REINVENTING THE GOOD LIFE DON'T TALK TO THESE RETIREES ABOUT LONG DAYS AT THE BEACH OR A LAZY CRUISE TO THE CARIBBEAN. THEY ARE TOO BUSY SETTING DEMANDING GOALS FOR THEMSELVES AND SAVORING THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – As described in the preceding pages ("The Future of Retirement," page 86), the great baby-boomer cohort is facing later years that are likely to be more about job sharing than shuffleboard, more about shrinking entitlements than endless journeys to romantic locales. Many may find the prospect disturbing--but it doesn't have to be. The five couples below, silver-haired pioneers whose lives are filled with work and real-world achievement, are living examples of the joys offered by a busy, productive retirement.
Each of the five has worked through the process of discovering what will truly make them happy as they age together. And for each, the outcome was not what they once had hoped for. A woman who had longed to idle away days in London museums found fulfillment in the rough labors of farm work. A former English professor discovered he needed a platform for his views after all. A couple accustomed to the daily grind of building a business spend their days happily giving to others in a country far from home. It's true that no one can predict our future, but we can probably be certain that it won't be what we now expect.
CHUCK AND CATHERINE BALL After 40 years in the oil business and an eventful expatriate life, Chuck Ball decided he had had enough and resigned. There was no rancor in his decision back in 1986--and not much advance planning either. He was 59 and his wife, Cathy, 57; and both were dedicated Anglophiles. Cathy was inclined to stay right where they were, spending their retirement years amid the cultural attractions of London.
But Chuck had a different notion, one that would eventually lead them to a farmhouse in California's Napa Valley. Their home includes a long screened porch with a view of mountains and vineyards, as well as a swimming pool lovingly constructed for their eight grandchildren. It's a particularly fine setting in which to sample a bottle of the cabernet sauvignon made from the grapes the Balls grow on their 40-acre property, bought in 1987. Their wine is the real stuff, selling for $336 a case retail under the Oakford Vineyards label, and their 1,000-case-a-year operation is likely to break even this year.
But the Balls went through a long, hard struggle to get to the pastoral ease they enjoy today, and their experiences may well serve as a cautionary tale for people who dream of starting up a vineyard--or any other ambitious retirement enterprise for that matter. Chuck's original vision for this speculative business was simple enough. He would function as chief executive officer for the Oakford Vineyards, while Cathy would serve as sales manager in Napa Valley.
Chuck wanted to spend enough of his generous retirement package from Santa Fe International to launch his business, but not so much that he would have to return to regular work. Says Chuck: "I paid cash for the property, and we had enough left in stocks and bonds for us to live on. I decided I wasn't going to spend more on the vineyard than I could afford and that I wasn't going to borrow." He also ruled out taking on partners to share the workload and the financial risks. "Outside investors always want to change direction," he says.
But Chuck's desire to do it all on his own led to years of arduous labor and some stern financial challenges. The Balls' operation is a modest one, a blip compared even to boutique wineries. The couple don't bottle their product themselves; their grapes are custom crushed and bottled elsewhere. Still, the project chewed up more than $500,000 over the years and required all sorts of skills Chuck and Cathy never knew they had. He drove tractors and repaired irrigation systems, and both traveled around the country introducing their wines to distributors and restaurateurs.
They have learned that the wine business is neither easy nor cheap, but they have made a go of it because of good land, some capital and business sense, and a lot of energy. It hasn't hurt that their property has increased in value and their wine inventory has grown to be worth about $700,000.
Chuck says he once thought he had had his fill of hard work, envisioning a retirement that would be enlivened only by European wine tours and the occasional camera safari--and would also include a lot of tennis. Today he says he rarely has enough free hours to get to the courts. It all adds up, says Chuck, to a matter of priorities. Says he: "I've gotten a lousy return on my investment--but a great lifestyle."
RUBIN AND RUBY PERRY Rubin Perry, a 60-year-old former IBM executive in Atlanta, refuses to describe himself as retired. "It's not in my vocabulary," he says. Indeed, it's difficult to view a man who runs a successful computer consulting business, Atlanta RP Enterprises, as a retiree in the traditional sense of the word. But Perry maintains the perspective of someone who has moved on to a lifestyle that includes equal doses of leisure and labor. He finds it profitable and intriguing to mine the continuing American computer bonanza, but he works only three days a week--and then only after a long, late breakfast with his wife, Ruby.
Like other independent-minded retirees, Perry relishes the control he now has over his life. After years of arriving at a company desk at 8:30 a.m. for the requisite eight-hour day, he now chooses when and where he works and how many hours he wishes to devote to a job. "My day starts as a function of the task I have chosen," he says. Sometimes he picks a job, or a series of jobs, that he can wrap up early. Other times he is busy until ten at night for one or more of a dozen clients with computing needs. In all, he labors in the entrepreneurial groves between 25 and 30 hours a week and spends about an equal amount of time doing volunteer work.
Rubin's path to this enviable situation began in 1987, during one of IBM's periodic fits of downsizing. Rubin, a middle manager after 20 years with the company, cut a deal that "pumped up the number of effective years so I could have a nice pension." He won't say how much, only that it was sufficient for the Perrys' needs while he struck out on his own. Among the factors that made it all possible were that both Perrys were in good health and, with their children grown, big tuition costs were a thing of the past. (Their son has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and their daughter holds one in psychology.)
Rubin located clients through direct mail, referrals, and leads from computer vendors; he also became an authorized reseller of IBM computers. His efforts, along with his experience and contacts in the business, bore fruit. Atlanta RP Enterprises has grossed as much as $500,000 a year; in 1996, Rubin expects to bring in about $750,000, "if all the deals go through." Ruby, a former substitute teacher, serves as the financial vice president of the company.
After his years confined by IBM's rules, Rubin finds running his own shop exhilarating. "The flexibility is wonderful," he says. "It's primarily problem solving. I have the satisfaction of seeing customers achieve their objectives and the luxury of helping people when I might not necessarily make a lot of money." He adds, with a laugh, "I also have the liberty of telling prospective clients exactly what I really think."
For all their entrepreneurial fervor, the Perrys make clear that work is just a part of their new lifestyle. Rubin plays a lot of tennis with his daughter; Ruby covers a figurative 20 miles every day on her exercise bike. The couple is also heavily involved in a range of volunteer efforts. Their church, the Ben Hill United Methodist, claims most of their Sundays and some of the other days. Rubin works closely with the clergy staff, and he is the first African American lay leader of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. He teaches Bible class on weekends too.
The Perrys plan to find time to see more of the United States in the years ahead, though it's likely they will spend at least part of their trips scouring for new clients. After all, business is still business--retirement or not.
ALAN AND NANCY ZAKON Four years ago, Nancy Zakon was making what she describes as "a nice six-figure income" as a human-resources manager for a health care consultancy in Manhattan. But the job included way too many 14-hour days, and she was soon feeling like a burnt-out case. She conferred with her husband, Alan, then a managing director of Bankers Trust, and he advised her to do something she enjoyed.
Nancy, then 49, weighed her options for a while, finally settling on a pursuit with great resonance from her childhood. When she was 11 or so, her father had taught her how to fly-fish on a stock pond in Alabama, and she had always enjoyed the traditions and easy rhythms of the sport. "Once you get a real feel for it, you're hooked," she puns. Having chosen her field, Nancy decided she needed some practical knowledge. So she went straight to the Manhattan Orvis store and told the manager at the renowned fly-fishing retailer she wanted to learn the business.
Even though she didn't know a caddis fly from a woolly bugger at that point, he hired her as a retail clerk and part-time bookkeeper. The pay was a paltry $8.50 per hour, but Nancy began to see the outlines of a new business aimed at women interested in the sport. She developed a mailing list by taking down the name and address of every woman who came into the store. She organized an after-hours party for women interested in fly-fishing, and began to believe her dream had a chance when 50 women showed up.
Nancy started her enterprise by organizing seminars for women interested in learning more about fly-fishing, then she began teaching classes for them at a pond in Central Park. As her roster of budding fisherwomen grew, she stopped working at the Orvis store and founded Juliana's Anglers, named for a 15th-century English nun who wrote a treatise on fly-fishing. She continues to conduct the fly-fishing classes, puts on demonstrations at trade shows, organizes corporate functions for women interested in fly-fishing, and publishes an eight-page newsletter six times a year that goes to 400 women. While her business is clearly an unalloyed pleasure to her, it also happens to bring in up to $15,000 a year in extra income. Alan, now 60, retired from Bankers Trust recently, and he says he's still at an early stage of his new life. Though he remains on several boards, he's trying to learn how to deal with his newfound freedom and the lack of business pressure he's experiencing for the first time in many years. Says Alan: "Whether you're 55 or 70, you still have the same problem when you retire--filling your time."
His wife's fly-fishing passion is turning out to be one big time-filler for Alan as well. When not out on the water, he likes to spend time reading about the gentle art of Izaak Walton and Norman Maclean. Alan also revels in the social benefits of the close-knit fly-fishing world around Manhattan and throughout the country. "It's the sort of community that every retired person needs," he says.
WALKER AND NANCY GIBSON After more than four decades as an English professor at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, Walker Gibson thought it was time to step down. That was in 1984, and he quickly regretted his move. The problem wasn't money. He had three primary sources of income: a state pension that after 17 years paid about $23,000 annually; the teacher's union pension plan he had contributed to for 23 years that paid about $16,000; and Social Security payments of about $12,000. In addition, Walker and his wife, Nancy, received payments from an annuity he had wisely purchased--somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 annually--and some additional income from a mutual fund and stock dividends.
The Gibsons also had an exceedingly pleasant place to live. Their home, a bungalow near the UMass campus in Amherst, has shade trees, a garden, two studies full of books, a baby grand piano, and original oils on the walls--some by one of their three sons, a professional artist.
But Walker, now 77 and able to look back at those early days of retirement with some perspective, concedes that he was "a mess." One problem was a common one: He missed the simple acts of performing the job he had known for so long. At loose ends, he hung around the house all day and generally got in Nancy's way. "I'm going to write a pamphlet for the wives of retirees," says Nancy. "I'll tell them to get their husbands an office somewhere or get them out of the house for lunch, at least."
What Walker really missed most of all was an audience for his ideas and intellectual stimulation, of the sort he had taken for granted throughout his teaching career. The solution for Walker--and Nancy--came one day when he heard about a phenomenon gaining popularity all over the country, the LIR. The initials stand for Learning In Retirement--local, nonprofit educational programs organized and staffed by retirees for the benefit of retirees. "I heard about the one at Harvard," Walker recalls, "and I said, 'Why not here?' " The location seemed fertile ground for such a program. Five colleges are located within shouting distance of Amherst, and the region is a hotbed of former academics and well-educated older people. Walker and other local retirees set about organizing a program of lectures and soliciting attendees, and the response was immediate. Today, the Five College Learning In Retirement Program has 150 members, and Walker and others have new friends and receptive audiences for their lectures.
Annual membership is $150. That buys the right to attend as many of the weekly seminars as one wishes, and the responsibility of teaching now and then as well. Subjects are as various as the interests of students and teachers. Recent classes centered on such subjects as Massachusetts writers, the Hudson River School of painting, the political promises of President Clinton, "language and doublespeak," and the art of autobiography. ("No ballroom dancing," says Walker.)
The Gibsons have learned--or already knew--a basic lesson of retirement: Limit consumption. "If you're spending money, you've got to be making money," says Walker, who argues that thrift is a virtue of inestimable value to all retirees. Nancy shares that view. "Thoreau said it all," she adds. "Simplify, simplify."
DARYLL AND MARY KLEIN The Kleins, both of them unafraid of hard work, made a great business team. Together they worked six and seven days a week, and operated one of the more successful car- and truck-rental agencies in the Portland, Oregon, area. Retirement, when they thought about it at all, was some dimly perceived notion quite a few years off. Then one day in 1994 a man walked onto their lot and offered them far more money than they could turn down for the business.
Their initial euphoria was closely followed by vast confusion over what to do with their good fortune and remaining years. "Having the pressure released was like breathing fresh air," Mary, 54, recalls. "Then I thought, 'My goodness, now what?' " She went to the library to research the possibilities. With two grown, prospering children and roughly $1 million in investments, both of them, as Daryll, now 58, puts it, "felt fortunate about what life had given us and wanted to give something back."
They eventually settled on the Peace Corps, and soon found themselves in the Black Sea town of Constanta teaching Romanians the basics of American business: management, marketing, advertising, exporting/importing, stock market investing, mutual funds. Daryll introduced the concept of Junior Achievement Awards in a local high school and arranged a computer hookup via satellite with a school in America. Together the Kleins are still organizing workshops and seminars and snagging visiting business people as speakers. "We show the Romanians how to do business plans and how to get loans," says Daryll. "We put good people together."
They are just two of 70 Peace Corps volunteers in Romania, and they have found their stay there both useful and reasonably pleasant. They earn all of $376 a month--plus stipends for housing, transportation, and medical costs--but they aren't complaining. "The Peace Corps wants us to live as the people here do," says Daryll. Besides, he adds, their dollars go a very long way when movies cost 70 cents; the opera, ballet, and symphony cost just $1.25; and a bottle of good wine runs only a dollar. Then there are beautiful sea views and warm Romanian companions. The good life, the Kleins have learned, can evolve in the most unfamiliar places.
REPORTER ASSOCIATES Edward A. Robinson and Anne Faircloth