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Finding direction Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

Three years into the landscape architecture business he started in 1993, Gary Schmidt was frustrated.

Administrative work — which he hated — increased as he added employees. He grew disenchanted with his business. The Ohio State and Harvard grad even turned down work and considered selling his firm, Schmidt Land Design.

Then he stopped to take another look. What he discovered was a way to see the entire picture of his life and the way all aspects mesh together. By clarifying his life’s goals, he was able to make critical decisions about the direction of his business.

I’m not afraid to grow, in a nutshell,” he says of his business now. “I was really truly afraid of it before, unsure of my ability to do it and not sure why I should do it. I’ve gone from being afraid to, to I really want to.”

In fact, he’s since added three more employees at his $350,000 business, bringing his total staff to six. He’s also doubled his North Columbus office space.

Here’s how the mentoring and consulting services of Chip Weiant, principal and founder of COMPASS USA, not only changed Schmidt’s mind about his goals but helped him grow the business, complete with a master plan and an advisory board to keep him on track in every aspect of his life.

Following a dream?

Schmidt hadn’t minded his work as a sole proprietor in the landscape architecture business. After working at numerous large firms, he decided about six years ago, after the death of his father at age 72, to pursue his long-time goal of having his own business.

“I was struck by the idea that life is not really that long,” Schmidt says. “I was half his age. I thought, ‘What are you screwing around with? If you’re ever going to do it, you’d better do it soon, because life is slipping away.’”

But after about two years in business, he needed more help. He hired two employees, one part time and one full time, but then he had to deal with administrative work: payroll, taxes, compliance, reconciling the checking account. Those were tasks for which he not only had few skills, but also abhorred.

“I hate that stuff,” Schmidt says. “At first it was just an extension of my own personal finances. Once I got an employee, it went real quick to getting complex.”

He hated the tasks so much that he sank into an almost depression state, questioning the career move of owning his own business and vowing not to grow it anymore. He even turned down bread-and-butter type jobs to avoid having to hire any more employees. He was so frustrated, in fact, that he considered an escape route when a local engineering firm called him requesting a recommendation for a landscape architect.

“I was seriously thinking about selling my business out and absorbing myself into their company,” Schmidt says.

Friends and fellow business owners seemed to agree that might be a good idea. Only his wife went against the grain: “If you do this, you’re giving up on your dream,” he remembers her saying.

Soon came another affirmation from a fellow member of the Christian Businessmen’s Committee, who reminded him that, as a business owner, he had the ability to make an impact as a Christian in the business community. Finally, he placed a call to the group’s director, Chip Weiant, who in October 1996 had started his own consulting firm, COMPASS USA.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Schmidt says. “I’m not sure what I said to him, but basically the message was: ‘I’m confused.’”

A transformation in thought

Weiant’s first task was to make sure Schmidt was on the right track. To do that, he had Schmidt tell him about his goals not only in his business, but in his life — his family, his religion, his community — to give Weiant a clear picture of what he calls LifeWork.

“What we believe drives what we think, and what we think drives what we do,” Weiant says, explaining what he calls his thesis. “If we want to change what we do, we’ve got to change what we believe.”

Schmidt wrote what Weiant calls a “genesis statement,” or the journey of his life and what has shaped it so far. Through that, Schmidt realized he had, indeed, chosen the right career path.

“It’s kind of an introspective process,” Schmidt says of the task, through which he remembered his youth in Rocky River, where he and his brother used to visit a valley across the street from his home.

“I was always fascinated with nature,” Schmidt says. “We’d dig tunnels into the sides of the hill and look for crayfish. I realize now that was partly why I’m interested in landscape architecture, because it deals with natural things. I don’t think it was a pure accident that happened.”

Then Schmidt learned how to define his roles in family, work, religion and community and to integrate his life and his business, particularly with a focus on his Christianity.

“If you’re Christian, if you’re really claiming to be a follower of Christ, you shouldn’t have this dualistic life,” Schmidt says of the point of view Weiant helped him realize. “What you say at church on Sunday ought to dribble back into what you do for a living.”

Through that theory, Schmidt recognized what good he could do through his business. Specifically, he could use it to help his employees.

For example, he could offer an opportunity to an OSU landscape architecture student whom he had hired as an intern.

“I have the chance not only to give him something he loves to do and make money at, but help him make his LifeWork,” Schmidt says.

Tangible results

Schmidt’s work with Weiant not only reaffirmed his career choice but helped him improve both his business and his personal life.

A personal plan

First, Schmidt started using a Franklin Planner system, admitting that previously he simply was not organized. Now he can sit down every Sunday and let his wife, a teacher, know which nights during the week he’ll be working late.

He also began to set goals for each role in his life, including that of a father. For example, he decided he could visit his 6-year-old son at preschool, taking him out to lunch.

“I started thinking, ‘Why shouldn’t I do this? I’m going to eat lunch somewhere anyway,’” Schmidt says. “Sometimes I’d even eat with him there. It’d be me and the teacher and all these kids at the table with all these itty bitty chairs.”

A business plan

Weiant worked with Schmidt to compile a three-ring binder that includes a plan for his business, with details including a mission statement and personnel policies. He makes changes as the business progresses, but at least now he’s got, in black and white, plans he never had defined before.

An advisory board

This particular board, Weiant explains, is not so much formed to make a plan for the business but to provide wisdom and hold the CEO accountable in all aspects of life.

“Their job is to make sure the CEO stays on track with their master planning,” Weiant explains.

Weiant says most business owners are very pragmatic, a trait that could keep them from seeing their goals clearly and honestly.

“COMPASS is a very uncomfortable process for a lot of business owners,” Weiant says. “We’re basically saying one of the chief obstacles business owners must overcome is self-deception.”

That’s why, he says, Schmidt has found success in including his wife, Kathy, on his advisory board.

“She knows what’s going on with my life,” Schmidt says. “She keeps me honest on my goals and if I’ve achieved them.”

His other board members, friends who also have relate d business experience, do the same.

“The whole concept is it’s your life board. When we have a meeting, it’s not just talking about the business, it’s my whole life,” Schmidt says. “I was looking for people who would challenge me.”

A defined ethics statement

Weiant provides clients a template he calls “Uncommon Sense” — a list of 20 traits such as integrity, honesty, justice, accountability and honoring authority — that he says are often lost in today’s world.

Business owners then adapt those to fit their own standards. Schmidt includes them in his personnel manual as “governing values” to let new employees know his standards up front.

“If you really hate some of this stuff, you probably don’t want to work here,” he says, noting he doesn’t come right out and say that to employees, but he does stress to them the importance of the values.

Weiant says he’s able to empathize with his clients because he, himself, has business experience. In addition to founding the COMPASS business and concept, he was formerly CEO and vice chairman of Schmidt’s Hospitality Concepts, a local restaurant business unrelated to Gary Schmidt, and general manager of Island Resorts in Put-in-Bay.

Schmidt worked with Weiant about once a week for four months, paying a monthly fee of $1,500. The resulting improvements in Schmidt’s attitude and his business, however, far outweigh the costs.

Schmidt doubled the space he’s renting in a North High Street office building to accommodate his company’s growth. He’s added more employees, including an office manager to handle the administrative tasks he loathes. Now he’s embarking on a new decision process, considering whether he wants to further grow his company by adding more employees and clients or by finding a way to emphasize qualitative growth to provide additional opportunities for employees to advance, such as by diversifying his client base.

He continues to work with Weiant, sharing his experience and transformation with other business owners through a forum in COMPASS.

Schmidt says he believes God created each person for a purpose, and the trick, in his case, was finding out what that was and doing it.

“If you don’t use your talents,” Schmidt says, “not only are you going to get frustrated, you’re not going to get as much out of life.”

How to reach: Chip Weiant, COMPASS USA, 777-4721 or COMPASS.1@juno.com

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