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The Long-Term Perils of Being a Control Freak

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From The Wall Street Journal Online

Perfectionist. Can't delegate. Compulsive. Control freak.

It's an entrepreneurial condition that goes by many names. And for many owners of smaller companies, it's the affliction that both keeps them from effectively expanding their business and from enjoying its current success.

At Crescent Moon Bakery in St. Albans, Vt., Russ Lewis, who owns the place with his wife, Linda, personally bakes each of the between 2,000 and 3,500 loaves of bread produced each day. "No one bakes but Russ," Ms. Lewis says. "Russ is very talented. But unfortunately, I don't think he loves it anymore. It's almost out of control."

Even as the five-year-old bakery hit a profitable $350,000 in sales last year, and Mr. and Ms. Lewis, 31 and 40 respectively, enjoyed the highest income of their lives, mutual exhaustion has led to occasional despair. "Sometimes it's hard for me to deal with Russ's moods," Ms. Lewis says. Adds her husband: "I have a short fuse."

Restricted Duties

They employ three other people -- more in summer months when Vermont swells with tourists -- but limit the workers' duties to things other than baking. So, six days a week Mr. Lewis wakes at 12:30 a.m., is in the bakery by 1 a.m., first doing croissants and then loaves of artisan bread, heading home around 2 p.m.

When they're especially busy, "I'll just start two or three hours earlier," Mr. Lewis says. "I haven't seen prime-time television in five years. It's not natural. Your body never gets used to it."

Ms. Lewis starts a little later and finishes a little later, handling deliveries and paperwork.

"Russ always says, 'I'm so tired of being so tired." Indeed, they're too tired to change the habits that make them so tired.

A Familiar Story

It all sounds familiar in a ghastly way to Rich Melman, founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., based in Chicago, which operates about 50 restaurants, mostly one-of-a-kind eateries dreamed up by the details-obsessed Mr. Melman.

Having plotted for years to break free and start your own business, when you succeed, "it's hard to give up control," Mr. Melman says. "You've waited for it for so long. I worked myself silly." Nearly 30 years ago, itching to expand but also wanting to pull all the levers himself, Mr. Melman says he "hired weak people who would never challenge my control." That hurt the business until a partner called him on it, telling him, "You don't really want to give up control. That's why you're picking inferior people."

Giving In to Talent

"A lot of therapy" and a burning desire to expand, Mr. Melman says, convinced him that he should hire smart people -- especially ones with talents he lacks -- be explicit with them about his expectations and then trust them to do the work.

Now, Mr. Melman tells managers working for him who exhibit control-freak tendencies: "If you want to have the ultimate control, do a one-man hot-dog stand."

For Mr. and Ms. Lewis, the bakery, with mostly commercial work supplying restaurants and cafes, is at a crossroads. "The business should be taken to a different level," Ms. Lewis says. "But I'm not sure we can. It's very hard for Russell to give up some of his duties or control." Adds Mr. Lewis: "I enjoy baking but I like to handle everything myself."

Clearly they need a second baker, either trained by Mr. Lewis or one already making artisan bread elsewhere. And Mr. Lewis would need to learn to step away from the vintage-1949 oven some days and become better rested.

By delegating responsibilities, the Lewises would have time to consider the needs of the business as a whole. For one thing, they could explore moving the bakery to Burlington, where most of their customers are located, cutting out the three hours a day they spend getting there and back for deliveries. Rent would probably double to $1,500 a month, but Mr. Lewis believes that's manageable.

More Revenue, More Help

And they might consider raising prices. Mr. Lewis says he recently raised wholesale prices as much as 25 cents a loaf, and didn't hear any complaints. He believes he's still 10 cents a loaf lower than a competing Burlington bakery. Higher prices could produce more revenue and additional qualified help could be hired.

"It's the best bread we've ever eaten anywhere on the planet," says Barbara Cook, owner of Scrumptious, a Burlington café. She adds of Mr. Lewis: "He has got some relationship with dough."

And Mr. Lewis, charming in a gruff-baker sort of way, Ms. Cook reports, should probably spend more time talking to customers.

Lately, he has, doing some of the deliveries to Burlington. "It's a treat," he says. "I hate being stuck in the bakery."

But the best thing is when someone compliments him on his bread. Ms. Cook has on such occasions seen a smile spread across his face, she says, "like it's the first loaf of bread he ever baked."

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Last updated: Apr 9, 2003




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