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MANAGEMENT

3.12.99  
I'm in Charge. I Can't Go on Vacation.
Wrong. Plan ahead, trust your staff, and go. Yes, you can do it

Michael Bolchalk's vacation this past summer was every entrepreneur's nightmare. Days before he was due to leave, things went crazy. His Tucson (Ariz.) marketing and communications firm had been tapped as a finalist for a handsome state bid. Great news, lousy timing. Bolchalk was practically out the door when he learned the state needed more information -- pronto. Bolchalk went anyway. He grabbed a file folder, left behind a detailed itinerary, and hoped for the best. His richly deserved rest became a busman's holiday, marred by fax exchanges from hotel lobbies and lengthy phone conversations with associates across the country. "I didn't like it," says Bolchalk. "When I'm outta here, I want to be out of here."

Ah, vacations. They sound dreamy. But many entrepreneurs won't take them, precisely because they fear an experience like Bolchalk's. What if something really important should come up? Think again. If, as spring and summer roll around, you plan to watch vacationers pass by your office window, your devotion could put your business at risk in other ways.

BREATHER. For health reasons alone, every entrepreneur needs a break from the strain of running a business, experts say. And getting away brings back perspective. Business owners often become so consumed by production that they lose sight of other important functions, such as administration or marketing, explains Linda Yost, director of Kent-Portage Small Business Development Center at Kent State University. Still, for many small-business owners, the concept of time off is a tough sell. "It is hard to talk business owners into taking a vacation," Yost acknowledges.

Seasoned business owners say it's possible to walk out the office door without panic or guilt. But doing so takes preparation and trust in the people you've hired. Bolchalk plans for vacation like a military campaign to avoid having to run his business long distance. He begins three weeks before departure with an extensive "to do" list. Bolchalk's nine employees get detailed memos of his whereabouts. Generally, "there are no surprises," he says. "We make sure the bases are covered."

Nineteen years ago, Cynthia Gerdes worked 100 hours a week building Creative Kidstuff, a toy store chain in Minneapolis. Six stores, a catalog-publishing business, and 200 employees later, Gerdes has loosened her grip on the company's day-to-day operations.

Although she admits to being a "type A" personality, Gerdes is unapologetic about finding time for family vacations. How? "I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am," says Gerdes. "I'd be a fool to keep checking up on them." She walks the walk, too. Gerdes and her husband took a three-day journey to Seattle last year to celebrate his birthday. The trip was scheduled after the October opening of Creative Kidstuff's newest store. Then, one thing after another delayed the opening until the very weekend of the getaway. The Gerdeses went ahead with their plans, and employees pulled off the opening without a hitch.

The incident helped the store owner recognize her own progress as a manager. "I called only once from the airport, on the way home. I think I'd have gone crazy if I'd called while we were away," she says.

LET GO. Many businesspeople learn this lesson belatedly. Roger Bowles' bad heart taught him how to walk away from his business. For 15 years, the Wichita (Kan.) businessman directed operations at his dye-cutting print shop -- until 1994, when heart surgery took him away for about six weeks. Getting well, and not getting business, became his biggest priority.

Fortunately, Bowles' son, Randy, and his wife, Beverley, were involved in the business, and they took a more active role in the daily operations. "I stepped away, and they picked up the slack," he says. "Now I say, 'I'm the salesman. You guys are running this place.' "

Some entrepreneurs are so wrapped up in their businesses that they're loath to let go even when they're away. Since his operation, Bowles and his wife have found more time to travel, though they admit business is never too far from their minds. So they travel with members of an industry group, which lets them relax and generate a little business at the same time.

That's a solution other die-hard entrepreneurs have adopted. Dallas businesswoman Brenda Anderson says she hasn't taken a real vacation in almost 10 years. Instead, when she goes out of town on business, she takes time to pamper herself. "I consider my business trips mini-vacations, and I pretend a lot," says the owner of Anderson Contracting Services, which specializes in marketing management.

In hotels, she listens to piano music in the lounge, takes long, hot bubble baths, or gets her hair done. Anderson recommends that business owners take advantage of hotel amenities, such as exercise rooms, saunas, and swimming pools. If exercise isn't on the agenda, order room service, she says.

One reason she can be so relaxed: The stack of what-if folders she prepares for her staff that contain solutions to potential problems -- from natural disasters to crime sprees to personal emergencies. Anderson developed the system while working for a perpetual worrywart. One year, her what-if-there's-a-fire folder paid off. Employees knew to make sure their lives weren't in danger first, then they grabbed a key computer disk and the money box. As an added measure, Anderson makes sure more than one employee knows what to do in emergencies. She E-mails instructions and leaves Post-it notes on fax machines, copiers, and computers.

Business owners who've achieved a measure of equanimity say their best advice to obsessive entrepreneurs is this: Go away, and let your staff run the ship. "If you can't let go for three or five days and can't let them do their thing, you've got a real big problem," says Gerdes.

After all, wasn't that the point of all your hard work, anyway?

By Maura McEnaney in Akron, Ohio

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