Balance For The Boss

How Karen Borgnes runs a $5 million aircraft-repair company working 30 hours a week

Family-Friendly Policies. Work-life balance. Flexibility. These are powerful buzzwords in the modern workplace, where companies try to prove their concern for employees. But here's a radical notion: Why not strive for a more humane, and sane, work environment because it's what you, the boss, want for yourself?

There's no one blueprint for doing it right, of course. But Karen Borgnes, president of Seattle-based Pacific Aerotech, which repairs aircraft windows and instrumentation at a 12,000-square-foot facility near the airport, is a pretty good role model.

Borgnes, 41, manages to run this 18-employee, $5 million business on a part-time schedule. A divorced mother of two, she works four days a week, about 30 hours in all. That's a breeze compared with the 55- to 60-hour weeks she logged as a stressed-out manager trying to turn around a troubled aviation-parts business, Pacific Aviation Group, the Seattle subsidiary of GPA Group PLC in Ireland. In 1993, as the parent company was being sold, Borgnes teamed up with her former boss, Hugo Flinn, to buy Pacific Aerotech, then a tiny, neglected division with four employees and $400,000 in sales. The plan: Borgnes, who had just had her first baby, would run--and expand--the company, working part-time. Flinn, as an investor with a 49% stake, would stay put in Ireland.

She concedes that the business might have grown bigger and faster if she had worked full time. But then, how could she have had a second child or found time to take her girls to dance classes, and serve on two corporate boards--and lift weights?

I want to know how she does it. First, Borgnes confesses to being a consummate multitasker and compulsive organizer. Second, she has put a strong management team in place that she keeps in close touch with.

In her relentless pursuit of balance for herself, Borgnes is sensitive to her employees' personal needs, too. While her staffers are mostly full-time hourly employees and their flexibility can't possibly match hers, there's still wiggle room in their schedules. Eleven out of her 12 window-department workers choose to compress their week into four 10-hour days. Some of her employees work part-time schedules or earlier shifts so they can attend school in the afternoons. On school holidays, her part-time accountant brings her daughter to work. Borgnes, who says she pays above-average wages and has a quarterly bonus plan for all employees, gives everybody Christmas week off with pay. On the first sunny afternoon in June--a big event in rainy Seattle--Borgnes has been known to send everyone home early. "Our value systems mesh," she says. Turnover is low, and her four core managers, who started out as low-paid hourly workers, have been with her from the start.

Still, for managers, less over-the-shoulder supervision by Borgnes means they bear far more responsibility. And that's stressful. "You have to make decisions. You can't be calling her up every five minutes," says Ferdinand ("Woody") Woodson, manager of the four-person avionics department. Office manager Gloria Duchow concedes at times "it would have been nice to have her here." It's not always easy for Borgnes, either. Sometimes, she knows, employees grumble about her schedule behind her back. And she frets that she's not "leading by example" by coming in later than her employees or leaving early. "It's very difficult for me, if someone is slacking off, to give them the speech when I'm living my life that way," she says.

To handle the mice that occasionally play in her absence, Borgnes realized she needed more "cats." Now, very few people report directly to her. At quarterly meetings, she takes pains to explain her accomplishments to the staff. And she tells them her own earnings reflect her part-time hours.

Next year, when her younger daughter starts kindergarten, Borgnes will bump up to a five-day week--but still work part-time. And she won't ever, she vows, be a superwoman, like her own mother, who worked nights as a nurse. That means--at least for now--forgetting about being a perfect boss, or a perfect mother, or for that matter, building a giant corporation where she can make gazillions. Still, to her mind, Borgnes has it all--and her employees, it would seem, aren't doing too badly, either.

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