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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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.”