Of businesses, recession & stress relief activities

Of businesses, recession & stress relief activities

For Bruce Woolf, owner of Quaker Road Associates, a home construction and renovation company in Chappaqua, New York, it is a monthly poker game. Doug Holzworth, a self-employed technical writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, fences in his driveway.

For many small-business owners and employees, certainly builders and others in the construction trades, these are difficult times. With restricted access to credit, consumers and businesses are canceling or postponing major projects and purchases. That means the owners have to work extra hard to keep their businesses going. And the longer the downturn lasts, the bigger the toll it takes on their well-being.

That is why Slovak says she needs to sneak away from one of her construction sites occasionally to a nearby shooting range. “Getting out to the trap field and focusing on a little clay pigeon that is 6 inches in diameter going 40 miles per hour is the best therapy,” said Slovak of Georgetown, Connecticut.

“You’re not thinking about anything else, and when I come out of there I feel refreshed,” she said. “I shoot 50 to 100 rounds just to clear my head and put a smile on my face. Then I can go back ready to deal with any situation.” Woolf, who has had to dismiss five of his 10 full-time employees and has lost 40 per cent of his workload, looks forward to his monthly poker game. The games, his custom for 25 years, are with eight close friends ages 40 to 60, several of whom also run small businesses, including a bicycle shop and
an advertising agency.

“It’s just so much fun,” he said. “For five or six hours on a Friday evening, we more or less totally forget about the world. It’s really helpful.” So too, he concedes somewhat sheepishly, is faithfully watching ‘American Idol’ with his two daughters, ages 8 and 10. “It’s really relaxing and fun family time.”

Challenging businesses

Given the many challenges of running a business in a recession, ‘it’s a life-and-death issue’ to monitor and mitigate the effects of work-related anxiety, said Carol Scott, an emergency room physician who also helps business owners and their employees manage stress.

Small-business owners, many of them motivated high achievers, tend to neglect their own health in the scramble to find and retain clients, she said. “You’ll cancel that doctor’s appointment and stop going to the gym,” she said. “Suddenly you’ll just collapse and wonder why.”

Her suggestion for dealing with stress is to walk briskly for 30 minutes every day, even in three 10-minute segments. Lee Sellenraad, director of project development at Barton Malow, a commercial construction company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said his sense of history calms him. His company, with 1,700 employees, works nationwide only on commercial projects worth more than $10 million. While some sectors –— like power plant construction —– are booming, others are not. Sellenraad said he had survived tougher times when, in 2004, he went an entire year without an income.

“My father grew up in the Netherlands in World War II, and my mother was Dutch,” he said. “They were used to a life of hiding, escaping the Germans, living on tulip bulbs. Their experience gives me some perspective.”

To relax, Sellenraad said, he watches his 18-year-old son play varsity baseball, walks his neighbourhood with his wife and works out at the gym as a bodybuilder. Holzworth, 51, the technical writer, said fencing is his balm, and his driveway is his fencing strip. “We’ve had crowds,” he said. “Police cars have driven past the house slowly.” Being thought the neighbourhood eccentric for his public swordplay does not diminish his enjoyment.

“Fencing is incredibly physically demanding,” he said. “Any anxiety, stress or nervous tension that’s built up during the week just burns away with the first clash of blades. When I’m done, I’m exhausted but grounded.”

Holzworth said he also plays chess one evening a week. “I find it very calming to be able to focus on a specific, well-structured challenge,” he said. “That, plus a glass of wine, makes a perfect evening.”

Working at The Greenbrier resort, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for 11 years meant many months of bad news, said Lynn Swann, its director of public relations. From 2003 to 2009, the luxury resort that dates from 1778 lost $90 million. It is the largest employer, with 1,300 jobs, in a town of 2,000 and a county of 35,000 with few other opportunities.

The resort filed for bankruptcy protection in March but was sold in May to Jim Justice, a prominent West Virginia businessman. Under Justice, the resort has begun construction of an underground gambling complex and is opening an additional restaurant on October 1.

The mood is more optimistic now, Swann said. But in the darkest days, “I just wanted to crawl into a hole,” she said. To manage her stress, Swann has tried everything: the soothing music of the Swiss harpist musician Andreas Vollenweider, reading thrillers, aromatherapy in her office, weekly papaya facial masks and plastering her office walls with inspirational quotations. Her 8-year-old daughter, she added, gives great hand massages.

The emotional support of family members and friends –— kind, calm, familiar and solid –— is crucial, small-business owners agreed. Michael Cohen, founder and chief executive of the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, an 11-year-old business that offers kayaking, bicycling and other activities, has had a 10 to 15 per cent decline in revenue and a huge jump recently in the number of competitors undercutting his prices. The school and corporate groups he relies on for business are cutting back, while six full-time and seven part-time employees rely on him.

Hikes & bikes

To relieve stress, his staff takes 16-kilometer hikes and long bike trips, he said. Cohen goes surfing, or straps on his 9-month-old son to take his 3-year-old for a hike to a local creek. “I’ve always relied on nature as a stress reliever,” he said.

For Stacey Lund, already stuck behind the wheel of her sport utility vehicle for a two-hour daily commute to work from upstate New York, doughnuts and coffee do the trick. Lund relies on Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain with 536 stores in 11 states in the United States, for the comfort of something easy, familiar and affordable.

She said she realised that if the doughnuts offered her comfort, they might do the same for others. So as she drives across northern New York selling advertising for Entercom Communications to seven local radio stations, she makes sure to bring a box.

“Our business is very relationship-based,” she said. “Clients are pulling back their spending, and they have tons of other media reps calling on them. But as soon as they see I have a bag or box of goodies, their eyes light up.”