Online Extra: Customers Faces: From Pain to Joy

Rheumatologist Labowitz is retiring to open an ice-cream shop. His inspiration: How happy people were when they got their frozen treat

For most later-in-life career changers, figuring out what to do next is often the hardest part of the process. But Russell Labowitz is one of the lucky ones: He knows exactly what he wants to do after he retires as a rheumatologist later this year and has spent the last year and a half preparing for his new career.

Labowitz, now 64, is pursuing a longstanding dream to open an ice-cream shop. He's lucky in that he won't be financially crippled if the business fails. "I did very well in medicine, and I'm not doing this ice cream [venture] for money," he says.

But he's likely to do quite well. After all, most workplace experts agree that when you do what you love, the money will follow. BusinessWeek Associate Editor Toddi Gutner recently chatted with Labowitz about this transition. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What was the catalyst to decide to give up medicine and begin to look at other options?


I had been a rheumatologist for 33 years. When I started, it was the golden age of medicine, and doctors had much more independence than we have now. Managed care has taken a lot of the fun out of practicing medicine. Also, I was always dealing with people in chronic pain. While I liked helping people, it had taken its toll on me. I wanted to do something different.

Q: Why an ice-cream shop?


I was always interested in pursuing something to do with ice cream. When I was 12, I worked for a corner drugstore delivering prescriptions and scooping ice cream at the soda fountain. I liked seeing how happy people were when they got and ate their ice cream. It was an interesting experience that had a lasting effect on a 12-year-old.

Q: Do you have any experience with a retail business?


About 15 years ago, I made a foolish attempt at starting an ice-cream business. But I was an absentee owner, and I couldn't give the business the time I wanted to or that it needed. The store was mismanaged, and the experience didn't turn out as well as I had expected.

Q: What will be different this time around?


First of all, I can devote the necessary time to make it a success. I sold my practice two years ago and have continued to work three days a week, which will end in December. Then I will be on site daily -- which is about 45 minutes from my home. I also have my nephew, who is 29 and whom I trust, working with me now.

Finally, the location is very good. We're in a strip shopping center just before the causeway to cross into Atlantic City, in Northfield, N.J.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this new venture?


During the last 18 months, I have spent half my time developing the business the way I want it.

At the beginning, I thought I would go the franchise route. I went to a conference in Atlanta and spoke with about 20 franchise owners. At the end of last year, after much thought, I decided the franchise route was the managed care of ice cream. They tell me what I can sell, when I'm open, etc. I decided I wanted to do it on my own.

After I gave up the franchise idea, I went to a five-day course at the Penn State Creamery where I learned how to make ice cream. Then I went up to Boston, and I spoke with Steve Herrell, who is famous for pioneering the idea of mixing ingredients like cookies and candy in ice cream. He is also the founder of the well-known Steve's Ice Cream shop around Boston Herrell agreed to be a consultant to me [for a fee] and will give me all his recipes, tips, and staff handbook.

Q: What's your vision for your shop?


I want to have a business where I can develop newer ideas. We're going to be like an Italian gelateria where we combine ice cream, pastries, and espresso. I'd like to have something where customers can create their own ice-cream sandwiches, for example. First they select their own ice-cream flavor and then choose a pastry to make a sandwich.

Q: Any surprises during this transition process?


It has definitely taken a lot longer to get up and running. I wanted to be open by Memorial Day, but now we're hoping to be open by early August. Also, it has taken a larger investment than I thought it would, some $300,000 so far. But I'm not going into it for the money or the ego. I wanted to have a business.

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