Dealing with the emotions of retirement
By Michael Beller
NFIB member Fred Radtke never planned on slowing down, but life had something else in mind for the 62-year-old business owner.
Radtke founded F.A.R. Management Inc., a third-party claims administrator for unemployment and state disability claims, in suburban Detroit in 1987. Owning a business initially granted him the freedom to spend time with his family, but before he knew it, he was working 80-hour weeks. Then, life intervened.
“I ran into a health issue, and that changed my perspective of invincibility,” says Radtke, who did not want to disclose the details. “Although the issue was relatively resolved, I thought maybe it was time to stop [working so much].”
The health scare eventually convinced Radtke that retirement, a scary subject for many small business owners, was the right choice moving forward. However, that was two years ago, and Radtke still spoke to MyBusiness from his office. Like many small business owners, he’s transitioning into retirement as opposed to cutting himself off from work cold turkey.
It’s true that most small business owners find it difficult to let go of their life’s work, says Todd Tresidder, founder of FinancialMentor.com, a personal finance website based in Reno, Nev. They often put off retirement because it’s too daunting, or too emotional, to consider “the other side.”
In fact, 43 percent of small business owners say they never intend to retire, according to a 2012 study from Barlow Research. A 2008 study by Wells Fargo and Gallup had similar results: Only 11 percent of small business owners said they plan on “fully” retiring, with 47 percent indicating they would cut back on work but remain involved in the business in some capacity.
“It’s an insane model that you’re going to work hard like a dog for 40 years and then do nothing for your remaining 30,” Tresidder says.
For business owners, retirement is fraught with emotional, financial and operational challenges. What will happen to the business once you leave? What will you do with your time every day? How will you redefine your life? Owners like Radtke are finding that retirement isn’t so daunting, though, once they treat it more like an opportunity to slow down than hang up the towel right away. It’s just a matter of taking the first step.
Too many owners envision a sharp cutoff for retirement—one day making sales and calling on customers, and the next riding off into the sunset after a final goodbye to the corner office. That, however, paints a scary end-of-the-road scenario with too many unknowns beyond that “last day.”
“Owners find it hard to completely let go,” Tresidder says. “But they can paint the vision of a 10-year tone-down. It’s easier for them to say, ‘I want to slow down a little.’”
Radtke, for one, knew he wasn’t ready to leave work behind right away. While he could hear retirement knocking at the door, it wasn’t pounding and demanding to get in. That’s why he put together a five-year plan that has him decreasing the number of working hours over time. He’s now in the plan’s second year and works 55 hours each week instead of the 80 he was working before the health scare.
For John Imber, who ran a solo headhunting firm, John Imber & Associates, for 39 years, the slowdown began around his 70th birthday. He loved the business he worked so hard to build, but knew there was much more to life than work.
“You read about so many people who work themselves until the end, retire and then die one week later,” says Imber, who lives in Niles, Ill. “I did not want to do that.”
So, the home-based business owner made a calculated decision to continue consulting for only one client, which meant he’d only manage one to two recruitment searches a year. In 2011, when that client’s senior leadership changed, he saw it as the perfect time to close the business for good and move on with his life.
“I couldn’t have imagined leaving instantaneously,” he said. “The phase-out approach was the perfect way to keep challenges in my life and ease into new ones.”
Building a New Vision
Indeed, when a small business owner decides to chart the course toward retirement, it is crucial to figure out what to retire to. “You must have that compelling vision for what is next in your life,” Tresidder says.
Imber had always been involved in his community, volunteering through the Knights of Columbus and his church. But when he started slowing down at work, he took on new responsibilities in his personal life, such as becoming chairman of the church’s parish council and leading fundraisers. He was even voted Niles Citizen of the Year in 2010.
Radtke, too, knew he wanted to get more involved with his community. “Since I love the mentoring aspect of running a business, I’m picking it up in another way by volunteering for the Big Brothers Big Sisters charity,” he says.
Essentially, Radtke and Imber are taking the skills that made them successful in business and are reapplying them in other ways as they ease into retirement—a surefire way to stave off the itch to work. More importantly, it has helped them learn to feel fulfilled in their new lives.
And they haven’t forgotten to relax, too. Imber spends much of his days reading, gardening, biking and golfing, and Radtke has a couple RV trips planned to visit his two daughters, one of whom lives close by in Michigan, and the other who lives in New York.
“I used to be a leading traveler with the airlines, but when you’re on business you don’t see things,” Radtke says. “I’m going to enjoy seeing things again.”
Discover New Hobbies
Even though you might have a plan of what you want to retire to, don’t be surprised if your plans change.
Rob Pascale says while interviewing 1,500 retirees for his book, The Retirement Maze, he found that many people realize their favorite hobbies are not how they want to spend their retirement. Pascale, who ran his own market research firm for 30 years, was one of them. “While I was running my company, I was into oil painting. I couldn’t wait to get home and immerse myself in it,” he says. “But, I haven’t picked up a paint brush since I retired. I realized it was a diversion, a way to relax and get away from work.”
Discovering new hobbies can make retirement fun, and an adventure to look forward to for business owners who are slowing down.
Boyd Lemon, who practiced law in the Los Angeles area for 40 years, was approached by a publisher to write a book on malpractice a year before he retired. He took the project to make a little extra money, but ended up discovering a new love for writing.
“I realized I really enjoyed the process and the feeling of having a book out there,” Lemon says from his new home in St. Marys, Ga. “Discovering that passion has been key for me in retirement.”
After the first book experience, Lemon began writing short stories based on real events from his life. And most recently, he wrote a book called Retirement: A Memoir and a Guide that shares lessons learned from his and others’ retirement. His main finding: Having a structure in place is crucial for a successful transition.
“When you have a job, you have a built-in structure,” Lemon says. “You have appointments, you have to be somewhere at a particular time, you get home at a particular time. When you retire, you lose that structure.”
Lemon found that individuals who were happy in retirement built a new structure for themselves. For Lemon, that included building in time for meditation, exercise and, of course, writing. He didn’t set out specific durations for each activity, but just having that structure made a huge difference toward feeling productive—and getting used to the “new you.”
Redefining Everyday Life
A new you: That’s what retirement is all about.
“To retire is to really, at a deep and profound level, redefine your life,” Tresidder says. “That’s not easy.”
That doesn’t mean the new you can’t include your business, too. Your identity will always be partially wrapped in the business you’ve owned, operated and grown. But once you start the transition to retirement, you cannot continue to define yourself by work; doing so will prevent you from taking the next step.
“Holding on to your work identity is useful because it grounds you,” Tresidder says. But over time, it’s important to let a little more of it go each year.
For Radtke, the disability claims business owner, the moment of official retirement is approaching. Because he’s taken five years to transition, he is ready—not afraid—for a different lifestyle.
“I grew up in a community where we had involvement,” he says. “I’m looking forward to going back to the roots I vacated for the last 40 years.”