Running A Business In The Shadow Of Aids

Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, Sean O'Brien Strub had to borrow money from his family to make ends meet. Strub's New York direct-marketing firm had run into a cash-flow problem, and his suppliers were suddenly denying him credit. Their explanation was the crummy economy, which Strub concedes may have been a factor. "But in a couple of cases, the issue clearly was my health," he says. Strub has HIV, the AIDS virus.

This is the story of how one businessman has come to grips with HIV. It's the story of how the virus has changed his outlook on business, and how the specter of AIDS affects his enterprise in ways that he can't control.

TERRIFYING TRUTH. Strub, 33, is one of an estimated 1 million Americans infected with HIV. Of that number, there's no telling how many are corporate leaders or entrepreneurs. Strub would have preferred to keep his condition a secret, too. But in the tightly knit direct-marketing community, where Strub has done work for everyone from the Boy Scouts to the most militant AIDS activists, word has a way of getting around.

Strub was certain he had HIV the first time he read about the virus back in 1981. The appearance of symptoms, such as shingles and other rashes, confirmed his fears a few years later. Since then he has sorted out--sometimes in painful and costly ways--which channels for his energy and initiative will reward him best. "I've been in a hurry ever since I left the womb," he says. "This has forced me to prioritize my life and career goals and focus on what kind of business I want to be in." Two years ago, that included a run for the U.S. House of Representatives from suburban Rockland County, N.Y. Strub got 45% of the Democratic primary vote to his opponent's 55%, and though he never mentioned having HIV, he says he would have if asked.

Today, he works out of a tidy Manhattan office whose walls carry "Safe Sex" signs and a clock with the warning: "One AIDS death every 20 minutes." Not that he needs reminding. He's in basically good health at the moment, but Strub has twice had shingles, a few other skin ailments, and a couple of cases of encephalitis. "I've had a few good scares," he says matter-of-factly. At the moment he is taking AZT, a drug supposed to block the virus from multiplying. Then there are vitamin supplements, the antiviral drug Zovirax, and antibiotics for a strep infection in his heart. His regimen also includes less orthodox treatments such as massage therapy and visualization. "With visualization, you see the HIV virus as this evil character," he explains. "You visualize T4 cells as knights in shining armor, and they go beat 'em up."

Hard as it is to confront your own mortality, the most difficult part of the disease has been its effect on the people around him. "Some very close friends got so freaked out they've withdrawn from my friendship," he says. "I get occasional check-in calls from them, but basically I've lost them as friends." Business relationships take on an uneasy air as well. "If I cough on the phone or miss work with a cold, I know they're thinking I could go any minute."

While his doctor concedes that's a possibility, Strub is determined to live long enough for someone to finda cure. Smart "lifestyle" choices--such as eating carefully and not dwelling on the disease--go a long way toward keeping him healthy. So does his job. "It's exquisitely important to maintain a normal, busy life," says his doctor, Josh Torgovnick. "The single most important thing to avoid is unnecessary worrying about the virus."

A busy life is nothing new for Strub. Growing up in Iowa City, the son of a propane marketer, he was the industrious boy who had two paper routes, shoveled walks for money, and arranged sprawling garage sales that would attract hundreds of buyers. He was also, as he remembers it, "different from the other kids--never totally in sync." In his early teens, he recognized that he was gay. Years later, he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality while at Georgetown University.

Strub's career as a direct marketer took off before he could finish school. Pitching in on state and local political campaigns, he found that when he wrote letters asking for money, people actually sent it in. Between campaigns he sold his expertise to companies and nonprofits, and his firm, now called Strub Media Group Inc., was born.

When Strub started out, gay and AIDS-related fund-raising represented less than 10% of his work. These days, it's more like 90%. "There's more than a little self-interest involved," he admits. "These groups may affect how much longer I survive." A hallmark of the firm has always been its inventiveness. Working on Ann Richards' 1990 campaign for governor of Texas, Strub sent out 38,000 letters urging Democrats to join an "automatic giving program," where every month her campaign would charge a donation to their credit card. The unusual program generated close to $20,000 a month for the campaign. "Sean does breakthrough stuff," says direct-mail consultant Denison Hatch. "A lot of fund-raisers outside the gay community could learn a lot from this guy."

At its peak, Strub's business had 15 employees and revenues of around $4.5 million. But the '80s were a period of no small pain. Hundreds of friends, including several employees and three live-in lovers, succumbed to AIDS. Strub's last live-in companion became ill during Thanksgiving dinner with Strub and friends in 1988. He went to the hospital the next day and within 10 days he was dead from AIDS. Not long after, Strub tried to sell his company to an employee. But they argued over the price, and she left to start her own firm. To his dismay, most of his clients went with her, and Strub's firm folded.

Starting over gave Strub a chance to reevaluate his entire approach to business. His thinking centered on the sad fact that he could die at any moment--and that he would like to leave behind a valuable estate for his five siblings. In order to make the firm less dependent on his personal involvement as a consultant, he's concentrating on businesses that could survive without him, including a small publishing enterprise, a mail-order drug outfit, and a business that collects and sells mailing lists.

HOMOPHOBIA. At the same time, Strub is trying to take it easy on himself. While he's never short on creative ideas, he is the first to admit he's not much of a manager or a detail person. With that in mind, he's no longer putting himself in a position where he has to manage so much: Strub Media Group has just three employees and sales of around $1 million. Aware that stress is bad for his health, Strub also is trying to get a handle on his furious temper. "He has mellowed tremendously, and I'm glad about that, because he was on a short fuse," recalls list broker Andrew Harwin.

Strub has had much to be enraged about over the years. In addition to worrying about finances and other entrepreneurial concerns, he has also confronted homophobia and irrational fears about AIDS. Back in 1984, when he was working on the first direct-mail campaign for New York-based Gay Men's Health Crisis Inc., a New Jersey letter shop he hired to handle the job took one look at the mailing and refused. "The manager called me and said, `We wouldn't do pornography, either,"' Strub recalls. "Then he said, `The Dominican ladies who stuff our letters are worried about getting AIDS.' I don't think he ever asked them." The letter shop is now out of business, and efforts to reach the owner failed.

Other problems are more understandable, though no less troubling to Strub. He knows getting a bank loan for his firm is all but out of the question--unless he wants to deny having HIV. Health insurance, too, is a major headache. Like many business owners, he's unhappy with the sharply escalating rates he's paying. But now that he and other employees have started filing HIV-related claims, "I don't know that he could get insurance anywhere else," says his insurance agent.

Faced with such constant reminders of his condition, sometimes it's hard to look past today and imagine himself living tomorrow. But he's getting the hang of it. Says Strub: "You can only live assuming you're going to die tomorrow for so long." He's co-authoring a book on Corporate America's handling of gay and lesbian rights. He is trying to produce an off-Broadway play about an AIDS activist. And he recently joined the planning committee for Unity '94, a sort of gay Olympics coming up in two years. "You know, that's pretty good," he says with a laugh. "I can conceive of being alive in 1994."

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