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June 29, 2021

Principle centered leadership with Dan Simons | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Principle centered leadership with Dan Simons | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli talks with Dan Simons. Dan Simons is the co-founder of the Farmers Restaurant Group. In this episode, Dan shares his journey of becoming a purpose-driven individual and leader.  Dan Simons also shares the inspiring story of how Farmers Restaurant Group and his team faced the crisis while staying focused on their values and becoming better as a result.

Some highlights:

-Dan Simons on how his upbringing gave him a greater sense of purpose and empathy

-Dan on how he persisted through his first failure as a restaurateur. 

-Dan Simons on Conscious Capitalism and how businesses can elevate humanity through a mindful way of doing business.

-Dan shared the struggles his team faced during the pandemic and why they never wavered on their principles and values.  

-Dan Simons on the need to be willing to be imperfect in order to learn and grow.

Also mentioned in this episode:

-Michael Vucurevich
-David Gardner,  Co-Founder, and CEO of The Motley Fool
(Listen to David Gardner's episode here)
-Adored: The Leader Your Team Needs You to Be a book by Tom DeCotiis
-The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People a book by Stephen Covey

Connect with Dan Simons:

Dan Simons on LinkedIn

Dan Simons on Twitter

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome to partnering leadership. I am really excited this week to be having a conversation with Dan Simons. He's one of the co-owners of The Farmers Restaurant Group. What a purpose driven organization, which in part, comes from purpose driven founders. And Dan's story is truly inspiring, both what led him to become so purpose-driven as an individual, to look for the Farmers Restaurant Group, to be more than just the restaurant serving food, to have an impact on the broader community, and the transitions that they've had to go through as a result of the pandemic. I truly enjoyed this conversation and I know you will too, most especially Dan's authenticity. 

As a leader, that is working with his team to figure it out, to become more valuable to the community and beyond. I love hearing your thoughts and your comments. Keep those coming. Mahan @ mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Love getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast.

That way you will be sure to get notified of these episodes as soon as they're released. And those of you that enjoy these on apple, a rating and review will help more people find and benefit from these conversations. Now, here is my conversation with Dan Simons.

 Dan Simons, welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you on with me. 

Dan Simons:
Mahan, I'm glad to be here. Looking forward to a robust conversation. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 It is going to be a great conversation. I've seen your impact in the community. And one of our mutual friends, David Gardner, I interviewed him back in December 1, 2020 said,  Dan defines purpose driven. So want to get to some of those, but before I get there, would love to know a little bit about your upbringing Dan, and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you became. 

Dan Simons:
 I grew up in Boston. I lived in the same house that my parents brought me home from the hospital to. And I was raised in that home, and my parents stayed together forever, and my mom's still alive and she still lives in that house. So home is home. You know, I'm 50 years old and I still feel like I'm in my upbringing. You know, I don't know what I'll do when I grow up. But when I think of home, I think very fondly of it.

And I'm fortunate that you know, my parents moved to this country and so I got to have really the best of both worlds to see the world through the eyes of my parents, as immigrants to this country, and then I had the opportunities to be born here and be raised here.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And how did that shape your worldview 

Dan Simons:
From the very beginning, I guess I always understood or was just made to understand that the United States wasn't at the center of the universe. And that was neither taught to me in a negative way or a positive way. It was never overtly taught to me. It was just when you have a family that has experienced the globe the things a circle, there is no center of it.

There is no place that is more important than any other. And I feel like that was a real gift that my parents gave me. And I think they instilled in us the same thing about us as individuals. We're also not at the center of the universe. You know, we're a little speck here doing our thing, wherever we're doing it. And so, I guess that's how I look at the first generation American experience  for me. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 Founding farmers is  focused on its people and values diversity of people, whether some of that understanding impacted the focus that you place on people and diversity of people.

Dan Simons:
 I'm sure it does.  I was just raised the way that I was raised and, I know you hear phrases in business, like, you know, people first or people are the most valuable asset. When those phrases come out of the boardroom, they're a strategy, they're often relatively hollow. I think I was just raised and came up in a family where it really mattered how we felt it mattered what we did, and it mattered tremendously how we made other people feel. And so I just brought into my business career the only thing I know how to do, which is to ask people how they are and then, you know, to shut up and really listen. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Now there was a period of time in middle school that you had been bullied in school.

Dan Simons:
Yeah. This is one of those things that you know, looking back, I'm so fortunate that it happened, and you know, when going through it, it was awful. It was just a phase, in sixth grade where  I lost my friends, I got picked on sort of all of a sudden people were making fun of me because my parents spoke with a different accent.

I was Jewish, which you know, there weren't many Jews where I was, and these things just sort of came to a head social dynamic. And for three months or so it was a hard time, you know, scared to go to school, crying, kids making fun of me fighting, getting in fights and just, really outnumbered and  stressful for my parents.

They didn't really know how to help. And, in the seventies bullying, wasn't really something that teachers or administration or adults like got involved in. But I made new friends, I got through it. I saw the kids who reached out to me and were helpful to me. And they were kids that probably would have been to some degree invisible to me before and, you know, before that.

And so it's, it's good to know what it's like to be the one that's hurt. It's good to know what it feels like to be the recipient of unpleasantness. There's a lot you can do with that. I guess it might make some people meaner themselves. And for me, it made me forever devoted to the underdog.

And I don't know if I would have been that way. Had I not, you know, taken some serious kicks when I was down. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
What an  incredible example Dan of humanity that, that experience brought out in you and you relating to other people better as a result of it, rather than holding on to grudges and resentments, you help that experience make you a better person and now better leader as a result. 

Dan Simons:
 Mahan, I still remember several of the kids who befriended me and  there was one kid who I'd never been, I wasn't friends or not friends with prior, just, I didn't really, we didn't really know each other, and he watched what was happening and as was willing to let me  sit next to him on the bus or,  my mom would drop me off at his house in the mornings before school.

So I could go to school on his bus. And at that age for a kid to be that insightful and caring and put himself at risk, you know, for a kid who prior to that wouldn't necessarily have done that for him. And that lesson that I took from that was I don't know, it says poignant today as it was all those years ago.

Mahan Tavakoli:
 What a beautiful experience now, as you were going through that obviously things that formed you and your views for the rest of your life. I highly doubt you wanted to grow up and become a restaurateur. So at what point did you decide you wanted to actually open up a restaurant and going to that business?

Dan Simons:
 It is funny. You know, some folks probably grow up, going to restaurants all the time. In my family, we ate dinner at home and we would go out to what we considered a fancy restaurant or, you know, a nice restaurant, maybe twice a year, other than that, we just ate at home.

So I didn't get this restaurateur bug when I was young by any means. I started working in bars and restaurants when I was in college and I fell in love with a few things. I learned that I loved being at the party, but I really loved sort of organizing the party. I liked cleaning up, I liked being at the party with being in control, I liked being at the party but being the one who left with money in my pocket instead of broke. So, you know, I learned to earn, I learn to clean, I learned to most of the time, keep my head on straight. So there were a lot of things that I think  gave me the restaurant bar bug early, and then it just sort of manifested and grew into a real career desire, and I feel really fortunate for those early work experiences. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yeah. But it sounds like that first restaurant didn't work out so well. 

Dan Simons:
 The first one I owned, no, what a disaster. My business partner and I, and he's still my business partner today. We do everything together, Michael Vucurevich . Our first restaurant just failed. I mean, a total epic business disaster. Yeah, you get to the point you going to, oh, we finally know what we're doing. I was 31 years old or 32, 33  years old. We finally started our own business. Got a decade plus of experience working for other people, we think we know what we're doing, we raised money from friends and family and no, we just fell flat on our face and lost a million bucks that we didn't have, but signed for personally destroyed the capital from friends and family and fools, I guess.

And you know, and then spent the following eight years paying back on bank notes and on, you know, the landlord, lawsuit settlement. So yeah, I obviously really love this business because I know how to get kicked when you're down and this business sure did that to me too. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 Now, Dan, most people, when they burn their hands, they don't touch the stove again.

What made you want to go back and open up another restaurant? 

Dan Simons:
 I think I'm a little competitive with myself. If I touch the stove and it burns my hands, I want to figure out, you know, what gloves do I need to get my hands around the throat of that stove and get that stove to do what I want. So. I also don't really know how to give up.

I sort of figure, if I'm not dead, I'm still in the fight. So as you know Mahan,  leadership or entrepreneurship, or whatever journey, no one is great at it. It's just about just keep going. And really, I studied martial arts for several years, you know, they say. What does it take to get a black belt? Just keep going. Right. So just keep going. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 But where does that come from in you, Dan? What is it in you that makes you hold on and become even more persistent to achieve that goal? 

Dan Simons:
Nature? Nurture? I don't know. I'm just not wanting to complain about my journey. My mom's parents fled Austria just before the Nazis rolled in. My mom was born along the way, there were Austrian Jews get to England, while sort of people are dying and being murdered around them. And then my mom at whatever, six or seven years old or eight years old was  sent away from her parents to live in the countryside during the blitz. And I just think like, What I have experienced, this is nothing compared to that hardship that my parents saw and then the courage to move to another country. And by the way, there's so much more hardship out there for other people around the world than my parents face. So I have always somehow been able to see my own challenge in the context of the challenges that other people face.

And so when I look at it that way, I think, all right, not so bad. Let's, you know, let's, let's get after it. Like lots of other people go through lots more and don't give up. So I'm sure it's all not about to give up. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
So, as you got after it in 2008 with your partners,  you started founding Farmers, which is really focused on building community and truly mission-driven. Why start a mission driven restaurant, which almost even to this day, to some people might sound counterintuitive.

Dan Simons:
 Well, this is really one of those sort of coming together as that serendipity, call it good luck, say that people make their own lock out, I don't know, but whatever caused this coming together, you know, my partner, Michael and I, our first restaurant had failed, we knew we wanted to do more restaurants, we developed our, our restaurant and hospitality consulting business. And we were trying to figure out our next restaurant. And then we got connected with this group of farmers from North Dakota, literally  the North Dakota farmer's union, and they had a desire to do a farmer owned restaurant. And they obviously had their reasons, we had a vision for the kind of restaurant that we wanted to do next. And we put together their vision and their DNA and their capital with our ability, vision, and really intertwined it. It wasn't their idea and our idea, it became "the" idea. 

And so I think from great seeds grow great trees and I couldn't have done it alone. It's not just my seed. It's me and Michael and the farmers of North Dakota and several other and lots of other, you know, hundreds of other family farmers. And so we sort of fused together this DNA  and that's what planted the seed that became founding farmers. And so I do believe that  things grow from the seed from which they're planted. And so this was a really good seed. It was always about putting mission over profit. But still in order to make profit and to do it in that multi-stakeholder way. And it has served us well. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
I also know you're a big advocate for conscious capitalism. When did you get introduced to that concept? Because it's something that you advocate and you also show through your restaurant, how all kinds of organizations, not just the professional services or tech firms can have purpose and can have a service attitude to a broader group of stakeholders, not just their owners and shareholders.

Dan Simons:
It's always been clear to me that business can elevate humanity. And I had, over the past decade or so started to refer to myself or my partners view of business as a mindful or conscious way of doing business. And one day I was speaking at an event just a few years ago, and I referred to myself as a conscious capitalist.

And then after the event, my now friend and the only person that I can refer to as a complete fool, David Gardner of the Motley fool, approach me and said , Oh Dana,  it's nice to meet you, I heard you call yourself a conscious capitalist and that's great, are you involved with the movement? Did you enjoy the book? And I said,"what book?", you know, like, what are you, what are you talking about? And we just had this really funny conversation and he said, well, you use this phrase and it's a book. I said, I didn't know, it's a book, but awesome. And so that was just about three years ago, I think. And so David introduced me to the board and conscious capitalism, Inc.

And so I met folks and I read the book and that's what got me involved. And I really throwing myself into spreading the word. I think it is a fantastic way to generate return for investors while simultaneously valuing whatever it is you determine that your stakeholders. And for me, that's the planet, that's American family farmers, that's the local community, that's the mental health of my employees, that's the kind of the mental wellness of my partnership with Michael V. 

And so I look at all of these things as stakeholders. So as I make decisions, as we make decisions, we try to do it in a balanced way. And so teaching other folks how to do this is really, it's really rewarding. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
I'm glad to hear that David is the person that pulled you into the seas one, of those individuals that helps anyone he interacts with, be better as a result. And I always feel a couple of inches taller when I am with David.

So he has a way of helping you become smarter and feel better about yourself. So I've learned a lot from him too. Now, with respect to your focus on the community, you don't only talk about it, Dan, which is one of the things I love. You do a lot, whether it is by being a sustainable restaurant and really focusing in on that or partnering with organizations like DC, central kitchen and launching things like our last straw.

So there is a lot that you have done. What is it with respect to last straw, talk a little bit about that. And again, why would a restaurant and a restauranteur be the leader of this cause and this movement? 

Dan Simons:
 My carbon footprint, my personal damaging impact to the planet as an individual and as a business person is real and selfish.

And I've got three young teenage boys. And I think this is their planet. Who do I, or frankly, you or anybody else who do we think we are meeting our wants, not our needs, but meeting our wants today and diminishing their ability in the future to meet their needs.

It's disgustingly selfish. And so I just can't sleep at night, simply doing damage. So I look for ways I can be transparent. Tell the truth about the negative impact that businesses like mine make and look for feasible, realistic ways to do both less harm, and to solve things permanently. And so single use plastics you know, it may end up my life's work in some respect of something.

I try to focus on forever. It is a big problem affecting human health, planetary health. There are billions in profit being made today that I promise you, Mahan will be looked back at with dismay and disgust that the profit was allowed to be generated with such blatant disregard for the future impact than the future cost.

So I wanted to start a nonprofit led by business owners who could raise their hand and say, we care about stuff like this, and there is good regulation, and there are things that we can do and we can change our behavior. Some of it might make us generate a bit less profit. Good! Some of it might teach us how to make profit with less negative impact.

So sorry to go on. I get a little fired up about it, but that's, that's my, why. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 And that is fantastic Dan in that you are a leader that truly cares both with respect to what you do with your own business, in this case, the restaurant group, but also in energizing other leaders, other business leaders to do what is right. 

Now, as you expanded, as you have this initiative, whether our last straw or getting involved in conscious capitalism, doing lots of great things, then all of a sudden, March, 2020, we get hit with a pandemic that obviously impacted everyone, most especially restaurants. How did that hit you? And how were you able to handle the pandemic that came?

Dan Simons:
 It was hard. It's still hard. I can tell you how it hit me and I can tell you a bit about how hard it was, but it is still not as hard for me as it was for some of my team, because as scared as I was, and I was scared, scared for my business, scared for my people, scared for my health, scared for the health of my family and those that I care about.

I never once thought. I'm going to end up homeless. I never once thought if I need medical care, I won't get it. I never once thought if I lose my job in this case, if I lose my company, that I'll be some version of homeless, penniless, or unfed or uncared for.  I have some savings, not a ton, but I have some, I have a safety net. I mentioned my mom earlier, 50 years old, I could still go live with her.  There is a generational support system that some folks have and many, many, many folks don't. So,  we went from having over 1100 employees to having, you know, less than a hundred. Everybody that we kept had their salary reduced  by 85%. And we were like, well, we're not sure if we can pay anybody, we'll pay you a little bit. Everybody has to do every job, even though we've let all of the hourly employees go. So we laid off a hundred percent of our hourly workforce. 

And it was like, yeah. Do triple the work for third, the money, go to work, put yourself in harm's way, be worried about your health, be a frontline worker, and the whole time be incredibly worried about all the people we laid off of who, by the way, we promised to give free food to, until we could get them back to work, even though we're burning cash and we're almost out of money and, you know, and, and, and so there's a lot of tough stories in there.

But the best part is we never compromised our principles. We never got selfish. You know, if there's one piece of bread and you got 10 people, you cut it 10 ways or nine. If you don't want to give yourself something today. And I saw the most selfless acts from everybody that I work with. And so you'll never get me to say, I'm glad the pandemic happened, but I'm glad I'm on the team I'm on,  if we're all going to face this and we got our people back to work and we did it transparently and we published the COVID dashboard, when people told me "you're crazy if you tell anybody that you have someone who gets COVID" I'm like I don't know where this pandemic stop, what are we going to do? Lie about it? This thing is going to be out there. So, we told the truth, we worked our asses off, we faced the fears, we admitted when we were scared, and we helped each other and we got through it. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
What beautiful example of leadership with empathy, Dan, it makes me emotional hearing you talk about the challenges that you face, but also understanding and having empathy for the people that worked for you that had even bigger challenges. And I think that is critical to leaders as they try to lead their organizations, whether it's through this pandemic or post, whatever happens, it's that sincere empathy for the people.

You also have that empathy for the community, because with COVID hitting with this impact on your own restaurant group, you also redoubled your efforts in working with the community, specifically focusing efforts and ward seven and eight in DC. 

Dan Simons:
 When we have to spin up this e-commerce business, I  didn't know if restaurants would ever be back.

And so we moved quickly to become a market and  a bakery, which we have a bakery, but a market and a bakery and grocery, we were selling everything. And obviously our supply chain stayed intact. And as we spun this business up, And we were bringing our people back to work as delivery drivers. They used to be a cook, now your delivery driver, used to be a bartender, no more bartenders, now you're a delivery driver. 

I wanted to make sure that folks in ward seven and ward eight, who oftentimes they're out of the delivery zone, right? It's not that far. And frankly, it is a choice how a business sets its delivery zone.

And let's be serious. A lot of delivery zones are set with bias, and racism, and judgment, and stereotype in mind and it's wrong. And so we said, we're going to deliver to everywhere in the city and we're going to keep our people working and we're going to get product to folks,  who can buy it and afford it.

And at the same time, we started donating food every single week to a couple of different pastors and their organizations in ward eight, who, you know, just help support and serve a constituency who now are getting less support than ever, the height of the pandemic, and can't afford the food. And so, yeah, we managed, even as we were losing all that money, cashflow negative across the board, this is my thing.

You can always donate. And, you know, at sometimes my weekly donation was 20 masks, three bottles of sanitizer, four children's books, and 15 sandwiches. And that's what we would drop off.  And if that's what you got, that's what you got because when someone else doesn't have it, literally a small bottle of sanitizer, which we were making in our distillery and a few face masks, you're saving lives.

And so we proved no matter how little you have, you have something to give.

Mahan Tavakoli:
 Dan,  we do need to be a lot more aware and a lot more giving in our attitude, in our approach as you have been with the community specifically in the wards that haven't been served as well by a lot of organizations and a lot of restaurants 

Dan Simons:
 Mahan, one of the things that I struggle with is that I get annoyed listening to passionate ideologues on one side or the other of an issue. And I feel that as I listen, people don't seem to want to tell the whole truth.

You know, so if someone's advocating for workers, they want to talk about increasing wages. And then they say like, well businesses will be fine, we can afford wages to go up. Okay. And then on the typical business entrenched business interests say, if you raise wages, you'll destroy jobs.

Well, okay. Maybe. What neither side is telling you is there's elements of truth. In both perspectives, there is a middle, wages should go up, some jobs will get destroyed, new jobs can get created, it can be a rising tide. It doesn't lift everyone, it does destroy some profits, some businesses won't get more investors, there there's this thing.

What I love about being able to talk about conscious capitalism. It is indeed still about profit, business, elevating humanity. Look, if everybody out there just started a nonprofit who's donating to the business? If everybody out there was just on the side of raise wages, well, what about the employer?

There's good woven into all of these things. A podcast format on a conversation like this is nice because you haven't cut me off it yet. You know, we're not just on the air 30 seconds or it's not, well, I've got 300 words in this article to write. These conversations take more nuance, and it's not about the headline, and if you can fit it on a sign, it's probably sort of one-sided.  I wish that people would advocate on both sides and find more middle ground. I think on everything from wages to social strife, to immigration, I don't know, you know, shouldn't, you have border security and a path to citizenship?

Shouldn't you have effective policing and safety and amazing mental health responders. Like. I don't, I don't get it. I don't know. So, so maybe this is just a therapy session for me, and I'm appreciative that you let me, then you'll let me unload all that.

Mahan Tavakoli:
 It's actually exactly to your point, Dan, a lot of nuance is lost when conversations are short and we are looking for highlights.

And one of the things I find is that there's a lot more noise in our lives, a lot less signal and a lot less interactions like this, which is one of the reasons I'm a big advocate. And I love podcasts also where you can hear Dan and see nuance to what he describes to what the business requires for it to survive and to give back to the community and what the responsibilities of the business are rather than just presenting one side or the other in 22nd sound bites. 

Now, you mentioned that you wouldn't have wished for the crisis and the pandemic, but it did hit, you have evolved as a result. So as you reflect back on it, I know you're a big advocate of learning both for yourself, for your team members for your entire organization.

When you reflect back a year or two from now, how will Dan and how will the Farmers, Restaurant Group be better as a result of the crisis that we didn't choose to go through, but we had to go through. 

Dan Simons:
We learned that we could try many more things and accept that we would be substantially imperfect.

People talk about failing fast and rapid prototyping, I really had never applied that, thinking to our industry because we're on stage every day and one bad performance and you can lose a customer for life. So I just hadn't thought that those things applied to us. I thought they were too risky. And you buy a piece of software and it's got a glitch, you don't email a company and tell them you hate them and refuse to use the software ever again. You'll wait for the next uploaded version or downloaded version and you move on. But when we screw up your birthday dinner, people take it really personally. And  one restaurant failure is pretty big,  like in one dinner one moment. 

So I've changed my thinking on that and I'm willing to be imperfect in order to learn more and test more and explore more so that I think we will keep that with us forever. I think it expanded our horizons to see ourselves as providers of food and beverage and experience, not just as a restaurant. 

So whether we're getting you food and beverage and experience at home, or at the curb, or with a virtual happy hour, or with cookbooks support via zoom, if you're struggling with one of our recipes. So, those things, the diversification of thought that the moving more rapidly, the having the courage to be imperfect on the quest to innovate.

Those are really some of the silver linings. And we also learned to do without virtual meetings, I think we'll stick with us for a lot of our stuff. There's some more flexibility with some of our folks who can work remotely, not having managers come in for manager meetings on days off, which has been a hallmark of my industry for as long as I can remember.

So there are some really valuable things for the business and the people and the way that, that weaves together that have come out of this. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
 It is, and they will help us become better and stronger, especially for organizations like yours and leaders like you that keep in mind the purpose and the impact that we all have on the broader community.

Now as I mentioned, I know you're a big advocate of learning. Dan, so we'd love to know, when you are asked for leadership advice, are there any leadership resources, books, guides that have served you well over the years, or you find yourself repeatedly recommending to others as they want to become more purpose driven leaders?

What should they view, read, do? 

Dan Simons:
I was fortunate to be able to call Tom DeCotiis a mentor and a friend. He is a remarkable thinker of organizational structure, organizational heartbeat, and culture building. So his recent book is called "Adored". Again, his name is Tom DeCotiis he he's written several books.

He's absolutely made it, put his stamp on my style or career or thinking. And then I, I recommend anything by Stephen Covey. I read the seven habits of highly effective people when I was 21 years old. And then that book was as good then as it is thirty years later.

And I think his books are great. His son also wrote seven habits for highly effective teenagers. Which I think is great for people at any age, easy to absorb. So those are some of the things that I you know, places where I really get some learning and guidance. 

Mahan Tavakoli:
Wonderful recommendations, Dan and  you mentioned that Tom DeCotiis is remarkable and has remarkable insights.

You are a remarkable leader showing leaders what it's truly like to be purpose-driven not just to talk about purpose with respect to words that are on a website or are put up on a wall for people to view, but to try to truly be purpose-driven through action in the organization and have empathy for our team members and empathy for the broader community. So we are fortunate in the greater Washington DC region to have you as a leader that sets the example through your purpose driven, focus and through your empathy. I appreciate you joining me in this conversation, Dan Simons. 

Dan Simons:
Thank you so much for having me.