctant entrepreneur who never set out to own or run a company.
Faced with the prospect of losing his sales job, and needing employment that allowed him to care for his young boys, Weiss worked out a complex deal with his then employer and friend to buy the fiber optics piece of the business. He then relocated it to New Bedford, and, in the 22 years since, has grown it to a staff of 30.
Many people walk by Fiber Optics Center’s small building off Water Street, under the sign that still says Kaller Beef, and never know that within those historic walls employees are sending out as many as 100 orders a day supporting the creation of high-tech data networks all over the world.
In its early years, Weiss hired women with no technical backgrounds who were looking to transition from state aid to employment, to sell his equipment. As long as they were motivated and could speak and write well, he offered them a job.
“I had women here in the ’90s selling to engineers, selling high-tech fiber optics, and learning the business with no sales experience, no computer experience, and, in some cases, no education, not even a GED. That didn’t matter,” said Weiss.
In 1999, he founded Whaling City Sound, satisfying a passion for jazz by helping select musicians record and produce their music. Although an economically shaky venture, the studio has a respected reputation in music circles, and this winter had a CD top the playlist, with the most airtime for six straight weeks, for a nationwide group of 60 to 80 jazz stations.
The studio has also earned Weiss respect locally for his willingness to connect musicians with nonprofits in ways that benefit New Bedford.
“He supports and organizes benefit concerts for local non-profits … integrating the musicians he sponsors with an opportunity to benefit the larger community, wrote Candace Lee Heald, AHA! New Bedford director, in one of four award nominations received for Weiss.
To this day, if a community group is putting on a local jazz event, they often turn to Weiss for advice and just as often receive more than expected, including booked and paid for musicians and assistance promoting events. During the warmer months, Weiss also hosts monthly free AHA! concerts at FOC’s location.
While music is a passion for Weiss, so is art, education, and the YWCA’s mission to eliminate racism and empower women. He is a long-time supporter and former board member of the New Bedford Art Museum and continues to pay their mailings for them. He is a dedicated volunteer for the YWCA, serving on its Capital Campaign Committee and is the board chair of the New Bedford Education Foundation, where he works to solicit business donations that support teachers and students.
Weiss also works directly with children, coaching young wrestling athletes, ages 4 to 14, for the past 40 years, the last 10 through the New Bedford Public Schools.
“Few folks come to Neal Weiss for help with worthy projects and get turned away,” wrote New Bedford resident Jean Bennett in her nomination letter.
As the Jacobs award winner, Weiss ironically counts Qualcomm, Irwin Jacobs’ giant firm, as a customer. Fiber Optic Center makes a microscopic glass sphere, he said, whose properties of light caught the eye of one of Qualcomm’s departments.
“There is a division of Qualcomm that has purchased these balls,” he said. “It’s top secret; they won’t tell us (what they use them for).”
Weiss has met Jacobs and connected with him through the education foundation, which the Jacobs have supported. He admires him for his generosity and effectiveness in creating useful programs.
To be in his company is an honor, he said.
“It’s an amazing honor, because he is revered by me and by almost everyone I know,” said Weiss. “It seems that he knows what it takes to get the desired result. He’s not just putting money out there. He has developed programs and ideas that have produced results.”
By BETH PERDUE
April 20, 2014 – 12:00 AM