A Higher Calling Than Profit

There was no financial need to work after my husband lost his long battle with cancer -- but I did, harder than ever, to honor his memory

By Fran H. Oh

The day after Thanksgiving in 2000 and before he left for Korea, my husband, Tony, handed me two folders, one containing records for our tax accountant and the other filled with information about Electronic Business Solutions, the company we had co-founded a decade earlier.

Tony was headed to Korea to seek alternate treatment for the cancer that had been diagnosed in 1989, just before he launched the sole proprietorship that would eventually become our company. He would die in Korea in December. Handing me the folders, he advised me to get out of the business should he not come back. "Don't even bother saving the company," he said. "Stay home. We're financially independent, and you can be with the children." This was his last wish for me.

That fall, it was true that Electronic Business Solutions was faltering. Our only partner, Sun Microsystems, was about to drop the partner programs, of which we were an integrator of its products. Nor would there be, with Tony gone, the top-level vision necessary for refocusing. What's more, it was true that I could afford not to work and that, even more to the point, I would be needed at home. We had three children, all under eight, and they would soon be without a father.

A DIFFERENT DECISION.

  Those compelling reasons notwithstanding, I instead made a different decision in January, 2001, just after my husband passed away. In many respects, it mirrored the way we lived our lives together, and it laid the groundwork for the future that I envisioned as a young widow and single parent: I decided to continue with Electronic Business Solutions, assuming the leadership of the company with the objective of rebuilding. I did so not because I needed to earn a livelihood or because I wanted to make ever greater profits, but because I had decided to commit to a larger goal.

In January of that year, I had received a small sum of money from friends and family, and I couldn't bear just to spend it. It was too precious. However, I knew that I would be able to spend it on an endeavor related to Tony. So I found myself thinking back to a goal I had set when I was happy, and I said to myself, "That's it! Rebuilding our business will enable me to secure the capital necessary to establish a memorial to my husband."

My goal was to establish housing in Boston for the cancer victims who must come to the area for an innovative treatment, proton therapy, which is currently offered at only two medical centers in the U.S. The therapy had helped Tony, and I wanted others to be able to take advantage of this same treatment. In sum, I would be building a business this time around for a higher calling. My business model would entail "working hard to help others." And that, I have found, has made all the difference.

A CONSISTENT LEGACY.

  Before I describe how and why, let me first explain that while my decision differed from what Tony had advised at the end of his life, it was very much in synch with the way we lived during happier times.

Back in 1989, it wasn't until after Tony was diagnosed with cancer of the nasal system that he decided to go ahead with an idea for a business of his own. A design engineer by training, he had recognized an opportunity to sell computer parts. If not then, when? We were both in our 20s -- he was 29 -- and we were newly married. I remember him making sales calls from a public phone between treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the same vein, we decided shortly after receiving the diagnosis to start a family, and we had three children in the years between 1993 and 1997. In the meantime, I suggested building our dream home -- and we did build it in a Boston suburb. If you stop living just because you're told you're going to die, that's when you do, in fact, begin to die.

In 1993, we incorporated our sole proprietorship as Electronic Business Solutions, bought a headquarters building, and began setting business goals -- for two, three, five years out. We were even thinking about an IPO. Most significantly, by 1997, besides having three beautiful children, a dream home, and a growing company, it was clear that Tony's cancer hadn't recurred, largely because of the proton therapy he had been receiving. I remember driving him back and forth to the hospital from our home in the suburbs, thinking how much harder this must be for patients who had to come from a distance -- living in tiny apartments, being physically, as well as emotionally, away from home. And it was then, before Tony's death, that I first thought about giving back, doing something "when we sell the company." At that time, that goal was going to be my after-retirement project.

A HIGHER CALLING.

  In the years since Tony passed away, I've approached the running of our company -- and, indeed, entrepreneurship itself -- as a means to accomplish what I first set out to do in those happier times. While rebuilding Electronic Business Solutions hasn't been easy, I've recovered from mistakes I made, and I've brought a heightened business savvy to the absolute necessity of getting the job done in order to achieve a goal more substantive than profit.

In the spring of 2001, for example, I hired a chief operating officer (COO) who, I had thought, would bring the necessary leadership and deliver on certain sales objectives, only to be taking aback when none of that happened. Instead, early in 2002, he said he intended to buy the company and wanted me out. He delivered an ultimatum: Sell or I'm leaving with the entire management team. He ended up resigning shortly after learning that I would not hand over my company. His reason for resigning was our inability to remain a Sun partner. "Sun will never reinstate your partnership," he said, "and without it, I can't deliver what I promised you."

The lesson was that, to build the company I desperately needed for the sake of my larger goal, I would have to do it myself. Likewise, for most of 2002, I took over the critical imperative of convincing that major partner, Sun Microsystems, to allow our company to continue to resell Sun products. Our relationship with Sun was key to our survival -- and yet Sun was terminating its programs with resellers.

Rather than accept Sun's tactics, I knew that I could prevail. I had the determination to win back the contract because I was striving for a goal that was more important than profit. I also knew that I couldn't approach Sun on bended knee, begging for our survival. So I did my homework, studying Sun's plans for the year ahead to uncover a niche in which our company would enable Sun to increase market share without a costly investment.

After six months of battle, I prevailed, signing in October as one of Sun's eight OTP partners (OEM technology providers) in the U.S., and the only one in the East. No one -- and I mean no one -- thought that would happen. We secured two programs under the new contract, and we are looking forward to a bright future.

THE FUTURE BECKONS.

  My goal for Electronic Business Solutions and its 20 employees is to lift revenue above $20 million, from the $10 million we achieved in 2001. Also, I want the company to turn the corner to profitability.

However, it is the larger, long-term goal upon which I am focused -- the one that has inspired me to revitalize my company. Indeed, focusing on that goal has been the difference between believing that I could only go so far and knowing that I could go SO FAR! For the next few years, I expect to be running Electronic Business Solutions. Thereafter, I hope to take the leap to attending full time to my larger goal of establishing the memorial to Tony. Already, I have been in touch with MGH about possible plans for the housing for cancer patients.

The irony has been that my focusing on this higher calling has enabled me to become a more effective entrepreneur. If my goal was to make money for my family, or myself, I couldn't have accomplished what I have now. I already had that. It was the challenge of the higher cause to help others that pushed me further. I have asked myself many times why Tony had to die. I was angry and mad, but as a positive person, I found the answer. Tony's death will be justified only if I help many other lives. It has been a good grieving!

Fran H. Oh is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Electronic Business Solutions, Inc. EBS is a Billerica, Massachusetts based company, incorporated in 1993, providing Systems Integration, Software and Storage to companies throughout the world.

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