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Tied up at the office? These folks aren't

Do you have a life? a lot of Inc. 500 CEOs complain that they don't -- at least not outside the office. One of the best attended and most talked about sessions at the Inc. 500 Conference in Norfolk, Va., earlier this year, was Dr. Stephen Berglas's discourse on managing entrepreneurial stress. The people who jammed the room weren't there because they had mastered the task. Some attendees confessed they were so preoccupied with the urgencies of getting and keeping their companies going that they barely remembered what their families looked like. Take time off? Surely, you jest.

But not every Inc. 500 CEO has forgotten how to play -- and how to set aside time for play in his or her schedule. We found four folks on this year's list who not only have lives outside the office but also regularly and willingly put them on the line. (And isn't it just like an entrepreneur to leverage every last resource?)

"I love speed," says Harry Fair. And not just a little speed. As president of Evolving Systems (#205), Fair has seen his company grow 1,088% from 1990 to 1994, so he has experienced his share of corporate velocity. But he also holds the land-speed record for production motorcycles: a breakneck 181 miles per hour on his 1993 Kawasaki ZX-11. "It's a tremendous release. I get off the bike after a killer run," Fair says, "and I'm all smiles."

Fair's not the only member of the 1995 Inc. 500 to willingly send himself careering toward possible oblivion. Preferring a tad less velocity but no less risk, Joe Harrington of HBS Computers (#346) enjoys drag racing in his modified 1987 Buick Grand National, capable of going from zero to 111 in 12.05 seconds. Robert Vanman of Radar Sales (#468) loves nothing more than tooling around the craggy trails of the forests of Wisconsin on his 1984 Yamaha IT250 dirt bike. And Bob Davis of Davis Cos. (#62) is never happier than when he's turning a barrel roll or two in his 1982 Skybolt S2B biplane.

Aren't these folks a bit loopy (quite literally, in Davis's case), risking life and limb just for the thrill of it? Mike McCaffrey, a specialist in stress reduction, thinks extreme behavior is a natural extension of the entrepreneurial urge. "Daily, these folks are risking their business lives," he says, "so it seems in keeping for them to engage in other kinds of risk -- athletically, personally. The same person could go skydiving and not really be changing his or her spots."

Plus, these risk-taking CEOs argue, besides the physical release and the exhilarating adrenaline rush, there are in fact business reasons for their perilous pastimes.

Fair maintains that building and racing a motorcycle is actually very similar to starting and growing a business. "It's just in a different medium," he says. "To make a motorcycle better and faster, you have to find ways to put it together that no one else thought of." Likewise, it's how you put the pieces of a business together that make for faster growth.

Vanman, the dirt biker, gets away from the business so he can better think about it. He claims he can always think of something useful at a distance. "Almost all our new products," he says, "I've thought of while on vacation."

Although sometimes work is best left behind entirely. Observes Harrington, "You could be thinking about the business while you watch TV." He uses drag racing to remove himself physically and mentally from his company. At 111 miles per hour, he'd better not be thinking about anything except his Buick.

Having an outside passion can also give you perspective. There's nothing like looking death in the face to put payroll worries in their proper light. Even injury, though the experts don't recommend it, can bestow benefits -- like an appreciation for tenacity. In 1982, at the age of 18, Vanman had a major accident. But nine months and three operations later, he was back on his bike. In 1988 Vanman's first business, with $1.2 million in sales, failed when the manufacturer of Vanman's key product discontinued it. "I crashed the first time," he says, "but now I'm back." On the trail and in business, he means.

Philosophy aside, these push-it-to-the-limit CEOs do what they do because it's fun. And you can't underestimate the value of fun. But if aerobatics, drag racing, and dirt-bike rides sound like more risk than you're ready to take right now, build up to it. Start slow. Take a walk, but take a risk: leave the cellular phone at home.

Published on: Oct 15, 1995