The Most Beautiful House in the World
How Tom Olivo built the house that changed his life.
In Tom Olivo's dream house you can pretty much pick a window and name the mountain range. The triple-level windows below the cathedral ceiling of the great room frame the Gallatin Range. Through the kitchen window the snowcapped Bridger Mountains loom close enough to tilt your head back. From the Jacuzzi in the master bedroom the view stretches 40 miles to the Tobacco Root Mountains. The dining room looks out on the Madison Range and the Beartooth Mountains in the Absaroka Range.
"If I ever take this for granted, there's something wrong with me," says Olivo, who adds that he occasionally pinches himself to make sure he's not still merely imagining his fantasy home.
In the giant mountain-rimmed bowl that is Bozeman, Mont., Olivo's four-year-old house sits on five foothill acres at 5,000 feet above sea level, partway up the eastern side of the bowl. Olivo looks down on propeller planes circling to land at a private airstrip and marvels at approaching storms that sweep in over the Continental Divide, convulsing the sky. A neighboring rancher's wheat spreads like a giant comforter over the land, just 200 feet from his bedroom. But even better than the views is what lured Olivo to the area: the trout fishing down in the valley. Abundantly blessed with spring-fed creeks and snowmelt-coursing streams and rivers, Bozeman is arguably the fly-fishing capital of America. By the end of August, Olivo had already stepped into his waders some 35 times for the year. He's not retired -- just determined enough and shrewd enough to hook himself nearly every entrepreneur's fantasy -- raising his children and living the good life year-round in a picture-postcard setting far from the madding crowd.
The 44-year-old Olivo built his 5,300-square-foot home on time and on budget. Even more noteworthy, he did so from 1,204 miles away, in San Diego, where he was establishing a management-consulting firm called Success Profiles Inc. A former NCAA champion diver and top diving coach, Olivo moved his family and business to Montana the same way he achieved success in sports: by beginning with the end in mind and visualizing how to get there.
But even the forward-planning Olivo hadn't visualized all the ways his original goal would alter his life.
That particular goal -- a house in prime fly-fishing country -- first entered his mind after his wedding in 1989 but really can be traced back to his childhood in Bedford Hills, N.Y., a pastoral part of Westchester County. Olivo shouldered his first fishing rod at age 4. By the time he was 8, his parents let him head off alone to a nearby reservoir to fish. He loved the freedom of coming and going and the pleasure of one "final" cast after another as the sun set. He was hooked for life. But it was when he and his wife, Katie, a lover of the outdoors, honeymooned in New Zealand, a fly-fishing mecca that boasts many of the planet's most prized trout streams, that Olivo realized the depth of his passion for angling.
The Olivos' notion back then was to build a getaway place, a vacation home in the mountains, close to great fishing. They considered Flagstaff, Ariz., and Boulder, Colo., but fell in love with Bozeman on their first visit there, in 1991. Before flying back to California, they purchased the five-acre site of their future home. During that same visit, Olivo drew a floor plan of their dream home on a piece of graph paper. The final design of the home is virtually identical to that original sketch, right down to the old recycled beams the Olivos bought from a local company called Big Timberworks.
While the Olivos didn't change the original design of their home by much, their designs on their home would be greatly altered. The reason? The way that two births affected their lives.
The first was the birth of Tom Olivo's company, which grew out of his job as a personal financial planner at the Equitable. When a number of clients started asking him to help them with their businesses, Olivo discovered he enjoyed that work much more than his day job. Each client company had its own dynamics and problems, and he found those puzzles infinitely more challenging than estate planning. So in late 1990, while still with the Equitable, he launched Success Profiles and spent the first couple of years identifying key business-performance diagnostic measures and learning how to assess them. Then in 1992 his first daughter, Sarah, was born. Thinking back to his own childhood, Olivo couldn't help wishing that his daughter might experience the kinds of outdoor adventures and the freedom he'd enjoyed, for he knew only too well the shortcomings of their home in highway-jumbled Southern California.
San Diego's metro population had swelled by some 800,000 in the 13 years the Olivos had lived there. On some days Tom Olivo could just about run the five miles to work faster than he could get there by car. Drive-by shootings occurred frighteningly close to his family's neighborhood. The local airport was impossible. "There's more to quality of life in San Diego than the ambient air temperature," Olivo told himself and others, as the urge to relocate grew stronger.
Southern California was not where he wanted to raise his children. Yes, his Equitable customers were there. But if he could replace that income stream with a thriving management-consulting business that had clients nationwide or internationally, he should be able to live wherever he pleased. And Bozeman pleased him plenty -- equipped as it was with its unhurried, refreshingly low-key airport served by several airlines. Still, the leap was huge, entailing the kind of personal upheaval that even risk-taking entrepreneurs can find difficult.
The still-echoing words of a friend helped him take the plunge. "Tom, are you going to wait for the second time around to go first-class?" the friend asked. Why wait to live in his dream home, Olivo asked himself, if he could build it soon? So the goal became clear: instead of a vacation home, he would build a primary residence in Bozeman and move in by September 1997, in time for Sarah to start kindergarten.
Tom Olivo is a self-taught businessman, instructed primarily by his experiences in sports. He's writing a book tentatively titled Everything Important I Learned About Business I Learned From Fly-Fishing, which purports that successful fishermen and successful CEOs share analytical and problem-solving skills. "The goal is not to have the nicest tackle box. The goal is to catch the most fish and have fun. In business, it's to generate cash and increase shareholder value," he says. Apart from innate physical talent, what drove Olivo's collegiate career as a two-time All-American diver at SUNY Cortland was his ability to mentally rehearse each dive and picture himself entering the water straight as a plumb line, with barely a splash.
"I would go to the pool 20 minutes before anyone else, go down to the underwater windows, and visualize my entire workout, dive by dive," he says. "I learned as an athlete that what you do today in your workout is what's going to help you get to where you want to be."
For Olivo, getting to Bozeman meant squirreling away enough money to build a first-class home. He and Katie decided to live frugally on her salary as a cardiovascular technician and bank the early income generated by the first paying customers of Success Profiles. (Old habits die hard: Olivo still drives a '92 Pathfinder.) Then came the interviewing of builders (three) and the typically unpleasant task of overseeing the builder who oversees the various subcontractors. (You've heard the horror stories.) The builder the Olivos chose, Jim Syth of Bridger Builders Inc., was booked two years out, but because the couple was planning so far in advance, that worked out fine. So did the entire home-building process, which Tom Olivo terms "a wonderful experience," employing an adjective seldom used by couples building a home.
How did he manage to successfully build his house? The obvious metaphor is unavoidable: he dove into the project with enthusiasm and with the meticulous planning that characterized his success off the three-meter springboard. It's not by chance that he can gaze out his dining-room windows or from the upstairs loft and look directly down into a wildlife-filled hollow. To properly place the house's foundation on his property, Olivo stood on a ladder and approximated the ravine view that has since rewarded him with sightings of deer, ring-necked pheasant, porcupines, foxes, turkeys, even a bear. So he could show his family their future home, Olivo spent 49 and a half hours ("What can I say? I'm a measurement guy") constructing a scale model out of balsa wood and Styrofoam. Later, when decisions had to be made about integrating the beam-framed ceiling of the great room with the more traditional construction of the kitchen, the model proved invaluable to Olivo in talking through the solution with Syth.
"Tom and I talked by phone a minimum of two to three times a week and faxed things back and forth," recalls the builder. "He's so into computers, he could be talking to me looking at a Webcam picture of Main Street in Bozeman and remark about how sunny it was," Syth says, laughing. "There was no way I could tell him we couldn't pour concrete because it was raining."
Olivo proved a model client. The builder says Olivo taught him a few things about how to rein in a construction budget when necessary. By negotiating contractor by contractor, Olivo was able to trim $30,000 from the total budget, saving, for instance, 5% on excavation, 37% on painting, and 11% on windows, by purchasing early.
The home includes a 900-square-foot office atop a three-car garage. The office features a kitchenette, a full bath and guest room, and a conference table, making it perfect for client retreats. When he's not on the road meeting with customers (typically he travels about eight days a month), Olivo generally works in his office, communicating with his handful of in-town employees by phone and E-mail. He's usually up by 5 a.m. and at his desk by 5:30. Most days, he'll work until 2, then head to the gym or out for a run, possibly in the mountains behind his home. The last four years he has run the 20-mile Bridger Ridge Run in the Bridger Mountains. If he doesn't opt to get in a little fishing, he'll work a couple more hours in the late afternoon, then knock off for the day when his daughters (his second daughter, Christine, was born in 1995) come home from school. At about 50 hours, his current typical workweek is significantly shorter than his workweek from his California days.
"It's all about balance," Olivo says, explaining that because he experienced overuse injuries as an athlete, he has become sensitive to how overworking could injure his private life. Work "was affecting my sleep, my patience with my wife. But I've learned how to pace myself in business," he says.
Since building his dream home, Olivo has settled into what he likes to describe as the Bozeman plan. Nowadays when he needs a break, he can simply hop into his car, where a ready-to-cast fly rod usually parts the front seats, its tip held fast beneath the passenger-side visor. Within 10 minutes he can be standing in clear, fast-running Montana water, casting and stripping line, thigh-deep in the kind of trout stream that fly-fishing aficionados plan vacations around.
John Grossmann is a freelance writer living in Mountain Lakes, N.J.
... And the Most Beautiful Business?
In the stairway leading up to his office over the garage, Tom Olivo has hung a photograph of a lone fly fisherman standing calf-deep in a picturesque trout creek. He is that fisherman.
The same image appears in a glossy brochure advertising a 232-acre real estate development near Bozeman called Baker Springs. Olivo is a moonlighting minority partner in the project, which is being developed by a local company called the Cold Water Group. Dream home accomplished, Olivo believes he has now hooked a dream business, one that combines his passion for fly-fishing with a rewarding economic opportunity.
"It's my observation," says Olivo, "that everyone who visits Montana wants to somehow have a piece of it." Within Baker Springs, that piece won't come cheaply. Only 11 20-acre lots will be sold in this ultra-exclusive private fly-fishing community, at prices averaging around half a million dollars per lot. The attraction? Mountain views on all sides. A 10-minute drive to the airport. World-class fishing almost within casting range of your doorstep in four manmade ponds (some of them stocked), the West Gallatin River, Trout Creek, and most notably, Baker Creek, one of Montana's legendary spring creeks, which the developers have brought back from near death. Decades of hard grazing by generations of cattle had badly degraded the creek, fouling its waters, breaking down its trout-friendly undercut banks, and burying its gravel-bed spawning habitat. Olivo helped secure the money to buy the Baker Springs property and fund the initial round of more than $1 million worth of ecological restoration and pond development. As an added lure to avid anglers, the developers restored a farmhouse that was on the land and installed Bud Lilly as riverkeeper and resident legend. Chatting streamside with Lilly, a renowned former Yellowstone guide and tackle-shop owner who pulled trout from Baker Creek as a schoolboy in the 1930s, may be the equivalent of taking batting practice while Ted Williams banters with you.
The Cold Water Group, Olivo explains, expects to close on an adjacent 300 acres and covets another 400-acre Montana property. "All will have the same theme: restoration, conservation, and recreation," he says, stressing what appeals to him personally about the business model. "Not only is it good for the people who live there, but the entire fishery [beyond the property] will be improved because these spring creeks are important trout nurseries." --John Grossmann
Copyright © 2001 John Grossmann.
The Inc Life
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