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I. Pizza and Ice Cream Phenomenon

Describing the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur often generate adjectives such as resourceful, innovative, tireless and visionary. In one way or another the individual that strove to develop a successful business possesses strong traits that complement the vision of their company in order to execute and ultimately succeed. Joey Crugnale of Bertucci's Inc. is just such an individual when it has come to the development of his nationwide Italian restaurant chain. His success in opening upwards of eighty restaurants in states up and down the east coast and into Atlanta and Chicago can be attributed to his characteristics of commitment to the authentic preparation of high quality Italian food, and a passion for the retail business and working on a level eye to eye with the consumer.

Bertucci's is by no means an ordinary restaurant chain that has been successful in setting up locations throughout a diverse geographic area. In June of 1991 Bertucci's completed its IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange with a flurry of anticipation and excitement from investors eager to capitalize on new and innovative business ventures. The stock was an strong performer when it opened to the public at $13 per share and shot up to over $34 in January of 1992 before splitting 3:2 the following March. From there this stock performed steadily as it ascended for the months to come to upwards of $25 in August of 1993. Bertucci's has also outlived many of the competitors that sprang up attempting to copycat the restaurant's successful formula of quality food and unique contemporary ambiance.

What's even more intriguing is that this retail food business was not this entrepreneur's first home-run in this industry. In the late 1970's and early 1980's Joey Crugnale took the reigns of a small and niche market ice cream store called Steve's Ice Cream located in humble Somerville, Massachusetts. He took what the owner Steve Herrell considered as an ice cream fad in a local market that was on its last leg, and turned it into a national phenomenon as one of the original players in the premium ice cream business that includes other phenomenon organizations such as Vermont's Ben & Jerry's. Retail stores for Steve's grew out to many diverse geographic areas, and this rich and gooey premium ice cream ultimately found its way into the heavier commercial supermarket industry. It was from this ice cream business that Bertucci's was born, and quite unintentionally as you will discover.

So how does and Italian born native who was moved to the Italian North End of Boston, Massachusetts when he was five years old start two multi-million dollar retail food ventures and cause a splash on Wall Street? Read on to learn more about this restaurateur and how his love for working with customers face to face drove his desires to build successful ventures. Also learn how the rapid growth of a company can take its toll on an organization and how the road to growing revenues and expanding presence is not always without its bumps.

II. Steve's Ice Cream - "Take the common and make it uncommon"

The Steve's Ice Cream store had become a success prior to Joey Crugnale's involvement with the company. Joey was running his own ice cream store nearby in Somerville, Massachusetts called Joey's and observed the success that the Steve's store was having. Steve's was creating what became known as premium ice cream with heavy and rich flavors combined with mix-ins of a wide variety of ingredients including chocolate chunks, Health Bar crunch, and other non-traditional ingredients with ice cream. A trademark strategy of Joey's that proved to be successful with both Steve's and Bertucci's is the capitalization on the unusual and non-traditional, "With any business as long as it has the basics well in hand, you take the common and make it uncommon." The mix-ins with the ice cream and the making of the product in the window is what made Steve's uncommon and thus new and very appealing to consumers. The success that Steve's had already achieved with strong local business and a cult following combined into what Joey felt was a boon that was ready to explode. "There was no doubt in my mind that there was a niche that needed to be filled."

Fortunately for Joey, the founder of Steve's, Steve Herrell, felt this particular situation was a fad and was at the end of its life in 1976. Joey felt this unique food business was filling a need in the market that was going unexploited by other organizations, "There was no one else doing this on a big scale. Haagen-Dazs was relatively new and there was definitely a growing market for premium ice cream." In 1976 Joey bought Steve's from Steve Herrell for $80,000 and began to run the ice cream business along the same path that had already been established. What followed was the growth of the popularity of the ice cream product and the experience of visiting very colorful stores with hand-painted signs showing off unusual and wacky flavor names that are now common-place in this industry. Joey's love for retail business led to aggressive expansion of new retail outlets nationwide, ultimately topping out at 26 outlets. As this business steadily grew in the late 1970's Joey attributes the explosion of the premium ice cream industry in 1981 as the real spark that made Steve's a national success. "Time Magazine did a story on it that legitimized it and featured Steve's in the article. We were busy prior to that article but when it was published, it just strengthened the already packed to capacity business we had. It was a wild time!"

When asked how he reacted to the success of the business his response was one indicative of someone who is very confident in their business development capabilities, "You don't go into business without expecting it to be successful. I would be surprised going into a business and not expecting it to be successful. With everything I do, it would be a major shock to me if it wasn't successful." Further conversation with Joey shows this not to be unfounded hubris based upon the first time success of an entrepreneur. Joey not only sites his observations and instincts as reasons for investing in a venture, but also methodical and meticulous research to support the pursuance of any opportunity, "I do my homework, I ask the right questions, and that in combination with my gut feel helps me make the decisions." Marketing reports and demographic studies aside, it's the instinctual part that is the biggest piece of the decision making process that Joey makes, "When it is all said and done, after all the work, the decision comes from the gut. I am a student of business and one of the companies I like to watch is Proctor & Gamble. They spend a lot of money on research and technology, and hire many MBA's to speculate on new product opportunities and they fail 90% of the time. When you read about companies that succeed you see a pattern that it's always the gut feel that played a big part. That's important, a lot of people don't have that."

As the business continued to grow, the evolution of competitors and changing consumers preferences began to lead the prosperity of this product out of the retail outlet and into the larger consumer supermarket distribution. "The growth in the business was happening in the supermarkets not in retail stores. 80% to 90% of sales was now in supermarkets because it wasn't as capital intense as retail stores were, and sales were less seasonal in supermarkets." Joey knew he had to get into the supermarket aspects of the business to be able to keep up with the direction the industry was going, but his love for retail and the customer proved to be an impasse that would not take him in that direction, "It was a business that I was not interested in getting involved with. I had no experience in it. I know retail and I love retail. I love people. I had offers all along the way; Stop & Shop (a New England supermarket chain) offered to package it on a large scale but it never appealed to me. At the beginning of this trend we were making a lot of money and I didn't have to do it."

The influences that led to Joey selling out from Steve's turned out to be not his decision alone. As with many entrepreneurs, the involvement of partners steers the course of the business in a direction that may be different from the founde's vision because of the vested interest the other participants have. For this business situation, Joey was in a partnership with two other men that were ecstatic at the success of their premium ice cream venture and wanted to cash out while the company was still hot. "At that time I thought we hadn't even started yet. I made them a deal that I would try to raise their asking price for their shares in the business in 90 days. If I couldn't get it I'd sell out." It turns out the asking price was $1 MM each and upon further reflection of the dollar amount, certain inevitable realities were realized that led Joey to capitulating with his partners, "I said, 'Wait a minute, where am I going to get that kind of money? What if I get the $2 MM and the whole thing flops? They walk out with all that money and I get nothing.' That killed me, that bothered me." In 1983 Joey successfully sold Steve's for $4.5 MM dollars creating a tremendous return for the eight years he ran that organization.

It might be considered a rare thing for an individual to be able to stick to what they love doing in the business venture they are pursuing, grow and become successful with it, and have the strength as the industry grows to turn down larger and more profitable offers to maintain the type of organization the founder wishes to have, "I knew who I was and what I liked to do, and I stick to that. It becomes a lifestyle. I liked walking into my stores and seeing my customers and trying new flavors as opposed to going to a plant. I don't like that, it was a position I didn't want."

III. Bertucci's Italian Restaurant - The restaurant next door

Joey's foray into authentic Italian quisine had started prior to his departure from Steve's. As his efforts were focused on making Steve's as large and successful as possible, the idea that gave birth to his restaurant fortune came while trying to protect the integrity and quality of Steve's. "The original Steve's was located in a busy retail area in Somerville. Steve's had grown to be very successful because even on rainy days we would have lines out the door. We didn't have a season, it was like that all year long. (You'll never see that again!) All of these other restaurants wanted to be near us to feed off of our business. I knew that a Chinese restaurant wanted to move in next door and I do not particularly like Chinese food or the odor that comes from their cooking. I didn't want influences such as that affecting Steve's so I decided to take over the space and put in my own restaurant." Joey's intention was not to make the new restaurant he opened a profit center, or even a commercial success. "I never intended it to be a profit maker because the space was so small and the table space was so limited. It was a way to keep other restaurants and businesses next to Steve's out, a way for me to have some fun, and a place to bring my friends to drink wine and play boccie."

It was not immediately that Joey embarked on growing Bertucci's into a commercial success. Two years after he started the restaurant and departed from Steve's, he took advice from certain individuals that convinced him to use his profits from the sale of Steve's to invest in real estate. "They told me when you make some money you're supposed to buy real estate to be safe." It did not take long for this entrepreneur at heart to realize this lifestyle did not match what his personal goals were, "I fell asleep buying real estate. You go to a bank, you borrow money, you go to a contractor, you give some plan to build something...it's boring." It only took him two years to get in and out of real estate to search of the excitement he had achieved with Steve's, and all this time he had hung on to Bertucci's because he loved the concept. It was that concept he looked to to begin his next venture.

The location and the relaxed atmosphere of Bertucci's was only part of the formula that ultimately grew the restaurant into the large chain that it is now. The other critical pieces were the authenticity of the food to be prepared and served, and the care that went into making the food as high a level a quality as possible. Coming from Italy, Joey had grown up surrounded by food and the passion of authentic preparation by his mother and grandmother. "My mother was a great cook, it was absolute quality and home-made. I grew up seeing this attention and detail while living in the North End of Boston. I noticed the difference of such care when we moved away from the North End into a suburb of Boston where there weren't a lot of Italians." Here is where his understanding of high quality and authenticity being brought to people who do not expect it can result in high level of acceptance by the customers.

While on a visit to Italy, Joey visited the house he was born in an discovered a small brick edifice sitting in the back yard. He asked his relatives what the structure was and they told him it was what they used to cook a lot of their food in. It was a brick oven and once he had noticed it in this backyard, he noticed it in many backyards throughout Italy. This oven became the cornerstone for the creation of authentic and high quality Italian food that made Bertucci's so successful and accepted by consumers. He brought the concept of the oven back into Bertucci's which culminated into his formula for this high quality Italian restaurant. "I saw that we were able to make a great pizza from the restaurant. I did market studies and determined that nobody was doing quality pizza back then, just pizza houses and full Italian restaurants that had pizza as a selection on the menu." This opportunity all goes back to the common philosophy he employed with Steve's and could now continue to utilize and benefit from, take something that is common and make it uncommon. "Nobody was doing really high quality pizza. I saw there was a niche."

With this foundation in place, the planning and execution began to fine tune the menu, add more dishes such as pastas and desserts, and grow from the o riginal location in Somerville. "This all started while Steve's was the driver for the income. It worked together with my efforts in establishing the right lifestyle and the right type of business."

IV. Rolling the Dice and Betting the Farm

The plan that Joey devised for his new restaurant concept was to establish twenty stores within the next five years. This was their goal "come hell or high water." Fortunately for Joey the experience he had gathered from Steve's allowed him to apply similar principals to effectively and efficiently grow the new chain, while understanding and working through any early setbacks, "Even if the first few didn't work, you'd keep going. You don't build a national franchise on the first few sites. You're always changing and improving, fine tuning, fine tuning. It takes time."

While experience and patience are important elements in creating a national franchise for a restaurant, the almighty dollar is always the main concern when it comes to the funding and longevity of a new business venture. True to his form, Joey did not hold back on lining up the resources he needed to make his five year plan come to fruition, "Whatever money I made from Steve's and from my real estate work, I bet the whole thing on the concept. I rolled the dice" It is often a risky proposition to wager all of ones earnings and savings for the sake of establishing a new business venture, but by no means unheard of or unusual if the entrepreneur has the commitment and will to sustain such incredible risk. "I had made the commitment to making this venture work, and I did whatever I had to do be it investing, re-financing, co-signing or guaranteeing every note." In hindsight it was a wise bet considering the success he has achieved Even at the time of this initial gamble, he considered it to be the right decision, "It wasn't a foolish bet, because that's what life is all about. You take the risk out of any deal and it isn't fun...why do it?!"


The funding was in place, the plan was written and the menu was set. As Joey and his core group of associates embarked on building this new franchise he was faced with an additional burden that is not typically experienced by many entrepreneurs. That is the burden of having already been a success and trying to compete with what has already been written into the history books. While many entrepreneurs can only dream of developing one concept into a fruitful venture, having done it once and making a name for yourself draws all the attention back to that individual to undergo a deeper level of scrutiny to determine if they were just lucky the first time. "The worst scenario for me was not in just losing everything that I invested because if I lose it you can always make it back. The big failure to me would be that I would lose face and that people would think that I lost. I knew that people were watching me because of Steve's, and I feared losing face because they were building me up with press such as 'Can he succeed again with another chain' and 'No one is two chain successful.' The biggest fear was not losing because I know I have the ability and self confidence to do it again, that's why I went on the brink."

Joey was able to prove to the press that he could do it again, and he was able to execute his plan for the restaurant and exceed their growth estimates to accelerate the expansion of the organization. "After three years we achieved the goals of the original plan and expanded it." The big risk paid off, and he was back in the business that he had so loved while he was working to grow Steve's. A true example of how the size of the risk can be proportionate to the size of the return, "In pursuing these types of ventures, or any type, risk goes along with the territory. There's no question that if there is no you don't do it. Why would you do it?! The challenge and the potential payoff make the risk worth it. If I did not want to take the risk then I'll get a job at IBM and work forty hours a week, and that would be that." Evidently the energy from the risk is as infectious as the concept of being an entrepreneur and shaping ones own future by taking charge of their own livelihood, "You need the risk to keep your heart pumping. Life's too short to fall asleep at the switch. You're not going to succeed all the time, but you have to try."

V. Initial Public Offering

So...the concept for the restaurant has proven to be successful. Customers like the food, the appearance and the atmosphere of the restaurant augment the experience of eating at Bertucci's to keep people coming back for more, and you're opening new restaurants at a pace of eleven new sites per year. Why take your company public? Why distribute the ownership of your company to the hungry public to take away from your share of the business and to deteriorate the control the entrepreneur has over their venture? In the case of Bertucci's, the strain of the expansion on their resources led them to seek alternative financing to maintain the aggressive pace of expansion. What also contributed to the decision was the environment in the early 1990's which favored an organization to go public and establish a successful market capitalization.

"In 1991 we owed $9 MM to $10 MM dollars in debt when we had twenty-one restaurants. How can you keep growing when your debt is that high? Banks will not lend to a restaurant organization because there are no assets to act as collateral for the loan. Restaurants have leased space, modest capital in kitchen equipment and plumbing, certainly nothing substantial enough to secure a large loan." Despite the success of the restaurant and the strong revenue stream due to strong business, the outstanding debt due to, among other things, a $1.5 MM dollar price tag to open each new restaurant did not put Bertucci's in the position to have sufficient resources to keep opening restaurants at an aggressive pace. "If we wanted to keep growing we needed more capital. The market was right (in 1991), but not now. It was cheaper to go public then because there were better economics to equity money than to go to a bank. It may have been a little early in terms of the company's readiness on other fronts, but the timing in the market was just perfect. In retrospect the window had closed 2 to 2 1/2 years later."

On June 28, 1991 Joey waited in the Boson office of Tucker Anthony, the underwriter for his company's stock, as the Bertucci's stock symbol (BERT) appeared for the first time on the NASDAQ exchange. "It's pretty cool to see your name on the screen. That was a rush." What happened afterwards was a frenzied buying of this hot little restaurant stock that pushed its market valuation to levels beyond anyone's expectations, "The valuation for our organization which had about twenty-five restaurants at the time was $210 MM, which is amazing. It was unbelievable to see our stock trading at 100 to 120 times earnings when the average was 50. The interesting thing is that this was all driven by the greed of Wall Street."

Now that the company was owned by the public, influences beyond what the entrepreneur had ever envisioned when starting a venture can take effect on the organization that influences the founder's control beyond what their intentions ever were. Investor and analyst expectations gauge the perceived value and anticipated performance of the public company to the point that even a penny's difference in earnings per share can send a company's stock falling in value, with months of hard work and trouble-shooting required to ultimately regain the stock's higher value. "You don't have to be a slave to Wall Street and the prices if you don't fall into that trap. I don't care as strongly about those things. I own a lot of stock so I care about the business."

When asked about how he felt not having full ownership of his company any longer and being a public company, this company founder maintains his confidence in knowing who runs the company and what his role is, "It's still my company and they know it is." While this response establishes Joey's commitment to the company he founded and his desire to remain the visionary and influence the direction of the business, his thoughts are not only on his own position in the organization and the benefits he wishes to receive. "A main reason I liked having sold shares is because there are now stock incentives for the staff to allow them to share in the prosperity of the business, and not just work to make Joey rich. It gives people a vested interest in the business. I would feel guilty because I don't want people to think that my goal is for people to work to make me rich. Why should that be other people's job? This way everybody shares."

VI. The Challenge of Expansion

All of the success that Bertucci's achieved did not come without its struggles. It is a daring and aggressive task to take a unique restaurant concept that has its atmosphere and food tastes that are successful in one particular market, and try to bring that to consumers in different places that have different tastes and preferences. "The big issue was going into new markets, and not draining our resources to do so." When asked if he felt that regional food tastes presented barriers to his expansion due to the distinct style of Italian made pastas and pizza dishes Bertucci's offered, Joey responded, "I'm not sure that different regions in the country have such different tastes to radically change the strategy and message. Pizza is international and people know what it is and what it tastes like unlike a more unique food such as Indian food. The true challenge in going to a different region in the country is name recognition. The customer doesn't know you and you have to work to get them to understand what you are all about. We are currently doing well in Philadelphia and Maryland for example, but not in Chicago. It's going to take a little time to build and market those stores."

Regional food tastes are not the only consideration that must be made when selecting a site to open a new restaurant. Other organizations are infamous for their demographic and population studies that go into the selection of a new restaurant site that will ensure their success because of a proven formula. McDonald's is such an organization. Bertucci's employs a similar concept when selecting a new site to open a restaurant, however that was not always their strategy, but one that eventually came to them through experience. "Our third restaurant was in a Massachusetts town called Holliston and I had never been there before in my life. We did it because it was there and we could get the construction up fast and we were eager to get the restaurants built. Life is about momentum too and I wanted to get the momentum going." Amidst slow business in that location and weak returns to the organization, ultimately this early location proved to be beneficial to the organization both profitably and with a lesson in development, "That store for a long time was a killer. It took time. In the early days we did not use strategy for placing a restaurant as we do now." Now the organization uses a formula that takes into consideration population and average income among other variables.

VII. Facing the Competition with Passion and Guts - "This Olive has a Soul"

In capitalistic America there is little time that goes by when an individual comes up with a unique and successful business concept and when other organizations attempt to capitalize on the new found marketplace with copy cat ideas. In the restaurant business competition and copying are not uncommon according to Joey. Unlike other industries, competition does not always present the situation of immanent failure if a new player successfully challenges and replicates the formula of another restaurant, "The restaurant business is the most difficult business in the world. When someone makes a widget here, and then someone makes a better and cheaper one in a different country, you're out of business overnight. In the restaurant business if someone in another part of the country or world does exactly what you're doing, you're still in business for a long time." Restaurants obviously allow the owner's to adjust and modify to a changing marketplace and competitive environment.

What is evident with Bertucci's and Joey's vision of running the organization is that copying the pure passion for high quality and authentic food, and the desire to create a unique and pleasurable environment for one's customers is not very easy to duplicate and the downfall of many who try. "People forget that the restaurant business is more than just food and price. It's atmosphere, the environment and the experience. People copy the restaurant business all the time, but you can't copy the vision, the guts and the history!" The exclamation to this statement can be articulated by the example of an unsuccessful Mobile, Alabama competitor who attempted to open a similar chain of restaurants based on a the appearance of Bertucci's, "What do a bunch of fat, old men in a conference room in Mobile know about Italian food when they start a restaurant chain?! I know this stuff. My corporate chef and I grew up with this stuff and doing these things. They don't have a clue on the specifics. The list goes on about all these big companies opening restaurants and wanting to have Italian restaurants but failing because they don't truly know it." What it all boils down to is the customer and their judgment of the success of the replicated concept, and in this business there is no room for error, "They spell something wrong on the menu and the customer sees that. The customer knows the difference. It's like me trying to get into the Thai food business. What the hell do I know about Thai food?! Do I go to Thailand for six months and steal recipes and restaurant designs and now I know the Thai food business? That's why there are so many failures in this business because that's the way people think it works."

Amidst all of these different aspects of the restaurant business, the root of every restaurant is the food it serves and the appeal it has to customers. According to Joey the care that is rooted in his upbringing and embedded in his restaurants is something Bertucci's pays strong attention to and is what helps give Bertucci's an advantage over the "cookie-cutter" and mass producing competition, "We top each pizza with an olive as a sign of approval. But that is not just any olive. That olive is a California olive and we roast it, marinate it and cure it ourselves. We want to make it a better olive. We take this product that we take so much care in making it, and then we put it on the pizza. That is so special and our employees have to know this. It means more than just a garnish...this olive has a soul. We make our own dough, hand stretch it and watch it constantly in the brick oven. That's cooking! Not pushing a button. There is a romance to that and we take that responsibility."

VIII. The Restaurant Business is not an Easy Business

The rapid success of this restaurant chain and the hectic pace at which new locations were opened did not occur without taking its toll on the operations and people who were trying to maintain this aggressive pace. Bertucci's has exploded i n the past five years to upwards of eighty locations from the twenty-one that existed when they went public in 1991. The company spearheaded new locations in states such as Maryland, Florida and Chicago but all did not prove to be as prosperous or long lasting as the original New England locations. In fact the company has had to slow its pace of growth recently in order to regroup after several recent quarters of poor performance and profitability significantly lowered stock value, and the need for closing certain locations that proved to be non-viable. "As we proceeded in this capital intense business we were building upon what we had already done and the success we had already achieved. An important thing about running a business like this is that you realize that you have to ask the customer what they want and how they feel and take the time to interpret that to make sure you are meeting those needs. You can't do that when you are going 100 mph...it's tough to do when you are going 30 mph."

Realizing the necessity to listen to customer feedback at all times was only part of the process that Joey admits needed more attention while Bertucci's was growing so rapidly, "Now you really start dissecting the company to find out what you did wrong. For example, I may not have spent enough time on considering automation or computer information systems, but on opening more stores. Maybe now that was the wrong decision." The slowdown has given Bertucci's the chance to settle down, reflect inward, and regroup its resources and strategy to push forward once again with its original motivation and commitment to excellence, "It gives you a chance to breathe and plan. To determine your resources and concepts and put them in place. To plan for the future and work on your overall strategy such as restaurant design... I think all businesses should take a year off and reflect on what they have and where they are going."

Joey has spent his professional career in the retail food business and has seen it through its good times and its bad times. What is his opinion of the restaurant industry and how its unique characteristics add to the challenges of growing a successful venture? "The restaurant business is the most difficult business in the world. I think the restaurant itself is tougher to run than the company. You're a manager, a psychologist, working with part-timers, non-English speaking people, a retailer, quality control... It's a tough, tough job." These unique facets to this business coupled with the struggles of being a public company can prove to be detrimental to any person's will to survive when one looks at the roller-coaster the founder of Bertucci's has gone through. At a recent event that showcased the business plans of new business ventures, an expert panelist made the comment that "Entrepreneurs never fail, they only give up." Evidently this person had some foresight about Bertucci's based on the perseverance and desire to continue ahead that Joey has, "We went too fast and we made a few mistakes which brought the stock price down farther than it should have been. I own a lot of shares and I never looked at it as all that money that I lost. I'm very proud of myself for that...for never being upset at it for the stock price issue. And for not bucking under that pressure. Once you stop expanding you die and the culture changes. Everything changes. You have to keep winning, growing and expanding."

IX. The Future

What lies ahead for Bertucci's and the direction the organization will go? Joey has no intention to let things slow down or to quench his desires to makes the ventures he is involved in the absolute biggest and best they can be. He also intends to ensure that those who are along for the ride with him will benefit from the organization in as many ways as possible so it is an endeavor that is beneficial for all. "We want to make whatever we do fun for the employees so we can retain our people. We wish to expand the organization and to be profitable so we can make money for the stock. We want to add value for our shareholders' interest."

As for Joey himself, his personal desires are still engrained in the history that is part of him, and the traits that make up his entrepreneurial personality, "I will stay with Bertucci's until it isn't fun anymore. I would like to take a year off and live in Italy if the opportunity were ever to present itself. But for now, the organization is controlled by the management that I have hired which frees me up to do the creative and fun stuff. Bertucci's is a very cool company, and even though it makes me go around and talk to myself from time to time, I enjoy being here very much." - ###


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