01 Dec 2004

Retirement's Changing Face

Five alumni talk about life goals, choices, and the pursuit of balance


HBS alumni have a complicated relationship with the notion of retirement. The simple vision of leaving one’s career at the age of 65 and moving to a sunny clime to while away the days playing golf may work well for some. But an unscientific survey of Class Notes and reunion profile books reveals a certain wariness of what one alum referred to as “the dreaded ‘R’ word.” “I look forward to being completely retired — after my funeral, maybe,” wrote one member of the Class of 1960 for his 40th Reunion profile. “Retirement is not on my agenda,” proclaimed another.

Could this uneasiness arise from the fact that the word “retirement” has outgrown its usefulness? The word itself suggests a literal withdrawal, a distancing from the world that doesn’t suit most graduates of HBS and certainly doesn’t jibe with the subjects profiled here. With a range of ages, these individuals represent different visions of what it means to retire. (We didn’t come up with a better word, although one member of the Class of 1958 referred to a state of “re-inspirement” in his 45th Reunion book.)

What the five seem to have in common — aside from a level of financial security that frees them from the need to work full-time — is their own clearly articulated definition of fulfillment and success. While each emphasized that there is no single strategy for achieving balance between work, family, and spiritual/personal growth, their stories are food for thought for anyone, at any point in life, who has wrestled with this eternal conundrum.

Easy Rider
Martin Snoey (MBA ’72)
Age: 61 Home: Mercer Island, Washington

“My sense is that life is not a simple sequence of events,” says Martin Snoey. “Instead, it’s a continual trade-off among career, family, hobbies, and community service that ebbs and flows like the tide, depending on what circumstances you’re in.” Like all of the alumni interviewed for this article, Snoey rejects the word “retirement” as a description for his current lifestyle. “My physical and mental capabilities continue to be challenged, but in areas that I’ve chosen because of how I want to balance my life,” he states. “I’ve reallocated, just as you would an investment portfolio.”

Snoey’s most recent position was at Harley-Davidson, where he was president and COO of the company’s Transportation Vehicles Division and a corporate vice president. “I set a goal out of HBS that someday I wanted to be president of a $500 million business, and I achieved that,” he says. “When I left at age 54, there was no great epiphany, although the fact that we sold our subsidiary businesses made it financially easier for me to ‘retire,’ in the old terminology.”

Right after he joined Harley-Davidson, a little gentle coercion on the part of the company’s chairman convinced Snoey to get his motorcycle license; today, he’s still riding. “In the last six years, I’ve put 50,000 miles on my Harleys,” says Snoey, who often rides for charity. One fundraiser — a four-week, 4,000-mile solo ride of the Lewis and Clark Trail combined with two subsequent annual rides — helped raise almost $500,000 for Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Next summer he plans to complete the U.S.A. Four Corners Tour, a two-month, 14,000-mile odyssey that follows the outer perimeter of the United States for a charity to be determined.

Snoey says that riding has replaced his other great love, mountain climbing. Scaling over fifty mountains around the world, including Mount McKinley, Alpamayo, Kilimanjaro, Orizaba, and Mont Blanc, took its physical toll over the years. “I feel there’s great similarity between my hobbies and my business career,” he adds. “There is always an objective, planning, teamwork, and execution. However, because of the risks, there is never a guarantee you’ll be successful. And I get an adrenaline buzz from that — it keeps you mentally and physically sharp.”

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for retirement, Snoey cautions. “My only advice would be to know what’s important to you so that you can balance your life and reallocate when necessary. I’m surprised when people tell me that they dread retirement. It could be that they don’t really know themselves.

“My sense is that one is the CEO of one’s own life,” he adds. “Maybe I could have been a better executive, or a more accomplished mountain climber, or a better husband and father if I hadn’t tried to balance those three things. But it was my choice to try.”

Mysteries of the Deep
Gregg Bemis Jr. (MBA ’54)
Age: 76 Home: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gregg Bemis walked out the door of his last corporate job in 1979, at the age of 51. “It became readily apparent that comparable jobs were hard to get for ‘old people’ like me,” he recalls. “There was a cult of youth, and I realized that I should work for myself because I wasn’t going to find an appropriate position at that point.” Bemis, who had experience as a venture capitalist, decided to focus full-time on further private investment, participating in over forty start-ups (with varying degrees of success, by his own account). Lately, he’s been trying to scale back.

“It’s an evolution that’s felt very normal and comfortable,” says Bemis. “There haven’t been any big differences because I’m a Protestant-work-ethic type of person, so it’s really been a question of transitioning to a different venue.”

“Venue” doesn’t quite do justice to Bemis’s other pursuits, which include an ongoing interest in public service (he recently launched an unsuccessful third campaign as a Republican candidate for the New Mexico legislature in a primarily Democratic district) as well as a passionate commitment to investigating the circumstances surrounding the sinkings of the Lusitania, the British liner torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine in 1915, and the Estonia, a 1994 Tallinn–Stockholm ferryboat that went down in the Baltic, taking 852 lives.

While rough seas were blamed for the Estonia disaster, Bemis believes foul play was involved, based on evidence gathered during an unauthorized dive he made to the wreck in 2000. (There is a warrant for his arrest in Sweden as a result.) In the case of the Lusitania, Bemis thinks that a second explosion, possibly caused by hidden munitions on board, may have been the reason why the passenger ship sank in a deadly eighteen minutes, causing 1,198 deaths. As odd as it may sound, he also happens to hold title to the wreck, having purchased it for $1 after it was used as collateral in a failed salvage venture. His proposal to analyze the wreck and film a documentary at the site has been awaiting a decision from a High Court judge in Ireland for the past year. In June, Bemis made an unofficial visit to the wreck, training for the record-setting 287-foot dive off and on for a year.

“I finally said, ‘Dammit, it’s my boat, and I am going to go down and give it a big kiss,’ ” he says, adding, “It’s beautiful down there. You’re weightless, like the astronauts, so you move around in an environment that’s very mystical and spooky. The only noise is the sound of your own breathing.”

Bemis has a few suggestions for alumni approaching retirement: Cut back work hours gradually, develop outside interests, and consider serving in local or state government.

“You can run for office, make a contribution, and not give up your retirement. MBAs have been schooled in the management of enterprise and creative thinking and have the benefit of significant life experience. They have a lot more to offer than someone off the street who gets the bug and decides to run.”

A Change of Pace
Beth Terrana (MBA ’83)
Age: 47 Home: Wellesley, Massachusetts

As a senior vice president and portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, Beth Terrana clocked the seventy-hour weeks demanded of someone in her position. “I’d get home from work, eat dinner with my family, put the kids to bed, and work until 1 a.m. I was in a constant state of exhaustion,” she recalls. Then, in May 2000, she made the transition to a part-time consultant role. “I probably wasn’t ready to quit cold turkey,” she says. “But to be honest, I’m not a good part-time person. I only operate at one speed. If I take on a task, I throw myself into it with a vengeance.” Before long, she recalls, her position was morphing back into a full-time gig.

At the same time, Fidelity sent Terrana to the Odyssey program, a “School for the Second Half of Life” offered through HBS Executive Education. “It was a form of self-examination I’d never been through, a kind of group therapy for type-As like me,” she remarks. “Odyssey gave me permission to not to have a plan. Being in a period of indecision may be uncomfortable, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Terrana says she learned that what motivated her fifteen years ago — her career, primarily — had changed to encompass family, friends, greater community involvement, and more spiritual pursuits. In 2002, she decided to call it quits at Fidelity entirely.

A roster of nonprofit projects and her family, which includes husband Anthony Terrana and two children, ages 12 and 6, now occupy her schedule. “I’m the most unretired retired person I know,” says Terrana, who sits on the Boston Children’s Hospital Trust board and acts as chair of the organization’s clinical expansion, a part of its capital campaign. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is another beneficiary of her management expertise; in addition to sitting on the board of the Pan-Mass Challenge, an annual bike-a-thon that raises money for Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund, Terrana has completed the 192-mile, two-day ride for the past four years.

As content as she is with her current path, Terrana notes that the transition to a slower pace required a period of adjustment. “If you decide to make a change, give it time,” she advises. “A few months doesn’t do it. Nobody understands how much has been on their shoulders until they allow themselves to take the weight off.

“You have to learn yourself,” she adds. “I was afraid that I would disappear into the wilderness when I left Fidelity. That hasn’t happened. I’ve learned to spend a lot more time by myself.

“I always assumed that my time off would be a brief interlude and that I would be ready to climb a new, yet-to-be-defined mountain,” observes Terrana. “I still haven’t purchased my climbing equipment, and I’m not itching to do so.”

The Life of the Mind
William Holden III (MBA ’66)
Age: 62 Home: Winter Harbor, Maine

“I don’t consider myself retired,” says Bill Holden. “I’m just working in a different realm without the day-to-day performance requirements.” The author of three novels (with a fourth to come in 2005), Holden is also a self-taught artist who paints large format, enamel-on-board scenes from photographs that he’s taken.

“I made a decision at age 20 that I did not want to be tied to any schedule by the time I was 50,” he recalls. “My strategy was to put myself in financial and time-flexibility positions where I could begin to devote three or four days a week to exploring creative avenues that interested me.” Holden began his career as a securities analyst, then left to start his own financial-advisory consulting business, eventually concentrating on small, private syndications in real estate.

“My advice would be to begin thinking as early as possible about what you want to see in your own rearview mirror at age 40, 50, and 60,” he adds. “Begin exploring ideas you have a passion for and might be able to build on when you make the break.”

Holden began winding down his business in 1987, at the age of 45. “Real estate was in a tough spot, and I had no desire to wait for it to come back,” he says. “Plus, my creative side was talking hard to me.” He bought a farm in Goodwins Mills, Maine, and lived there for ten years, raising sheep, pigs, and goats. He also began his writing career. “My days would be idle in the sense of a normal businessperson’s day, but I did a lot of reading. I knew I had to in order to get to where I wanted to be in this new realm.” Holden describes his novels as “adventure mysteries with a lot of twists, turns, and wacky characters.”

Teeswater Farm — where he raised fifty lambs in a season — provided some good material for his fiction, he adds. Then, in 1997, it was time to move on. His next residence was Winter Harbor Lighthouse, an 1856 lighthouse off the coast of Maine that had been uninhabited for more than a decade when Holden purchased it in 1995. “Panes were out in the tower, there were birds living inside, and the roof leaked,” remembers Holden. “It was a labor of love, an incredible life experience.” Although he sold the lighthouse in October, Holden can still see “her” from his upstairs studio on the mainland.

Although he’d planned for his current lifestyle from an early age, Holden says that shifting from the workaday world to a more unstructured schedule wasn’t without its rough spots. “It was surprisingly difficult to make my head understand what my heart already knew — that for me, it was not only OK but necessary to spend large blocks of time thinking and writing without necessarily producing tangible short-term results.”

And the payoff has been particularly satisfying. “My quality of life is the best it’s ever been,” says Holden. “I’m doing what I enjoy most and what I believe I do best — combining skill with imagination.”

Back to the Land
Warren Adams (MBA ’95)
Age: 38 Home: Edgartown, Massachusetts

He’s still an early riser who hits the hay late at night. But the events that make up Warren Adams’s day are a little different than they were in years past. Instead of waking at 5 a.m. to go to work, he heads to the shore for an hour of surfcasting. A recent write-up in the local Vineyard Gazette reports the news of his 42-inch, 40-pound striped bass, not his accomplishments as an Internet entrepreneur who sold his company, PlanetAll, to Amazon.com in 1998.

Now Adams, his wife Megan Weeks Adams (MBA ’97), and their one-year-old daughter, Annie, live year-round on Martha’s Vineyard with their yellow Lab, half a dozen chickens, and a few sheep. While Adams has kept his hand in the business world through Vineyard Ventures, a small, private equity fund that has invested in companies as far-flung as Chile and China, he’s just as likely to be studying the complex social behavior of his honeybees or working in his vegetable garden, where he grows everything from asparagus to sweet potatoes.

“I think I’ve always tried to balance life with work,” Adams reflects. “But I did it by working on a project like crazy for two or three years, then taking time off.” In the past, his interest in international languages and culture led to sabbaticals abroad that included a stint to study economics at the University of Freiburg in Germany and a break to brush up on his German at a Dartmouth College language program. (He still keeps his passport at the ready, having traveled recently to the ABTI-American University in Nigeria to offer advice on fostering entrepreneurship.)

During his travels, Adams found himself wishing he could stay more connected with friends and business contacts who were equally peripatetic in their ways. That led to the creation of PlanetAll, an Internet service that automatically kept track of addresses, travel plans, and important dates. Launched by Adams and Brian Robertson (MBA ’04), the company had grown to 45 employees and had over 2 million users by the time it was acquired by Amazon.com. After working at Amazon.com as director of product development, Adams left in December 1999, taking a year to travel around the world with his wife before returning to Martha’s Vineyard to start building their home.

“As HBS students, we used the balanced scorecard as a way of looking beyond the bottom line to measure a company’s long-term success,” says Adams. “As individuals, alumni should measure success by what they feel is essential to their personal growth and happiness, not just job titles and net worth. Waiting until retirement to focus on nonprofessional aspects of life can lead to regrets and missed opportunities.

“The balance I have in my life now is one that I really enjoy,” he observes, “although I could see focusing on a single project and refocusing on ‘normal’ work again if the perfect opportunity came along.” For now, however, Adams says that he’s enjoying his freedom and flexibility, a position he recognizes is extremely fortunate for someone of his, or any, age.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1972, Section E
Class of MBA 1954, Section A
Class of MBA 1983, Section C
Class of MBA 1966, Section C
Class of MBA 1995, Section I

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