Alfred Teo Sr.'s 11-month stint in federal prison left an impression on the chairman and chief executive officer of Sigma Plastics Group.
``I never imagined at this state in my life I would go through an experience like this. I had a bad experience with Communist China when I was a kid, but compared to this, it was a piece of cake.''
Thus did Teo founder of the $1.6 billion bag and film conglomerate describe the consequences of his conviction on securities fraud charges unrelated to his plastics business.
Teo, 62, was released in April from a minimum-security facility in Morgantown, W.Va. Under terms of his probation, Teo regularly had to check in with federal officials in New York until Oct. 3.
He was not allowed to return to day-to-day management of Sigma until Nov. 1, the start of the company's fiscal year. He filled the time auditing the books for a local gym where he worked out.
``[The experience] changed my view of the justice system, but it did not change my view of this country: I still love this country. I think it is the greatest country on earth,'' he said during an Oct. 20 interview at Sigma's headquarters in Lyndhurst.
The drab industrial faÃ§ade of silos and warehouses at the corner of Page and Schuyler avenues in Lyndhurst masks the well-appointed corporate offices inside.
There, tiled floors and buttery-leather sofas just off the reception desk give way in corridors to built-in aquariums teeming with rays and exotic fish, and on to a suite of executive offices dripping with neo-Victoriana: gold-vines-on-burgundy-background wallpaper, golden-framed English hunting scenes and heavy hardwood furniture, mixed with mementoes Teo has collected since arriving in the United States from China 42 years ago with $70 to his name.
``My wife is my interior decorator,'' he explained with a wave of his hand.
Teo and his son Mark, Sigma's president and chief operating officer, discussed their plans for weathering the global economic crisis and possibly adding new territory to their North American business empire, which Teo founded in 1978 with five employees and $3 million in sales. They also described their experience managing the founder's absence from the business.
Teo's wife, Annie, and Mark would make the trek to West Virginia on weekends to visit the imprisoned patriarch, while the couple's other sons and long-time employees took over management of Sigma.
In addition to Mark's appointment as president, Alan Teo and Alfred Teo Jr. were named (and continue to serve) as executive vice president and vice president of purchasing, respectively. Another son, Andrew Teo, oversees finances.
``The first thing I said was, my father worked so hard for so many years for me, my family, and the people that work here, I'm not going to let him down I owe it to work just as hard for him,'' Mark Teo said. ``And I believe everybody at the company had the same attitude that we're not going to fail him; we're not going to let this company go down the drain.''
Sigma executives approached the company's banker and resin suppliers, reassuring them the elder Teo's absence would not disrupt operations.
``There was a consistency of contact. There was a certain comfort level that, yes, the head of the company was going away, but the same people they had dealt with day in and day out for 30 years were still going to be running the company for him,'' Mark Teo said.
The company continued to expand while his father was incarcerated, and today, ``As far as film and sheet manufacturers, I would consider us one of the strongest, if not the strongest, financially.''
Management is confident the current economic crisis is only temporary, father and son agreed. They support the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street and major U.S. banks and predict it will stave off financial disaster, though they see irony in the situation.
``My father went to prison for something that is nowhere near the level of what some people in that situation did,'' Mark Teo said.
Teo Sr. said a lot of ``small fish'' are likely to end up being prosecuted in connection with the collapse of the U.S. financial markets. For him and for Sigma, credit is no problem and it's a time of opportunity, he said.
``I believe that when everybody is screaming and running scared, I do an expansion. When everybody is expanding like crazy, I stay put: I solidify what I've got,'' Teo Sr. said. ``We are currently looking at several potential acquisitions. We are going to continue to grow organically.''
But Sigma's future course will largely be up to Teo's children, as prison gave the founder pause about his personal direction.
``One thing I learned was that I took a lot of things for granted. I should have treasured them more,'' Teo Sr. said.
``I've had a lot of time to think and to reflect on my life the way I was, the way I am and the way I am going to be.''
That means no more 70-plus-hour work weeks, and more time spent with his wife, four sons and seven grandchildren, including travel.
Teo Sr.'s run-in with the government isn't over. He still faces a civil lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission related to his insider trading.
He acknowledges he broke the law, but insists the people he gave tips to were family and friends and that his violations were a matter ``of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.'' Unlike home diva Martha Stewart's 2001 ImClone Systems Inc. stock dump (for which she served five months in prison) or Enron Corp.'s implosion the same year, ``nobody lost their homes'' as a result of his violations, he said.
He plans to fight the lawsuit, ``all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to.''
Still, Teo Sr. said he's repentant and will pass on a bit of wisdom to his sons as they take over the family firm: ``I compare running a business to riding a bicycle. You have to keep pedaling it. You keep pedaling and pedaling so you don't fall off. Sometimes to come uphill you have to work harder, pedaling harder, sweating to get up the hill.
``Sometimes you go downhill. You'll cruise down easier, but never let your guard off. If you let your guard off, you'll fall down.''