CASTING OFF THREE WHO DID IT RIGHT
By ALAN FARNHAM REPORTER ASSOCIATE EDWARD A. ROBINSON

(FORTUNE Magazine) – CATAPULTING YOURSELF from a job you hate into one you love takes courage, determination, and a measure of maturity not given to us all. Some people who attempt it find they must temporarily straddle two careers at once--a feat demanding acrobatic skill. Yet a growing number of men and women are doing just that, letting go of one career even as they reach out for the next, one more lucrative and better suited to their talents. Below, three successful aerialists look back on their adventure and offer hard-won advice. What they risked was failure--the ridicule of colleagues, unemployment, maybe even bankruptcy. For what benefit? Put simply: the promise of a richer, more satisfying life.

FISHERMAN: Until the spring of 1992, Kenneth Walsh ("K.C." to friends) could have qualified as a champion procrastinator. He took nine years to court his wife, Karen. After graduating with an MBA from Wharton in 1987, he gravitated to a comfortable, if smoggy, existence in Los Angeles, working as a management consultant with Deloitte & Touche. Karen worked as an account executive at ad agency Chiat/Day. She drove a Volvo, he a BMW. "We were leading this yuppie life, but neither of us was really young anymore," he says. Though he dreamed about starting a new life in a small town, he felt no urgency to act.

Then, blammo! In 1991, Deloitte failed to give K.C. a promotion he felt he'd earned; the next year rioters set L.A. ablaze, and the Walshes learned their first baby was on the way. "Karen was six months pregnant, and we could see fires burning a mile from our house," he says. With fatherhood and incineration imminent, he got busy fast. "I felt I had to make something happen now."

His own father, an entrepreneur, had been urging him for years to chuck his corporate life. So had family friends, including one who'd bought a struggling dog food company and turned its fortunes around. Walsh was also seeing at Deloitte, almost daily, how profitable successful turnarounds could be. He decided to buy a business of his own, using money he and Karen had been saving for a down payment on a home.

What kind of business? Where? He began subscribing to a newsletter called Greener Pastures, which described itself as the "Reader's Digest of the 'back to small-town values and lifestyles' movement." (It's still being published, out of Pahrump, Nevada.) While holding on to his consulting job, he used nights, weekends, and vacations to explore possibilities.

"It took me a year and a half to zero in on the kind of company I wanted," he says. Along the way, he looked at many things: a sausage company, another that made bowling accessories, and another that made huge wooden beams. "At that point I said, 'Wait a minute--I'm not really that interested in wooden beams.'"

He was, however, interested in fishing. An avid fly fisherman since the age of 7, he had served, since 1989, on the board of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group. When he learned that a fly-rod manufacturer was for sale, he tried to buy it, eventually losing out because he couldn't spare enough time for negotiations.

That taught him a lesson: "It's extremely hard to get focused when you're working 50 hours a week and making car payments," he says. "You've got to free up your time. I missed buying [the company] because I couldn't act quickly enough." He quit his full-time job with Deloitte and got a consulting job with a turnaround adviser, working on a project-by-project basis. Since Karen was still working full time, the Walshes didn't have to economize much. In between assignments, K.C. sometimes had weeks to hunt for companies.

In Bozeman, Montana, he found what looked like the right one: Simms, a maker of fishing accessories, whose premium-quality waders had attracted something of a celebrity following (Robert Duvall, Chuck Yeager, and John Denver, among others). Negotiations, however, went slowly.

Ski season had begun, and getting Simms's top managers all together proved difficult. "The CFO would be gone for six hours if the snow looked good," Walsh recalls. The experience put his patience to the test. He advises, "You've got to stay positive and be persistent. Twice the deal looked dead; then it would revive, and I'd hop on a plane. It was just such an attractive thing." The Walshes vacationed in Bozeman to see whether they'd like living there. They did. In April 1993--a year and a half after he'd first contacted Simms--Walsh became president and sole owner of the company.

To buy the company, he used $150,000 of his own savings, plus money lent him by his family. The president of a local bank extended a $150,000 operating line of credit "pretty much on the strength of a handshake." The seller agreed to an earn-out arrangement. For medical coverage, the Walshes first relied on benefits carried over from their previous jobs under the Cobra law; then, after they had bought Simms, they switched to a standard plan with the Travelers for themselves and their employees.

Today they live in Bozeman in a 1906 arts-and-crafts-style bungalow, only a five-minute drive from Simms's new, 15,000-square-foot factory. The company, which employed just 15 people in 1993 when Walsh bought it, now employs 32. Sales have doubled, and new products the company has introduced have won awards. Simms recently scored a major coup when the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue devoted most of a page to its products. Even so, Walsh says he's now making half of what he made at the height of his career at Deloitte: "I don't think about that a lot. I figure right now I'm building up the business."

Living costs in Bozeman are lower than in L.A., so Karen is able to care for their two daughters--Mackenzie, 3, and Adrian, 16 months--full time. True, K.C. works as many hours as he used to, but he says he doesn't have to cope with as much aggravation. "When I think of all the political machinations I used to have to go through in the corporate world..." Any wage slave can finish the sentence.

Do the Walshes miss anything about their old life? Says Karen: "We sometimes look back to the time we both had steady paychecks--we wouldn't ever hesitate to take vacations. Now, when we have our own business, it's harder to detach. Every vacation we've taken in the past two years has been 50% business." And K.C.? "Before, I honestly think I got in more fishing."

DESIGNER: When Jean Kelly graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Virginia in 1979, she says, "I wanted to design the world!" She got a job with a big architectural firm in New Orleans. After ten years, she felt dissatisfied. "Oh, sure, I got to design some buildings. But because of budget constraints, they never could really be what I wanted. There were fights with the contractors, fights with the clients. Coordinating the technical aspects was complicated: electrical, mechanical details, where to put the duct work. It got so that by the time a building was done, you didn't want to look at it."

To relieve her malaise, she decided to give herself some fun. She and her husband needed a new dining room table and chairs. She designed them herself. Who to build them? She found a shop she liked and got to know the owner.

He later died unexpectedly, and Kelly, whose interest in furniture had grown, offered the heirs a deal: She would work in the shop part time for three months to learn the business ("I believe in dating before marriage," she explains), and they would give her a first option to buy. She studied grains, learning which woods worked with which. She learned to fit together designs on a smaller scale than she was used to. And she savored the scent of cypress and walnut, learning to distinguish types of wood by smell alone.

In 1989, Kelly, with the help of her husband, Dennis--a lawyer and Harvard business school grad--engineered an LBO. She quit her job. Her mother loaned her $30,000, and (18 months later) a bank extended her a $25,000 line of credit. She says she didn't have to make any special economies, since these had already been made for her: As parents of two little girls, she and Dennis "had no social life" to cut back. For medical coverage, she signed on to Dennis's bar association plan. Working from home was never an option: With two little kids, "I felt like I was inside a pinball machine."

Her first year was tough. Though she herself preferred postmodern design, the shop's late owner had made a specialty of antique reproductions. "So I had to put on my Chippendale hat. At that point I just wanted the business to survive." She took any job that came through the door. A $25 repair to a chair leg? Fine. "That first winter I thought a lot about the Pilgrims." Eventually her own designs started winning regional awards, and her clientele grew with her reputation.

Three partners later bought in (including Becky Gottsegen, another woman who wanted to learn the business), bringing with them additional funds, and by 1993, Kelly & Gottsegen Furniture Design was so well established that Kelly could concentrate on making original designs full time. Sales have since doubled. "Now we wouldn't even consider a $25 repair job," she laughs.

Certain touches are characteristic of her work--for example, the use of decorative writing. She got the idea from the same source she turns to for much of her inspiration: New Orleans's older buildings. Court houses, she noticed, were often set off by a frieze of words around their top. Why not do the same with furniture? Her first application of it was for a dining room table. The client, wanting something different, jumped at the idea but had no words in mind.

Kelly found just the thing in Homer: "Here let us feast, and to the feast be joined discourse, the sweeter banquet of the mind." ("It's not a small table," she says.) She since has used the same idea for other pieces, including a grandfather clock surmounted by some verse of Emerson's, edited slightly. ("We sized it to fit the clock.")

Her designs take shape in a former warehouse with 14-foot ceilings, cypress beams, and exposed brick walls, about a mile from downtown in New Orleans's lower Garden District, a semiresidential area off the tourist path. She and her partners work with six employees. Her daughters' school is within walking distance, and home is but a 15-minute drive. "It's a big old house on St. Charles Street, about 100 years old. We've been renovating it a room at a time. I got to design my kitchen cabinets--neocolonial, with Greek columns."

Sounds idyllic. How's the money? "My last architectural job was very well paid, and I'm still not back up to that level yet. I'm making two-thirds of what I made then. In another few years it should rise to what it was. In the meantime, I'm building equity." Asked whether she feels more secure as a furniture designer than she did as an architect, she says, "I feel much more secure about my marketability. Before, I had no reputation as a designer. I was known as a technical person--somebody competent to write specs."

She now regards architecture as having been "too dry, too complex." Furniture suits her better: "architecture on a smaller scale." She likes the fact that a design of hers can be built in three months, not three years. Better still, "I look back on designs I made years ago, and I still like them."

BANDLEADER: No child, asked what he wants to be when he grows up, ever says, "A throwback." But that's what Bob Hardwick has made himself: an avatar of the suave, sophisticated, high-society bandleaders of another time and place--a prewar, Astaire-Rogers world of orchids, syncopation, and black linoleum. When he leaves his terraced Manhattan penthouse for a day's work, attired in one of five immaculately tailored tuxedos, the sun is setting. And when he returns home (many bars of "The Continental" later), the clink of champagne glasses lingering in his ears and the kisses of society hostesses on his cheek, a predawn restorative of cookies and ice cream with his beautiful wife, Beth, awaits him.

Do you suppose Bob misses being a vice president of U.S. Trust?

He does not.

Yet the road that took him from a world of banking to this far, far better one was long and winding. He grew up genteel, in Louisville, where his father was chairman of Louisville Trust. From childhood on, he played piano--and with his father's blessing, but only as long as music remained a hobby. Business, felt Father, was serious; music was not. Bob became a banker.

He did it perfectly well, first at Citibank, then at U.S. Trust, becoming a vice president in 1980. All the while, though, he continued making music, playing friends' parties and weddings on the side.

The first Hardwick to kick the corporate habit wasn't Bob, but Beth, who in 1979 left her job at a market research firm to start her own business conducting focus groups. Bob banked on. Both Hardwicks agree that the security offered by big corporations exerts an emotional pull that's hard to break, but eventually Bob followed Beth's lead and left. "It was a very difficult transition," says Bob. "I loved banking; I loved selling; I loved being part of a corporation." But by 1989 he had been juggling banking with bandleading for 13 years. "It was time to take stock."

Bob increased the number of events he was playing. "It really helps if while you've still got your first career, you can start to see dollars coming in from your second," he says. He and Beth paid off their mortgage. They postponed major purchases. (Bob still drives the 1982 Datsun he drove then.) Finally he segued: In 1990 he got a three-month leave of absence (unpaid) from U.S. Trust so he could spend all his time rehearsing. Though he was careful to keep his bridges back to banking open, he never had to use them.

Why? He had by then unleashed what he calls The Bob Hardwick Sound, and society hostesses were flocking to him. The Sound is up-tempo, jaunty, buttery smooth--a musical macadam down which roll all the familiar standards of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and Berlin. This is not music for taking out the trash on Monday morning. It conjures up gay divorcees, doomed liners, wrong-way flights, Rob Roys in parlor cars. It unlocks the latent, toe-tapping power of old feet.

The Sound carried Bob into the top tier of society bandleaders, which includes Peter Duchin and the antediluvian Lester Lanin. Has success had any downside? Bob says he works longer, stranger hours than he ever did in banking. "My father used to ask me, 'Son, if you were a musician, what would you do all day?' There's never a quiet moment. I just got a call from a woman who has us booked for January 1, year 2000, and she wants to talk to me for 20 minutes so we can get started on it now."

The upside? An arpeggio of C notes. Bob's salary as a banker was in the low six figures. "I'm making much more than double that now." He typically charges $7,800 to $15,000 to play a Saturday-night party in New York City featuring himself at the keyboard. The fee is less for using one of four satellite Hardwick bands with other pianists. Right now 45 musicians are on call, with bookings coordinated by an office manager, Calvin Kerr.

Clients appreciate Hardwick's willingness to tackle special challenges. For the annual ball of the American Museum of Natural History in November, he was asked to lead two orchestras in two different rooms simultaneously, by means of a special electronic hookup. From 6:30 to midnight he did it, not once missing a beat, as gray stuffed elephants gaped and guests whose names you could not make up (Lansing Lamont) twirled. Ladies in Diors, Vera Wangs, Calvins, and a pink Oscar de la Renta, paid homage to The Sound (in stereo, no less) and complimented Bob for his openness to new ideas. At least one, before champagne glasses clinked their last, had kissed him.

Reporter Associate Edward A. Robinson