An Odd Blessing

Jane Mobley's bout with cancer taught her and her PR firm a lot about business--and the business of living

When I heard about entrepreneur Jane Mobley, 52, and her battle with ovarian cancer, I braced myself to write a real tear-jerker.

Well, you can put away your handkerchief. Mobley is nobody's victim. "Cancer doesn't frighten me," she says. "Bad drivers, random bullets frighten me, not cancer." Instead, she goes about her daily business, heading a $2 million public relations and publishing company in Kansas City, Mo. Cancer is, as she calls it, her "health challenge."

I'll admit I wasn't expecting her sharp sense of humor. (Speaking of her lost eyelashes: "It gives me that Holy Roman Emperor look.") Nor was I prepared to hear that this dreadful disease has actually taught her to run her business better.

When illness struck in 1996, her two-year-old company, Jane Mobley Associates, had eight employees and close to $1 million in billings, putting it among the top 10 PR firms in Kansas City. "I dreamed that I had cancer repeatedly over the course of a month," says Mobley. "I sometimes have fairly knowing dreams, but I tried to resist this one." A sonogram and a CAT scan confirmed her fears; the tumors were fast-growing and advanced.

She broke the news to her staff, and they discussed calmly how business would proceed. Afterwards, Mobley went to the ladies room; all the other women were in there, weeping.

Rainmaker. Massive surgery and six months of aggressive chemotherapy followed. Her billable hours plummeted, and new business slowed, as she had always been the firm's rainmaker.

Fortunately, Mobley soon heeded cancer's most valuable management lesson: take help and delegate. A year earlier, she had hired Michael DeMent, a former Hallmark Cards Inc. PR exec, to help her expand the company. During her treatment, DeMent kept the business running, while Mobley kept in touch by e-mail and telephone. (She has since made him a partner.) In her absence, employees made more decisions for themselves. The unexpected result: They flourished. "It was an instant empowerment," she says. "Because they were great people with lots of skills, it worked." Another revelation: Debt isn't always a bad thing. Mobley, who borrowed for the first time to cover the steep drop in cash flow, now realizes self-reliance isn't the only way to finance growth.

Perhaps cancer's biggest "gift" was the six months of treatment and convalescence she spent pondering what really mattered to her. After the disease unexpectedly went into remission, she resolved to stop wasting time on unimportant things--such as her hair. "I figured out the time I spent on it. Shoot, I could've written a mediocre American novel in that time," says Mobley, a former English professor. As her hair grew back, she took to trimming it an inch long with a beard clipper.

She trimmed away some clients, too, shifting her emphasis to consulting for nonprofits, foundations, and major public-works projects. Now, she often teams up with engineering companies and government agencies on the construction of, say, a new highway, and works to build community support. She also tweaked existing client relationships: Whereas her firm once handled PR for the Major League Baseball Players Assn., she now helps the athletes run a charity for kids. She has also expanded her publishing division, Highwater Editions, which produces private-edition books for art museums and other clients. Certainly her bout with cancer derailed her company's growth temporarily, but it also led her to focus her business more sharply. She expects to reach $5 million in billings in the next few years.

No Poster Girl. Just when you think Mobley couldn't find another kind word to say about cancer, this doting grandmother tells me it has taught her to value a balance between life and work. At her company, nobody misses a school play or comes to work if a child is home sick.

Unfortunately, Mobley's struggle with cancer isn't over. "The big shift for me was to admit I wasn't going to be the poster girl for recovery," she says. Last June, she had surgery to remove a tiny growth on her liver. More than 100 biopsies showed the recurrence was contained to that single spot. The chemo continues every Thursday--so far, so good--and she flatly tells her doctors she wants no prognosis.

On a recent afternoon, Mobley seems shaken after attending two friends' funerals in one day. She tells me she was thinking about her own eulogy: "I would like them to say I made a good business." Many people would say she already has.

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