IT ALL BEGAN with a terrorizing grip of anxiety as we opened up the envelopes. The project was a big one—the biggest I had ever attempted: a 97-home residential subdivision, a far cry from the 16-unit apartment building and the 6 single-family homes I’d previously built, I’d already spent over $50,000 on engineering fees and had purchased the land. The bids we were opening that day would give me an early glimpse of how much money I stood to make on the deal. But as the township clerk, my engineer and I sat there opening envelope after envelope in the council chambers of the township offices that sunny April afternoon in 1987, the prospect of personal financial ruin lunged out at me, threatening to destroy all that I’d worked so hard for over the past five years. In that time I’d labored 80-hour weeks to build my small electrical contracting business into a group of companies involved in mechanical and electrical contracting, real estate development, home building and kitchen and bath retailing and renovations. It wasn’t uncommon for me to put in long hours during the day and then return to work soon after dinner.
My evenings consisted of doing paper work, working on real estate deals, going out to estimate new electrical jobs or designing electrical control panels for customers till 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. My work habits weren’t doing my marriage any good. My spouse and I seemed to be growing further and further apart. Despite that, and despite the ulcers that had developed in my stomach, the business was prospering beyond my wildest dreams. Now, as we sat there tearing open the envelopes, bid after bid came in substantially higher than my engineers had estimated — 30 percent or more across the board. Site servicing alone was going to cost me $100,000 more than I’d expected. Getting the project together had already caused me a considerable amount of aggravation, but now it seemed that, far from making money, the deal was going to cost me everything I owned.
The funny thing was that it shouldn’t have bothered me. Normally, I’d have said — So what? If I lose everything I’ve accumulated, I’ll just turn around and make it all back in a couple of years. You can’t lose experience. I’d always had the attitude that problems didn’t exist, only challenges and opportunities. This time, however, was a different story. My heart palpitated wildly and waves of acute anxiety pulsed through me, a reaction unlike any other I’d ever experienced. I was scared, not only about the business but also by the unfamiliarity of fear itself. That night in bed, my mind raced. As the guy who was always so positive, I could now find potential disasters lurking in almost every deal I was involved in. I was in a cold sweat, and if I got any more than an hour of sleep that night, I’d be surprised.