Next Tuesday, November 30, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce will gather at the elegant Tournament Players Club at Jasna Polana to congratulate the recipients of its business leadership awards of the year, including our friend Chris Lokhammer of PNC Wealth Management, the business leader of the year; Thomas McCool, CEO of Eden Autism Services, the innovator of the year; Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton Public Library, the community leader of the year; and Rick Weiss, founder of Viocare Inc., the healthcare software company, the entrepreneur of the year.
I probably won’t attend the Jasna Polana event, but I will take a moment to remember my own choice for entrepreneur of the year: a posthumous candidate, Arnold Leigh Brownell Jr., also known as Arnie the Balloon Man, who carved out a business niche by creating balloon characters and entertaining children at a portable workstation that he dragged out onto the Nassau Street sidewalk most weekends.
Brownell, 63 (born just two months after me), died October 25 after what friends described as “a long period of declining health.” In addition to his endeavors on Nassau Street he often plied his trade at the Pennington Quality Market. His product line consisted of fantastic creations somehow formed by bending, twisting, and melding together ordinary balloons. Kids were thrilled. Parents obligingly donated a tip to Arnie’s jar — he didn’t sell the balloons because that would have been a violation of a Borough ordinance (and unfair competition for the town’s taxpaying merchants).
I wrote a column in 2002 about Princeton’s struggles to maintain the vitality of its downtown and noted the irony of the town hounding this sidewalk vendor (at one point assigning an undercover police officer to witness how the transaction of the “tip” was executed) while many other towns were desperate for activity of any kind on their sidewalks. But I never did ask how Brownell ended up at his station in life.
After his death I got curious. What was the source of that artistic bent, I wondered.
A woman whose family had befriended Brownell many years ago, Gina Martinuzzi, put me in touch with one of his three sisters, Barbara Brownell of North Hollywood, California, where she works as a life coach and hypnotherapist between gigs as an actress. (One recent credit: The role of the head of the American Cancer Society in the latest season of “Mad Men.”)
Both Martinuzzi and Brownell’s sister wondered if Arnie’s innate talent was not so much art as — surprise — engineering. Both marveled at how he could envision the structural elements of his balloon creations. Growing up in the small town of Linvale, near Ringoes, Brownell’s father was a tree surgeon — with an artistic touch, his daughter recalls — and his mother showed an aptitude for engineering and eventually went to work for the state transportation department.
As a young man Brownell kicked around as a waiter in New York and a chef for the Canadian railroad system and eventually dropped out of sight. Caught up in drugs and eventually incarcerated, the story goes, Brownell ended up on the street in New Orleans, virtually penniless, and noticed a busker selling balloons on the street. He immediately realized he could do it, too, and so began the venture that he brought back to central New Jersey and lasted the rest of his life.
My nominee for entrepreneur of the year would never have made it past the chamber’s screening committee, which based its award on some specific criteria: growth in employees, growth in sales, financial stability, and contributions to the community. Brownell had no employees, no “sales,” technically speaking, and no growth in either category. But he did contribute to the community.
In fact, as I ponder the balloon man’s contributions, I see embodied in him two unexpected traits that are actually common to many successful entrepreneurs.
First, rather than being a risk-taker Brownell was risk-averse. At one point Brownell was invited to make his balloons at MarketFair and Quakerbridge Mall. The lines there became so big that Brownell had to hire help — overhead. Perhaps realizing that Arnie the businessman would not be nearly as successful as Arnie the balloon man, Brownell retreated from the mall operation and concentrated his business on Nassau Street and special events at the Pennington Market. Less overhead, less risk.
Second, even though money is a constant concern of the entrepreneur (it doesn’t grow on trees and federal bailouts go to big business, not to the little guys), it’s never only about money. Brownell lived from hand to mouth, sometimes living in his car. But on many occasions he earmarked some or all of his proceeds for charities, including — according to the family — the March of Dimes, which honored him in 2010, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and the American Cancer Society, for which he raised thousands of dollars.
So I will honor both Brownell and the Chamber of Commerce’s entrepreneur of the year on November 30. But I probably won’t be at the event. No, it’s not about the $250 ticket price. It’s about a special publication we have going to the printer six days later. I’ll be working a little extra — I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the effort.