Fed up with the fast life
Tired of life on Wall Street, millionaire bond trader Rob Goldenhill bought a Vermont country store. Then he learned the truth about business - and himself.
(FSB Magazine) -- "How big is yours?"
Dave Lyons wants to know. Rob Goldenhill peers at him sideways through a haze of cigarette smoke. A self-described "very immature 55," Goldenhill is lanky and scruffy, self-deprecating and sarcastic, handsome like an older rock & roller. In a former life he made millions trading government bonds on Wall Street.
Seven years ago he moved to southern Vermont, thinking of retirement. Instead he wound up buying the general store here in tiny Williamsville (pop. 337). On this fall night he has locked up as usual at 7, but when regular customer Lyons, another expat entrepreneur (he restores vintage recording consoles in an old furniture factory up the road), knocked on the door, Goldenhill invited him in and poured him a glass of wine.
Now everybody's sitting around a couple of wooden tables in the back - Goldenhill, Lyons, Goldenhill's life partner, Nina, his business partner, Ken and Ken's wife, Denise - drinking wine and listening to music and engaging in a little light sparring. But not about cars or houses or bank accounts or even their anatomies, as they might have in their former lives. This pissing contest is about ponds.
"It's smaller than yours, Dave," Goldenhill admits. "But the critical part about my pond experience, Dave, is that one of the sheetrockers I had working at the farm is an older fellow, and he very nicely said, 'Can I come by with my granddaughter and fish in your pond?' I said, 'Sure, come anytime you want.' And every time this guy showed up, he'd throw buckets of trout in the pond. Now I have, like - ." Goldenhill spreads his hands wide, indicating that while his pond may be small, his fish are big.
Lyons looks deflated. "We've got a bunch of rock bass" is all he can say to that.
"We've got a higher class of fish than you do," says Goldenhill. "Can you skate on your pond?"
"We get about a good week of skating," says Lyons. " I could go out there with a plow, but I'm kind of busy working, you know. Till nine at night, every night."
"Stop whining," Goldenhill says.
"It's hell," says Lyons. "I want to make real money."
Nina looks up, surprised. "Is that why you came to Vermont?" she asks. "To make real money?"
"No, but I'm intent on doing it. I'm not going to change the way I am just because I moved to a laid-back place." Lyons looks to Goldenhill for confirmation. "You know what I mean?"
"No," Goldenhill snaps, and now we're all looking up.
Lyons tries again. "You never, kind of, lose that," he offers. He's not just talking about the lust for money; he means the whole type-A entrepreneurial package.
"I have," Goldenhill insists.
Well, okay. If he says so.
A brand new life
Goldenhill's entrepreneurial adventure began six years ago with a craving for a cigarette. He had recently turned 50, and he was trying to quit - lots of things, actually, not just smoking. Already he had left his high-paying, soul-draining job as a bond trader on Wall Street ("It was fun and honest and meaningless and grim"), sworn off television, committed to a monogamous relationship and traded his bland suburban life in Fairfield County, Conn., for a richer, more meaningful life on a 200-acre horse farm in southern Vermont.
But he was having trouble letting go of the cigarettes. He pulled in that day at an ancient clapboard building with a peaked roof, rattling windows and a heavy front door: the Williamsville General Store. He wasn't looking to buy a whole pack of cigarettes, much less embark on a whole new chapter in his life. All he wanted was a loosie from the cup by the cash register.
But then Goldenhill got to chatting with the proprietor, a tired man who confessed that times were hard; he was about to be foreclosed upon. "Last summer somebody offered me $140,000," he lamented. "I should have taken it."
Huh, thought Goldenhill. That was short money for a former master of the universe. Something stirred inside. Granted, he had come up here to retire, to tend to his horses, take up skiing again, and make a go of family life with Nina, who was recently divorced, and her two children. But now a new idea was forming, "an alternate dream" that was entrepreneurial, to be sure, but not the classic version.
It wasn't about money. It wasn't about changing the world. It wasn't even about building his own sandbox. It was an experiment in self-discovery - an attempt to learn, after years of not really understanding, what kind of human being he truly was. Was he capable of working for interest and meaning rather than for money? Did he have something more to offer the world than his skill in the trading pit? Could he slow down and still be happy? He was curious to find out. A couple of days later, Goldenhill took possession of the Williamsville General Store. (The store can be reached at wgsbistro.com or 802-348-7300.)
Suddenly the former Wall Street hotshot was in business. A retail business, no less, of the most fundamental kind - selling hardware and groceries and ammunition, baking bread and making soups, handling cash, coming face to face every day with customers who are also his neighbors.
Wary as always of commitment, Goldenhill left himself an out. "I was perfectly open to the idea that after a couple of years, I'd say, 'You know what? You are that superficial. Let's go back and trade.' But I kind of got distracted."