The Fully Managed Family
If you're the CEO of a growing company and have a working spouse and a young family, then you're probably intimately familiar with a little place called the State of Perpetual Chaos. You enter this state when you realize it's July and no one is signed up for camp, or when the nanny quits, or when you and your spouse both schedule an out-of-town trip on the same night. Of course, Chaos may just be a layover. If you're not careful, you could well be on your way to an even less attractive destination called Total Anarchy. You wouldn't be the first.
But don't expect to find Ann Deters there, because at work and at home, she seems to have managed herself out of Perpetual Chaos. Don't hate her. Deters is the 44-year-old CEO of Vantage Technology, an Effingham, Ill., Inc 500 company that markets mobile cataract-surgery equipment; the founder of SevenD & Associates, a new chain of outpatient-surgery centers; the wife of Dennis, director of business development at Vantage; and the mother of Jeff (age 14), Neal (11), Scott (9), Alex (3), and Caroline (7 months). That's right -- two companies and five kids, four boys and a girl. With such a crew to manage, Deters knows that the devil is in the details, that it's generally not the big problems that drive you over the edge but the cumulative effect of all the small things that can go wrong. Company building has taught her that you need systems to keep life running smoothly. So she's put them in place, and over time, through trial and error, she's made them work.
"I was always determined to be a hard-driven career woman," says Deters. In fact, she's a convincing case for a genetic predisposition toward entrepreneurship. Her grandfather founded a seed company in a small rural community in Illinois. Her father and uncles ultimately expanded it; then her father plowed some of the profits into an investment firm that provided venture capital for family members. Deters and her seven siblings even sat on boards when they were teenagers. When she was in her twenties, she moved to St. Louis, joined Price Waterhouse, and made two promises to herself: she wouldn't move back to her hometown, and she'd never marry a farmer. Ultimately, she did both. Her hometown sweetheart, Dennis, who worked on his family's hog and grain farm, won her over with persistence; her father, satisfied that she had proved her talent and potential outside the family business, offered her a job.
The early years of the Deterses' marriage and parenthood were typical for entrepreneurial families. When their first child was a newborn, Ann Deters took the nursing infant to the office with her every day for six weeks. When he was a toddler, she traveled to Chicago every weekend for an executive M.B.A. program at Northwestern. Neal, their second, was born during Northwestern's Christmas break, and Deters returned to work and school right after New Year's Day. "Dennis was the one who raised Neal as an infant," she concedes. By the time Scott was born, in 1993, Deters had taken the helm at J.M. Schultz Investment Co., the firm her father had founded, and was overseeing four companies, including Vantage. Dennis, having given up the agricultural life, was ensconced at Vantage, a start-up bankrolled by several family members, including Ann, who three years later would become its CEO. The couple seemed to be working nonstop. "I was on the road more and more," recalls Dennis. "Then I'd come home, and there would be peewee soccer or Little League. When it was time to relax, one of us was still running."
Maybe it was sheer exhaustion, or perhaps her own deeply ingrained midwestern family values coming home to roost, but Deters knew she had to make some changes. "I came to the realization that the most important thing in my life was children and family," she says, "and I started rethinking my priorities. We made a conscious effort to fit the business into our children's schedule instead of fitting our children into the business's schedule."
Has Vantage suffered because of that choice? "Having a business and a family gives me the discipline to create a more balanced life and makes me more of a whole person," she says. And that, she believes, makes her a better manager.
"When I'd had the boys, I said to myself that I was not going to raise them so they could go from their mother to their wives," Deters says.
At Vantage, Deters hired a management team, including an operations manager, a sales manager, and eventually a president. She began delegating responsibilities, such as customer service and personnel management, that she had previously insisted on handling herself. For his part, Dennis asked to be taken off the road and placed in an adjunct sales position, supporting and overseeing Vantage's reps (among other things). Typically, the couple work from 7:30 to 5:30, and one of them is usually on the road one night a week. As part of a pledge to their children, they travel together only once a year, to a four-day industry trade show.
Outside the office, Deters made a tough decision to resign from all community boards. "Why am I killing myself to help everybody but my children?" she asked herself. Finally, her evenings were free to spend with the people who needed her most.
The system Deters has today didn't just kick in overnight. It's been fine-tuned for the past eight years to accommodate each stage of the family's growth. With one teenager and two more boys on the cusp of adolescence, it's bound to keep changing. But what remains steady is the value system. Like a CEO imparting a company mission statement, Deters makes sure her kids understand the philosophy behind every rule and routine: work hard, make time for play, have faith, lead a balanced life.
At the heart of this working couple's family strategy is the right support system. Vantage, now a handsomely profitable $6-million company, has given the Deterses ample resources, and they spend $30,000 to $40,000 a year on child care and housecleaning. Their "house manager," Chelsea Miller, 20, arrives at 7:30 and leaves at 5:30, but she's typically in contact with the Deterses several times a day. Miller logs on to the Internet daily, where she has password access to Ann's and Dennis's schedules on Microsoft Outlook. "When Ann first explained it to me, I thought I'd be lost," recalls Miller, who is "Ms. Chelsea" to the boys. "But it's very easy to use. Now if she doesn't answer her cell phone, I can look at her calendar and find out where she is." Miller also adds the boys' activities to the calendar and enters tentative dates for, say, medical checkups, which Deters can either approve or change on her own.
Cell phones and E-mail are key to the system as well, and Deters makes it clear that she wants to hear from Miller not just about household scheduling but about behavioral issues as well. After a particularly tough day, for instance, Miller recently dashed off an E-mail to Deters, who was on an overnight trip. "Almost every time I have to tell [child's name withheld] 'no' to something, he feels as though it is the end of the world," wrote Miller. "Is it his age? Please help me with this." Deters wrote back the next morning: "Do not allow [him] to show that 'the world is against me' attitude or any flare of temper. He does this with both Dennis and me, and we constantly remind him that this is not proper behavior and it will get him nowhere." Soon after, Dennis also E-mailed Ann and copied Miller: "I treated the boys to a movie last night. We had a heart-to-heart on how they were treating Ms. Chelsea.... I informed the boys that they were to meet the expectations of Ms. Chelsea, since you and I with Chelsea agreed on standards and Ms. Chelsea does not pull this stuff out of the air. They said that they will try harder, but remember, they were all working to go to a movie last night."
Miller isn't just a baby-sitter. She's treated as a member of the family who must not only manage the Deterses' household but impart their values as well. "Ann likes all of the boys to be hard workers and not to complain," says Miller of her charges. "And she wants them to know how to take care of themselves." So there are no little princes in the Deters household. "When I'd had the boys, I said to myself that I was not going to raise them so they could go from their mother to their wives," Deters says. From the time they began kindergarten, her children have been dressing themselves and helping around the house. Yes, there's a cleaning lady who comes once a week, and Miller keeps things tidy, but the three older boys pull their own weight. Deters tells Miller what she expects of them, and Miller draws up a household schedule accordingly. It looks like this:
Tuesday: Make sure bathrooms are stocked. Boys put out trash and water flowers. Jeff wipes down bathroom; Neal empties the diaper pail.
Wednesday: Go to Wal-Mart. Boys mow lawn. Make sure printers and fax machine are filled with paper.
Thursday: Boys strip their beds, Chelsea washes the sheets, boys remake their beds.
Friday: Fill up van with gas. Boys vacuum van. Pick up dry cleaning.
Periodically, if Miller doesn't need to remind the children about chores, she rewards them with, say, a trip to the ice-cream stand. But if they complain or shirk their duties, they're presented with the dreaded "chore bucket," from which they blindly choose a more odious task. "Once I had to pull all the weeds around the house," recalls Jeff. "It was boring and hot."
Things don't always go smoothly, of course. "Not putting meetings in the system causes total havoc," says Deters, who admits that she and Dennis have sometimes, well after 10 p.m., realized that both have early meetings and are leaving home the next morning at 6. "That requires a late-night phone call to Chelsea to see if she'll come in earlier, or one of us agrees to delay the meeting," says Deters. Cell batteries die just when a sick child needs to be picked up; sporting events are forgotten; the Vantage network server goes down and delays E-mail transmission. But the snafus are temporary.
It starts when everyone gets up, between 6 and 6:30 in the morning, and although the family tries to sit down at the kitchen table together once a week, breakfast is usually harried. The three older boys fend for themselves.Then it's time for piano practice, a much reviled responsibility but one that Deters insists on. "I just want to open my children up to as many opportunities as possible in music and the arts," she says. Miller arrives at 7:30, when Ann and Dennis leave the house to drop the older boys at school and then head to the office. If work permits, one or both parents might sneak home for lunch, since the office is so close. In the summer, both parents leave work by 5:30; during the school year, Ann works through lunch and leaves the office at 3:30 to help the boys with homework. She tackles unfinished office work after the boys are in bed. Miller prepares dinner before she leaves, and the family eats together almost every evening -- a huge priority for Deters, since that's the one the time she can count on her entire brood's being together.
If there's one cardinal rule that the Deterses hold themselves to, it's this: leave work at the office. "It took us a long time to not bring the business home with us," says Deters. "But you need a break from it, and the kids provide the discipline for us to just be a family."
"We're constantly tweaking everything," she explains. Once in a while, the boys ask why she can't be a stay-at-home mom -- usually a sign that she's working too hard or traveling too much. There probably isn't a working mother anywhere who isn't periodically hit with the same question, and Deters's answer is typical: It's her business that allows the family to take nice vacations and the children to go to private school and eventually to college.
Deters is the first to admit that she's not hardwired to be at home 24-7. She's easily bored with routines and, even as a kid, avoided domestic duties as often as she could to play sports. "If you were to talk to my mother," she says, "she'd probably tell you, 'God must have been a bit short on patience the day he created Ann." And so she delegates the day-to-day details, much as she does at work.
Dennis, a self-proclaimed "type B," gives his type A wife his full support. "I couldn't have accomplished this arrangement without him," says Deters. "I feel good about where we are in life, how our children are growing up, how the business is doing. Life is good. I couldn't be happier."
Donna Fenn is a contributing editor at Inc.
CEO Ann Deters's five most critical practices at home:
1. Outsource daily chores, including meals, to house manager Chelsea Miller so that "we can focus on playing and interacting with the children when we come home from work."
2. Maintain multiple communication lines, including E-mail, phone, and cell phones. Also, Miller keeps a written diary in which she posts daily events.
3. Use technology to stay organized. "I'm a to-do-list person to a fault," says Deters. "PalmPilot has been my lifesaver." She syncs her laptop ("my portable office") with her PDA at least once a day. Other critical tools: Microsoft Outlook and a home DSL line.
4. Keep flexible schedules for everyone. You need a routine, but deviating from it shouldn't make you crazy. "You've got to be able to drop or pick up something at the drop of a hat," says Deters. "Juggling is a daily event, and multitasking is what I thrive on."
5. Remember that "a daily dose of humor is a must both at home and at work," says Deters.
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DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor
Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.