Before You Go Ballistic...

When stress literally makes you hit the wall, it's time to rethink how you run your business

I am not a violent man. I do not hit my wife or children, I am kind to animals, and I hate yelling. So when I found my fist plunging through the Sheetrock in our hallway one day last summer, I knew I was in trouble. I turned to my wife, with whom I had been discussing problems in our family-run plastics-manufacturing company, and confessed the obvious: The stress was getting to me. It was time for a change--past time, as my bruised hand bore witness. I had to figure a way to control my stress and learn a better way to handle the anxieties that come with operating a business.

Over the past several months I've made some moves that didn't always come easily. I hired an operations manager to oversee our factory, a responsibility that had swamped my time and, given my other tasks, was hard to do well. I've also made a point of getting home by 6:30 p.m. three nights a week so I can see our children and eat dinner with my wife. And I'm exorcising my demons by working out more and experimenting with yoga and meditation.

How did I let myself get so pent-up? Call me, in part, a victim of circumstance. The past year has been a roller coaster. First, our sales skyrocketed, and that put huge demands on my time. Then last April, we lost our second-largest customer, which brought me to the brink of depression. It may be a failure of my personality, but I took the loss of this 21-year relationship very personally. Sales then took off again. The ups and downs wore me out, and the stress of managing operations, finance, and sales made it difficult to leave the job at the office, which isolated me from my wife and kids.

Clearly, some of the blame rests with me. Like many other entrepreneurs, I tend to involve myself in every detail of my company. With sales growing 20% this year, the flood of issues I faced each morning just became overwhelming. My management style in the factory complicated matters further because I tended to manage by putting out fires, rather than preventing them. Twelve-hour days increasingly became the norm. As a man with few hobbies, I really had no outlets for the growing stress.

So it's not surprising my fist ended up planted in our wall. But with that outburst as a warning sign, and some prodding from my wife, Erin, I began to make changes. The first move was relatively easy. Our company had been sharing an operations manager part-time with a friendly rival who really didn't need him any more. He wanted to come on board full-time, which I agreed to in August. To my relief, that off-loaded the nagging problems, and the accompanying stress, of overseeing the factory. I kept a hand in personnel issues, including decisions about raises and firings, but at least I didn't have to make them alone anymore.

Personal changes have come more slowly. I took a small step forward just by fulfilling the commitment to be home for dinner more, which has helped me reconnect with my family. Another step was taking our first vacation in three years last September, a 10-day trip to the mountains, where I actually felt myself uncoil. I joined a local gym to get some exercise during my lunch hour. And taking a cue from heart guru Dr. Dean Ornish, I've started taking yoga lessons to help me learn how not to blow gaskets when the inevitable daily pressures close in.

Clearly, I'm not home free yet. But I think I'm pointed in the right direction. And I can already see that delegating some of my responsibilities to others has helped the business: Our new operations manager has our factory humming like it hasn't done in years. If he keeps it up, I'll be humming, too--as in "Ommmmmm."

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