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Out of Thin Air

Whatever companies entrepreneurs are building, they're also building a life. Jim Ansara, the CEO of Shawmut Design Construction, describes his 20-year climb to success.
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Whatever else founders are building, they are also--for better or worse--building a life. Here, in his own words, is one company owner's 20-year climb

Very early on a dank June morning in 1979, the first day of his new job, Jim Ansara found himself standing in front of a burned-out clapboard apartment house in the working-class city of Somerville, Mass. The house, he remembers, still smelled of fire. His new employer expected him to rebuild it.

Not that Ansara knew how. He had just dropped out of his second college (first Brown, then Amherst) and finally given up on playing hockey, and now here he was, alone on a sidewalk, with no skills and fewer prospects. "What are you gonna do?" everyone kept asking him when he came home from Amherst. Ansara had no idea. He certainly didn't know then what was ahead of him, that he would start a business and during the next 20 years encounter every plague and moment of bliss that founders are heir to: the brush with bankruptcy; the employees who stole his money; the customers whose loyalty rescued him and later made him ashamed; the people problems, the burnout, the growth anyone would envy; the battles with upstart competitors; and the stress of change. He couldn't have known that his business would both wreck his personal life and then, possibly, save it. Or that it would reveal to him and to others the person he really was---and in so doing teach him how to become the person he wanted to be. He couldn't have known, finally, that while he frequently felt very alone on his journey, he was actually walking with a whole entrepreneurial generation.

"What are you gonna do?" is what he was thinking there on the sidewalk. "Take a step, is what."

After all, he had good tools he'd borrowed from his parents' house and cheap ones he'd bought, as well as a cloth carpenter's apron with loops and pockets where he could carry stuff---once he figured out what sort of stuff a person doing work like this would want to carry. So. It was time.

He looked at the burned-out building. He smelled the steeped-in smoke. And he began to work. "What I'm going to do is this," he said to himself. "Just this."

He was 22 years old.


Chapter One
You have to understand, my whole life had been a series of obsessions. The business started as just another one. And, as with the rest, what I really needed to do was prove something to myself---and to other people.

Rebuilding that three-decker in Somerville was an incredible challenge. Every week the guy in charge would give you $2,000 in cash, and at the end of the week you'd give him your receipts. And you sort of made the thing happen.

It was a real ragtag operation. But I was really getting excited. Every day I'd go there, and there'd be these incredibly exciting things to learn. It wasn't like school. It was seeing how everything actually fit together. Unfortunately, I was cutting a lot of corners, too, which plagued me for the next four or five years.

It had been my style to cut corners. I was someone who was looking for angles on things---shortcuts. Part of my trouble at Amherst was that I'd been forging my adviser's signature and never seeing my adviser. Things like that.

But by August, I was really excited about construction, and I had decided I wanted to subcontract a job from the guy I'd been working for, to get a little more autonomy. So he took me out to a very nice house in the suburbs where he was building an addition, a little sunroom, and he gave me the job of shingling the walls. We agreed on a price and he dropped off the shingles. I worked about three 18-hour days shingling the thing, and the contractor came out and said, "This is horrible, this is no good."

When you put up shingles, you have to use a ledger board so they'll be even. And I hadn't. So I had to rip the shingles off, buy new ones, and redo it. Now, I didn't care so much about the money. But I was humiliated. That was one of the early experiences that pushed me to really start learning about what I was doing. By that winter I was out on my own, hustling jobs where I could. And I started getting some lessons in business.


Over the next few years, Ansara and three or four employees---rarely the same ones--kept scuffling, "finding a job and grinding it out, winging everything." Total sales in 1981 reached $131,000; any cash he accumulated, he used to buy tools. He and his girlfriend, Karen--whom he'd met just weeks before that first triple-decker job--moved in together. She had graduated from college in 1980, then supported them for the next five years on a "very meager salary," says Ansara. "We had some hard times."

Last updated: May 15, 1999




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