Run Your Company -- and Have a Life
Most company presidents don't fill out time cards. Then again, Pete and Laura Wakeman are no ordinary business executives.
In the November 2000 issue of Inc. magazine, Executive Editor Michael Hopkins introduces us to the Wakemans and their company, Great Harvest Bread Co., in an article titled "Zen and the Art of the Self-Managing Company." The Wakemans are cofounders and copresidents of Great Harvest Bread, a franchisor of retail bread bakeries that they launched in 1976.
"After 24 years we're still fresh -- we still love our business," notes Laura Wakeman in the Inc. story. "How many company owners can say that?"
How many, indeed? To find out more about the way the Wakemans manage the pressures of an entrepreneurial business -- one with 137 franchised stores -- while avoiding burnout, Hopkins followed up with Pete Wakeman in an e-mail conversation. Read on to learn some of the Wakemans' innovative techniques for living a balanced life -- from taking time off to keeping time cards.
Inc.:At the very beginning, when you started your bakery in the 1970s, did youhave a clear idea about how you would balance your work with whatever elsewas in your life? How many hours did you work each week? Howmuch time did you take away from the business at a stretch?
Pete Wakeman: I like this question because it goes right to something important -- which is the simple fact that we've been like this all our lives. It's not uncommon for people to want to believe they're trapped, and often those people will do the "must be nice" thing with us -- "Must be nice to have a company, so you can take the whole summer off" or "Must be nice to have enough money to go to Bolivia." The assumption is that the way we live is a rich-people thing, an arrived-people thing, something few can afford (and by afford, I mean in time, as much as in money).
We wish we could show people our younger selves, the Pete and Laura who had no money and were building things from scratch. We were surprisingly the same as the way we are now.
Before the bakery, I graduated from college a year before Laura and worked on a dairy farm. We were both working too hard, she on her schooling, I milking cows. I talked my boss into one three-day weekend a month away, to go rock climbing with friends. We really looked forward to that weekend; we needed it badly.
When the long weekend finally arrived, off we went to the Schwanagunks for some camping and rock climbing. Well, it rained like crazy, all weekend long. Our friend -- who basically lived at the climbing area and climbed every day of the week -- was in a great mood. He was happy to just drink beer while it rained and let his climbing calluses soften a bit.
Something snapped in Laura and me that weekend, something deep -- the very word "Schwanagunks" still has this Waterloo meaning for us, even today. That Sunday night, driving home in the rain, we vowed that no weekend would ever be that precious to us, ever again. We vowed to live more like our friend the climbing bum, rich in time.
In the early days of the business, I remember we had simple rules, but we followed them like religion. One was the two-day weekend. We never violated that, no matter what. It was a line we were afraid to cross, as if lightning would strike us down if we did.
We worked about 50 hours per week, for the two of us. We didn't talk about work at home; that was a rule. That's especially important. When we left the bakery, we were gone until we came back.
In fact, for our first seven years in business, we lived 12 miles out of town, then another five miles further on gravel after that. We had no phone. No phone and a gravel road for seven years are wonderful things for teaching basic work/home separation habits.
Those things are what we have always called "handrails" -- physical things that make it almost impossible not to live the way we want. But the biggest handrail of all was what we used to call our "three-week trips."
Sometimes the trips were longer than three weeks, but they were never less. We never skipped them. In the early years they were mostly wilderness trips; later we often went to Latin America.
We worked so we could take trips. We loved our work, but we worked so we could take trips. Later, as the business got more intense, it was easy to get confused and begin to think the trips were to refresh us so that we could work better. We fought that thought like the poison that it is. The trips were and are their own justification....
It was the inviolate nature of these weekends and trips that forced us to hire right, and train right, and invent systems for our people, as the business grew. The business grew up around this belief system, adjusted to it. That was fabulous for the business. Imagine a little bakery, or a just-beginning two-employee franchise company, whose people knew they had to do Sundays alone, Mondays alone, August alone -- and that there was no way to call if they got in trouble.
Laura and I work on ourselves, read success stuff, write in our journals, build habits, break habits -- if that's what it takes to have a great life, we're into it. But we really believe that it's the physical solutions that work, not the mental.
The physical act of leaving has tremendous power. That sounds so obvious. It even sounds easy. And in fact, it is easy, once you get the hang of it.
Inc: I know your work habits have evolved since the start-up. Do you have aroutine now, in terms of both weekly hours and time away? What is it?
Wakeman:We like strong lines between things. We carry time cards, and we punch in and punch out, to the nearest five minutes. We know when we're working. We get paid by Great Harvest by the hour.
I keep an Excel spreadsheet; we make a conscious decision about how many hours we will work, each year. We work less now than we used to. In 1993, we worked 2,986 hours. That's for the two of us, so if you figure that about 2,080 hours is full-time (52 40-hr weeks), we were each working about three-quarters time. In 1996, we made a conscious decision to go to 1,000 hours each -- basically half-time. The last four years have been controlled, by time card, at exactly that.
Aside from the 1,000-hr rule, we vary our schedule any way we want. Last winter I worked an 18-hour day followed by a 24-hour day, against a deadline, straight through the night. I love the intensity of being on a roll, when it happens. Other days we'll drive in for a single meeting and clock less than two hours.
To some extent, this 1,000-hour rule has replaced the rigidness we used to have about weekends and vacations. Right now, for example, I'm billing. It's Sunday, I'm on a lawn chair by the Jefferson River in strong Montana sun, camped really nowhere, 50 miles outside Dillon.
I live the life they like to show in the computer ads. Difference is, I have my 1,000-hour spreadsheet and when my year is done, it's done. I know when I'm working and when I'm not. Writing by a river is nicer than writing inside, but it's still more like writing, less like river.
You can see, by fast-forwarding from then to now, that what works for us with a 100-plus bakery franchise is what worked for us with a single retail store: simple, physical, handrails. Handrails we set, then follow without further questioning.
All the good systems, all the good habits, derive from this simple act of partitioning. In the old days, working on a Sunday would have been taboo. But the partition between work and play is just as simple and clear today as it was back then.
Related resource at inc.com:
Guide to Overcoming Burnout
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