Tape Resources: Class of 1998

Burned out and disillusioned, Seph Barnard vowed last year to walk away from the company he had founded. This year he's really doing it

Seph Barnard felt exhausted by the stress of running his company. So last year he vowed to do what so many entrepreneurs merely dream about -- discard his responsibilities as cofounder and president of Tape Resources Inc., which ranked #479 on last year's list and #426 on 1998's ranking. He planned a six-month sabbatical and a trip around the world. (See " Fit to Be Tired," in the 1999 Inc. 500 issue.)

Barnard, however, found that walking away was no less stressful than running the company, a distributor of audiotape and videotape based in Virginia Beach, Va. His planned sabbatical with his wife and young son on a Caribbean island barely lasted a week. "It was too much of a shock to take off all at once," says Barnard, 44. "I have to detoxify myself from the business and the need to be needed."

That need has defined Barnard's tenure at Tape Resources since he bought the company from some former business partners, in 1993. Barnard did everything at the company, from setting the strategic direction to constructing metal shelving in the warehouse. As he grew too tired to define new challenges, he plunged ever deeper into micromanaging.

Only a complete break from the business could cure what ailed him, it seemed. But a week away was all he could stand. "As much as I wanted to be absent, there were lots of things dragging me back in," says Barnard. "I had to know if everything was still fine."

It was. But he had to find that out on his own. "If anything, I was holding them back by being there," he says. "I knew they would do well without me, but I never wanted to believe that."

So Barnard promised to try the sabbatical again this fall and began preparing for it. He allowed newly promoted chief operating officer David Durovy, who owns 20% of the company, to sign the checks. "The main thing for me was giving up signing rights and knowing that it wouldn't be the start of a decline," says Barnard, who had previously scrutinized every invoice. "It was uncharted territory."

In weaning himself gradually from the company, Barnard largely stayed away from the office, working from home or taking short trips with his family. Eventually, he wasn't even involved in hiring decisions. "I walked into the office," he says of a day this past summer, "and there were three people there I didn't know."

Despite Barnard's declining involvement, the company boasted a 24% gain in sales in fiscal year 2000, to $8.5 million. With Durovy in place as COO, Barnard took off at the end of August with his family on a three-month tour of South Africa, New Zealand, Hawaii, and anyplace else that might strike his fancy.

And what will he do when he returns from his sabbatical -- assuming he's able to stay away this time for more than a week? Barnard vows he'll return as chairman of the company and get involved only to oversee quarterly reviews of its operations. He is considering starting another company, possibly a marketing business that would help clients use direct mail and the Internet to generate sales. Or he may become a distributor of African art and artifacts; a good friend in South Africa, his homeland, needs a representative in the United States.

Barnard also wants to enroll in a Ph.D. program in business management. Surely he's already gathered plenty of material for a thesis on letting go.

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