Taking the leap Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002

Two years ago, Melody K. Borchers was 14 years into a career with the Ohio Department of Development, where she’d worked her way up to associate director of the Small Business Development Center.

Then came an awakening: Wasn’t there something else she could be doing? Something she’d enjoy more?

A self-proclaimed golf nut, Borchers began to look for a way to follow her passion — and make money at it. After more than a year of research, she quit her job to start her own company, My Turf, a golf training and promotional company.

Leigh McGuigan’s turnaround wasn’t so rooted — or planned.

The lawyer and senior managing director for personal trust at Bank One Corp. lost her position at the company when it merged with First Chicago.

“I don’t suffer very well,” McGuigan says, noting that five months later, she began thinking about ways to make money from her mountaineering passion.

Intending it to be a hobby, she started MountainWoman.com to sell climbing equipment over the Internet to women like herself. Now, it’s a full-fledged business.

McGuigan and Borchers have found that following a dream or a passion brings its own trials, including a loss of a corporate atmosphere that ensures benefits, a regular paycheck and an office support system. However, they like the tradeoff.

McGuigan’s happy with the opportunity to do whatever suits her, foster a feminist agenda and do work related to something she loves. Borchers enjoys the simple life she and her husband gained by selling their home in Sunbury and moving to a much smaller one hidden in Hocking Hills. She donated her business clothes to the Center for New Directions, opting for attire more suited for the golf course.

“I like the fact I burned all my suits,” she jokes. “Little things like that can make a person very happy.”

Listen for the call

Golf. It’s always been a passion for Borchers. In fact, it may even be in her blood.

Over the years, just about everyone in Borchers’ family has worked at one of the Central Ohio Groezinger family golf courses — Blackhawk Golf Club, Minerva Lake Golf Course and Arrowhead Lakes. Her husband is the assistant superintendent at Blackhawk in southern Delaware County; her daughter, the first woman to graduate from The Ohio State University with a major in turf grass science, is a superintendent at a California golf course.

It should be no surprise, then, that she heard the greens calling when, in 1998, she started to question her career in economic development.

“I just began to have this feeling several years ago I was definitely ready for a change,” Borchers says.

It wasn’t the first time she’d taken a significant turn in her career path; before she joined the Department of Development, she was in business with her sister setting up charitable giving programs for companies. Before that, she worked for years in research laboratories at the Mayo Clinic and Battelle.

Once she decided to leave the Department of Development, the next question was obvious, considering her passion: “I started asking myself, ‘How can I make money with golf?’”

First, she gave herself the advice she gave entrepreneurs who sought help from SBDC: “Go through a worst-case scenario. If you can live with that, you can eliminate the fear” of starting a business.

“To me, I thought I could always get another job,” she says. “That was my worst-case scenario.”

Then, methodically, for more than a year before she resigned from her state job, she came up with a plan. She made sure she had financial stability, saving more than five months’ income and planning for the future, made easier now that she and her husband had moved to a smaller home and her daughters, one a senior in high school and one in college, were gaining independence.

She found a desktop publisher and a computer consultant and set up her home office; consulted with others in the National Association of Women Business Owners and an SBDC counselor; sought an attorney and incorporated; researched health insurance policies; attended training at a golf camp; and joined golf organizations such as Executive Women’s Golf and the United States Golf Association to build up her credentials.

Her company, Borchers & Associates inc., has two facets: the golf aspect of the d.b.a. My Turf and a consulting side in which she helps other small business owners. She expects to end up with $50,000 in sales from her first year in business.

All the planning paid off, she says, noting that she didn’t have many sleepless nights over deciding to make such a significant change.

“I’m more a task and timeline person,” Borchers says. “I wanted to be as sure as possible when I gave notice. By the time I did, I was hot to trot. I was excited by then.”

Leigh McGuigan’s turnabout, on the other hand, wasn’t so much her own choice.

After spending 10 years practicing law at Washington, D.C.’s largest law firm, McGuigan had been at Bank One for a decade when it merged with First Chicago in 1998. When it became clear she would be out of a job, she called some contacts and made stabs at other jobs. Then she calmed herself for another look at the future.

“Don’t just roll out of Bank One so you can have another high-profile banking job,” she told herself.

“I had fair severance benefits, so we weren’t going to go hungry,” she says of herself, her husband and two daughters. She sat back for a while to enjoy staying at home with her daughters.

Mountaineering had only been a part of her life for the previous five years, started on a whim after she had her children — and had gotten out of shape.

“When you have little infants, it’s hard to do a lot,” she says. “You just stay at home and change diapers and stuff, so I was ready for a jolt. I also was whining all the time about the lousy weather in Columbus and how I hated winter.”

Then she read an article in Outside magazine about ice climbing.

“For some crazy reason, I thought, ‘This is good. I need to go ice climbing,’” she remembers. “If I can climb ice in Canada, surely I can get over it about the weather in Columbus.”

With no climbing experience, she set out for the training. She loved it and returned to Columbus and joined other locals in rock climbing,eventually guiding mountaineering trips.

A few months after her separation from Bank One, she climbed a mountain in Argentina. When she returned in February 1999, she began kicking around an idea she thought would be more of a hobby: creating a Web site for women who are serious climbers, mountaineers, trekkers and backpackers to find equipment.

“I thought, ‘This is something that I love. Maybe I could develop this thing on a shoestring and just sort of see where it goes.’”

Soon, she realized her personality wasn’t wired for something as simple as a hobby — she’d have to take it all the way.

First, she needed a business partner with expertise in climbing.

“We are a case study on how not to find a business partner,” McGuigan admits, explaining that she started by calling people she knew to tell them of her search.

“I told them I was looking for someone with credibility as a climber, a sense of humor, easy to work with, who could write well, work fast, and who would invest in something I cannot assure will be a success,” she says.

Professional mountain guide Kathy Cosley’s name came up repeatedly.

“I didn’t even meet her until after we had the deal,” McGuigan says.

She also found an attorney and an accountant and partnered with Benchmark for the products. By spring, she had the Web site up and running. She expects the business to be profitable this year.

Aside from their drastic differences in planning for such a significant change, McGuigan and Borchers echo thoughts on what they like and don’t like about their new-found careers. Independence, they say, is a major plus.

“I feel much more like I’m in charge of my own destiny,” Borchers says. “I’ve always been a control freak.”

McGuigan enjoys the fact that she’s reaching out to women who want to buy “serious outdoor gear.”

“I have sort of a feminist agenda I’m working as well,” she says. “It’s a pleasure to do something in tune with my political beliefs.

“One of the great things about being on my own now is I only do what suits me,” she adds. “If I want to make more, if I want to lose it, it’s my decision. I don’t want to put banner advertising on my Web site because it doesn’t please me. It’s wonderful to be able to operate that way.”

Time for a change

Looking back, Brochers and McGuigan say the risk of uncertainty was worthwhile.

“Certainly more than the financial reward from the business at this point has been the reward of learning,” McGuigan says of the electronic form of commerce. “I figure no matter what I do in the future, this will be a great experience.”

Borchers also offers some advice:

Talk to people who are where you want to be.

“Like everything in life, there are two sides to the story. All those clichs are clichs for a reason,” Borchers says.

Be prepared.

Borchers advises making initial plans before making such a drastic change.

“It is less stressful if you feel like you’ve done the right steps to make the transition less traumatic to yourself and those around you,” she says.

Be a risk taker.

Just making the change, Borchers says, is empowering.

“It says a lot about a person’s fortitude and ability to follow through,” she says.

She says that someone taking this step should be prepared for the naysayers, although she found most of her family, friends and co-workers were very supportive of her.

Professionals today, and particularly women, Borchers says, aren’t as subject to the expectations of entering specific fields, such as teaching or nursing. It’s more acceptable for people to say they received a college education in one field but are pursuing another direction.

“Usually if you are a good and competent person in a particular field,” Borchers says, “you’ll transfer that to other things you’ll do in your life.”

McGuigan says although you must have risk tolerance, you must also be financially stable. She shudders at the sight of people who put their whole lives on the line — their mortgage, their children’s college funds — to start a business.

“I don’t have that kind of risk tolerance. So I was fortunate to start a business in a way that was responsible financially. I’m a risk taker, but I’m also very prudent in terms of my family,” she says.

It’s the same philosophy she uses in her climbing: It’s a passion she expects to continue as long as she can.

“I’m pretty careful because I have kids,” she says. “Even if my skill level would allow it, I’m not going to places that are very extreme and super dangerous, just because I’d like to come home.”

She also follows advice given to her by her uncle, who is 87.

“When I talk to my uncle about this business, he always says, ‘You go for it, kid, life is short. Before you know it, it’s over. Do what you love.’

“I think a huge number of people are miserable in their jobs. I was never miserable, but I think a lot of people are just flat miserable,” McGuigan says, rattling off excuses she hears from those who would like to change but don’t.

“They build these big boxes around themselves, and then when they lose the job, it’s a total freak out,” she says. “The only advice I would give is, what the heck, try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back and get a different job.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.