How three founders changed their management style and made running their companies fun again
EVERETT JEWELL DIDN'T KNOW IT at the time, but he was a victim.
"I'm tired," Jewell told his attorney at 3:30 on a spring afternoon in 1983. "I'm going home." Stretched out in his recliner chair, the president of Jewell Building Systems Inc. fell asleep in seconds, woke after midnight, and staggered into bed. He opened his eyes at 10:00 the next morning. Then he fell back to sleep until dinnertime. He remained sluggish and unable to concentrate, week after week, for another three months.
There is no clinical name for it, no exotic virus to dignify the condition. Jewell was simply burned out. It was only after he suffered those months that he began to understand that the underlying cause of his ailment was his management style.
Mostly overlooked in recent years, what with everybody so busy celebrating the entrepreneur, is the toll that running a fast-growing business often exacts on a person. Few escape the experience of company building with none of the many possible scars: the loss of a meaningful personal life, the breakup of a marriage, inattention to one's children, and such nagging chronic problems as irritability and fatigue.
More than half of the 1,139 small-business owners surveyed recently by Geneva Corp., a California-based mergers-and-acquisitions company, pointed toward burnout or boredom when asked why they were thinking of selling the business. "They said it in different ways, but that's what it boiled down to," says David Hoods, president of Geneva Marketing Services Inc.
Of course, burnout isn't unique to company founders, but the paradox of their condition may well be. Tired of "working for somebody else," many founders long to control their own lives. Ironically, some become more of a slave to their own companies than they ever were to any previous bosses. Many entrepreneurs "wind up like spiders caught in their own web," says Ian C. MacMillan, director of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
The web that holds them isn't the company; more often it's their own style of management. Starting a company involves extraordinary pressure and long hours, but many founders fail to share the pressure and hours with others as the company grows. They fail to delegate any of their authority; they feel guilty about spending any time away from their companies. Doing everything, and doing it year after year, exacts a terrible toll.
Those who recover from burnout often say that it was a particular event that enabled them finally to see their predicament with stunning clarity. It was an event that stopped them dead in their tracks, acutely alive. And acutely suffering.
Eight years ago, Bob Weiss stuck a telephone and a typewriter in his extra bedroom and declared that he now owned a public-relations firm. He was 24 years old, and except for reading countless press releases as a Denver newspaper reporter, he knew little about the business. His wife, Sonia Alyn Weiss, was a hospital's director of public relations, and he drew upon her to the point of borrowing her middle name. Alyn-Weiss & Associates Inc., he called it, figuring it would help to be listed first in the Yellow Pages.
He figured wrong on that score, but otherwise did fine. Denver was booming just fore and aft of the decade change, and the penny-stock market was jingling with companies in need of energetic, creative types like Weiss to get their names out. Hustling to learn his trade, before long he had five full-time and two part-time employees helping him serve 14 clients, including several as far away as Salt Lake City.
Weiss had no personal friends, only clients, potential clients, and leads to potential clients. "It was a relentless, manic pursuit," he says. He entertained at the exclusive Lakewood Country Club, showing off his low handicap; membership was courtesy of Alyn-Weiss & Associates. His dues at the Denver Athletic Club were also a business expense. Likewise his BMW, which he wrecked three times in even fewer years. Weiss was driving a fast car, wearing expensive suits and silk ties, and, he readily admits, "my behavior was schizo. Everywhere I went, I was dressed for business. I thought I was on stage, as if I might be stopped on a street corner at 1:00 a.m and be asked to be a spokesman for my client. I was on an ego trip of sorts . . . and I just carried the gig too far."
There were a few early warning signs, but Weiss shot past them. "I used to get sick. About every three months I would go down for about three days, always with the flu. I think I was simply run down from working too hard," he says. Even when he was healthy, he had time for nothing but business. "I didn't even own a new sweater. I had no casual clothes." Nor a life outside work. His marriage fell apart in 1982.
Weiss never flirted with self-destruction the way other fast-track company founders did. Often, young fellows like himself were "eaten alive by cocaine. It can take a company at the top of its market and send it down in flames in six months." He was more fortunate. When he was out with a client one night, Weiss nearly flipped his BMW swerving for an interstate on-ramp. He was more than a little drunk. Stopped by the police, he broke down in tears at the side of the road. As a newspaper reporter, he'd seen plenty of auto wrecks and written stories about innocent victims of drunk drivers. Weiss realized how dangerous his behavior had become. The police sergeant, as it turned out, remembered him from his newspaper days, and instead of booking him called him a cab.
Weiss also got a helping hand from the woman who would become his second wife. At her house one evening, a deck of cards spread out before him, he sat playing Fish with her daughter. And suddenly it struck him: "A dog, cat, the television was on. We were eating popcorn, and I was having a good time."
Having a good time? Now when was the last time that had happened? When Weiss attended the University of Illinois, he used to hop onto his motorcycle and ride around in the farm country near school. Now his own boss and ostensibly in control of his own time, he sadly realized he hadn't felt the wind in his hair in years. "I'd lost my sense of smell, my sense of compassion," he says. "I was drowning in a barrel of money."
He briefly considered a return to newspapering (and $25,000 wages). No, he'd best keep the business but change his manic style of work. He realized that he was the business. Others were returning phone calls and writing press releases, but he had his fingers on everything of importance, and that was how he wanted it, at least then, still only 27 years old. So simply delegating a huge chunk of his workload was not the answer.
After ruling out delegating, only one real solution remained: move his company off the fast-growth track. Scale back his business. He called in his accountant and presented him with all his clients -- minus their names. "Are any of these completely worthless?" Weiss asked. Three bit the dust. A couple more, behind on their payments, he jettisoned as well. Rather quickly, he had 5 clients instead of 14. Less quickly, his staff shrank from seven to three. Uneasy with firings, Weiss let attrition do the job for him.
"It was scary at first, shrinking the size of the business. And it was risky. I was much more vulnerable," he says. Or he thought he was more vulnerable. The next 12 months painted a surprising picture: his company was stronger than ever. Net income rose 25%. "I was working less and making more," he says.
Only then did Weiss understand the extent of his earlier management failings. He had clung to a lot of accounts that consumed most of his working day but didn't make him any money. And he had been so disorganized that much of his time had gone unbilled.
Now he started steering clear of companies he calls "flares," those start-ups that burn brightly for a time and then disappear -- taking with them his up-front investment in time. Weiss sought stability over glamour, and he started attending to details. He installed a computerized bookkeeping system, and soon saw that clients presumably billed at $75 an hour were, because of untabulated efforts, actually getting his services for more like $35 an hour. For the first time, he chased after past-due accounts. A client 60 days late gets a letter from his lawyer. "I went from spending nothing on lawyers the first few years, to $4,000 or $5,000 a year," he says, openly defending his new hard-line stance. "Clients chase me to get their brochures and advertising done. I chase them to get them to pay. It seems only equitable.
"Let's face it, a business that's half the size and twice as well run is the same business -- probably better," he says. Weiss's company is running better for him personally, thanks to a few more changes. He moved his office from Denver proper to a suburb and now commutes 8 easy minutes, instead of 35 minutes bumper-to-bumper on Interstate 70. These days, nobody's got his home phone number. And, for the past three years, he's taken off nearly every Wednesday afternoon to be with his wife. "My largest client could go bankrupt at noon on a Wednesday; I might return the call," he says.
"Balance, the word is balance. I'm much prouder of myself now, and happier. My life makes more sense now."
The corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan is one of the busiest, noisiest intersections in the city. Across the street stands Madison Square Garden. All around lies the hectic garment district. The sidewalks overflow with pedestrians. Sirens wail. Delivery trucks grind their gears. Taxis honk -- on and on.
One floor off the street, in a corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows, sits Norman Brodsky, chairman and president of CitiPostal Corp. About the only way of getting any closer to the heartbeat of New York City would be to get behind the wheel of one of his company's trucks, which zip around the city collecting and consolidating packages for next-day delivery via the likes of Federal Express. Clearly, the sounds of the street are Brodsky's entrepreneurial metronome. "I've got a view on the world," he says. "I love this corner."
Until recently, he was that corner. The rigors of his business, which he started in 1979, routinely had him leaving his Long Island home around 7:00 a.m. "By the time you look up, it's 6:30 already. I'd make it home by 8:00, 8:30, and the kids would be in bed," he recalls. And that was before things got really busy. When they did, Brodsky often didn't make it home until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. And even then, he was on a beeper -- always connected to the office. Vacations? When he got away at all, it was generally to Miami, where the company has an office -- and where he invariably popped in and out.
On Brodsky's desk is a hint that things have changed. Amidst the clutter sits a travel guide. An office away, the evidence is incontrovertible. There, hanging on the wall near the desk of head administrator Louis Weiner, on the calendar inked with all executive vacations, you can see dark arrows slicing through entire work-weeks, from January through December. Above these arrows appear the initials NAB and one enviable destination after another: Israel, Paris, San Francisco, England, the Bahamas. Brodsky has made it his policy to take off with his wife for at least a week, and sometimes even two weeks, every time a new month appears on the calendar. Often the children come along, too. When Brodsky announced the plan in September 1985, Weiner was not alone in smugly predicting that it wouldn't last. But, to date, Brodsky has canceled only one of the trips.
As with other CEOs who awaken to the dark side of excellence, several factors precipitated this dramatic change in Brodsky's lifestyle. He was, he admits, "getting pressure from home." The missed dinners and children's bedtimes were weighing on him, too. And the birth of his second daughter also affected him -- made him "realize I'd missed a lot of my first daughter's childhood." About this time, Brodsky had his gall bladder removed, and prior to the operation, his thoughts, inevitably, turned to his own mortality and a reassessment of his values.
And there was also a fateful trip to a century-old inn on the coast of Maine. His wife twisted his arm, and Brodsky agreed that they would check into a quiet inn for a few days on the way back from visiting their daughter at camp.
Brodsky cursed himself for that moment of weakness. No sooner had he stepped into their room when he fairly shouted: "Where's the telephone? Where's the TV set?" This was a torture chamber. No way to call the office. No way to keep up with the news. Brodsky, a news junkie, a reader of five newspapers a day, was physically shaking at the prospect of relaxing in a comfortable room in a peaceful inn on a tranquil coast. "We've got to check out of here. We can't possibly stay here," he told his wife. Standing firm, she told him to make the best of it. Looking back now, he believes that weekend was when he finally realized "there were other ways of life."
Relaxing still doesn't come naturally for him, though. The first day of every vacation, usually beginning on the airplane, Brodsky experiences terrible headaches. Stripped from his corner office, his body often rebels -- and then submits. He slips into what his wife calls his "vacation personality." In small but telling ways, this alter ego has changed his business.
Along with his personal vacation policy, Brodsky has added a rule that applies to everybody at the company: the "everything's fine" rule. To keep people from calling the office while they are on vacation, the same message always goes out. "The rule applies to me, too," Brodsky says. "I call up, there could be massive disasters here, we could have lost our 20 biggest accounts, and 'Everything's fine.' Really, when you're away, there's not too much you can do, and you only get aggravated. I used to call five times a day. I don't call much anymore -- and neither does anybody else. It's contagious."
Brodsky admits that he couldn't simply pack his bags and watch his passport stamps pile up. He had to have a good management team in place. Then, he says, "I had to revamp my position in the company, take a step back from the day-to-day routine. I'm doing a different job now. I don't even sit in on half the meetings anymore. I do more long-range planning, things I formerly didn't have time to do when I never took my eyes up. Some of the investors who come here say, jeez, you work only three weeks a month. I tell them that I can run the business more effectively by doing this."
Sure, he misses his old ways. He used to pride himself on knowing everybody's name and "what they had for lunch yesterday." But he knows, too, that delegating more responsibility to his lieutenants is not only better for them, and better for the business, but also better for Norman Brodsky.
"You've got to have the guts to let go. That's the hardest thing you've got to learn," he says. "To put it in simple terms, I work up one morning and said, 'What am I doing with my life?' I'm 42 years old. I like what I'm doing, but I'm living in a glass shell. There's me, and that's it. I've got a great wife and a terrific family, and there're other things I want to do with my life."
Brodsky's key test of his new workstyle came earlier this year. He failed miserably. Like a recovering alcoholic who instinctively reaches for the bottle in a moment of crisis, Brodsky admits he retreated to his old ways last January after one key employee was terminated following a serious dispute. Brodsky canceled that month's trip to England and grabbed for the reins. "Maybe I should be doing more things myself," he thought, quickly drifting back into more of the day-to-day management. To everyone's dismay, he reached into the dispatching operations and started supervising again. He even did some hiring. No doubt wisely, his wife and his staff let him be for a couple of weeks, then they intervened. His wife told him, listen, you've changed a lot. There's no reason to fall back just because of one incident. His staff reassured him: trust us. We're good.
Brodsky loosened his grip, let go a second time. He promises no more canceled vacations. "But don't be deceived," he insists, the grit of the street in his voice. "Last year we did $23 million in business. This year we should do about $80 million. My goal is to build a $250-million company in four years -- and I'm going to do it."
He is working now at two jobs. Job One is running the company. That's the easier one, now that he's pulled back from day-to-day management control. Job Two is more difficult because it has required changing his value system in some major ways. Admits Brodsky: "I've got to work harder at not working hard."
And what happened to Everett Jewell, whose burnout made him unproductive for three months?
In Jewell's line of work -- manufacturing pre-engineered light-gauge steel buildings and houses -- one way to certify the structural integrity of a newly designed steel joist is to pile on concrete blocks until the steel crumples. Short on manpower, same as he's been short of capital for most of the 10-year existence of his company, Jewell often did the lifting himself, oblivious to the irony that he, too, was being stresstested. It's not hard to trace the roots of his inevitable collapse all the way back to childhood.
"Proud poor" is his term for his New Hampshire upbringing -- the oldest of five children raised in a two-room house with a sleeping attic. Shovel in hand, Jewell helped move a hillside to level the land for the house. He was 5 years old at the time. At age 9 he was washing dishes at a restaurant for 25? an hour. By the time he was 16, he was managing a local Chevron service station, pulling in $125 a week.
He bounced from job to job, never landing in what you'd call glamour industries. Even while in the Navy, he sold encyclopedias, and later on, Fuller Brush Co. products. He proved so adept at selling educational filmstrips ("You and Your Community Bank") that he was made vice-president of special projects. His territory: everything east of the Rockies. Generally three Sundays a month he would start by driving all night, pull into a territory the next morning, shave and shower in an unmade-up hotel room, work all day Monday, drive all night to the next stop, work all day Tuesday, and not see bed until Tuesday night. Thus did South Dakota blur into West Virginia. "Twelve hours at 75 miles an hour, you can drive more than 850 miles," Jewell says. "I did it many a night."
By the early 1970s he was rising fast in the mobile-home industry, first selling, then troubleshooting as president of ASM Industries, and moving on to vice-president of the southeastern region for the Homes Group of Bendix Corp. He was still stuck in overdrive. His role model? The protagonist in the Harold Robbins novel The Betsy. "Those were my goals at the time -- jet airplanes at my fingertips, Cadillacs, power. I told myself that one of these days I'm going to walk down the street and people will say, 'There goes Mr. Jewell." Trouble is, Jewell never slowed down to a walk. His neglected marriage failed, and he fell into debt. He took to selling insurance, burglar alarms, even cemetery plots.
Finally, Jewell found an opportunity to start his own company. In January 1977, at age 33, in North Carolina (the 34th state he's called home), he founded Jewell Building Systems. He had $30 to his name and Atlantic Building Systems helping him out. He set up shop as a private-label distributor of pre-engineered steel buildings -- steel-framed and clad structures that went up like erector sets. Atlantic provided him with the structures and assisted with advertising and other matters; it even designed his logo for him. Jewell sold his first building over the telephone from the utility room of his house. In his first year, his company was modestly profitable, selling $1 million worth of small agricultural buildings -- everything from backyard storage structures to small tractor sheds. His second year, talked into expanding into commercial buildings such as warehouses, even night-clubs and bingo halls, he skidded $180,000 in debt.
Jewell never understood what it meant to be a manager. It didn't matter whether he was working for someone else, as in days past, or building his own company. In Jewell's mind, there was no difference: he was still a foot soldier, doing everything, even the smallest task. "I was always up at 5, at the plant at 6, 6:30. The first one there. The last to leave. My theme was: I'll never ask a man to do what I won't do. And not only will I do it better than he will, I'll outwork him."
And it seemed there always was a strong reason to do it all himself. He experienced the problems of any company founder: his bank reneging on a promised loan or a key employee leaving to start a competing company. He was in too deep to stop, had no prospect of selling the company, and refused to give in to bankruptcy.
What was he to do? More of what worked so well in the past: relying on himself. Who could do the work as well as he? He rushed out and sold a few more buildings. He even helped build them himself. So it was that he found himself one night, the temperature dipping below freezing, desperately trying to save a just-poured concrete slab. At that moment, the loss of the $5,000 slab would have sunk Jewell Building Systems; the slab would have been its tombstone. But with bales of straw, a plastic cover, and a heater, he managed to hang onto half of it -- and his company.
"I tried to build the business on sheer force, and it worked," says Jewell, who finally saw his fortunes turning in the spring of 1983. Three months in a row he chalked up profits of $100,000 on sales of $350,000 to $400,000. He was on his way to his best fiscal year to date, racking up sales that would top $5.5 million. And that, paradoxically, is when he burned out.
He was renegotiating purchase contracts and, for the first time, his suppliers didn't ask for his personal guarantee. Don't worry about it, said one after another. "Finally it dawned on me," says Jewell. "I didn't have to give my personal guarantee any more to buy $15,000 worth of screws." He'd made it. He danced around the office as if he'd won the lottery. And then he told his secretary he felt tired. He was heading home.
It was months later, after two doctors had told him they could find nothing wrong with him, after he'd finally regained his energy, that a third doctor startled him with a ready explanation: it's simple, the doctor told him. You went through adrenaline withdrawal. You were living on adrenaline. You had it going full blast all the time, and when the pressure eased, your body finally quit producing it. You had a three-month withdrawal as surely as anyone has withdrawal from cocaine or heroin.
With his burnout came self-reflection. Where am I going in my life? Is all this worth it? What price am I willing to pay to run my business? Having been conditioned all his life to working monstrous hours, having been rewarded for relying only on himself to perform all the important chores, it wasn't easy to change. Those all-night drives and that midnight rescue of a concrete slab defined his life.
Unlike Weiss, who cut back his business, or Brodsky, who started going on vacation for a week each month, Jewell did not have a dramatic answer to his problem. He would have to fight this battle day by day. Hire some good people under him to manage his 60 employees. Delegate more. In all, operate more like an executive who owns the company than an employee who does the detail work. "The conclusion I finally came to," he says, "is that yesterday's gone. There's nothing I can do about it. I will do everything this day that I know how to do, but at the end of this day, I'm going home to play with the kids and see my wife."
Jewell swore off working Saturdays. It's a promise he's kept. Last year he took three separate vacations, one lasting 10 days, another two weeks. His workweek spans 50 hours, far fewer than before. His family is there to support him, and he's found strength through his religion.
By pulling back from day-to-day control of his company, Jewell now spends much more time on corporate strategy and goals. He's talking about buying a rolling mill to help vertically integrate his company. And he's just negotiated the $2-million purchase of several key patents, which will reverse the flow of royalty payments. Jewell expects calendar-1987 sales to reach $6.5 million and 1988 sales of around $15 to $18 million.
A year and a half ago Jewell had readied the company to go public. "If I had $250,000 on the bottom line by March 31, 1986, I was ready," he says, adding that everything looked good come the end of February. But then sales dropped in the normally strong months of March, April, May, and June.
Jewell couldn't figure out why. The "old" Everett Jewell would have panicked. "I'd have run sales specials, hired people, fired people, made major changes." This time, he didn't do any of those things.
The following month, Jewell Building Systems rebounded to record its best July figures ever. August was even stronger. And Everett Jewell hadn't worked an extra hour to make it so.