Ever Dream of Retiring Early?

By Nancy Moffitt

Meet Wharton Alums Who Traded Soaring Careers for Freedom

Judy Page was corporate success personified.

Page, PhD’76, the first woman to receive a PhD from Wharton’s statistics and operations research department, began her career at AT&T Bell Laboratories as a member of technical staff in the Applied Statistics Department. During the next 13 years, she moved through AT&T’s engineering and technology departments, earning several promotions, then onto the business end of AT&T, holding posts in product management, human resources, and engineering. In 1994, she became one of the few women to be elected an officer and vice president of AT&T.

By 1997, Page oversaw more than 6,000 people, had an annual expense budget of $1.5 billion and an annual capital budget of $4 billion. She was responsible for engineering the AT&T domestic and international long distance network, for which she served as chief investment and information officer, and managed more than 300 software systems.

That same year, her career at its zenith, Page decided to take a year off. She retired a year later – at age 48.

The announcement of my initial leave of absence shocked most people I worked with, who saw me as the consummate workaholic,” Page says. “My boss was convinced that I would be back within a few weeks or months at the most. When I went to visit him after about two months, he was sure that I was there to ask to come back.”

But she wasn’t. And today, three years later, Page is certain she’ll never return to a day-to-day corporate job again.

She isn’t alone. Business magazines are littered with articles on Silicon Valley hotshots taking lengthy – a year or more – sabbaticals, a trend that has recently begun to seep into more traditional companies nationwide. Young dot-com owners have sold out and moved on, sometimes to unstructured lives of volunteer work or part-time consulting. A two-year-old website, called 2Young2Retire, gets 2,000 hits a week and is filled with tales of former corporate workers retiring early and transitioning into what they consider more interesting and fulfilling lives.

Today, thanks in part to a booming stock market during most of the 1990s and generous stock option packages, “retirement” can take place much earlier than the stroke of 65 and often doesn’t mean days of leisure and travel. For many, it simply signals a dramatic shift in priorities that generally begins with the decision to leave regular employment for something else, from leadership posts in non-profits to writing, spending time with family or creating a patchwork of tiny businesses that relate to a personal passion. Above all, today’s early retirees are dogged in their pursuit of one thing: the freedom to spend their time as they choose.

The trend is alive and well among Wharton alums. Take Julie Bick Weed, WG’90 and former Microsoft manager. Weed, 35, retired five years ago, wrote a bestselling book on Microsoft, had three sons, and recently published another book on Microsoft. She devotes most of her free time – and a large chunk of the proceeds from her books – to charitable organizations. Sehoon Lee, WG’75, recently retired as president and CEO of the HanGlas Group, the largest glass manufacturer in Korea, at the age of 50. Lee, who spent 20 years working long hours for HanGlas, says he’s decided to begin a new career – bonding with his young sons and rediscovering his family.

In the profiles that follow, we continue Judy Page’s story, as well as the stories of three other alums – some with families, some without – who have each decided to retire young.

“I wasn’t unhappy,” Judy Page says of her decision to retire from AT&T. “I handled stress well and had always assumed I would continue working until a normal retirement age. But as my responsibilities grew at work and my own schedule got more hectic and as the kids lives became more demanding, I started asking myself how I could do all these things.”

Page, 51, and her husband, Alan, PhD’78, had met as PhD students at Wharton. The couple devoted much of their 20s and 30s to their careers, with Judy at AT&T and Alan at a New York insurance brokerage. In their mid-to-late 30s, the Pages had sons David, now 15, and Michael, 13. Judy took six-week maternity leaves with each, then returned to work.

The couple had employed two different live-in nannies, each of whom stayed with the family for six years and also managed the household cleaning, cooking and laundry. “For 12 years, I probably cooked dinner about twice a month,” Page laughs. But in 1996, the Pages’ current nanny announced plans to get married and leave the family.

The couple sat down and talked about what to do next. They could hire another nanny, or maybe, Judy thought, the time was right to make a change. “Alan and I had already done financial calculations, so that we knew how much money we needed for one or both of us to stop working,” Page says. “As an officer of AT&T, there was tremendous financial incentive to stay with the company for 10 or 15 more years.”

But other considerations nudged the financial incentives aside. “The first and primary reason was to be able to spend more time raising our children,” Page says. “Although they got wonderful care with our nanny, it was clear that I didn’t spend that much time with them other than doing the essentials. I know a lot of moms who really wanted to be home while their kids were young, with the thought of working when their kids got older, and I guess I didn’t really have a strong urge to do that. I knew that they were getting good care. I talked to them; I played with them. But when they became more like adults, that was when I really wanted to spend more time with them.”

Page also wanted to take better care of her health given the fact that her father had died at 66 of a heart attack and her mother at 73 of a stroke. An older brother, meanwhile, had also died of a stroke at age 55. Page saw the genetic writing on the wall and felt strongly that she needed to exercise and lose weight before she got much older. She also wanted to involve herself in community activities she enjoyed but had never been able to fit into her schedule.

And so in early 1997, Page announced her intention to take a year off. Almost immediately, her new work-free schedule was full. “Right from the beginning, I was busy every day, even before I was all that involved in outside activities,” she says. “I didn’t appreciate how much it would take to manage the household – just coping with groceries, laundry, cleaning, fixing the kids’ lunches for school, making sure they got off to school. In the past, I would see them in the morning, but the nanny did all of the other things.”

But she found herself relaxed by her newfound freedom and flexibility. Page especially enjoyed simple things like being outside during the day (“I used to always be in meetings and always drove from my garage at home to the parking garage at work”) and setting her own schedule rather than following a tightly packed calendar. She also reveled in having the time to talk with her sons about anything and everything, whenever she liked.

After that first year, Page started volunteering for outside activities and soon found herself with an even fuller plate. She became advancement chairman of her local Boy Scout troop, and then advancement chairman for her 25-troop district. She joined the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, and became program vice president. She took on several assignments for the parents’ association of her sons’ school, using her technical skills to build a database for the annual school fundraiser, then becoming webmaster of the parents’ association web site.

Her business interactions have been more limited. She served on an advisory board for Compaq for a year, but found it difficult to stay current while out of the workplace. On a local level, she became a founding director of a start-up community bank, a challenge for her since “I knew nothing about banking. All during my career I have been a quick learner. It seems more interesting to me now to learn about a new field like banking than to try to stay current on the cutting edge of telecommunications at AT&T.”

Page admits to some downsides to her new lifestyle. She sometimes doesn’t feel challenged enough, so she looks for ways to keep learning. “I use the Internet every day to research information,” she says, “and I read several books a week, especially biographies and how-to literature.” And the Pages’ two sons have also had some adjusting to do. After so many years of watching their mother work, Michael and David now have a full-time mom who comments on upcoming school dances and other matters they perhaps wish she wouldn’t notice. “It’s been harder for them to understand than maybe we thought,” Page says. “Their comment will sometimes be ‘It isn’t fair, we have to work so hard in school, and you don’t have to work that hard.’ But if you’d ask them point blank if they’d like you to go back to work, they say no, absolutely not. And they’ve told me that when I was working, they felt I never had time for them.” Alan, also 51, also recently made a major life change, leaving his New York post to pursue business and community interests closer to home in Watchung, N.J.

Page credits her husband’s strong commitment to financial planning from the beginning of their marriage as a major factor in their security today. The couple also doesn’t live extravagantly – their largest annual expenditures are charitable donations. “We’ve always been in a heavy saving mode, and always paid off our mortgages. Alan is conservative financially, and that’s really helped us. I don’t buy mink coats, and we don’t have the Palm Beach second home.” Because she had worked at AT&T for 20 years, Page was able to put together a retirement package that was still fairly attractive, though significantly smaller than had she hung in 10 more years or so.

The couple sat down and talked about what to do next. They could hire another nanny, or maybe, Judy thought, the time was right to make a change. “Alan and I had already done financial calculations, so that we knew how much money we needed for one or both of us to stop working,” Page says. “As an officer of AT&T, there was tremendous financial incentive to stay with the company for 10 or 15 more years.”

As for the future, Page is certain she’ll always have more than enough to do, and never intends to return to the corporate work world. “There’s something about the freedom of deciding how you want to spend your time that means a lot to me. At home I don’t get the recognition and personal satisfaction that I did from my job, but I also don’t get the stress and aggravation. On balance, I’m happier with what I have now.”

Jim Simpkins, WG’91

Three years ago, Jim Simpkins left the best job he ever had.

Simpkins, 44, WG’91, was a group program manager at Microsoft, a post that allowed him to design software products including the Microsoft Investor web site. His wife Eileen, 37, WG’91, also worked for Microsoft as a marketing manager. The pair enjoyed their jobs and the intensity and excitement that came with working at Microsoft.

But when the couple’s first son Christopher was born, everything began to change. The Simpkins realized they weren’t seeing much of their son, and struggled to cobble together a patchwork of day care arrangements, largely relying on Eileen’s mother to watch Christopher while they logged long hours. (They now have a second son Brian, born this February.)

They realized they would soon be forced to find a more stable arrangement, either a nanny or full-time day care. To Jim, both options seemed like “a hideous allocation of resources – Eileen and I would devote long hours to releasing some new piece of software, a job millions of others could do just as competently, while we planned to delegate to others the job of raising our child, a job for which we obviously had unique qualifications and a unique passion.”

He also realized that the chain of causality he had always counted on – that if he had more disposable income, he would be happier – wasn’t true for him. “With all due respect to those who wear $75,000 wristwatches, when a Microsoft co-worker showed me his, I felt slightly sick to my stomach, as if something were horribly out of whack,” says Simpkins. He saw that the nature of Microsoft’s stock option program was such that no matter when he chose to leave, he would forego a significant chunk of money. Nonetheless, after talking their situation over for months, Jim and Eileen Simpkins retired from Microsoft in April 1997.

“I just didn’t see what good it would do to make more money and have more things,” Simpkins says. “What did more money make better? Initially, Eileen and I had a difference of opinion on this, but we both felt the same way about raising our kids. In the end, that was the unifying factor.”

Today, Jim worries whether he and Eileen will continue to have enough money to stay retired, but says he’s certain that being alongside his two young children while they are growing up was, for him, the right choice. The death of both of his parents by the time he was 30 taught him that “we don’t decide how much time we have on earth with our loved ones. In a sense, Microsoft’s success gave me the opportunity to trade money – in the form of stock options that I would never be able to exercise – for time with my community and my family. For me, it was the best money I ever spent.”

Simpkins describes a third motivating force in his decision to retire as “strictly visceral.” Upon returning from a month-long paternity leave after Christopher’s birth, he was startled to find himself suddenly not interested in the job-related issues that had previously captivated him. “Microsoft is the kind of place where you really have to believe that what you are doing is vitally important – after all, why else would you devote so much of yourself to your job? For me, the birth of our son had undermined that critical ‘suspension of disbelief ’ that I needed at work.”

He is quick to say he doesn’t believe his priorities are right for everyone. “Obviously, most Americans are not in a position to leave work to devote more time to their family and their community,” he says. “And even if they are, working might still be the best choice. I am glad that both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer continue to concentrate on Microsoft and the millions of people whose lives are affected by it, and spend far less time with their children than I do. I think that decision is as right for them and for the world as it would be wrong for me.”

What has it been like for Simpkins, three years later?

Anxiety about money and whether he is “providing for his family” continues, particularly as he watches many of his peers accumulating great wealth and copious possessions. “I have friends who could easily endow a new building at their alma mater, and I still feel a twinge of envy as I carefully weigh whether to replace my ‘88 Camry.” But the family is managing. Simpkins’ four and a half years at Microsoft meant he was fully vested in his original stock options plan when he retired, so was able to walk away with a significant chunk of Microsoft stock. Early on, he sold some of those holdings and put the proceeds into fixed-income investments that provide steady income. The couple has also streamlined their spending and become more frugal, choosing to forgo expensive dinners out and other non-essentials.

Simpkins believes the rewards of his new life more than make up for his occasional pangs about finances, and finds he’s as busy today as he was during his Microsoft days. He sits on the boards of organizations including a youth homelessness group, a Christian organization that feeds and shelters the homeless, a chamber orchestra, and a transportation advocacy group in Seattle. He teaches nature courses at the local Audubon Society, volunteers to help remove graffiti in the City of Seattle and is president of the community council that serves his neighborhood. “I am actually much busier than I would like to be, yet I have the feeling that I could be helping in so many other ways,” Simpkins says. “I am still amused by Microsoft friends who resist retirement because they are afraid they won’t know what to do – I assure you, that won’t be a problem. And of course spending this much time with Eileen and our kids has been a tremendous blessing.”

Christopher Acker, WG’75

Christopher Acker tried traditional corporate, consulting, and large-scale entrepreneurial work, but ultimately chose to “make money the easy way, which is to have fun doing it.”

Acker, WG’75, came to Wharton immediately after earning an undergraduate degree in geological engineering at Princeton. After graduating, he took a post at Exxon for three years, working in the oil giant’s international, USA and Venezuelan units. He then joined an energy- consulting firm in 1978 with the hope and expectation of a more entrepreneurial experience, but found himself largely writing reports from behind a desk.

After three more years, Acker decided to move in an even more independent direction: he began the process of co-founding a medical technology business with two scientist friends. Acker and his partners struggled for two years to raise the venture capital necessary to grow their business, but in 1984 finally launched CritiChem, a company that developed blood-gas monitors for open-heart surgery patients. Four years later, Acker and his partners sold the firm to a larger one. “I got a little slug of money from that, and thought ‘Wow, I might want to do this again,’ ” he says.

Acker then founded ActiMed, another medical technology business, with another scientist friend who wanted to market a home cholesterol test but had little background in writing business plans and selling his ideas to potential investors. Again, Acker struggled to cobble together venture capital, despite his previous track record of founding a successful medical technology company. “What I learned was that starting a business is really, really hard. It’s hard to raise the money and each person rejects you for a different and unique reason,” Acker says. Five years later, in 1995, the Burlington, N.J.-based company was solidly successful, had 50 employees, and Acker was vice president of administration.

But his investments were marching upward, and he was getting itchy. “I realized my expenses weren’t really that high and that I wasn’t wealthy, but I was single, had no kids and was well-off enough,” Acker says. “I didn’t have it in me to start another company, but I was still entrepreneurial. So I retired at the age of 44 and struck out on my own without a formal job.”

Acker initially traveled to the Far East, then built a country home in Northeast Pennsylvania on 150 acres. He has since dabbled in a variety of ventures, including local land development and buying antiques overseas, but has never considered returning to corporate life. And like the others interviewed for this story, Acker’s less structured lifestyle has given him the chance to donate his time and business acumen to non-profits including a historic farmland conservancy and a committee dedicated to sprucing up a depressed and tattered local town.

What has Acker’s financial strategy been? In 1995, he invested nearly all of his cash in equities. He has a fixed-income life insurance policy that delivers 8 percent a year, a 401k that’s invested aggressively in a small cap fund and in the S&P 500. He also has a portfolio of stocks – a blend of technology and blue chip stocks – that he manages, as well as several technology funds. His house is nearly paid off and he plans to be completely debt free by the time he’s 60. and designed my own house.

“I couldn’t be satisfied being a VP of strategic thinking for a company,” Acker says. “I built and designed my own house. I make my own furniture. I love my freedom. I like to do things myself and build things myself.”

But for all of his certainty about his career path, Acker admits that his wanderlust has had some drawbacks. His personal life, for one, has suffered. Divorced for the past decade, Acker has struggled to find a successful long-term relationship, a reality he blames on his independent lifestyle, heavy travel schedule and lack of convention.

Given his childhood, Acker’s professional path isn’t surprising. His father was a geological/ petroleum engineer who founded his own firm and retired at age 46. After “retiring,” Acker’s father worked as a consultant for Mobil Oil, traveling the world to manage off-shore oil rigs in Egypt, Peru, and Indonesia, among other locales.

Acker had no grand plan, no clear idea of how he wanted his professional life to proceed, after graduating from Wharton. “It has surprised me that I’ve essentially been a slacker about my future, but it’s come out just fine,” he says. “Random events have been good to me. I’ve had things fall into my lap almost – the two medical businesses and more recently the antiques business that I’ve been involved with.”

His most recent random business venture is perhaps his most interesting. While decorating his house, Acker decided he needed an antique grand piano for his large, empty living room. He found one on the Internet for $5,000, bought it, then sent it to a craftsman near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who specializes in restoring antique pianos. “I love woodworking – it’s my hobby – and he started to teach me how to restore antique pianos,” Acker says. “I spent weekends with him over a period of months and got the piano 95 percent restored and just about ready to bring home.”

But Acker returned home from an overseas antiques buying trip in February 1999 to heartbreaking news: Sunbury Piano, the business where Acker’s piano and others like it were painstakingly being restored, had burned to the ground. “My piano was a lump of charcoal. This man’s whole life went up in smoke, and my piano was gone. What are the chances of this happening?”

Though in his mind the piano was irreplaceable, Acker had thought to insure it prior to the fire. “One of the most meaningful courses I took at Wharton was Risk and Insurance, which stressed the importance of proper insurance coverage,” Acker says. He collected on the policy and decided to use the funds to start an antique piano business. After extensive market research, he plans to sell the pianos largely via the Internet, and has already purchased 12 antique European pianos in various states of repair. “Random stuff happens. Things can look bad, but there’s nearly always a silver lining,” he says.

Lonny Essex, W’78, WG’78

Lonny Essex would love to say he left his investment banking career behind to spend more time with his family, but the 43-year-old Chicago resident didn’t even meet his fiancee until he’d just about decided to leave his job at age 40.

Essex, W’78, WG’78, began his career as a tax accountant at Price Waterhouse in New York, moved to Mobil Oil, then to MIT’s Sloan School for another MBA, then back to Mobil. The Long Island native moved onto Chicago with Mobil’s then subsidiary, Montgomery Ward, then joined Chemical Bank (which became Chase Manhattan) where he remained for 12 years until his retirement in March 1998.

Essex says he “thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Chase” and considers himself lucky to have been a part of the investment-banking world during the boom years of the 1990’s. “I was having a great time. I had many great opportunities; the group I worked with in Chicago was a lot of fun and I was working with interesting clients I liked,” he says.

So what happened? As he approached his 40s, Essex began asking himself if he would still be happy working in investment banking 10 or even five years down the road. He realized that the answer was no. “My job was such that no matter how much you tried to leave it behind when you left the office, you couldn’t. I didn’t know at the time that I wanted to retire; I didn’t really know if it was burnout or fatigue or if I was just looking forward and didn’t like what I saw. But I felt I wanted to make some sort of a major change.”

Essex, a managing director, would leave for the office for the day, but his thoughts would constantly return to his work. Had he forgotten something critical during a client presentation? Would he wake up the next morning and find that his best client had done a deal with Morgan Stanley? “I worked hard; I wasn’t a complete workaholic, but I was a worrier,” he explains.

Essex says many of his peers, soothed by generous compensation, just accepted the ever-present nature of investment banking. But he decided that he couldn’t. He told his boss at Chase that he planned to resign, but found himself being convinced to take a three-month leave of absence instead. He took that summer off, he says, “being a bum. I started playing guitar again, reading books, I could meet friends for long lunches – I just had a great time.”

When fall rolled around, Essex felt rejuvenated and ready to return to Chase. He vowed to incorporate some of the activities he had enjoyed during his summer off into his daily work life: he would come home over lunch a day or two a week and take his dog for a walk; he would bring a novel to work and find a quiet spot to read over lunch. “I decided that I was going to do all these things that would help me enjoy my work more. But within a month, they were all gone, and I was back on the treadmill,” Essex says.

Essex was able to keep up the pace for a while, but knew after nine months back on the job that he needed to resign, this time for good. “I began thinking about how I was spending my time and I realized that I was spending 80 percent of it on the part of the job that I really didn’t like – on the politics and sales effort rather than analyzing my clients’ financial and strategic needs and advising them on solutions.”

In March of 1998, Essex left Chase with the idea that he would take six months to a year to recharge his batteries and decide what he would do next. One thought was to pursue a financial strategy consulting business focused on small-to-medium sized firms lacking in capital market expertise. Interestingly, within a couple months of leaving Chase, two former clients called seeking similar guidance from an independent advisor. And as summer approached, Essex realized that he loved the flexibility of his new life. “I could come and go as I pleased. I loved heading downtown when no one else was on the train, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. I began slowly giving away my suits. I would walk down my street at two in the afternoon and no one would be around.”

In the meantime, Essex’s carefully chosen investments were climbing in value. He began to realize that – thanks in part to luck and timing – he could continue to manage his investments, do the kind of work he loved, and maintain a lifestyle he found overwhelmingly rewarding. With that, he decided to retire. “I perceived an opportunity in the market and acted on it,” he says of his investments. “But it’s done far better than I ever expected.”

Today, two years later, he tries to limit his consulting practice to 15 hours a week, only taking on projects he enjoys and finds interesting. He was recently hired, for instance, by one of his best friends to advise on the sale of the friend’s boutique executive search firm to a large public search firm. The rest of his time he dedicates to personal interests including guitar, squash, the Chicago Cubs, and “of course, my fiancee Jeannine.” Essex has also remained active philanthropically. He endowed a financial aid scholarship at Penn and is involved in a variety of community organizations, including a local music education organization.

Essex points out that he’s “not a dot-com multi-millionaire” and that he walked away from a sizable stock option package when he left Chase. But he says he realized long ago that wealth isn’t just a function of how much you have, but of how much you need – and he has managed his life accordingly. “I certainly lived well within my means and was able to save large amounts of my income during my working years. This meant foregoing second or third homes, driving cars until they stopped working – I recently traded in my 11-year-old Mazda – and otherwise being prudent about major expenditures,” he says.

Supportive family and friends have made Essex’s choice to retire early even more angst free. Essex’s fiancee, an executive recruiter, is “extremely supportive,” he says, pointing out the irony that Jeannine specializes in recruiting senior finance executives. “At some point in a former life, I might have been a great candidate for her,” he laughs. The couple plans to have children, and often joke about Essex becoming a Mr. Mom. Several of Essex’s friends have made similar moves in recent years, and his father happily retired at age 55. “It was only after I left that I realized how stressful the job was,” he says. “If there’s one point I like to drive home it’s that people should step back every so often to assess the impact their job is having on their lives.”

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