Paula Spence says her husband, Pete, has his own way of describing her September 1998 retirement from HMS Partners.
"My husband says I cut back from 80 hours a week to 60, but he tends to exaggerate," Spence laughs.
The former partner with the popular Downtown ad agency gives 30 hours as her own estimate of the weekly time she's spent in the past two years with her own marketing and management consulting practice, DWIC, which stands for Doing What I Choose.
Pete's version of the story, however, explains why he insisted on being in the room when his wife proclaimed two months ago that she would wind down her consulting business and not take any paying clients beyond the end of 2000.
"He says he has to see it before he believes it," she says, fending off his efforts to add more to his two cents.
It was, in fact, Pete's retirement in 1991 that started Paula thinking about her own.
"At that time I was traveling a lot with the company, putting in really long hours at the office, involved in the community and carrying a heavy schedule," she says.
In 1994, she told company chairman David Milenthal she needed to develop an exit plan. By January 1995, she'd put it in motion.
"Basically, it was for gradually reducing the amount of time that I was spending with the company and a gradual turnover of my responsibilities to other people in management," she says. "So it was a pretty orderly transition."
Orderly, perhaps, but not easy -- or short. Even when Spence was no longer committed to spending any specific amount of time on HMS business, she continued taking calls from clients -- at home.
By the time Spence officially left the agency, HMS Partners was nearing $200 million in capitalized billings and 300 employees. It was a monstrosity of a local business compared to the 15-person shop that added her name to Hameroff and Milenthal when she joined it in 1980.
"When you build a business from literally a small company to a substantial company, it's not only building the financial side of it but you build the culture of it," Spence says. "To just walk away from it cold turkey, I think, would be like giving your child away."
Therefore, a slow transition was paramount.
"Frankly, I think emotionally and mentally, that was a good way for me to do it," she says.
"I'd love for Paula to have stayed part of this organization forever," Milenthal says, "but at the time she wanted to go we sort of mutually designed the terms upon which she would exit. It was done in a very quiet, I think, and long period of time rather than something abrupt that would have caused difficulties for her to adapt to a new lifestyle and us to adapt to her departure."
Spence broke the news of her pending retirement to the HMS staff in early 1995.
"I explained to the employees at an all-staff meeting exactly how this was going to happen and what I was going to be doing," she says. "I think that was good because there were no rumors, there was no speculation."
The first year, Spence was obligated to spend 60 percent of her time on company business; the second year, 40 percent. Bit by bit, she turned over her COO responsibilities to other management -- especially Milenthal's brother, Rick, now the company's CEO -- and concentrated more on business development.
By January 1997, she was no longer committed to spending any specific amount of time on the business.
Letting go, however, was easier said than done.
"You're talking about a person who, during the late '80s to '90s, was the most prominent woman in Columbus," Milenthal says.
People who had been accustomed to receiving advice, mentoring and intervention from Spence had trouble getting along without her.
"When you have a long-standing relationship with a whole community like that, you can't just leave them in the lurch," Milenthal says. "It was less about her and her ability to let go and more about people's ability to let go of her."
He added that when such a person is leaving a company, the company must respect his or her needs.
"The people involved should be sensitive enough to give the retiring person all the flexibility and time it takes to move on to the next aspect of their life without feeling any taste of it being abrupt or of them feeling sort of lost," he says. "I think we did that effectively."
It also behooves the company to ensure a smooth transition, Milenthal says.
"I think that people judge you and the integrity of your company to some degree by the way you handle transitions like this," he says, "and it can have wide-reaching effects if you don't bend over backward to be as sensitive to the transition as you should be."
Once Spence finally relinquished all her official duties -- the company still has financial obligations to her -- she tried to keep quiet.
"I never wanted to be in a position of second-guessing the current decision-makers," she says. Still, she admits, "No matter how good other people are, they never do it exactly how you would do it. I had spent about 30 years in business convincing myself that my way was the best way. You just have to say, 'OK, so it's not my way, but it's just fine the way it is.'"
She bit her tongue, for example, when the weekly employee newsletter she established underwent a name and focus change after she left.
"I spent a lot of years choosing my words carefully, so that experience came in handy," she says.
Completely stepping out, she adds, makes life easier for the employees who remain.
"I'm sure that there were people concerned about my feelings, and if I had been there it would've been harder for them," she says, "so it was just easier all the way around."
She still holds a position of vice chair with the company, but says that's more of an honorary title than a functioning job.
Even so, Milenthal's view indicates that Spence's ties to the company are not completely cut.
"I believe we should recognize the fact that Paula truly was an equal partner in building the platform of the company's reputation and, as a result, the leaders of the organization beyond me, I think, have the mental attitude that she's a partner still today in regard to the influence she can have on the decisions we make and work we do," he says. "We take her counsel very seriously, so she should still feel part of the family."
Finding a new path
After retiring, Spence's next task was to get ready to fill her life with other challenges.
"You just don't walk out of your office, out of your company, one day and walk to nothing the next day," she says. "I think you've got to have a plan and you've got to have commitments."
Consulting opened a new door for Spence.
She didn't have to solicit business; people came knocking.
She had the freedom to choose those clients whose industries or businesses interested her and whose requests challenged her.
Even though after just two years she's phasing out the consulting business, Spence has no intention of leaving her position of leadership in the community, where her efforts have earned accolades such as the Volunteer Fund Raiser of the Year from the National Association of Fund Raising Executives; Goodwill's Extraordinary People Award; and the City of Columbus' highest tribute, The Christopher Columbus Award.
She's agreed to another five-year term on the Columbus and Ohio trustee boards of COSI, where she chaired the Building Development Corp. and led the effort to relocate the center. She also still serves on the Columbus/Franklin County News Bureau.
Recently completing 11 years of service on the Children's Hospital board, Spence is continuing her health care interest as chair of the Franklin County Access to Health Care initiative of the Columbus Medical and Osteopathic Heritage foundations.
By stepping aside from her consulting business, Spence will have more time for leisure. She and her husband enjoy traveling, for example, and already have trips this year planned for the Panama Canal and Egypt -- depending on whether unrest eases there.
She keeps promising herself that this will be the year she goes back to golf.
Overall, she's focusing on doing even more of what she chooses.
"If I want to just sit down and read for pleasure," she says, "I want to be able to do that without feeling guilty about it." Joan Slattery Wall (email@example.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.