Some company owners exercise their imaginations not only in the office but out of it. What's striking about their vacations is not where they went, but why.
Some company owners exercise their imaginations not only in the office but out of it. What's striking about their vacations is not where they went, but why.
The word vacate, when you think about it, has unpleasant connotations, like giving up, or leaving empty, and for many entrepreneurs, vacation strikes the same dismal chord. The ethic of entrepreneurship just doesn't seem to allow for vacations. When your business is hanging by a thread -- and when the thread, you think, is a delicate weave of your own guts, cash, and cunning -- it can be demned hard to leave the corner office empty.
That isn't the only problem.
Take Terry Van Der Tunk, for example. Seven years ago, Van Der Tuuk bought Graphic Technology Inc., a producer and printer of bar-code labels in Olathe, Kans. Before that he was vice-president of finance at Select Brands Industries Inc. and executive vice-president of Helzberg Diamond Shops Inc., in Kansas City, Mo. "In all that time," Van Der Tuuk cheerfully reports, "except for my twentieth anniversary, I have taken vacations of less than a week."
What keeps Van Der Tuuk in the office year after year isn't the tenuousness of a new enterprise: Graphic is up to $15.4 million in annual sales, and has appeared twice on INC.'s listing of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America. Nor is it the expense: "I can afford pretty near any kind of vacation anyone would want." The reason, then? "I know it's trite," says Van Der Tuuk, "but I love my work so much it doesn't seem like work."
Bourgeois Fils & Co., a 30-employee investment banking firm in Exeter, N.H., is also well past the hanging-by-a-thread phase. "It took me three or four years," says founder Bert Bourgeois, "to get it to the point where it could pay the bills, then to grow it beyond a boutique.And all that time, the pressures were just too great. I never even thought about vacations."
But now Bourgeois thinks about vacations a lot, and in some detail. He wants to go on a trip to Brazil. He learned Portuguese and Spanish at Harvard, but has never had a chance to use them. So he'd like to spend a week down there brushing up on the languages, then another week traveling around listening to music. Barring that, he'd be happy with a vacation in which he learned to drive fast cars. So what's stopping him? He isn't sure where to start, he says. Why not with a few phone calls? "Well," he confesses, proud but also a little puzzled, "I have real trouble asking people for things."
It could be that Van Der Tuuk and Bourgeois are eccentric, but it seems unlikely, given the reputation of entrepreneurs for workaholism and fierce independence. Yet neither of these qualities is what troubles most business owners contemplating the idea of a vacation. A good vacation begins in a dream, a fancy -- and who has time to dream? When dreaming is to be done, most entrepreneurs dream of matters like collecting receivables.
Most, we said, not all. There are a number of growth-minded small-business people who exercise their imaginations not only in the office but out of it, and who have found ways to pursue their own growth while pursuing their company's. Their stories are something more than a travelogue, for what's striking about their vacations is not so much where they went, but why. To this diverse group of entrepreneurs, taking a vacation seems to mean seeking or finding as much as it means leaving. And maybe that, in turn, has something in common with what it takes to build a business.
Holidays in extremis. Right now, as INC. goes to press, Dodge Morgan is rounding Cape Horn, heading toward Bermuda, on the last leg of one of the most awesome psychophysical ordeals a man can put himself through. Since last fall, he has been sailing around the world, nonstop, alone, in a 60-foot sloop. If all goes well, he will slip into Bermuda sometime before the end of April. If he does, Morgan will have circumnavigated the globe in far less than 292 days. In the record books, this is a winning time. In the living of it, Morgan will have run risks to life and sanity that most people would rather not meet up with in a lifetime.
Morgan is 54 years old, and the owner-publisher of the weekly Maine Times. Until 1984, he was chief executive officer of Controlonics Corp., a Westford, Mass., manufacturer of electronic equipment, which he started in 1972 and sold 12 years later. He is also one of those people, apparently, who gets edgy even thinking about vacations.
"Dodge hates vacations," says his wife, Manny. "For years, his family had to force him out of the office, and the only way you could do it was to put him on a boat, doing something, as he says, 'positive.' He wouldn't at all like anyone to think he's on vacation now; he is working harder than he ever worked in his life. If you asked his occupation, he'd say, 'sailor, self-employed."
It's tempting to understand Dodge Morgan's great adventure as an extension of his business career, but the reverse is probably the case. In childhood summers spent on Cape Cod, long before he dreamed of founding and managing his own business, he dreamed of taking a long voyage by himself.In his twenties, an advertising-and-marketing graduate of Boston University, he took off on a small schooner, sailing through the Panama Canal, out to Hawaii, then up to Alaska, where he sold the boat. He had gone not even halfway around the world. Controlonics, his wife believes, may have been nothing more than a means of massuring that next time he would go all the way.
"He always used to say that one day, maybe, when he had the time and money. . ." she recalls. The money had to be substantial. American Promise, as Morgan's boat is called, was specially designed by world-famous sail maker and yacht designer Ted Hood, and did not come cheap. Morgan worked years to earn the necessary money, but he seems always to have known what sort of vacation he would spend it on.
Another middle-aged entrepreneur wno has spent a large amount of money in brutal physical activity is Dick Bass of Dallas, founder of Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, in Utah. Bass, who is 56, claims to be the first man to have climbed the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents -- McKinley in North America, Aconcagua in South America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Everest in Asia, and Kosciusko in Australia. He also believes he is the oldest man to have conquered Everest. He was 55 years old when he flew out to fill a last-minute opening on the Norwegian team that made the ascent.
Bass is a freak of nature, according to his doctor: his pulse at rest, with no training, is 41, and his various expeditions have scarcely left him sore. But he doesn't climb mountains because he can; not even, in the famous phrase, because they're there. He does it because for him, it's a form of freedom -- from, among other things, business. "I am so active down here in the plains and valleys," he says, "that I'm constantly suffering from the tyranny of the urgent. But on the mountain it is like a vacation. Man can take physical discomfort better than psychological discomfort." He himself copes with fatigue and cold by repeating little poems he makes up -- mantras, he calls them, or chants -- that can put him in a reverie lasting as long as half an hour. "On the mountain," he continues, "I'm free from psychic pressure. I really love my fellowman, but some of them are hair shirts that scratch like crazy. So when I'm up on the mountain, for once in my life I'm free to go for it."
Bob Lee might understand that. What the co-founder and president of Hotwatt Inc., an $8-million electric-heating-elements manufacturer in Danvers, Mass., looks for in a vacation is a sense of common struggle -- such as that provided by Outward Bound, the nationwide organization that runs "survival" programs for people who may not be as bold (or as rich) as Morgan and Bass. He values Outward Bound not because of the physical hardship it puts its clients through, but because the ordeal leads to a momentary suspension of the self.
"Outward Bound is great for entrepreneurs," Lee explains. "I think it's because we often get tired of being in charge. People are always saying yes to you. But when you are on Outward Bound -- at least the one I went on, the Hurricane Island program in Maine -- you are under the control of the group, or else completely on your own. You lose your identity. You become one of a group. You learn to depend on one another for mutual support. And to me that's very refreshing."
Paradise regained. "It was a self-imposed guilt thing," says 46-year-old Michael Berolzheimer, a venture capitalist and former president of Duroflame Inc., in San Francisco. He was explaining why, until he was 38, he could hardly take a vacation at all. "If I left the office, I felt I wasn't providing good leadership.There's also the fear of delegating responsibility when you're the key person, or think you are."
Berolzheimer now thinks that all you need to take a vacation is "some money and a good executive secretary." But many business owners don't seem able to evade the pain of a punishing conscience. William Newman, a clinical psychologist and stress-management expert from Gloucester, Mass., believes that entrepreneurs tend to think of relaxation as a threat to their integrity. "Their whole self-esteem," he says, "depends on constant achievement, which means constantly doing something, which means that a vacation -- by definition a time of not doing something -- can be a very bad time for them."
The travel industry has always had an answer for such people: The Great Escape, a Return to Paradise. The truly guilt-ridden, of course, only laugh at the idea: there's no going back, they say, to the forest primeval or the Garden of Eden. Travel agents naturally put it differently, emphasizing the adventure of finding places that are remote and unspoiled. There are even packages assembled by therapists like Newman, which claim that the relief of stress, anxiety, and guilt is a major benefit of the idyll. "Unless I can get them away from work," says Newman, "down in the Caribbean, for example, among beautiful surroundings, they're blind to what they are choosing to do to themselves. They think it's the job, not them, that's causing all the stress."
Whatever the analysis, many hard-line work ethicists do find it restful and restorative to get as far away as they can from the trappings of civilization -- specifically, as Berolzheimer remarks, that clamorous instrument of the workaday world known as the telephone. His own favorite way of getting away from it is to travel with his wife, Janet, in Japan, moving at a leisurely, premodern pace from one country inn to another. He learned about Japanese inns from friends, he explains, and what he loves about them is their artful contrivance of "serenity and quiet."
Like Berolzheimer, Gerard O'Connell has completely recovered from whatever guilt he may have once felt about vacating his business for a holiday. The CEO of Structured Computer Systems Inc., in Farmington, Conn., now spends four or five weeks a year, and considerable amounts of money, in a race to get to the earth's last untouched beauty spots before they're "ruined" by people very much like himself. "The Yukon is already a sort of far-out exurbia," he says. "Only a few more years and all the world will be like that." Last year, O'Connell and his wife, Ann, spent three weeks in the bush of New Zealand.
"I loved it," he recalls. "We were attacked by parrots. Keas, they're called, birds about the size of a small hawk; cheeky things. They went after my shoes in the dark. I thought they were rats at first, but they were just keas, trying to remove my shoelaces. Nothing seems to frighten them. They'll eat the spaghetti off your plate, take the stitching out of your knapsack, steal your hat." For O'Connell, Eden was simple enough: a place where even the animals are unafraid.
Resorts of the mind. What's refreshing about a vacation, it is often said, is the change of scene -- as though consciousness were a stage, and mood a matter of switching sets. The trouble is, changing the scenery alone rarely has a major effect on the play itself, which runs along pretty much as the characters are written.
Some people, however, manage to take vacations where the change is so radical, or the endeavor so special, that the experience forces doors in the vacationers' minds that they never knew were there. Psychologists at Boston College, for example, are curious about whether Dodge Morgan will return from his solo voyage around the world in the same psychological shape he was in when he left. The solitary long-distance sailor solaces his loneliness and sleeplessness with hallucinations, imaginary shipmates who speak to him, sometimes rationally, sometimes not. The psychologists want to find out about these conversations and other matters, and Morgan has agreed to record them for science.
There are, to be sure, less harrowing ways of exploring the mind's potential. One of the most common is through art or literature. Peter Karoff, president of The March Co., a real estate investment firm in Boston, has been "fussing with poetry," as he puts it, since he was in college 27 years ago. Until last summer, though, he had written for his own pleasure, wondering only idly whether his work seemed any good to anyone else. Then he went for two weeks to the Bennington (College) Writing Workshop.
"You know the old joke," Karoff explains, "you go to a writers' workshop for sex, drinking, and meetings with publishers, not necessarily in that order. Well, Bennington isn't like that. Bennington is for writing. You spend two or three hours a day going over one another's stuff in workshops, and there are evening readings by people like John Updike, Peter Davison, and Maxine Kumin. But the rest of the time you're on your own, in your dormitory, writing."
Karoff remembers the workshop as one of the best vacations he has ever had. "It wasn't particularly relaxing, not in the usual sense," he says. "Not like lying on the beach or sailing. But I loved it. There's a real intellectual immersion of a kind you rarely get as an adult. I also learned I could be published if I wished, that what I'd been writing was good enough. And that was really nice to learn."
The mind leads in all sorts of directions, more than appear on most maps, and Lee Pulos has been exploring a number of them on vacations he has been taking since 1973. In that year The Old Spaghetti Factory, a chain of restaurants Pulos founded with his two brothers, was to open a new outlet in Australia. Pulos, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, decided to stop over in the Philippines on his way and investigate some reports he had read about psychic surgery -- opening the body, in some psychological or metaphysical sense, without breaking the skin.
He came, of course, to debunk it. "It had to be impossible at best," he recalls thinking, "unscientific at worst." He stayed to believe.
"Once I'd witnessed what I saw, my world shattered," says Pulos. "There's an apparent brehanded opening of the body, but really, at some much more fundamental level, there's a movement from one dimension to another."
That was the beginning of Pulos's odyssey in search of "paranormal," "paraconceptual," "traditional" -- the vocabulary for these phenonomena hasn't settled down yet -- healing practices all over the globe. He has seen, he says, some 8,000 psychic interventions like the one in the Philippines. He cites one physical operation in Brazil "where the opening was performed with dull scissors, with no antisepsis. All during the procedure the patient was talking and laughing with the healer, who closed the wound with no sutures."
Pulos and his brothers sold The Old Spaghetti Factory chain to Keg Restaurants in Canada in 1980, for more than $8 million. Since then, he has been with Omega Seminars, a 28-year-old training organization, with major corporate clients like General Motors Corp. and McDonald's Corp., which specializes in three- and four-day seminars based on "self-image psychology." Pulos, who is 58, has also found time in his career to teach (at the University of British Columbia), to write (a new book, Miracles and Other Realities, will appear midyear), and to serve on Team Canada during the Olympics as a sports psychologist. His vacations, however, are devoted to the avocation he discovered in 1973, being what he calls "a cultural broker between traditional healing and Western medicine." This month he is in West Africa, investigating shamanic healing.
Families. "The best vacation I ever took," says business-owner John Doaks (anonymous at his request because he's not sure he should be boasting about this), "came as a present from my wife. She spacked up the kids, and herself, and went down to Florida to stay with her folks. For two weeks, she left me all alone in my own house. God, it was wonderful." John is ambivalent about his wonderful holiday because, like many Type-A people, he believes he ought to be spending more time with his family, not less. This idea is relatively new: male entrepreneurs of a century ago might have wanted to spend more time with their families, but they no more felt they ought to than would a professional soldier in wartime. Today, under the pressure of rising divorce rates and two-career couples, there's a real urgency to the moral claims of home and family. Out of this urgency has come some imaginative thinking about vacations.
Lew Shattuck is the divorced father of two boys, Jimmy, 14, and Tommy, 13, who spend most of their time with their mother in Winchester, Mass. Shattuck is president of the Smaller Business Association of New England, and is frequently obliged to travel. On two counts, therefore, Lew Shattuck could find himself very far from his children -- unless, that is, he decided not to be.
One simple thing he does is watch for ways he can include the children in his travel plans. Two years ago, for example, he saw a way to bridge the time between a business conference in Chicago and a convention in San Francisco with an Amtrak train ride to Glacier National Park. As a boy he had taken a similar trip through the Great Northwest, and he wanted his sons to experience one, too.
Shattuck points out that divorced fathers of young children often look forward to their "time with the kids" with something less than enthusiasm. The kids may mirror the sentiment: "This is the weekend we've got to spend with Daddy." It helps, then, if there's something that both parties like to do, and can do, together.
In the Shattucks' case, it is fishing. "Lake fishing is best," Lew Shattuck says. "You're in the same boat, literally, and you've got a common goal. I was brought up in northern Vermont, but there we fished in streams, alone. On ponds and lakes, I've discovered, there's a lot more interplay, with the net and so on, so you are really working together."
"Working together," notice, not vacationing together. A more surprising way of working together was discovered by Gordon Segal, founder and CEO of the 19-store Crate & Barrel retail chain. Segal and his wife, Carole, had heard of a foreign-language program at Dartmouth College directed by a famous teacher named John Rassias. The program calls for total immersion not only in the language but also in the culture, especially the drama, of the country whose language is being taught. The Segals, along with two other Young Presidents Organization couples in the Chicago area, arranged for the YPO to book an eight-day session at Dartmouth in the summer of 1985. In August, filled with some apprehension and accompanied by their two younger children, they went to the Hanover, N.H., campus.
"Most interesting vacation I've ever had," says Segal, laughing. "There were about 19 families, with maybe 50 children. We called it the Club Med for Masochists. After it was over, we went down to Boston to spend the night. I slept for 14 hours straight, I was that exhausted." He also felt it had brought them closer together as a family. "It was strenuous as hell, and takes a lot of courage, too. The children are much better than you. But you really get into your family. You're all struggling with the same task."
Dick Bass, as might be expected from a mantra-chanting mountaineer, came up with a somewhat less sedentary idea for a vacation with his children.Five years ago, inspired by his boyhood reading of Richard Halliburton's The Glorious Adventure, he and his four grown children took off on what he describes as "an adventure vacation odyssey."
It was a bad time for Bass. He had just been divorced, and the bank was making threatening noises about the Snowbird resort. "The trip was designed to get my family together," he says, "but it did even more than that."
They set off, the five of them, to do themselves, as a family, all the great feats the ancients had done, as Halliburton described them, among them swimming the Hellespont and running the same route as Pheidippides along the plains of Marathon.
The trip was a breakthrough experience for Bass personally. "It rebuilt my self-respect and self-confidence," he recalls, "and allowed me to come back and get on the treadmill" of business. But what he holds most dear among the memories of that vacation is swimming the Hellespont.
The Hellespont, or Dardanelles, is a strait of water about three miles across in what is now Turkey. Lord Byron had swum across it in 1818. But none of the Bass family had ever swum more than a mile. "I suddenly found myself locked into the biggest fear of all: I was worried that they'd make it and I wouldn't.
"Then one of my sons said, 'Come on, old man, let's go!' and we leaped into the water. It was so cold it took your breath. After 50 yards, we slowed down. It was early morning, the sun was shining on our backs, shining right down to the bottom. I looked to my right. There was a set of arms and legs, kicking away, with a jillion air bubbles coming from them. I looked to my left. It was the same. What a glorious sight it was. I started crying with joy right there in the water as we were swimming. We made it, all of us, more than two and a half miles, in less than an hour.
"My prayers were answered."