Life After Layoffs

Fortune Small Business
Friday, August 31, 2001
By Jenna Kern-Rugile

Losing your job is never easy. The way Andy Birol was laid off made it worse. Not only did he lose a well-paying job as vice president of sales and marketing at a database publishing company but the firm had his closest friend -- who was its vice president of finance -- tell him he was history.

Just the week before the incident four years ago, Birol and his family spent the weekend at his friend's house. "My boss had my best friend fire me," he says. "Then I was escorted out of the building like I was a common criminal." Worse, Birol's one-year-old daughter Margo, who was born with cystic fibrosis, was battling for her life in a children's hospital. "My daughter was hooked up to a tube," he says. "Everyone knew how sick she was."

What did Birol do? He took two weeks to get back on his feet -- and then decided to start his own company. Now he's running a successful consulting firm, something he might never have done, were it not for his precipitous lay off.

With many companies downsizing and the unemployment rate reaching 4.5% in July, experiences like Birol's are increasingly common. It's hard to imagine when your wounds are still fresh, but getting laid off can actually turn out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise -- the impetus for you finally to pursue a dream, to change the direction of your life. And in many cases, that means launching a company. Following are the stories of two successful business owners who transformed their job losses into entrepreneurial success.

A Life-Defining Moment

For several years, Birol, 42, had toyed with the idea of venturing out on his own, creating a consulting business that would help companies develop and implement a strategic growth plan. "I'd seen businesses making the same mistakes over and over again, focusing so intently on sales and marketing tactics that they lost site of the real goal: keeping customers satisfied and increasing their client base," explains Birol. "I knew I could help them do it better."

Still, after a successful 20-year career in the corporate world, making the break was difficult. Moreover, living with an ongoing family medical crisis made job security a top priority. In fact, in the first few days after his brusque dismissal, Birol was completely distraught. Then came what he calls the "defining moment" of his life. "I sat in my living room for a half hour and thought about how I was going to pay my mortgage" he says. "Then I went to the hospital and watched my daughter struggling to breathe. I realized at that moment that life was too precious. It was time for me to do what I should have been doing all along."

It's a textbook case of what to do after a job loss: Take time to lick your wounds and then choose to view the event as an opportunity. In Birol's case, he reflected on what he had liked and disliked about his previous jobs, evaluated his strengths and weaknesses, and then came up with a plan. The result: Using his own savings and part of his severance package, Birol launched a business-growth consulting firm called PACER Associates in Solon, Ohio. Not in its fourth year, the company includes such clients as Great Lakes Corp. and the National Association of College Stores.

Margo, who is now five years old, continues to inspire Birol. "I credit her with teaching me what strength is really about," he says. "She made me focus on what is important and what isn't. I no longer spend my time doing work that doesn't mean something to me."

Turning a Hobby into a Business

Until the summer of 2000, Steve Bush was a tax attorney for cable giant MediaOne. Bush's exit from that job, however, is no hardship story. When MediaOne merged with AT&T Broadband in June 2000, Bush was offered the option of staying on or taking a nice severance package. He chose the latter.

What to do? Bush knew he wanted to work for himself. At first, he considered starting his own law practice. "But I realized I didn't want to re-create what I'd been doing for the last 20 years," he says. Then he got an idea: open a franchise business. But which one?

After several months of looking, Bush found the right fit at an AT&T-sponsored career counseling session. There he heard a pitch for Mr. Handyman, a franchise that provides residential and commercial customers and licensed technicians to handle all types of small jobs and repair work, from installing door locks to washing windows. Having renovated his own home, Bush knew a bit about the home repair business, but had never considered it as a vocation. "It was something I knew I was good at that I enjoyed, plus it sounded like a great business opportunity," he says.

In March, Bush opened the first Colorado franchise of Mr. Handyman. With revenue already above his business plan, he is planning expansion. Sure beats practicing tax law -- especially when April rolls around.

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