Login or signup
36
BUSINESS PLANS

The Bipolar CEO
 

Duncan Harrison runs one company in Alaska and another in Hawaii -- and divides his existence in half, every single month, between the two. Here's what it's like when you invent exactly the life you want simply because you can.
Advertisement

It's Anchorage, Alaska, and the sky is usually dark when Duncan Harrison wakes up in his apartment above the warehouse of Alaskan Automotive Distributing Inc. Winter here lasts nine months, and the sun won't come calling until 10 a.m. or later. Harrison opens his blinds and peers out through a latticework of frost -- today it is 10 degrees below zero -- at the snow-draped parking lot, which is filling with pickups, SUVs, and other ruggedized vehicles. Harrison's own car is parked by the door. It's an Aspire, Ford's cheapest model. "When I drive, it's freezing and muddy and probably raining or snowing, so who cares?" says Alaskan Automotive's CEO. As long as the car works. Especially on this day, when Harrison has to get to the airport.

It is not a special day. Harrison travels to or from the Anchorage airport every two weeks. You could set your calendar by it, just as Harrison has set his. Because here's the thing about how Harrison has arranged his life: it's only during the second half of every month that he lives in Alaska and runs a business there. For the first half he lives and runs a different business in Hawaii.

As for the lower 48 (or "the mainland," as Harrison's Hawaiian cronies dismiss the rest of the country), Harrison rarely visits. "Why would I need to?" he asks. "Hawaii and Alaska are the two best places in the United States. And I live in both of them. I spend every day of my life in places most people just dream about going on vacation, in the most beautiful spots on earth.

"Breathtaking places," says Harrison, 41. "Awe-inspiring."

That tourism-board breathlessness is typical of Harrison, who describes an ice-glazed mountainscape as though he were talking about God. But engage him in conversation -- as everyone who hears about his bifurcated life inevitably wants to do -- and you're surprised how unexceptional he can sound, like a guy whose business tethers him to Scranton with the occasional foray into Allentown. That contrast embodies the nongeographic division in Harrison's life. By dismissing as a priority all rational notions of convenience, the CEO is able to pursue a fairly conventional entrepreneurial career -- he owns two successful auto-supply companies -- but against extraordinary natural backdrops. His world is the saturated blues, greens, and golds of Aiea or the almost existential whiteness of Anchorage. There is no gray in between.

How Harrison makes this arrangement work is one lesson in his story. But the first lesson is easier. It comes with recognizing how much Harrison's life is elevated simply by virtue of where he wakes up in the morning. By virtue, that is to say, of just how far he's willing to go to get exactly what he wants.


"Hawaii and Alaska are the two best places in the United States. And I live in both of them. I spend every day of my life in places most people just dream about going on vacation, in the most beautiful spots on earth."



Although Harrison's hot-and-cold-running arrangement is just two years old, he has always sought to flavor his life with the exotic. As a young man, he thought he could find that excitement through work. Fantasizing about a glamorous career, Harrison majored in theater at the University of Washington, until a bout of pragmatism propelled him into economics. (Unwilling to relinquish the dream entirely, he earned a second degree in broadcast journalism.) In 1985 the new graduate, hurting for money, followed a classified ad to Ford Motor Co.'s Seattle office, where he spent the next 10 years working his way up to sales manager.

As a salesman, Harrison was aggressive, financially successful, and kind of bored. But he had an idea about how to relieve the boredom. "It is the dream of every single male under age 40 to own a nightclub," Harrison says, explaining his decision to buy into then hot-as-they-come Pier 70, which hosted acts ranging from Nirvana to Snoop Doggy Dogg. Harrison spent his nights at the club, which "made my colleagues jealous and my employers unhappy," he says. "Ford thought I was spending all my time there at the sacrifice of my day job. It wasn't true, but most companies don't like it when you have another job on the side."

Harrison displeased Ford again, in 1995, when he refused to relocate to Detroit on the grounds that it was ... Detroit. Concerned that his corporate horizons were starting to contract, he hastily agreed when the company suggested he start a parts distributorship serving Ford customers in Alaska, where the automaker lacked a representative. "Alaska had been part of my territory," says Harrison. "I thought it was cold, barren, and had no women. It was everything a single guy wouldn't want if he had to go somewhere to start a business. But it was better than Detroit."

So in 1995, Harrison launched Alaskan Automotive in a dingy warehouse set in a dingy lot visible from the dingy apartment to which the weather often confined him for the eight hours a day he wasn't working. "I didn't know a soul up here," he says. "I had no friends. And there was snow. A lot of snow. A lot, a lot of snow."

But what his new home lacked in creature comfort, it made up for in drama. For Harrison -- whose chief demand of life is that it not be ordinary -- braving thigh-high drifts and shrieking winds in winter was like living in a Jack London novel. Finally, though, it was the sweeping, desolately lovely landscape that won his heart. "Living here is like looking at the stars at night. It's so big. It makes you feel humble and insignificant," he says.

Harrison fell in love with Alaska. He figured he would never leave. But in 1999 he got a call from an old friend at Ford who mentioned that a parts distributor in Hawaii was looking for a buyer.

Hawaii. A state as balmy and inviting as Alaska was icy and challenging. A lush, exotic land of extraordinary natural beauty. A place inhospitable to the mundane. Harrison got on the phone to the seller, and within seven months Aloha Automotive Distributing was his.


In Hawaii there is no frozen, mud-mottled Aspire. No apartment over the warehouse. No ruggedized life with its ruggedized footwear to match.

In Hawaii, Duncan Harrison drives a BMW Z3 convertible, because when it's 75 degrees with a warm breeze that tickles your ears like a suggestive whisper, then a BMW Z3 convertible is what you really ought to be driving. His Waikiki Beach condo is 27 stories in the air, affording him a panoramic view of Diamond Head when it's clear. (It's always clear.) Harrison starts his day with a brisk swim in the ocean; at twilight he often returns to the beach, where the coming of night doesn't necessitate the donning of shoes.

Outdoor swimming is out of the question in Alaska, of course. Ditto golfing. Ditto surfing, which he recently took up. But exercise is critical in a place where dinner is almost invariably steak -- sometimes moose meat -- and potatoes. (Harrison assumes he will put on a few pounds during his Anchorage sojourns and take them off again in Hawaii, where chicken and rice are the staples.)

Fortunately, a hard life forges powerful bonds. In Alaska, Harrison is surrounded by close friends, who share his passion for the land -- and for team sports. They gather at the gym for basketball and volleyball, and at the local rink for hockey. Softball is played wearing snowshoes. The ball is orange; white would vanish into white.

In both locales Harrison fishes, hikes, and canoes, activities he enjoys chiefly because they are pursued amid stunning scenery. The difference is that in Hawaii the scenery feels like a boon. In Alaska it feels like a reward.

Some things, however, come more easily in northern climes. Managing a business, for example. Down in the Anchorage warehouse, Harrison is greeted by his employees: seven manly men whose conversation runs to football and hunting. Harrison, who describes himself as a "naturally pretty assertive guy," feels at home among these people, with their firm handshakes and occasionally off-color jokes. "People come to Alaska expecting to work hard," says Harrison. "My employees work hard, and they like their boss to be tough and authoritative." He also appreciates his workers' straightforwardness: when anyone has something on his mind, he speaks up. And motivating employees is a cinch. "All I have to do is offer them a trip anywhere outside Alaska," says Harrison.

In Hawaii, Harrison learned quickly that his management style didn't translate any better than his flannel wardrobe did. Aloha Automotive is a slightly larger enterprise than its frosty counterpart, with 18 employees and $4.5 million in revenues (compared with Alaskan Automotive's $4 million). Size apart, the businesses are almost identical, and consequently, "I just assumed I could go in there and tell everyone, 'OK, this is how we're going to do it,' " recalls Harrison. "Three people left right away. In Alaska I joke around with the employees and the customers; here I have to bite my lip so I don't offend anyone. And you have to watch everyone very closely because when they have a problem, they won't tell you to your face. It just simmers. Even the handshakes are softer."

Devising incentives is tricky, too. Harrison still likes awarding trips, but the only place he can conjure up to entice employees away from the Island is Vegas. Of course, there may be fewer trips to award, because Harrison's employees in Hawaii don't work as hard. "Who comes to Hawaii to work hard?" he asks.

Harrison is speaking for himself as well: he works 50 hours a week in Alaska compared with 40 to 45 in Hawaii. That leaves him more time for the beach and the health club across the street from his condo, and did he mention the Friday-night luaus? Such venues teem with eligible women, says Harrison, something he sorely misses in Alaska. Anchorage's universities used to be unaccredited, he explains, "so all the intelligent, professionally minded women escaped to the lower 48 when they hit 18 and never returned."

Finding a mate, of course, raises the issue of family. And family -- that glue, that anchor, that centralizing force -- is not an obvious fit with Harrison's itinerant life. Harrison recognizes that, but he can't quite imagine loving one person more than these two places. So instead of contemplating sacrifice, he makes mental arrangements. "If I get married, the only way it would work is if she would travel with me between the two," he says. "I'll have to marry someone from Alaska, because it will be much easier to convince her to spend half her time in Hawaii than the other way around."


To the many who equate a good life with an easy one, Harrison's arrangement sounds like monumental folly. Can he go on this way forever? Would he want to? Isn't it possible, for example, that he'll ultimately be seduced into fidelity by the outsized claims of his island home? "I still love Alaska more," Harrison demurs. "I could never leave it. I think though, over time, I could come to love Hawaii as much."

Luckily for Harrison, his hands-on approach to management means he'll probably never have to choose. Delegating makes him squirm, and he can't imagine leaving either business in the hands of others for more than two weeks at a time. So the middle of every month finds him at either Anchorage International Airport or Honolulu International Airport, tiny traveling case in hand. "I have two completely different wardrobes, so there's no need for me to ever pack a suitcase," he says. "The only thing that's the same is, I never wear a suit in either place."

Harrison's belief that his epic commute is sustainable -- that it may even be compatible with domestic life -- may be denial, or it may be something else: the secret to his happiness. Unlike most people, he simply refuses to live by the laws of mutual exclusion. When one door opens, another door remains open, even if it's 3,000 miles distant. And what sounds at first like an extreme kind of life turns out to be an existence in perfect balance.

Perhaps, in the end, it is our whole notion of choice that Harrison's path calls into question. Life doesn't have to be a series of eliminations, reductions, and sacrifices, he is implicitly telling us. Don't dismiss possibilities before even considering them. Simply imagine the best life you can, the one you love, and choose it. Every part of it. That's what Harrison has done.

Of course, a life that never narrows inevitably grows broader, and Harrison's is no exception. Every three or four months now, his straight-line commute becomes a triangle. That's when he stops -- briefly -- in Seattle, to visit his parents and one of his other investments: a casino, in which he is a minority owner. "We bought it with the idea that it was going to be another nightclub," says Harrison. "Then Washington passed laws to allow gambling, and there you are."

Asked if he can think of any other place he might want to buy a business, increasing the variety of his living arrangements by half, Harrison rules it out vigorously, then pauses.

"Maybe Hollywood," he says.

Why not?


Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.


The Inc Life

The Bipolar CEO
Out of Control (at Last)
Angels After Dark
Making Book


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2002

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Comment and share features
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: