When you run out of gas

Mar 05, 2007

We can all take a lesson from my old buddy Bert Johnson (not his real name). He is a classic case of the entrepreneur who lost interest in his business, but figured out how to make things right, anyway. Bert was, by any standard, always a driven fellow and had his own engineering firm by the time he was 26. As soon as he passed his P.E. test, he quit the firm he worked for and hung out a shingle. By the time he was 35, Bert was already a wealthy man. His firm was billing $10 million annually and making a 15%-20% profit, and he was the sole owner. From the time he started his company, he lived modestly— he reinvested every nickel into his business. By the time Bert turned 40, he was even more successful. His firm had grown to 200 people with offices across four states. He eventually moved from his 1,500-square-foot starter home into a well-located, 6,000-square-foot mini-palace. He had the Midas touch, as that house nearly doubled in value in only two years. But then it hit him— a triple whammy. Bert lost his wife of nearly 20 years. He came home one day and found a note telling him that she had run off with her personal trainer to Cabo San Lucas. That was a punch in his stomach. He had always been proud of his wife, Julie, his childhood sweetheart. They were a storybook couple. Then, he found out his CFO of eight years had been stealing from the company. He had a little scam going where he periodically stole incoming checks and deposited them to an account in a neighboring state. All told, he embezzled more than $1.2 million over the time he worked there. It was a kick in the stomach to Bert, whose daughter was engaged to this guy’s son! Then, 9/11 and the anthrax scare hit. The firm’s stratospheric growth ground to an immediate halt and the revenue chart started going the other way. Bert’s world turned upside down and he was out of gas. So what did he do? He did what any smart man in his position should. He took his responsibility as the leader of his firm to heart and found a buyer for the company. It was a good firm, 10 times larger than his, with a solid track record of growth and profits nearly 20 years long. He cut back on his working hours and got back into doing projects for clients he liked. He went to his daughter’s wedding and saw not only his ex-wife and her pool boy beau, but his daughter’s father-in-law and former CFO there (he was on a six-hour leave from the minimum security pen!) He spent more time at the gym and the golf course, bought a downtown condo (no swimming pool), bought a new Triumph motorcycle (he had one in college), and even found himself a nice girlfriend who treated him like a king. Bert is a man of heart and action, and he was not afraid to make changes to get things right. Originally published 3/5/2007

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