Pushed to the Brink

Five business owners who created the lives they wanted
June 4, 2009

Imagine a juggler, deftly balancing dozens of
balls in the air. But if he drops just one, the whole
shebang topples.

You’re not so different from that juggler. You, too,
have many balls in the air—from family, fitness and
finances to community, kids and careers; from bodily
health to business wealth. Of course, with the push-and-
pull of daily pressures, responsibilities and desires,
it’s easy to let something fall by the wayside.

These business owners fell out of whack in one or
more areas and paid the price. But through vigilant,
conscious living, they reinvented themselves and
reconnected with what matters.

Mellanie True Hills

As a consultant for a major technology company, Mellanie True
Hills traveled constantly, slept little, exercised rarely and ate poorly.
“Each week I was in multiple cities, working around the clock. I’d be
in meetings all day, fl y to the next city at night, and get a few hours
of rest before a 5 a.m. conference call,” she says. “The productivity
treadmill was going faster, faster and faster.”

“If
you don’t put your health first, you won’t be there to carry
out your goals.”

Then her lifestyle caught up with her. In 2003, as she stepped
off a plane (during another one of her business trips), she could
barely breathe and her left shoulder ached. She got herself to the
hospital, where the doctors found a major coronary artery was 95
percent blocked. She underwent emergency procedures—balloon
angioplasty and stent. “The doctor said that I almost had a massive
heart attack on the operating table and that it would have killed me.
Fortunately he was able to place the stent, and I got a second chance
at life,” she says. She was 51.

That close call was the wake-up Hills needed. She cut back her
work hours and travel. She began exercising daily and eating healthfully.
She learned to manage stress, lost weight and started getting
more sleep. “I was overweight and overstressed,” she says. “I had to
get my life and stress back under control.”

But damage had been done. A few months later, her heart began
racing; she felt dizzy and light-headed; sight in her right eye was
blurred. “The emergency-room cardiologist said I had arterial clots
and a close call with a stroke from atrial fibrillation—which I had
never heard of.” Now she realizes that stress contributed to her initial
heart disease, which in turn, probably contributed to developing
atrial fibrillation.

That first heart-skipping episode became the first of many. “I never
knew when it would strike. My heart was a flopping fish inside my
chest,” she says. For two years, she lived with constant fear that she
would have an episode when she was driving, or when she was alone,
or that it would cause a stroke.

Ultimately, she underwent a risky and delicate surgical procedure,
and she hasn’t had an episode since. “Though it was surgery,
with risks and anesthesia, and was in a very delicate area, I have no
regrets,” she says. “I am thankful every day to have my life back.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Hills’ health scares led to a new,
healthy life and a meaningful career. She wrote a book, A Woman’s
Guide to Saving Her Own Life
—and realized she found her calling.
“I knew I needed to help women avoid what I had been through,” she
says. She founded the American Foundation for Women’s Health and,
under its umbrella, she coaches women on heart-healthy habits. She
also launched a nonprofit organization, StopAfib.org.

“If you’re Type A, it’s hard to achieve balance when you feel
passionately about what you’re doing,” Hills says. “But if you don’t put
your health first, you won’t be there to carry out your goals.”

Dennis Mulgannon

When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Dennis Mulgannon’s
world fell apart. The Internet company he was running lost its
funding, his marriage ended, and he lost his friends in the divorce.
“I was unemployed, financially insolvent and nearly homeless,”
he admits.

“I
turned my passion into an idea, which I
turned into a brand.”

By giving the Internet company all he had, he lost everything
else—including himself. Though he had been a star basketball
player in college and high school, by 38 he was 30 pounds overweight
with no energy, no income and little self-esteem.

In an effort to regain his previous, confident self, he embarked
on a high-intensity, no-excuses workout program, combined with
commonsense nutrition. “I became obsessed with getting fi t,” he
says. He lost 30 pounds and built muscle. Now back in the game,
he realized that in order to succeed, his passion, career and life had
to mesh—not compete.

He wrote a book about his experience, titled Reality Fitness in 90
Days... for Men
. He next opened a gym, implementing his fitness
principles. “It’s a no-BS, no-hype, hardcore personal-training gym
for men,” he explains. “I am the demographic of our target client—
men 35 to 65 who need that extra push—so I am in a unique position
to understand their challenges.”

The gym was a success, so from there Mulgannon developed the
idea for his fitness franchise, Athletic Nation. He sold his original
gym to a franchisee and opened franchise headquarters in San
Jose, Calif. Just one year later, Athletic Nation has 12 locations in
six states.

“It’s exceeded my every expectation,” Mulgannon says. “Although
the trials and tribulations of running a startup are vast, it’s hard for
me to imagine doing anything else. Getting back into shape is the
best decision I ever made. I turned my passion into an idea, which
I turned into a brand—and I turned my life around.”

Even with his new focus on fitness and his new career,
Mulgannon made sure not to exclude other areas of his life. He’s
a devoted dad to two teenage daughters from his first marriage and,
now remarried, he and his second wife have a toddler son and
another baby due in March. “My children are my most powerful
influence,” he says. “Everyone who works with me knows that they
take precedence over any and all business.”

Kel Kelly

Six years ago, Kel Kelly was at the top of her career. She held
and excelled at marketing positions for multibillion-dollar companies
ranging from Jet Blue to Bay Networks, where she was the
company’s youngest officer.

“I
needed control over my ability to be a mom.”

But as the mother of three, all under 6, her accomplishments
seemed hollow, compared to what she missed. “My positions
didn’t allow flexibility for things that mattered most,” she says.
“I couldn’t always be there for my kids if they had a big game or
needed help with a project.”

That nagging dissatisfaction peaked when her daughter got sick—
and Kelly was hosting a business event in Bali. “Her illness wasn’t
serious, but she wanted me to care for her,” Kelly says. “I knew I
could not continue on that path. I needed control over my schedule,
my life and my ability to be a mom.”

She made the dramatic decision to leave her corporate career, and
in 2002 she launched Kel & Partners, now a multimillion-dollar
marketing and public relations agency in Westborough, Mass. Work-life
balance is built into the company’s DNA, with flexible schedules,
a summer Friday-off program and a culture of empathy and respect.
“We support our employees, whether they want to attend an event in
their child’s life, are caring for an aging parent or are dealing with a
medical crisis,” she says.

Kelly, who now has a fourth child since founding the firm, also
adheres to the family-first rule in her own life—once rescheduling a
meeting with the potential to lead to $500,000 in business because
it conflicted with her daughter’s hockey game. “Under no circumstances
will I miss anything that is important to my kids,” she says.

One might suppose that a company so focused on personal
priorities would be less than profitable. But today Kelly & Partners
is a multimillion-dollar agency with 30 employees. “In six years, we
have lost only one employee. That level of retention is unheard of,”
Kelly says. “Happy employees produce outstanding work, so our
client retention also exceeds the industry average. And at the end of
the day, my kids know that they are my priority.”

Damian Ross

At 25, Damian Ross opened a motorcycle shop with no capital, a
desire for the latest and greatest and a “play now, pay later” attitude.
You can guess the rest. After three years, he found himself tens of
thousands of dollars in debt, which just hurt his business even
more. “If I’m worried about the bank foreclosing on my home, how
am I supposed to be productive or make good decisions?” he asks.

“I
learned to pay for things before I purchase them and save
for a rainy day. Now I sleep at night.”

When his minimum credit-card payment was higher than his
take-home pay, he knew he had to make changes. “I shut everything
down,” he says. “I learned to focus on the necessities. I
created a budget and sold items I didn’t need. After I climbed out of
the hole, I started a novel thing—saving.”

As he looks back, he realizes that money itself wasn’t the
problem. It was how he handled it. “Money is just a resource,”
he says. “My ego was the problem. I had to change my attitude.
I had to stop comparing myself to others. Now I say, ‘Good for
them.’ I had to focus on what matters and what I’m
passionate about.”

Now 40, and with newfound, hard-learned
financial savvy, Ross launched a new business
from the ground up in 2007. The Self
Defense Company in Saddle River, N.J., is
a karate studio and business-development
school for young martial-arts instructors.
He provides tools, support and guidance,
which he so sorely lacked when he
launched his first business.

He projects that 2008 revenue will hit
$400,000. And this time he’s smart about
managing it. “I learned to pay for things
before I purchase them and to prepare
for a rainy day,” he says.
“We’re not totally out of
the woods yet, but we
have the reserves to
get the ship upright
again. Now I don’t
h ave to s t r e s s
over the next few
weeks—instead
I’m planning for
years in the future.
And I can sleep
at night.”

Jean Thompson

Jean Thompson used to enjoy volunteering for the Boys and
Girls Club and as room parent for her children’s elementary school.
But when she took the helm at Seattle Chocolate Company, her volunteering
screeched to a halt.

“I
realized I was in a good position to help find a cure.”

Thompson had been an investor and partner in the chocolate-making
company, and after stepping in as CEO in 2002 she expanded
its territory, marketed to major stores, experimented with new packaging
and launched Chick Chocolates, a line of truffles targeted to
women. Estimated revenue today is $10-12 million. In the meantime,
she had little time to serve as a room parent. “I had to eliminate those
activities just to keep my head above water,” she says.

Then a suspicious lump discovered during a routine mammogram
turned her world upside down—and caused her to take a second look
at her priorities. “I immediately thought the worst,” says Thompson,
who had lost her aunt and mother-in-law to breast cancer.

After an agonizing two-week wait, the test results came back:
negative! Thompson, and those close to her, breathed a sigh of relief.
But she developed a strong connection with the many women who
don’t receive such happy news. “This devastating disease affects our
sisters, mothers and their babies. I realized I was in a good position to
help find a cure,” she says.

Thompson’s company created a new product in the Chick line,
“Survivor Chick,” with 100 percent of its profits going to cancer
research. Unfortunately, many retailers carry the pink-wrapped
package only in October, Breast Cancer Awareness month. “That
annoyed me,” Thompson says. “People fight cancer every day, and
research needs to be funded all year.”

She decided to also donate 100 percent of the profits of a year-round
best-seller—the Extreme Dark-Chocolate Truffle Bar, carried
nationwide in 12,000 stores. She tweaked the packaging, adding
a subtle pink ribbon, so retailers wouldn’t pigeonhole the product
for October.

“We expect it will generate far greater sales, so we can contribute in
an even bigger way,” Thompson says. “Running a company offers me
the best opportunity of my life to give back.”

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