Boomers Finding New Freedom

March 27, 2006
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With the first wave of baby boomers hitting 60, many are asking: What’s next?

For some, retirement is a viable option; for others it is not. Then, there are those who could retire but choose to begin again in a new career, using skills gained from experience and finding a more fulfilling way to spend their time or pursuing opportunities they previously did not have.

Greg Northrup’s new position of acting director of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, following his 2004 retirement as the director of economic development at Consumers Energy, is a way for him to stay youthful and keep his mind active. After retiring at the age of 58, he said he felt he was too young to stop working.

“I don’t see myself ever retiring,” he said. “I can’t play that much golf.”

Though his position is temporary, Northrup said he hopes it will become permanent.

“I hope things are working out pretty well for us at West Michigan Strategic Alliance,” he said of the regional development organization.

Bobbie Gaunt, the former president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. of Canada, said she decided to join the boards of a few companies in order keep herself stimulated following retirement in 2000 at the age of 53. After a few years, she decided to chair the board of the SaugatuckCenter for the Arts, bringing the organization from the verge of bankruptcy into a thriving center and a Cool Cities site.

Gaunt said it was her husband who convinced her to chair the board by saying: “If you choose not to do this and you know you can, then you shouldn’t complain anymore about a local theater and art center.”

While she respects and loves the arts, Gaunt said she is not an artist herself and insisted on creating a board that had a balance of business-oriented people and artists. She admitted that chairing the board was like a full-time job until recently when they were able to hire a part-time executive director.

As the executive director of West Michigan Heart for 12 years, Grace Shearer knew what it was like to work long hours. Now a consultant for The Entrepreneur’s Source, a business and franchise consulting organization, Shearer said she still works long hours, but on her own terms.

Her new position allows her to work from her cottage in Petoskey. Her husband, Tom, an attorney, also can work from there. Shearer said the new career also allows her to spend time with her family in ways she previously was not able to do.

After recovering from blood clots in both lungs in November 2004, Shearer began to re-evaluate her position.

“It does cause you to sit back and think, ‘I could be gone. Is this how I want to live my life?’” she said.

Larry Andrus spent much of his time traveling when he was vice president of the Midwest Region for CIT Financial Services. Now, as CEO of Trivalent Group, much of the traveling he does is to the town of Alma, where he is a member of the AlmaCollege board of trustees.

In his new position, Andrus has more time to be involved with his community and his family. His flexible schedule also allows his wife, Celia, more time to participate in the boards and organizations that are important to her.

“I can be home at times to support what she likes to do, too,” he said.

Celia Andrus is on the stewardship committee at St. Jude’s Catholic Church and the National Autism Board.

“Those are things that are important in life and to her,” he said.

Something’sDifferent

As individuals who spent their careers in large corporate offices with big budgets and amenities that were taken for granted, Gaunt and Northrup experienced a drastic change when signing on to lead nonprofit organizations.

Northrup said he misses the support that comes with working for a company like Consumers Energy.

“When you work for a large corporation, you take for granted the support,” he said.

Instead of working in one of the nation’s largest combination gas and electric utilities, the West Michigan Strategic Alliance’s staff consists of Northrup and his administrative assistant, Amy Hall.

“There’s a huge difference,” he said.

Northrup said it has helped a little that the alliance is now partnering with GrandValleyStateUniversity, where his office is located.

“It does get us back to getting resources you would find in a larger corporation,” he said.

In addition to office needs such as a copy machine and phone line, Northrup said the difference is the intellectual capital that is available when people interact. Another challenge is working with volunteers rather than paid employees, he said.

“In a corporate structure, you have much more adherence to goals and objectives,” he said. “It’s more difficult for us to achieve objectives. … You’re more dependent on others to accept responsibility and be accountable for their piece of the action.”

Gaunt agrees, saying one of the greatest challenges she faced was learning how to run a nonprofit. While she was used to budget figures like $32 billion at Ford, now at the SaugatuckCenter for the Arts, $1.5 million is very difficult to attain.

While Gaunt said her board is very much a working board, where “you give and you get (funding), or else you get off,” she has also noticed the change in personnel.

“Volunteers are not employees,” she said.

Though being a patron of the arts gives Gaunt a sense of satisfaction, she said she misses the discipline that business required of her, as well as the friends she had at Ford.

“I love Ford and I will continue to love Ford for all of those reasons, and it will always be a part of me,” she said.

For Shearer, getting away from that discipline and having a more flexible schedule is one of the main benefits of her work.

“One thing I do enjoy is more flexibility,” she said. “This allows me a great deal of freedom.”

She is now able to start her day with a spinning class, meet her two sisters for coffee once a week, and work in the evenings if she chooses.

“Those are the things that I missed,” she said.

Shearer said she did try the total freedom of not having a job right after she resigned from West Michigan Heart in May 2005, but after one summer, she wanted something more to fill her time.

“I was very grateful for it,” she said of the first summer she had off since she began working as a teenager. “Then in the fall I got kind of anxious to do something different.”

Finding Fulfillment

Before Andrus became CEO in 2002 of the Trivalent Group, West Michigan’s largest business-to-business ISP, he took a step back to decide what was important to him.

After 30 years in the high-end technology business, Andrus said he was becoming less and less fulfilled. He knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur and make an impact that he could see.

“I didn’t want to get into my 60s and say ‘Gee, I wish I would have …,’” he said. “Fortunately, I was in the position where I could do that.”

With 60 employees relying on the company, Andrus thrived under the pressure, saying he wanted to “put together for our West Michigan market the best total solutions service provider that we could.”

Andrus said he is satisfied with his lifestyle and the impact he is making through his company and community involvement.

“I just think that it’s important to have control of your career, and be a part of a team and a part of something that’s meaningful,” he said. “I think too many people appear to go through their careers just to survive.”

With a new career — and a new wife as of January — Northrup said his next major change, though it may be a few years in coming, would be to live in different international cities for a few months at a time to get a taste of the culture and experience of living in a different country. Northrup’s wife, Birgit Klohs, is president of The Right Place Inc. and a native of Germany. Northrup said she shares this goal, but neither plan to stop working in the near future.

“I’m as energized as I ever was the last 10 years,” he said.

Gaunt said although the SaugatuckCenter for the Arts has kept her busy, it has also allowed her more time to spend with her husband, Bob.

“I have this very special time in our lives with my husband,” she said.

The couple chose to make their home in Saugatuck because of the diversity and rich art community, Gaunt said.

“Bob and I sort of longed for simplicity that allowed us to enjoy the things in life that we had grown to appreciate and respect. That’s how we landed in Saugatuck,” she said. “The diversity that exists in Saugatuck is very stimulating.”

After 27 years of working five-and-a-half to six days a week for increasingly long hours, Gaunt said she appreciates the time she now has.

Shearer, though still working long hours, said she enjoys the nature of her work.

As a consultant for The Entrepreneur’s Source, Shearer said she works with a lot with people who have been downsized, with stay-at-home moms, and others who would like to have flexibility in their schedule or are looking to invest in a business.

Shearer began her new career in January and has clients across the country.

“We get to know the individual’s hopes and dreams and match them with business models to look at,” she said. “We serve more as a coach.”

Shearer said she misses the interaction and the people she used to work with, but enjoys the new lifestyle.

“I think my structure right now is very comfortable for me,” she said. “I’m very happy I’ve made this decision.”    

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