Why you may be the worst kind of parent your children could have -- and what you can do about it
Tom Reisinger couldn't believe what he was seeing. Here lay his 17-year-old son in intensive care with his face bloodied and swollen; his body was hooked up to a web of tubes and monitors. The nurses offered Tom a pillow, a blanket, and a nearby sofa. Don't worry about all the beeping monitors, they said. We'll take care of them.
Tom didn't know whether to be scared or furious. Or both. John had told his mother that he was going to visit family friends for a quiet weekend. But the accident happened two hours north of where he'd claimed to be headed. Obviously, he'd lied. Again.
Lately, Tom's relationship with his only child had hardened into a series of tests, each more difficult to take than the last. Not that there was any reward for passing. John had been bounced out of school not once but twice, and he'd stopped playing soccer -- even though his talent had earned him a spot on the state's prestigious Olympic development team. Then came the marijuana problem. A family therapist concluded that John was angry at his father -- angry that Tom had missed soccer games, birthdays, and Christmas and family dinners, all in the name of building a business.
Tom didn't understand. From that day in 1987 when he had started his transportation company, he was never in business just for himself. Sure, he'd missed more family events than he would have liked, but he did so only because he wanted to build a better family life than he'd ever had -- one with improved schools, nicer vacations, more choices. "Growing up, our family didn't have a lot of material things," he recalls. "I wanted my son to have whatever he needed to express himself."
Now, as the doctor delivered his grim report, Tom felt a shudder twitch through him. His son had suffered "massive internal injuries," as the doctor put it. His description then turned a bit less delicate. John's insides, the doctor said, had been tossed around and rearranged "like a milk shake." The next 24 hours would be critical.
It was a wonder his son had survived at all. After running a stop sign, the Honda Prelude in which John had been riding was flattened by an 18-wheel, 40-ton semitrailer truck. Later, as Tom stood speechless before the car's twisted remains, the man at the junkyard offered some solace. "Lucky there was no passenger in there," he said. "Never would have made it." "But there was," Tom whispered.
As the days and weeks passed, Tom awakened to an irony almost too painful to acknowledge. "I'd built my business using the same kind of truck that nearly killed my son," the 44-year-old says hesitantly. In Tom's mind the accident took on a scary symbolism all its own: it represented the ultimate head-on collision between the ever-escalating demands of his business and the needs of his family. Echoing in his mind was his son's frequent accusation: "You care more about the business than you do about your own family."
And standing there beside that hospital bed on a sweltering June night last year, Tom Reisinger came to a disturbing conclusion: his business was killing his family.
Striking a balance between work and family is never easy. But entrepreneurs seem especially ill-suited to the task. Why? Because some of the very traits that company builders need to flourish in their work -- a distinct single-mindedness, for example, or an unnatural affection for chaotic situations -- are bound to wreak havoc at home.
To be sure, the Reisingers' tale provides a stark example of the toll such a tug-of-war can take on a family. But their struggle, with its ugly episodes and tragic turns, is no different from that of any family in which the neediest offspring of all just happens to be a company.
There's never a clear line between responsibilities at home and those at work. But in an entrepreneurial endeavor, the two are perpetually intertwined, with family funds and even family members often involved in the business from the start. In truth, family members are involved whether they want to be or not. If one parent runs a retailing outfit, for example, holiday togetherness loses out to keeping up with customer demand. "The rationale quickly becomes that whatever serves the business serves the family," observes W. Gibb Dyer Jr., a professor at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University who has studied entrepreneurial work and family issues.
That rationale, as common as it is, is also addictive: as such, it does damage but is often hard to see -- until it's too late.
"My first priority was always to put a roof over my family, and that meant attending to the needs of the business first," says William Borne, founder of Analytical Nursing Management Corp. (ANMC), in Baton Rouge, La. In just seven years he built a successful $12-million business but alienated his wife and two children. Just as ANMC was hitting its stride, Kim Borne packed her belongings and left with the children. Why did she do it? "The business sucked up all Bill's energy, leaving nothing for his family," she says bluntly.
Entrepreneurs aren't the only ones who work hard, but they do communicate a sense of independence as well as the power to set their own agenda. So when that first dance recital is missed -- followed by the second and then the third -- the implicit message is that the entrepreneurial parent has made a clear choice, and the family is not a top priority. After all, goes the reasoning, there's no higher-up to blame. "The boss is the corporate monster the entrepreneur doesn't have," says Max Carey, owner of fast-growing Corporate Resource Development, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta. In the end, though, corporate monster or not, the message to the kids is clear. "I always felt like I came second in line behind the business," says Elise Carey, Max's daughter. Because of their intense emotional involvement with their companies, entrepreneurs often tap the same finite supply of inner resources for their businesses that they need for their families. Conversely, entrepreneurs are also required to build up certain emotional reserves, such as appearing in control at all times, that they mistakenly apply at home.
Merrily Orsini, a single mother of two boys and the founder of an elder-care company in Louisville, recalls with some embarrassment her strategy for keeping her home running efficiently. Borrowing a tactic from her $2.5-million business, she posted charts and graphs -- detailing dish cleanup, garbage pickup, and more -- up and down the refrigerator door. The response? The kids ignored them. Then, taking another cue from work, she decided to add deadlines. "Walk dog by 5 p.m.," the charts commanded. The outcome? "I ended up walking the dog," Orsini confesses. Even now, she admits, there are still days when she'd like to whip off a memo to her two boys, but she's come to realize that "kids aren't employees. You can't fire your kids."
Unfortunately, though, your kids can fire you -- emotionally, that is. One time, Orsini remembers, she was pounding away on the computer when her elder son stopped by to tell her about school. In the midst of his sentence, she stole a quick glance at her watch. "He stopped talking and walked away," the 47-year-old entrepreneur recalls. "The moment was gone. I tried to stop him, but he left and never told me the story. He could see in my body language that I was still thinking about work." Her advice: "You have to be able to stop, listen carefully, and understand that a pimple can be devastating."
Even the knack of tuning out naysayers, while essential to birthing a new business, can serve as a handicap in the home -- a place where unspoken subtleties and quiet murmurings often reveal serious needs. "In starting a business, you have to listen only to yourself -- and your dream," Orsini says. "Children can shatter that focus."
Of course, you don't have to let them do that. You can remain as single-minded, risk-taking, and hierarchical at home as you are at the office. But the results you get may shock you and leave you as dazed as Tom Reisinger. "It's painful to see how much harm you can cause your family," he confesses.
By the time he opened his own eyes to it, in fact, Tom Reisinger had to wonder whether he was, simply, too late.
As Tom stared at the three screens blinking above his son's hospital bed, his mind drifted back to all the soccer games he'd watched John play -- watched, but never really seen. His mind was always elsewhere.
John knew that. Stung by his father's inattentiveness, he once told his mother that as far as he was concerned he didn't even have a father. Didn't have a dad? Tom reddened with anger when he heard that.
In fact, it was partially because of John that Tom had even thought to launch Hub City Indianapolis Terminals Inc. (HCIT) in 1987. After 17 years with Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, the $565-million railroad company, Tom was tired of having to uproot his family constantly. In the previous 9 years they'd moved seven times. John had transferred to six different schools. So when the company offered Tom a buyout as part of a downsizing program, he and his wife, Margo, decided to start a business.
Soon after, Tom hooked up with the Hub Group, an Indiana-based company that offered to set him up in his own intermodal-transportation firm. Rather than moving goods simply by railroad or by truck, an intermodal business combines different modes of transport to achieve greater cost-efficiency. Because it bought transportation services in volume, the Hub Group could offer Tom lower prices, which he, in turn, could pass on to his customers. Convinced it was the opportunity he'd been looking for, Tom liquidated his entire life savings of $28,000 to start HCIT; the Hub Group invested around $85,000, making it the majority shareholder.
It seemed like the ideal setup. "Not only was I my own boss, but I was so close I could even go home to see John, play soccer with him, and then run back to work," Tom says.
Tom took particular pride in watching John excel on the soccer field. As a boy Tom had worn steel braces on his legs for seven years -- meaning that he couldn't play any sports. "Seeing John play was like giving Tom the chance he'd never had," Margo explains. When Tom was still working for Illinois Central, he and John would go down to Chicago's lakefront on the weekends and kick the ball back and forth. "We'd go one-on-one for hours," Tom says. Later Margo would arrive with a picnic. As John's talent for soccer became evident -- he was tapped for the respected East West Ambassador Team and later the state Olympic development team -- weekends revolved around games. "We were a very tight unit," Tom recalls.
Until, that is, Tom's business came along.
To launch HCIT, the Reisingers left their high-rise apartment in downtown Chicago and rented a "cheap little run-down house" on the north side of Indianapolis, as Tom describes it. But it was worth it, they reasoned. Aside from giving Tom a nearly nonexistent commute, the location also put John in one of the top school districts.
Coordinating the transport of everything from black-eyed peas to baby bibs, HCIT was bucking lots of competition and the bad reputation of some of the intermodal industry's earliest players. Thanks to the 1980 deregulation of interstate transport, a slew of mom-and-pop shops had sprung up. But many had underestimated the complexity of choreographing over-the-road and rail transport into one seamless delivery, leaving customers disappointed and skeptical, Tom says.
At the office Margo answered phones and helped with the accounting, as a recruit from the local Chrysler dealership struggled to understand the company's operations. Tom was always torn between leaving his office in the hands of a completely inexperienced two-person staff and making the sales calls that his company desperately needed. By the end of 1987, after two months in business, HCIT had eaten through $30,000 of his $110,000 start-up fund.
Not surprisingly, Tom was finding it more and more difficult to make it home for dinner. He spent at least three nights a week away. "Tom had always been a hard worker," says Margo, "but now it was 24 hours a day."
No matter what. For John's 11th birthday, in 1987, the family had planned a trip to Disney World to celebrate, but at the last moment Tom decided he couldn't go. "I couldn't take the time off, not then," he recalls, citing that HCIT was barely two months old. Traveling with his mother and grandmother, John secretly thought his dad would show up, even if just for the cake. But the party came and went. Tom still remembers the heart-wrenching call from his son that night. "He kept saying, 'I don't understand why you couldn't leave for one day," Tom recalls.
More holidays came and went, with Tom always absent -- or sometimes there but not quite present. "He worked through every holiday," Margo recalls. There was Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. Then his next three wedding anniversaries.
By 1990 the company had plowed through almost the entire initial investment and, despite revenues of $6.5 million, profits were barely $8,000. "I was having to cut my margins to the bone to get customers in the door," Tom explains. In a business in which gross margins typically hover around 5%, Tom was slashing his margins to 3%.
He projected losses the first year, breakeven the second, and profits the third, but here he was in his third year, not doing much better than breaking even. The rumblings from his investors were clear: get this on track -- and fast. Not only did Tom worry that his investors might abandon him, but his family's entire savings were in jeopardy.
But in late 1989 Tom had first glimpsed a way out. R.R. Donnelley & Sons, the country's largest printer, was looking for an alternative to the U.S. postal system for hauling catalogs -- like J.C. Penney Co.'s and Sears Roebuck & Co.'s -- from its plants to the bulk-mail centers. Getting this contract, he figured, would make company revenues vault from $6 million to $15 million a year. "This was the moment I'd been waiting for," Tom says.
Or so it seemed.
For the next year Tom locked his sights on Donnelley. For three months he even camped out at the Days Inn next to Donnelley's offices in Crawfordsville, Ind. Headquartered in Donnelley's lunchroom, Tom pecked away at his laptop while employees munched around him. At night he returned to his hotel room to continue working -- often until the first streaks of dawn. The logistics were extraordinarily complex: he had to calculate 3,500 different rates in his bid.
At home, John kept asking about his dad -- and Margo tried to cover for her husband. She called Tom, suggesting that she and John drive up an hour to Crawfordsville and meet him for dinner. Tom's quick response: no way. "It sounds callous, but I couldn't afford to be distracted. I just kept thinking, 'If I can get this account, we'll be over the hump," he says.
Indeed, Tom did win the account, but it didn't make things all that much easier. That year he faced $70,000 in unexpected debt, thanks to customers unable to pay their bills. At the same time, keeping up with Donnelley's volume was pushing Tom to his limit. "We went from handling 100 loads a month of Donnelley cargo to 900," he points out. "I was hiring employees as fast as I could; temporary phones were hanging from the ceiling; people were working around the clock."
While his father's business was exploding, John was excelling in soccer. But years of switching schools seemed to have caught up with him. He'd slipped from being an A student to getting C's and D's. But Tom didn't worry. "Kids have ups and downs," he reasoned. "Besides, I certainly wasn't an academic star."
Margo, however, was concerned. John was becoming reclusive. She'd caught him smoking marijuana, and she suspected it was fast becoming a habit. He'd also fallen in with a group of "fringe" kids -- though strangely enough, most of them also had absent, entrepreneurial fathers. Clearly, John was not pleased about having a dad who fit into that category. "In the heat of an argument he'd tell me his dad didn't care about him -- his dad couldn't love him," Margo says. "If he did, he'd make time for us." She adds, "It was clear John was mad at his dad for being gone when he needed him most."
Even when Tom did make time for his family, everyone's patience got sorely tested. As the decision maker 12 hours a day at HCIT, Tom couldn't stop when he came home. "He'd walk in and act like he was still the boss and we were his employees," recalls Margo. "You could see him mentally taking inventory. Why isn't that lightbulb changed? Did you call the plumber? Has John finished his homework?"
John, for one, turned livid. "What right do you have to tell us what to do?" he demanded. "You're never around."
Of course Tom wasn't. He was fighting to keep up with sales that were doubling every year. "We weren't computerized yet," he explains. In a business that depends on huge volume to offset slim margins, Tom's staff was still scribbling each order on paper. And by 1991, the focus on Donnelley was, ironically, hurting HCIT. "Now that 50% of our business came from one customer, we quickly realized we had to turn equal attention to building our non-Donnelley business," he says. Taking to the road, he clocked 40,000 extra miles on his odometer that year, scouring the state for customers.
Margo tried to hold things together at home. She'd left her job at HCIT in 1989. Still, she well remembered the pressure of the business and kept trying to explain it to her son. But after four years she had trouble explaining it even to herself. "There wasn't anything but the business for Tom," she says.
Tom did see his son play soccer, sort of. "I'd be there on the sidelines, but I was thinking about accounts," he admits. "I was gone mentally. If John had asked me about any of the plays, I couldn't have told him what happened." Fortunately for them both, John never did ask.
When he could, Tom did take a moment or two to point his son in the right direction. All John needed, he instructed, was simply to apply himself more. There was no surer route to success than hard work. What better proof did he need than his own dad's company? By its fifth year, 1992, HCIT was pulling in profits of around $300,000 on revenues of $20 million, and the company was debt-free. "He'd lecture John, telling him he could do anything if he'd work for it," Margo recalls. But, she explains, "John's problems were about being lost and scared, not about his ability to work."
For her part, Margo worked to convince her husband that their son was deeply troubled. Sometimes she'd go to his office, close the door, and begin. John had missed 40 days of school. He was sleeping through classes. He was dropping out of soccer. And in the previous six months, she'd attended three funerals, all friends of John's who'd died in car crashes caused by drugs or drinking -- including one accident that occurred at the foot of their driveway.
"I was sure John's turn was next," Margo says.
By the end of the monologue, Margo couldn't help crying, which just left Tom frustrated to the point of speechlessness. "Halfway into it I'd get so upset about what was happening to John I'd burst into tears, and Tom would tune out," she says.
As John's troubles mounted, Tom repeatedly assured his wife everything would be OK. "It's a stage," he'd tell her. "He'll grow out of it." But Margo didn't think so. Furthermore, she couldn't help wondering if her husband was any kind of judge. "He's the kind of guy who hitchhikes across the country, who loves fast cars and isn't happy unless his heart is pumping 100 miles per hour," she explains. While Tom's comfort with risk made him ideal for managing the ups and downs of his business, it was blinding him to the unhealthful risks building in his family.
One night in March 1992, while Tom was working into the night, a friend of Margo's called him. "Your wife doesn't sound good," she said. "Maybe you'd better check up on her." Tom raced home to find his wife curled up in a corner, shaking. The doctors needed only a brief exam to make their diagnosis: she had suffered a nervous breakdown. It was brought on, they theorized, by a difficult family history coupled with "severe stress": the stress of having a son in trouble, the stress of parenting alone, and the stress of having her family, her husband, and her future tied to a business.
Margo spent the next five weeks in the hospital, recuperating. Now Tom had no choice but to come home every night -- and early enough to have dinner with his son. Sitting across the table from his father, John swung from stony silence to enraged outbursts. "I'd ask John how his day had gone and he'd walk out and go to his room," Tom says. Other times, he'd shout at Tom, accusing him of deserting the family. "There were tons of fights," John admits. "I couldn't forgive him." But instead of walking away -- Tom's typical response -- he had no choice but to stay put. It was hard. Especially in June, when John, then a sophomore, was asked to leave high school. "We just thought, 'What do we do now?" Tom confesses.
As the weeks went by Tom and his son trudged toward common ground. Tom left work earlier, bringing work home. Slowly, he came to a surprising awareness: some of the traits that had enabled him to build a strong business were preventing him from building a strong family. "In building a business you get hooked on accomplishment -- what client did you pull in, can you double sales this year," Tom reasons. "Family life has little to do with accomplishing and more to do with being there. It's hard to make the switch."
After Margo came home from the hospital, the family began seeing a therapist together. John decided to go to boarding school. "I wanted a fresh start -- a chance to begin again, free of the past," he says.
For his part, Tom began sifting through some of his most basic assumptions. "I thought I was present for my family, but then I realized that I was really in my own world," he says. "A world that included my business but excluded them."
Back in his office, Tom Reisinger reflects on a couple of memories.
One is of his father, who worked for 35 years at the same company -- only to be fired after it was acquired. The other: his own difficult childhood in leg braces. Both events, he says, planted within him a desire to be independent and in control.
In building HCIT, Tom thought he was fulfilling that desire. As he faces his eighth year in business, HCIT's revenues are around $24 million, with comfortable profits of more than $300,000. The company also earned the 391st slot on the 1994 Inc. 500, a ranking of the nation's fastest-growing private companies. And yet, Tom can't help feeling duped. His very success in business has bred his son's fear of failure. Tom says his son is scared to visit him at work. "He says, 'I've got long hair; I don't want to embarrass you," explains Tom.
And the setbacks have continued. Six months after starting at his new school in 1993, John got expelled for drinking and smoking pot. And then last June, he nearly lost his life in the car accident. Miraculously, he suffered little long-term damage from the crash, aside from severe bruising to one lung, a kidney, and his spleen. After six months, doctors now say they expect a full recovery.
Staring at the paperweight on his desk -- a gift from his father -- Tom thinks of the inscription as a grim reminder that things aren't as simple as he and Margo thought when they embarked on the adventure of starting a company. "Be a Believer," the inscription reads. "I'm not sure believing is enough anymore," Tom says sadly. He believed in the business; he believed it would help his family; he believed he was making a better future.
"Now all I believe is that we've been through hell," he says, adding, "I think we're coming out." Ever the optimist, Tom ticks off their recent accomplishments: Margo is happier; John, recovered from his accident, attended an Outward Bound-type program, finished junior year in home schooling, and won his way back to the boarding school that expelled him. He's pulling in good grades and playing soccer competitively. "We hug more," Tom adds. But he knows that deep scars remain.
"My dad is writing me letters now, and he says he's proud of me," John, now 18, reports. "But he has to realize that we're not just an unhappy customer, that we're more than a problem that had to be solved." Pausing for a moment, he adds, "I guess you could say, in this instance, actions will speak louder than words."
REAR A BUSINESS, RUIN A FAMILY?
Don't worry about all that time you need to spend at the business. It's OK. Your family can do without you for a while.
At least that's the rationalization that passes for reality in most entrepreneurial minds. There's only one catch, though. "It's just not true," warns Thomas Davidow, a family-business psychologist in Needham, Mass. "A family is a system just as complex as the business, and everyone has to play their part." In other words, your spouse can't fill in for you.
Which means, of course, that you have to make your entrepreneurial ambition mesh with domestic demands. But where do you start? Here, say a few experienced jugglers, are some first steps:
1. Create artificial boundaries -- and stick to them. It's a simple promise: you stop working on weekends, or you vow to take everybody out for dinner once a week. The only hard part is actually carrying through with it. "The demands of a growing business will always drive out the family if you let it," explains W. Gibb Dyer Jr., author of The Entrepreneurial Experience.
It's best, then, to make a promise that's not so tough to keep. For instance, Noall Knighton, president of Knighton Optical Inc., a $4.5-million chain of eyeglass retailers based in Ogden, Utah, coaches his son's soccer team. Most nights, Knighton can't promise his family exactly when he'll see them -- except, that is, on Tuesday. "Every Tuesday, no matter what's going on, I leave my desk by 5 p.m.," he says. According to Davidow, such routine commitments often work out well. "Give entrepreneurs a place to be and a goal to accomplish, and you're speaking their language," he says.
Every Sunday, Dixon Fleming, chairman and CEO of Factory Stores of America, in Smithfield, N.C., places himself at the family dinner table, where each member shares news. "No, it's not a place where anyone is likely to spill their guts," explains the 40-year-old father of three. "But it's a way to take the temperature."
2. Never tell your family what you gave up to be with them. Walking out of a meeting because you have to pick up your child at school isn't always easy, and it's never guilt-free. "You feel like you're the leader, so you should be there," confesses Merrily Orsini, the owner of $2.5-million Elder Care Solutions, in Louisville. But she cautions against making your kids aware of such trade-offs. "Being a parent is about sacrifices," says Orsini. "Kids need to know they're important -- not what you sacrificed to be with them."
3. Shorten the distance between work and home. If Merrily Orsini lived any closer to her business, her two boys would be bunking in a conference room. "When the boys reached 10 and 12, I wanted to see who they brought home from school, help them with their homework, and then go back to work," says the single mother. Which is why she cleared space for her home on the top two floors of Elder Care's headquarters, in the Highlands area of Louisville.
Eventually, Elder Care's expanding space needs forced Orsini and her family to find other digs -- but they didn't go far. They now live in a home behind her company.
4. Bring your kids to work. Noall Knighton has never forgotten the Saturdays he spent working at his dad's eyeglass company. "He'd let us work in the returns department or assembly. It was his way of sharing his world with us," says Knighton, who has since taken over the business. He says his dad made a point of giving him a real job to do -- "something that I could do and learn, not a make-believe job." And the tradition goes on. Today Knighton brings his 10-year-old to work and sets him to work at the mail machine.
As strange as it sounds, other company builders actually cart their kids along on business trips. Traveling for his consulting business nearly 75% of the time, Max Carey, owner of Corporate Resource Development, in Atlanta, invites each of his three children (ages 18, 15, and 13) to join him at least twice a year on a business trip. On a recent cross-country plane flight he introduced his 13-year-old son to the joys of crossword puzzles. "It's uninterrupted one-on-one time," he explains. "You end up doing or talking about things you never would at home."
5. Remember, you're building the business because you want to. "Kids know when you're lying to them," offers Max Carey. "If you try to pin your work habits on them, they'll resent the lie." Not long ago the father of three had just finished his now-famed monologue that begins, "I'm building the business to build a better life for my family," when his daughter stopped him cold. "Don't tell me you work this hard for me," she chided. "You do it for yourself; you'd do the same thing even if we weren't around." After a few feeble rebuttals, Carey admitted she was right. "It's hard to admit to my family how much I love the business -- it's my reason for being," he confesses. "Somehow it sounds less selfish, though, if you say you're working for the good of the family." Today Carey openly shares with his family the joys of closing a deal or exceeding projections.