What kind of a CEO takes a year off from business to work for charity? A shrewd one, says Benneville Strohecker, CEO of Harbor Sweets Inc., in Salem, Mass. "It's a hell of a way to see if you're building a good organization." Strohecker will see how good his own organization is in January, when he begins a year-long, company-paid sabbatical from the $2-million gourmet chocolate company he founded 12 years ago. He will use the time to raise money for AIDS patients -- and also to prove that Harbor Sweets can go on without him.

In fact, Strohecker decided to take a leave of absence several years before he knew how to use it. He did know, however, that he wanted to "devote a big chunk of time to public service." To prepare for the sabbatical, he began delegating more and more responsibility to his management team, and looking for a cause. Strohecker's search led him to AIDS: although he'd never met anyone with the disease, he became convinced that it is today's most pressing social issue.

With the American Institute of Wine and Food, Strohecker is now organizing a series of gourmet fund-raising dinners around the country to fund hospice and home-care for AIDS victims. Along the way, he hopes his involvement will help persuade other businesspeople that AIDS isn't just an issue for homosexuals and drug addicts.

To make time for organizing the dinners, Strohecker has already reduced his workweek at Harbor Sweets to less than 20 hours, and his team of managers officially took over July 1. So far, the transition has been uneventful, according to both the departing CEO and COO Phyllis LeBlanc. That raises an interesting question: what happens when the year's leave is up? Strohecker, 61, insists he has no intention of retiring or returning to day-to-day management. Instead, he plans to concentrate on special projects, like learning to export. "The trick is to have a job when you get back," he admits. "That's a hole I've dug for myself that I'll enjoy finding a way out of."

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf

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