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Three years after founder David Pitassi quit what was once the nation's fastest-growing private company, he's still struggling to understand: Why is it so hard for him to stay away?
It has been nearly a decade since David M. Pitassi, while on a business trip to New Mexico, stumbled across a sculpture in an outdoor park that seemed to capture "what my whole life is about." Called Dreams of Freedom, it depicts a creature--half man, half eagle--whose attempts to take flight are thwarted by a heavy bronze base anchoring it to the ground. "Here's a man trying to reach for the sky," Pitassi explains, "who hasn't yet left the ground."
Back then Pitassi was "scraping, clawing, and scratching" his way toward building a business by wresting market share from the nation's top two consumer-products giants: Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. Along with former college buddy Wally Klemp, Pitassi had launched Drypers Corp. in 1987, hoping the company would make a place for itself in a $3-billion disposable-diaper market by pricing its product a strategic dollar below premium brands Pampers and Huggies. Survival required incessant innovation, from adding aloe to slapping Sesame Street characters onto the product.
For the founders, the stakes were clearly personal. Drypers was the pair's second attempt at taking on the giants: earlier they had launched a similar company, only to lose it to their team of investors (see "The Enemy Within," April 1987). Drypers was to be their instrument of sweet revenge. "I had to get back on the horse and prove that this could be done," says Pitassi.
That meant logging 90-hour workweeks, keeping a day-to-day schedule that was so hectic that he scarcely made time for physical necessities like drinking enough water. "I never saw my family whether I was in town or not," he says. Like the creature sculpted in bronze, "I was driven, hard, almost ruthless about the goal. You couldn't get me away from that focus," he says. Not that he didn't love it. Confronting a crisis--a competitor's price-cutting move, say--Pitassi routinely responded with relish. "This is the best thing that ever happened to us," he'd declare. Though Pitassi never fancied himself an art connoisseur, and he had no idea where he would stash the three-foot-tall statue, he purchased it on the spot. "It became my symbol," he recalls. It still is. "But I look at it very differently," Pitassi admits.
As well he should, given how much his circumstances have changed. Today the company he cofounded is the nation's fourth-largest diaper maker, with $270 million in sales and a nearly 7% share of the grocery-store disposable-diaper market. A year after reaching the top spot on the Inc. 500 in 1993--with sales of $140 million and a five-year growth rate of nearly 50,000%--Drypers went public. Then, in 1995, 35-year-old Pitassi made a very private decision: he stepped down as co-CEO and moved from Houston to Vancouver, Wash., keeping a vow to himself to "raise a family when I'm not too old, and do it the way I'd like to do it." Having "far exceeded" his personal financial goals, he exited the entrepreneurial arena having proved all he needed to prove.
But after liberating himself from what he thought was weighing him down, Pitassi didn't feel much lighter. Plucked from his natural habitat--making split-second decisions at a company where the stakes grew improbably high--he confronted the sobering issues that his former life had obscured. While building Drypers, he had told himself that he was working hard for the sake of achieving financial freedom. Now he wasn't so sure. "It's all stuff," he says. "You buy something because it's nice and comes from an expensive store, but it's really just one more thing off the production line." And as for his image of the company being a heavy block that held him down--well, that could just as easily describe an anchor as it does a ball and chain. "When you are building a business, your whole life is that business, and it has to be," he says. "But then what is your life after that business?"
So engaged is he by such questions that Pitassi sounds as if he had relinquished his post just in the past week or so. The three-year span of his search only makes itself felt by the breadth of his references, from reciting stanzas of poetry to rehashing "the Hierarchy of Needs," psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory of human motivation. "What are your values? Who are you? What drives you every day?" he asks. "A business," he says, "can be enslaving and take away your freedoms."
He issues the warning for the same reason that he hangs on to the statue: to remind himself why he's refusing to spend his days building a fast-growing business. He may someday go back to that world, as he readily admits. But before he does, what Pitassi wants to understand most is this: why is it so hard for him to stay away?
This is how Dave Pitassi--now 39, a free man and the father of three children, ages 2, 5, and 6--spends his time. He starts in his home office at 5:30 a.m., making calls, "working my way across the country." He looks at spreadsheets or checks his E-mail on one of his three computers; he speaks at Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (YEO) gatherings, conducts interviews with aspiring entrepreneurs, and travels to do due diligence on or attend board meetings of any of the 15 companies he's currently involved with. Oh, yes, for three hours a week he also visits Drypers' nearby facility, where he still retains an office, scopes out new opportunities, and advises the company on strategy. He rarely sees Klemp but speaks to him by phone periodically.
Now serving as chairman and co-CEO, Klemp is as committed to staying atop Drypers as Pitassi was to leaving. "I'm one of these types that will wake up one day and realize what I was missing. I'm the one who lost a marriage over chasing this dream," he says. "My heroes are the captains of industry--the people who made something from nothing to be a part of commerce. There's not really a stopping point there."
Indeed there isn't--not for Pitassi either. True, he manages to spend more quality time with his children than most fathers: Tuesday and Thursday afternoons accompanying his daughters to swimming, Saturday mornings watching them at their piano lessons, Wednesday afternoons playing with his son while his wife takes the girls to ballet, reading to or making up bedtime stories for all three each night. And while statistics (albeit fuzzy ones) suggest that the average father spends roughly an hour and a half per day with his children, Pitassi expands that time with the kids to at least four hours on weekdays, as well as 75% of his weekend time. But achieving that often forces Pitassi to override his strong impulses. He's got to be vigilant, for instance, about forcing himself to stop reading business plans. "Some of these things I love, even if they don't make any sense," he says.
Other activities take practice to do well. "It's hard to sit down on the floor and play little games with your children when you're used to solving complicated business problems," he says. "My mind is still going through the motions of what got me where I am." In his former life, Pitassi went 12 years without a vacation; he routinely called his wife at 6:30 every night, telling her he'd be home in half an hour, only to return around midnight. Now he rarely misses family dinners, and he takes at least four vacations a year. "He has just become more involved in our lives," observes his wife, Elaine. "And isn't that what it's all about?"
Is it? Her husband's answer isn't as clear. To be sure, he loves what he's doing. "There's no way I'm going to miss out on time with my children," he states emphatically. "When my daughter asks life questions like, 'What is God?' (or 'heaven' or 'death'), I want to be the one answering her." He adds, "Getting down on the floor and looking into a child's eyes, that's so valuable. I never knew that while I was building Drypers."
At the same time, Pitassi can't pretend that he's lost any of his attraction to building a business. "I love solving difficult business problems. They're like puzzles to me," he says. "A company's trying to build something, and it's running into a wall. Why isn't it working? I love new products, I love strategic planning, I love the visionary stuff, I love setting up the infrastructure of companies. You've got so many columns to hold up the company; now where do they go? I love all of these fundamental things." Almost as quickly as his enthusiasm builds up, he begins looking for a verbal antidote. "I don't think I can make a mistake by making my family my first priority," he says. Shades of Pitassi the Capitalist shine through as Pitassi the Family Man tries to explain his decision. "This is the point in my life when I'm going to practice this; who knows, it may help me in business someday," he says.
That day may come sooner than it sounds. In June 1996, 18 months after he left Drypers, Pitassi found himself engaged by a new set of questions. Maybe he didn't have to shun business entirely. A bigger challenge perhaps would be to reenter the growth-company universe on his own terms. "Can you be successful without being compulsive about work?" he asks. "Can you be involved and supportive from a distance?" These are the challenges he set out for himself. "I want to get the thrill of the experience but not lose sleep over it at night," he explains. "I want to play in the entrepreneurial sphere but go when I want to go."
What he wanted, of course, was to start a company.
He told me to slow down, not try to jump in there and grab it all--to go public at $50 million, instead of $15 million, for example," recalls Kevin Eldredge, 32, CEO of RapidFire Solutions, a restaurant software company in Hillsboro, Ore., and one of the fastest-growing companies in the state. "It is not what I expected to hear from someone like him, so it means a lot more to me." That is one of the more salient lessons he's learned from Pitassi, whom he meets with periodically for "companionship and real advice. I can get more out of a quick lunch with Dave than almost anything I do."
"We talked about family, about life, not what you'd consider typically entrepreneurial things," says Rayvon Reynolds, 36, an Atlanta entrepreneur with whom Pitassi is working. When he met Pitassi through YEO, Reynolds had had a fail-proof idea for a business sitting in his files for three years but couldn't muster the energy to jump back into the entrepreneurial fray. Several prodding phone calls and meetings with Pitassi later, Reynolds is now "putting together one of the biggest deals I've ever done--and I'm having fun," he exclaims. He gives Pitassi credit for "reigniting the emotion. I'm just flat-out a happier person when I'm building something," he says. "When you're an entrepreneur and you're staring at a mountain juncture but not climbing it, you're pissed off. But if you've got your emotion, you rip through things other people wouldn't touch."
Eldredge and Reynolds are among the 15 or so entrepreneurs for whom Pitassi is attempting to be what he calls a "bridge builder." The term comes from a poem by that name (by Will Allen Dromgoole) of which Pitassi is particularly fond. It tells of an old man who builds a bridge across a chasm even though he won't ever be returning that way because "There followeth after me today / A youth whose feet must pass this way. / This chasm that has been naught to me / To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be."
When he was 5 years old, Pitassi began accompanying his father, a men's clothing salesman whom he calls his "number-one mentor," on business trips. Invariably, some of the old-timers would take the youngster aside and fill him with folksy aphorisms like "God gave you two ears and only one mouth, so learn to listen." Pitassi took this advice: while building Drypers, he recalls "getting so much out of" even brief conversations with mentors. Pitassi now feels it's his turn to be a bridge builder. As he says, "I've slain my dragon. Now I want to protect others from what I went through."
So Pitassi launched a company that would allow him to spend focused time advising other entrepreneurs. The new business is set up to be as nonconstricting for Pitassi as possible: it has one full-time employee (hint--his initials are D.P.) and two part-timers. It operates out of his home office (or wherever D.P. happens to be) and has an outdoor conference table beside the river in his backyard. Pitassi participates in companies ranging in size from $5 million to $50 million, as well as in some true start-ups, in the various roles of "partner's partner, manager's manager, or entrepreneur's entrepreneur," he says. Typically this means Pitassi will invest in, join the board of, or serve in an advisory capacity to a company in return for (usually modest) fees or equity stakes.
In spite of his best intentions of running this new company in a controlled, sane way, Pitassi, creator of what was once the fastest-growing private company in America, is already showing some signs of chafing under that constraint. For starters, there's the company's name. Pitassi admits that he chose Gazelle Group "because I was looking for a name that represents fast growth," yet concedes the obvious irony, given that he is attempting to slow down (and encouraging others to do the same). While at Drypers, he became an expert in what he calls the judo technique of marketing: taking foes' momentum and using it against them--a clever maneuver that gained the company national headlines. (See " Targeting the Giant," October 1993.)
At the Gazelle Group, Pitassi is once again engaging in a novel marketing technique, this one with no momentum at all. There is no listing for Gazelle Group in either the Vancouver or the Portland area; Pitassi does have business cards, but few people ever see them as he rarely hands them out. "I collect business cards rather than distribute them," he says. He has a cell phone, too, but he stopped giving out that number 18 months ago. "I still have a hard time with that one, but if I gave it out, I would respond to everything and everybody," he admits. The only attempt he makes to allow people to find him is to give out his voice-mail number at Drypers' Vancouver office. "Come to think of it, it was kind of a pain to get a hold of him," recalls Eldredge.
Pitassi has appeared so noncommittal to some of his client entrepreneurs that they've had to ask him outright: "Are you really going to be there when I need you?" He keeps a day-timer but says it "doesn't mean as much to me now as it used to." He deliberately leaves the door to his home office open, and when a child wanders in, he claims he'll drop what he's doing. "When one of the children needs the attention, I will stop, do the focus time, look them in the eyes, and talk with them," he says. "I never used to do that.
"There's no way I'm going to miss out on time with my family," he continues. "I'll lose deals over vacations, whereas before I would have been sitting by the fax machine while my wife did family stuff." He says this sincerely enough, and yet a family vacation is precisely where he chose to conduct the interviews for this article. Earlier he apologized that his schedule was "so busy" and "hectic" over the next few weeks; could we possibly meet in Idaho, where he'd be relaxing with his wife, children, and parents for a few days? It wasn't until we met that the apparent incongruity hit him. "This is worse than I thought it was going to be," he confessed straightaway. "My whole life before was about integrating family and business, because it was all business-related. Now I'm just getting comfortable not integrating, and here I am sitting with you."
Throughout our first interview Pitassi appeared slightly uneasy, as if I were an emissary from the entrepreneurial world who had come to whisk him back. Or maybe he wished that I would. He dressed casually, in shorts, and arrived empty-handed--no pen, no paper, no notebook (electronic or otherwise)--almost as if to demonstrate how free he was of any corporate trappings. We met alone, without his family, and he declined to give me the phone number of where he was staying. Could we wrap it up in one session? he asked right away. If not, then could we meet at 6:30 a.m. the next day? He was leaving town, and when I asked what time he was leaving and where he was going, he couldn't, or wouldn't, say.
"This is the new me," he offered. "No schedule. No itinerary. All I know is the group has decided to go, so we're going."
For years, Pitassi has looked to poetry for inspiration and reflection. He reads it every day, while working out on a Stairmaster, a stationary bicycle, or a treadmill. "I've always enjoyed poems, but I never let myself before, because I was a business guy," he says. At first, he tried Shakespeare but found the Bard's period diction too difficult to grasp while working up a sweat. Instead he sticks to "popular inspirational stuff," rhyming verse, much of which he can recite by memory. Among his favorites is a folksy overcoming-the-odds poem called "It Couldn't Be Done," by Edgar A. Guest, with lines like the following: "So he buckled right in with a trace of a grin / on his face. If he worried, he hid it. / He started to sing as he tackled the thing / that couldn't be done, and he did it."
Doing "the thing that couldn't be done" is a theme that crops up over and over again in Pitassi's life. "Dave loved overcoming all odds, doing the impossible--turning a negative into a positive--and still does," notes wife Elaine. What's most interesting to him, as Pitassi himself admits, is "putting yourself in a spectacular position to fail." (In fact, he's currently writing a book with the working title A Chance to Fail.)
Is Pitassi's attempted immersion into his family just another way for him to get the perverse rush he apparently derives from the ever-present possibility of failure? After all, as he points out, "parenting is very complicated. There's no answer book. For every expert who will tell you how to raise kids, there's another one who will tell you the opposite." When Pitassi asks himself if it's possible to be an entrepreneur halfway, he confesses, "My basic belief is you probably can't." But the words sound less like an admission of defeat than the firing of a starting gun.
Toward the end of our interview, Pitassi casually mentions that he and his wife are contemplating starting another company--when the kids are more on their own, of course. Is he regressing? "I don't worry about that at all," says Elaine. "If he chooses to, that's OK." The point isn't whether he starts another fast-growing company or not; it's whether he does it because he chooses to or because he can't stop himself. "What's more gratifying than walking into a store and looking at a shelf where nothing exists and then saying, 'This product will exist. People will be employed. A company will be here'?" he asks. "I'm into that creation, watching things flourish, where products and companies don't exist and then become something of substance."
Pitassi, it seems, has no intention of depriving himself of such satisfaction. He'd just like to wait a little longer--if he can--to reach some sort of understanding about what he finds so addictive about a fast-growth environment. After a while, he may simply grow comfortable with never having an answer. "It might be interesting in the future to start a business where I can be active but where the kids can gain value and education from it as well," he says. "If my wife and I jumped into something like that, I think our attitude would be, 'We're going to build this thing with a sense of normalcy.' But common sense tells me this is probably not possible."
If the temptations of fast growth eventually lure Dave Pitassi back to the Inc. 500, he won't be the first. Several CEOs on this year's list have appeared with previous companies in earlier rankings. What's the attraction? On the following pages, they tell us.
Charles W. Jackson
Additional CEO interviews were conducted by Shane McLaughlin and Nicole Burnham Onsi.