WORK-LIFE BALANCE

When the Boss Gets Cancer

What happened to a start-up when the founder discovered he was fighting cancer
NO STOPPING HIM Despite debilitating chemo treatments, Jerry Gonzalez kept going.
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Jerry Gonzalez was just blocks from home when his doctor called. Gonzalez pulled over, answered his cell, and listened grimly to the test results. Stage IV colon cancer. Metastasis to the liver. Not necessarily a death sentence, but mortality was very much on the table. (The five-year survival rate for people with stage IV colon cancer is 8 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.)

"I wasn't afraid of dying," says Gonzalez, 46. "But I hadn't finished what I started."

What Gonzalez had started was María Elena's Authentic Latino, a producer of organic Latino delicacies, such as the rice-and-cinnamon drink horchata. Gonzalez had two other companies: one that made organic cotton candy and one that sold concessions at amusement venues. But María Elena's was to be his breakthrough, the business that put his products in groceries nationwide.

It was October 2007, and Gonzalez had already sunk $750,000 -- his own money and his brother's -- into an organic-food-processing facility in Valencia, California. He had lined up the certifications, laid in all the ingredients, created the packaging, and prepared the samples. All that remained was for Gonzalez, a onetime manager at Whole Foods Market, to start leveraging his sales skills and connections. But before he could shake a single prospective customer's hand, his oncologist made another introduction. "He told me, 'Meet your new chronic disease,' " recalls Gonzalez.

A leader's illness raises doubts about his or her company's future, and new businesses are the most vulnerable. Start-ups require from entrepreneurs a degree of exertion comparable to what Hercules mustered for the 12 labors. Gonzalez was about to be reduced to the strength of a puppy. And yet'¶

"Put it off?" asks Gonzalez. "That didn't even occur to me."

Before his diagnosis, Gonzalez had laid out a launch path that would put him before store executives, inside supermarkets, and at trade shows for most of the winter and spring of 2008. That schedule was now overlaid with a second one consisting of two operations and chemotherapy. "Jerry's wife told me one day as we were waiting at the hospital that she wished he would slow down," says Victor Gonzalez, Jerry's brother and now a vice president at María Elena's. "But we all know Jerry so well that we knew he would not listen."

In November, as Gonzalez prepared for surgery to remove the right side of his colon, he handed envelopes to his brother and to John Mularky, his partner in the cotton-candy company. "He said we should open them if things didn't go the way we prayed they would," says Victor Gonzalez. "I looked at it briefly, just to know what was there. It was his computer password, the company financials, that type of thing."

By January 2008, Gonzalez was recovering well and preparing to make sales calls. He was also on chemo. Every other Tuesday, Gonzalez would visit his oncologist's office and be infused for two hours through a catheter embedded in his chest. Then he would head home wearing a fanny pack of chemicals that fed into an artery and kept the process going until Thursday. The Wednesday after the appointment, he would be in the office for as long as he could stand it, answering e-mail and doing other nontaxing work. "I came into the office for me, because I love every second of what I do," says Gonzalez. "But I think it was also good for employees to see me, that I was keeping this deal going."

By Sunday, Gonzalez would feel himself again, and the following week -- a nonchemo week -- he would wring every drop of productivity out of his time. Almost every day he spent in the field. In February, he got his product into Whole Foods. Then a chain of Hispanic markets in the San Fernando Valley.

Unsure whether to reveal his condition to potential customers, Gonzalez discussed the matter with Joseph Albonetti, president of LatinoLandia USA, which provides marketing services to María Elena's. Albonetti advised against it. "I said to him, 'This isn't the right time,' " recalls Albonetti. " 'All it does is put a question mark there that's open to misinterpretation.' "

Gonzalez compromised by postponing disclosure to retail partners until halfway through his treatment. "We wanted to show them that despite my illness, things were running fine," he says. But he also wanted them to understand why he wasn't living up to his own standards for doing everything possible to make María Elena's a success. "I wasn't able to do all the in-store demos that needed to be done," he says. "I wasn't able to spend time in stores figuring out how to merchandise the product. If you offer a new salad dressing, it goes with the salad dressings. Where do you put organic horchata?"

"I've known Jerry for a long time, so I could tell he was tired and he was in pain," says Dave Gonzalez (no relation), store manager for a Whole Foods in Pasadena, California. "But he kept pushing the product."

In April, the San Fernando Valley Business Journal reported a story about Gonzalez's organic products, and a photographer came out to shoot Gonzalez at his new plant. Afterward, Gonzalez drove to the beach and sat there for four hours, staring at the water. "Emotionally, I was all over the place," he says. The next day, he returned to the hospital to have 40 percent of his liver removed.

Chemotherapy ended last July, and by mid-August, Gonzalez was pronounced cancer free. He still goes in for tests, appointments he refuses to log on his computer "because I don't want an alarm to go off and remind me." His wife keeps that calendar instead.

Many survivors report that illness changed their lives in a stop-and-smell-the-roses way. If anything, Gonzalez is more driven than ever. "What gets to me is the knowledge it could come back," he says. "So I'll spend that extra hour in the office. Because if it does come back, at least I'll have done what I set out to do."

Last updated: Jul 1, 2009

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

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.




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