Fed up with the fast life (cont.)
Goldenhill is a congenital outlier. He's the brooding figure in the corner of the room, the bearded mystery man cupping a cigarette, the wealthy eccentric with broken glasses and a tattered polo shirt whose longest-running committed relationship is with an 18-year-old mutt named Motley. "I'm just emotionally incompetent" is one of the ways Goldenhill tries to explain himself; and, "Monogamy was a fairly novel idea when I started it several years ago"; and, "I've never fit in anywhere." He went to Middlebury College to ski, got thrown out twice, sidestepped the draft, and finally graduated in 1974. Then he picked up his master's in finance and embarked on a career as a bond trader, which suited him.
At Chase, at Daiwa, and later at Chicago Research & Trading (CRT), Goldenhill proved his mettle in the arcane, "enormously pure" realm of bond arbitrage. He did a lot of his best trading during panic times in the middle of the night with a phone in each ear ("your adrenaline going fast - not the healthiest thing to do physically"). He had no nose for office politics, zero interest in becoming a manager. He was just a highly skilled, highly motivated professional who brought in single-digit millions for the firm year after year, had his share of '80s-style decadent fun, and made himself rich.
He was married for a few years, no kids. After that he shared a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper West Side with an actress. When that broke up he bought a farmhouse in Redding, Conn., where he lived for years, alone with his horses and his dogs. "It was Betty Ford or horses," he says, explaining that when you take on responsibility for a horse, "you can't be out all night."
As long as he was working in the city, he was up every morning before dawn to feed the horses and on the train platform in time to catch the 5:55. In line with commuter custom, he slept on the train. "It's an integral part of your sleep cycle," he says. "I was always worried about either drooling on myself or having an erection."
After CRT was swallowed by Nationsbank in 1993 and the place began to feel too corporate, Goldenhill and some of his like-minded pals founded their own firm, with an office in Ridgefield, Conn. They named it Black Sheep, and that was good for a while, the boys trading strictly for their own account - no customers to cater to, no bosses to interfere.
Goldenhill has never not liked trading, he insists (while at the same time acknowledging it's "a silly, ridiculous way to make a living"). But it got to the point where he'd look up from his screen and another five years had gone by. Here it was, the millennium already. His AARP card was in the mail. "Life was passing by too fast," he says. "I was like a contented cow." Time to break the addiction, he decided, and try something new.
Shortly before he left Connecticut, Goldenhill attended a theme party at a neighbor's house. He went reluctantly, and he brought his attitude. Outside, he recalls, it was all BMWs and SUVs; inside, bankers and lawyers and accountants. "They were doing like a beatnik thing," says Goldenhill, who watched down his nose from the back of the room. "They were getting up there with bongos and poetry." But guess what? It wasn't dumb. In fact it was brilliant. Goldenhill was humbled. "I was stunned at their bravery and stunned at their creativity," he says. "I actually had to admit the fact that these people were more interesting than I was."
A tough road
The first thing Goldenhill did after he bought the store was persuade Ken, his old drinking buddy from Connecticut, to join him as a nonequity partner. Apart from being naturally prickly ("I don't like Rob much, and he doesn't like me too much"), Ken is everything Goldenhill is not: a highly decorated Vietnam veteran with long experience in the restaurant business and a sharp eye for design.
It was Ken who supervised the tasteful restoration of the store's interior; he chose the white New York City subway tiles for the wall behind the deli counter and found the low-back antique stools for the coffee counter.
It was also Ken who argued for keeping the hunter's weigh-station license that came with the store. "It's part of the charm" was Ken's feeling, and Goldenhill reluctantly agreed. Then came the first day of bear season and the first young hunter to show up with a bloody carcass - a cub, no less. Legal in Vermont, but still. "Told the kid to screw," says Ken. "Tore the sign down. It's over. One day."
The purging of the weigh station marked an early turning point for the Williamsville General Store. Walk in today and you can still buy ammo, if you know to ask; also a newspaper and a gallon of milk. But that's about it for general merchandise. These days Goldenhill's focus is on food, high-end stuff: pistachio muffins, chicken soup, chunky loaves of healthy brown bread, all prepared on the premises.
Locals still come in for egg sandwiches and coffee in the morning, but Goldenhill has no illusions anymore about his target market. He's going after the carriage trade - skiers and leaf peepers and wealthy summer residents who, upon crossing the threshold, might think they've died and gone to Darien, Conn. Almost. "Anybody comes in here with an attitude," says Ken, "I tell 'em to get out. This is not froufrou."
It's been a tough road. Vermont, it turns out, eats entrepreneurial dreams. You hear about the gay couples that turn some old farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast ("They're all for sale," says Ken) and the sad retirees who invest in a general store as a makeshift retirement plan. "It's seven days a week," says Ken. "The workforce up here is tough. Kids are hard to find who want to work."
Goldenhill has been buying a lot of real estate lately ("my substitute bond portfolio"), which could be a sign of restlessness. He's got a red house next to the store that he'd like to turn into an ice cream stand some day, and an antique white house on down the road that could be either a corporate retreat or a high-end vacation rental. His latest big idea for the store is to recast some portion of it as a restaurant, but for that he needs permission from the town to expand the septic system. It all takes time.
Goldenhill lost almost $70,000 his first year in business. Next year he hopes to finally turn a small profit. Including the building, he says he's in for "half a unit" - a unit being $1 million - "plus or minus a hundred thousand." Until recently, he was putting in 40 to 60 hours a week. He'd like to get that down to 20 and focus more on what gives him the most satisfaction. So now he has a couple of employees who pour coffee, wash dishes and man the register while he's at the stove preparing coq au vin and pâté en croute.
If anything gives him pause, it's thinking about the millions he might have made had he devoted his thousands of working hours over the past half-decade to trading. He used to measure his cash flow in ticks - one tick up or down on a million-dollar bond was $312.50. So when he'd drop $300 on dinner, it was no big deal: just one tick. These days he'd have to sell more pizzas than he cares to think about to make a profit equal to one tick. But Goldenhill has adopted a faith-based approach to revenue, one that rewards "being good at your craft. Money should follow that. If truth and beauty prevail, then this thing will make money."
My last day in Vermont, on a bright blue afternoon, I drive with Goldenhill to nearby Mount Snow. We park in the lot at the base of the mountain. Goldenhill grabs two ski poles to which he has duct-taped eight-pound weights, takes one last draw on his cigarette, and turns toward the steep slopes. Goldenhill got into the habit of climbing Mount Snow last summer during a difficult stretch with Nina. Things are better now at home, but the habit stuck. He's out here two or three days a week, almost always by himself.
It is a brutal, heart-pounding ascent, straight up the side of the mountain. After about an hour of hard climbing, we reach a narrow shelf below the summit. Here, Goldenhill slows suddenly and turns down a circumventing side path. There it is, the big view we'd been missing until now: slopes ablaze with color, descending to a magnificent highland lake lit by golden sunlight.
I'm transfixed, then confused. Isn't he going to keep climbing? Maybe not, I decide, padding along behind. Maybe this really is what happens when a hotshot bond trader chucks it all and moves to the country and opens a general store: He loses that all-consuming need to conquer the next peak. He finds something like contentment.
I want to tell Goldenhill about my insight, but already I'm too late. Next thing I know he's climbing again - legs pumping, arms churning, lungs heaving - and he's not looking back.
Bond trading was lucrative, but Goldenhill's life was passing in a blink. "I was like a contented cow," he says.
Would you give it all up for a slower pace? Post your thoughts on the FSB blog.
To give feedback, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the April 1, 2007 issue