New year new career: Local business owners find fulfillment in career changes
“I had lunch there every day, so to stand there and watch it implode...” said O’Kane, who worked in finance in New York City before her current job as president of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce.
Watching the scene pushed O’Kane to revise her career trajectory.
The impetus to change careers was less catastrophic but similarly unexpected for attorney turned bakery owner Helene Godin. Without much forethought and without a plan, Godin went into her office at Bloomberg and told her boss she was quitting.
The reasons vary for why people like O’Kane and Godin abruptly alter their careers. But the top New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to “enjoy life to the fullest,” according to a Google Consumer survey. For many, that involves finding greater satisfaction at work.
Following are the stories of a handful of local business people who pursued that risky endeavor and are flourishing.
Riding the 5:20 a.m. train to the city and catching a late train back to the suburbs defined much of O’Kane’s career in finance.
It often prompted O’Kane to ask herself, “What am I doing with my life,” she said.
She started out as an investment banker at Brown Brothers Harriman and went on to spend almost 20 years at the Royal Bank of Canada Dominion Securities. “I was climbing the corporate ladder, getting a promotion every two years,” O’Kane said.
Then her office turned into a front-row seat to 9/11. Seeing two of New York City’s most identifiable structures burst into flames and collapse caused O’Kane to reflect on the job that shaped much of her own identity.
“It inspired me to think about my quality of life and the shortness of it,” she said. “I re-thought the direction of my career.”
A few months later she left her job on Wall Street and became a vice president at Webster Financial Advisors in Connecticut. She became a bank vice president two years later.
Ten years after 9/11 upended her career, O’Kane’s background in finance and philanthropy brought her to the helm of Greenwich’s Chamber of Commerce.
In the five years since O’Kane took over, she’s guided it away from the brink of bankruptcy and turned it around. She’s added more than 250 members and a calendar filled with events.
O’Kane now enjoys driving to work after dawn, dressing in something other than black suits and contributing to her community.
She maintains that she “wouldn’t change” having worked in banking.
Time on Wall Street equipped her with the tools and credentials for her new career, she said. She encourages others to consider their first few jobs as stepping stones to something different later.
“Young people shouldn’t think they will have just one career,” she said. “It’s exciting to think that life is tabula rasa — you can start over.”
Last year, Westchester Magazine included Godin, owner of By the Way Bakery, in its annual list of most influential women.
She joined the ranking just a few years after quitting her corporate legal career without a plan.
The spunky Godin said she began to dream early on of following her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and becoming an attorney.
She went on to hold legal positions at NBC, Reader’s Digest, Audible and owned her own firm. In 2008, she joined Bloomberg.
“At every job I learned something,” Godin said. “At Bloomberg I learned I was done...Business isn’t about money, it’s about passion. I stopped being a lawyer when the passion went away.” Godin quit in 2010 and within four days was “bored out of my mind,” she said.
She’d noticed the gluten-free section of her grocery store expanding, so she decided to take advantage of the growing demand and open “a cozy little bakery in a sleepy town.”
She researched the business concept with the same intensity she’d reviewed NBC’s Saturday Night Live scripts for defamatory language. In 2011, she opened By the Way Bakery in Hastings, N.Y. “It was only open 4.5 days a week,” she said. “I was basically semi-retired.”
The same hunger for excellence that gnawed at her as an attorney consumed her as a small business owner.
She soon expanded, and the “tiny” bakery now counts four locations, a big, new production facility, and plans for a fifth opening in 2017. “There’s no stopping me now,” Godin said the day her Greenwich store opened in 2016. “The finish line is always moving.”
On a fateful day in 1995, Fullerton was sitting in business class, reading the newspaper on his flight to Asia. He’d just been charged with leading JP Morgan’s global commodities team and was en route to meet his team.
“I should be happy as a clam. But here I was on this flight to Asia on Father’s Day, and I was miserable,” said Fullerton, who had two toddlers at home at the time.
A front-page story caught his eye about billionaire Walter Annenberg’s donations to academic institutions.
“On that day it hit me that I didn’t want to be that guy to work up the corporate ladder his whole career and give away all the money when I was old,” Fullerton said. “I was going to find a way to find more meaning earlier in life. My career was starting to feel like it lost its purpose, and I was doing it for the sake of being successful and making money.”
He left the corporate world in early 2001 and planned to take the summer off —until witnessing 9/11 caused him to extend his break. The 2008 financial crisis book-ended what became a long-term sabbatical, and he founded The Capital Institute in 2009. His Greenwich-based nonprofit is the upshot of years of research and a conclusion that America’s financial system isn’t working.
Fullerton now dedicates his career toward writing and speaking on the topic of “regenerative economies” and investing in projects that advance regenerative economic principles. The goal of re-wiring the economy is difficult to achieve Fullerton admits, but that doesn’t seem to dishearten him.
“I feel confident we’re onto something with this approach,” Fullerton said, who credits his career in finance for providing him with the opportunity to pursue this work. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The main reason I have a voice in this conversation is because I have the experience and credibility of an insider.”
Disappointing home care services for his ailing wife made Paul Horowitz think he could do better. He’d spent his career in Manhattan hedge funds, but his wife passed away in 2009, and he empathized with families whose loved ones endured similar home care experiences.
“I had empathy, resolve and the financial wherewithal,” Horowitz said. “I knew this was the time to do it, or I’d never do it at all.”
Ten years later, he opened Greenwich Home Care, which introduces more engaging methods for service providers to interact with clients. The concept is catching on and Horowitz is settling into small business ownership using the skills he gained from working in finance, he said.
“I’m used to spreading the risk, so if something blew up, it wouldn’t take down the whole fund,” Horowitz said. “Here, I have to pitch my services to multiple clients because I can’t get every account.”
His diligent work ethic is another critical carry over that’s helped him turn the start-up into a rapidly growing business. “Wall Street could be a 24/7 job,” Horowitz said. “But this is always 24/7. It’s very hands-on, and when a client calls on Sunday night I have to take care of it...We’re responsible for people’s well-being.”
A tragic loss prompted Horowitz’s career transition, but he’s making the most of his new lifestyle. He enjoys working for himself and how owning a local business fosters a deeper sense of community, he said.
“On Wall Street it’s all about p and l (profit and loss),” Horowitz said. “Here it’s about family. As I learned with my wife, it’s not about money. It’s about people.”
MBennett@hearstmediact.com, 203-625-4411; Twitter @Macaela_