CEOs Ben Cohen and Paul Hawken are questioning their business motives and looking for greener pastures.
First, Paul Hawken called to tell me he'd resigned as chairman and CEO of Smith & Hawken, the garden-tool company he cofounded 12 years ago. "It's been a wonderful odyssey," he said, "but I feel it's time to get back to some of the things I set out to do in the first place." He was referring to the book he's writing, developing the themes in "The Ecology of Commerce," which we published in our April issue. I'm happy that Paul will be writing more and delighted to announce that his work will appear frequently in Inc. Still, I have to confess I was saddened by the news of his departure from Smith & Hawken. Back when names like Boesky and Trump dominated the business news, I felt reassured knowing Paul was out there in California, building a company with the simple conviction that there had to be a better way to conduct business. Paul's example, imperfections and all, never failed to inspire me.
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The next day I called Paul's old friend Ben Cohen at Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the socially active ice-cream company based in Waterbury, Vt. I suppose I was looking for someone to commiserate with. "Oh, he's not here," said the woman who answered the phone.
"Would you ask him to call me when he gets back?" I asked.
"I'll be glad to," she said, "but I hope it can wait till next fall."
"Yeah. He's on a leave of absence."
A few days later I got a call from Ben's alter ego, Jerry Greenfield.
"I'm sure he'll use the time off well," I said to Jerry. "Hey, this is the guy who launched 1% for Peace and Rainforest Crunch on his last leave."
"That's true," said Jerry, "but I have the feeling this one is going to be different."
"Well, Ben's bought a studio in Burlington."
"Maybe he wants a place to do some thinking," I suggested.
"I don't think that's it," Jerry replied.
"Because he also bought an acetylene torch."
"An acetylene torch?"
"Yeah. He says he wants to get into metal sculpture. In fact, he's waiting for me right now. We're heading out to look for a used pickup truck, so Ben can run around and collect scrap metal."
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Paul Hawken and Ben Cohen aren't the only ones looking for greener pastures. If recent conversations with CEOs around the country are any guide, half the entrepreneurial population is either on sabbatical these days or preparing to take one -- or thinking about getting out of business altogether. Some people chalk it up to the stress of managing in a recession. Others see demographic factors at work, as a lot of founders hit the age at which we start to question what we're doing with our lives. There is no doubt some truth in both explanations. But as I talk to people, I hear something else: a disenchantment with the limits of business. And that makes me wonder whether we all haven't come to expect too much of business and the meaning it can provide in our lives.