The Pursuit of Extreme Happiness
Small-business owners and their slightly radical ideas of fun.
By Eilene Zimmerman

(FORTUNE Small Business) – • Martial Artist | Bruce Fenton

When Bruce Fenton wants a workout, he heads for the gym, but not the kind with treadmills and weight machines. Instead Fenton, 33, opts for something more intense, something that involves, say, being kicked in the head. Twice a week the founder and president of investment firm Atlantic Financial drives 45 minutes from his Norwell, Mass., office to a Thai boxing gym, ditches the suit for boxing shorts, hand wraps, and gloves, and climbs into the ring.

Thai boxing appeals to Fenton, he says, because of its arduous workouts and coaches who "push you to your absolute human limit." At the end of his two-hour training sessions he can barely move. "It's punishing," he says. "It's the most strenuous workout I've ever experienced. I've trained for marathons, and that's nothing like this."

Fenton has always pushed himself hard. He was hired at Morgan Stanley right out of high school, and by age 22 he had founded Atlantic Financial, which became one of the first full-service investment firms on the Internet. His company now has 12 advisors on staff, and his average client balance is $350,000. While building the firm, Fenton had little time for exercise, but he took some karate and kung fu lessons intermittently. Last year, soft and out of shape from sitting behind a desk all day, he decided to dedicate himself to improving his martial arts skills. Fenton converted the basement of his new house into a Japanese-style dojo, complete with wooden floors, screens, punching bags, kick bags, weights, and cardio equipment. Now he spends more than seven hours a week practicing karate, kung fu, and his current passion, Thai boxing. Four nights a week he takes sparring classes, and most mornings he does cardio workouts in his gym at home. In September, Fenton spent two weeks at a boxing school in Bangleepee, Thailand, where, for six hours a day, he did nothing but box.

It's a big time commitment, but Fenton has strategies he uses to fit everything in around his company responsibilities. For example, he watches financial news shows during his morning cardio sessions, using a hard drive to skip the commercials. And he recently hired a tenth-degree black belt grand master--the highest level of martial arts instructor--to teach him during his lunch hour on Thursdays. "It helps me save time," Fenton says. "A one-hour private lesson with him might be equivalent to six hours of normal instruction."

On top of the physical intensity of the workout, Fenton feels martial arts give him a significant mental boost. "I find a kind of balance during really hard training," he says. "Suddenly I am focused only on the boxing, not the employee agreement or the revenue projections. My survival instinct kicks in, and it's a lot like meditation. I achieve clarity of mind." --EILENE ZIMMERMAN

• Hiker | Amy Salzhauer

On a Friday afternoon the phone rings at Ignition Ventures. Amy Salzhauer, founder and CEO, is calling from a mountaintop in Maine. "It's a beautiful day," she says. "Get out of the office! Go home!" Not many employees hear that from their boss on a regular basis, if at all. But it's a frequent occurrence at Ignition, where Salzhauer, 36, doesn't just believe in a work-life balance--she built her company around it.

Ignition Ventures is an incubator that helps turn scientific advances into startups. Salzhauer founded it in 1999 with a partner, Maureen Stancik Boyce, 41, whom she met while working at Bain & Co. The two had similar backgrounds--advanced degrees in both business and science--and wanted to create a business model that would enable them to have lives outside the office. To that end, Ignition has just five employees but works with a stable of several hundred independent contractors, mostly business consultants, professors, and scientists--all with either an MBA or a Ph.D. The contractors have different areas of expertise; Salzhauer and Boyce match them with clients and often temporarily run the companies themselves. Salzhauer has served as CEO of seven client companies.

The service that Ignition provides to its clients can vary widely. Ember, a Boston company that makes wireless-networking computer chips, needed help with financing. "I knew nothing about banks," says Robert Pool, who founded the company in 2001. Ignition wrote a market analysis and helped line up investors. Salzhauer also wrote Ember's business plan and ran the company until it could find a CEO. Today Ember has received $53 million, mostly from venture firms, and has revenues of less than $10 million.

The Ignition model offers a lot of flexibility for both employees and contractors. Workers on Ignition's staff are finishing graduate degrees or helping raise children. Several contractors (most of whom are sole proprietors) write novels or study Zen Buddhism. They commit to working at least ten hours a week with Ignition's clients. "Our clients know up front that if they call at five on a Friday, the consultant might not be be available," Salzhauer says. "But our people are good enough that the clients are okay with it." She keeps her company's workload manageable by being selective, accepting just 2% of the companies looking to work with Ignition. "It's a very sophisticated model," she says. "It involves a lot of organizational strategies and management up front."

Outside the office, Salzhauer hikes frequently, especially in the Northeast (though she has also explored ranges in the Swiss Alps, China, the Pyrenees, and Scotland). Her greatest athletic achievement lies in the esoteric field of dragon-boat racing. Dragon boats are large vessels that can accommodate ten to 50 paddlers, with ornamental figures on bow and stern. The races are popular in China, and the sport is spreading throughout Europe. In 2003, Salzhauer's boat took silver at the world championships in Pozan, Poland. --EMILY MALTBY

• Off-Road Racer | Ronn Bailey

Bailey was 54, a multimillionaire and CEO of a highly successful information-security company, when he drew up a corporate succession plan, updated his will, and started training for the Dakar Rally, the longest, most dangerous, off-road race in the world. He describes himself as an adventurer, and he likes his adventures on wheels. One of Bailey's goals is to ride his motorcycle on every continent in the world--he has ridden in the Mayan jungle and north of the Arctic Circle. The Dakar Rally seemed a good way to take on Africa, but after doing some research he decided it was too grueling for a motorcycle. "I thought, I'm 54. There's no way in hell I can drive a bike across the desert," he says.

Instead he had a $300,000 car built from scratch in six months. Bailey bought or commissioned each component: the Jimco suspension, the Fortin Racing transmission, the modified 350-horsepower Corvette LS1 engine, the specially designed and fabricated body, even the paint job. Bailey also had a support truck custom-built for members of his team, a three-axle Renault that has 6X6 transmission (i.e., six-wheel drive).

The 7,000-mile Dakar Rally begins in Western Europe (Barcelona in recent years; Lisbon in 2006), crosses the Sahara desert, and ends in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. More than 1,400 racers compete in cars, bikes, ATVs, and trucks, subjecting themselves to perils that include sandstorms, civil strife, bandits, and land mines. Only about half the entrants actually finish. In the 2005 race, five people died, two of them professional racers.

Bailey trained for Dakar by driving a smaller, cheaper version of his custom-built buggy in the desert areas around Las Vegas. He also persuaded some former Navy SEALs who train military Special Forces in off-road driving to train him as well. "They don't usually teach civilians, but I had two people in my office call them every week for 11 months. They finally gave in," he says.

Nine months later he became the first American amateur driver to race a car in the Dakar, and his entry made news around the globe. Worldwide exposure for Team Vanguard also meant worldwide exposure for Vanguard Integrity Professionals, the Las Vegas company Bailey started in 1986. The firm develops software that protects the critical information of companies and countries alike. Clients include Aflac and Wal-Mart. The Dakar experience cost Bailey ten weeks of work and $1.4 million. During the race he carried military-hardened laptops and satellite phones to keep in touch with the office. "Think of it," he says. "In the middle of Sahara, literally 1,000 miles from anything in all directions, and I could run my company." He estimates--perhaps liberally--that the race generated $10 million worth of exposure for Vanguard, in the form of press coverage.

Of course, that's not why he did it. "The Dakar is the dream of every road racer," says Bailey. "It's the ultimate adventure." The 2005 race began on New Year's Day, and Bailey and his co-pilot, veteran off-roader Steve Myers, immediately found themselves in a violent sandstorm that lasted several days. A week later they took a wrong turn, got lost in the Mauritanian desert, ran out of gas, and were stranded for four days. "We had a sack lunch and one day's worth of water," says Bailey. Eventually someone showed up with gas, and the pair got to their checkpoint, but they had missed the start of the next stage and were disqualified. Bailey figured he hadn't come this far to watch the end of the race on television. He hired a guide, crossed the Sahara, and arrived in Dakar a week later. Now he's hooked.

"This was one of the greatest experiences in my life," says Bailey. His goal for the 2006 race (which starts in Lisbon on Jan. 1) is to finish in the top 20. "I know now that Dakar is not a race," he says. "It's a test of a man's character." --EILENE ZIMMERMAN

• Roller-Coaster Rider | Carole Sanderson

Sanderson has been on more than 500 roller coasters, but that's counting only those in the U.S. As president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), she also travels abroad, routinely hitting eight or ten amusement parks in a week. Her trips have taken her as far as Gold Reef City, a park in Johannesburg, along with Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and LaFeria in Mexico City. ("People get dressed up to attend that one," she says.) Two years ago, while in Scandinavia, Sanderson logged her 700th roller coaster, and after that she stopped counting.

From Monday to Friday, Sanderson, 44, serves as CFO and partner of Cleveland-based Herschman Architects, which designs retail spaces for clients such as Office Max, Dick's Sporting Goods, Z Gallerie, and Ritz Camera. The firm, founded in 1974, now takes in almost $10 million in revenue. Sanderson's responsibilities often require 60-hour workweeks, but as a co-owner, she controls her schedule. Recently she logged three straight 15-hour days to finish a project before a three-day weekend in San Antonio for the Golden Ticket Awards, an industry event sponsored by Amusement Today magazine.

"Roller coasters are a relief after dealing with the challenges of business," she says. "You just ride. It's a high." Each year she takes on 15 to 30 new coasters, budgeting $5,000 annually for her travel expenses. Acknowledging that she turns "everything fun into a job," Sanderson also spends at least 20 hours a week on ACE tasks. Her expertise has landed her on Discovery Channel specials and in the pages of USA Today, often giving informal reviews of new coaster rides. (Her position at ACE gets her onto them before the public.)

Sanderson's favorite--and home--ride is the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. The 42-story Dragster is the world's second-fastest coaster, at 120 miles an hour. The new Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., at 128 miles an hour, just broke its record this past summer. Sanderson hasn't been on that one yet but is planning a trip.

She also likes the older rides. There are 116 wooden coasters in the U.S., and she has ridden nearly all of them at least once. As a rule she can do without too many loops (one or two is fine, she says), and she doesn't like insurance-inspired devices such as seat dividers, head restraints, or ratcheting lap bars. "I like smaller parks--the homespun, family-owned places like Kennywood in Pittsburgh," Sanderson says. The infatuation started young. She remembers her first rides as a young girl: the Jack Rabbit at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Blue Streak at Conneaut Lake, an hour northeast of Cedar Point. Her parents took her out of school in Youngstown one winter to attend the opening of Walt Disney World.

"The roller-coaster organization has taken me to places I never would have gone," she says. At presstime she was booking a two-week trip through Japan that would take her and several ACE members to 15 parks. Still, there are 1,817 coasters in the world, so she'll always have new places to conquer. "You can't have a bad day in a park," she says. --KRISTEN HAMPSHIRE

• Disabled Kids' Hero | Paul Hooker

Paul Hooker didn't need another job. He was already CEO of Sferra Bros. of Edison, N.J., a maker of luxury bed and table linens. Sferra was founded by Italian immigrants in 1891; Hooker and his brother-in-law bought the company in 1977. Its products, including 1,020-thread-count sheet sets for $950, are used in high-end hotels--and even once on the Pope's plane. In his free time Hooker also served as president of the local Little League and coached his son's team. But after he saw a girl in a wheelchair sitting by the sidelines of a game, asking why she couldn't run around the bases like her brothers, his entrepreneurial wheels began to turn.

"When my three able-bodied kids wanted to play soccer and Little League, the township paid for it," he says. "A child with a disability doesn't have a recreation program to go to." Since 1990, Hooker and his wife, Margo, have filled that gap with Challenged Youth Sports, a nonprofit based out of their home in Sea Girt, N.J. Its year-round lineup includes basketball, soccer, Little League, and tennis for 150 local children with some kind of physical or mental disability.

Forget the pushy soccer moms: CYS is not a hotbed of competition. In Little League, everyone hits, everyone scores a run, no one gets out, and every game ends in a tie. "We play for smiles," says Bob Haggan, coach of the Red Sox team and parent of a 14-year-old autistic son, Justin, who has been playing all four sports since he was 6. (Technically, players need to be 7, but Hooker isn't fussy about the rules.)

All field and court time is donated by the township or local sports leagues. Coaches and teenage "buddies" volunteer to help out with practices and games. Time is the Hookers' biggest contribution--keeping a database of registration information, talking to parents, attending all games--but Paul says that as a businessman, his organizational skills are his strong point. When he needs to send out a mass mailing or phone all the families with information, his Sferra staff of 50 pitches in. "I don't know that I could do this if I didn't run my own business," says Hooker. "The time to do this has to come from somewhere, and I find the time by taking it from my business."

In 1999, Hooker raised $200,000 to build a playground in Colts Neck, N.J., for disabled kids, on an acre of property donated by the Monmouth County Parks System. The sandbox is on table legs so that a child in a wheelchair can roll the seat under it. Special swings also accommodate children in wheelchairs. All playground elements are accessible by ramp rather than stairs, and two-inch-thick foam pads the hard surfaces. Hooker is currently raising money for a second playground.

When he retires from Sferra, Hooker hopes to create similar leagues throughout New Jersey and around the country. It is, he insists, an easy idea to spread. "If you can find a grassroots group who will run things, I can give them a blueprint of what to do," he says. "These things don't have to be life-draining events. You can create a lot of joy for very little money." --JULIE SLOANE