No Fat Cats Allowed

Members of the ‘New Boys Club’ Are in Town to Take a Meeting, Firmly Closing the Door on the Old Breed of Corporate Executive

The Washington Post – Saturday Final Edition
Bret Schulte, Washington Post Staff Writer

Arthur Andersen is going down. Rich guys are mastering the perp walk. Even Vice President Cheney is ducking questions about his old firm, Halliburton. It’s been a bad year for the old boys club.

Perhaps it’s too late for your 401(k), but the cavalry arrived in Washington on Wednesday. More than 450 young, driven and noticeably cheery business leaders are gathered here through tomorrow for the 15th annual Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization seminar.

On registration day at the Capital Hilton, many of these entrepreneurs are relaxing in shorts and sandals. One sweats in a shirt with monogrammed cuffs, daintily tapping a Marlboro Red into an ashtray. Some hold onto gin and tonics, others their girlfriends. An unfortunate man with a broken ankle is on crutches. All share a like-minded joy in this room of enterprising peers. These are decidedly not the beleaguered old boys, nor do they want to be.

“I think you have to distinguish between small business and big business,” says Larry Joseph, who manufactures custom loose-leaf binders in Houston. “We’re really no different than mom and pop in the corner store. We have more affinity with them than Jack Welch or Bill Gates.”

Maybe so, but mom and pop have never been part of a group like this. Membership in the nonprofit Young Entrepreneurs is by invitation only. Candidates must be no older than 39, and they must be the founder, co-founder, owner or controlling shareholder of a business with an annual gross revenue that exceeds $ 1 million. The average is about $ 5 million.

By the standards of high-powered corporate CEOs, that’s small potatoes. For the 4,700 members of the “new boys club,” that’s economic freedom and a bag of chips. The Young Entrepreneurs group promotes entrepreneurship as a lifestyle, as self-actualization, as a healthy alternative to Fortune 500 America, as the rejection of bureaucratic caste systems. It is business as liberty — individuals striving in the name of God and country.

The United States “was built by entrepreneurs,” says Joseph, shaking the ice in his tumbler. “I can’t imagine going into work every day and sitting in a cubbyhole, punching a clock 9 to 5.”

“An entrepreneur is a visionary,” says Gregory Patrick, owner of a fantasy vacation company called Tours of Enchantment.

“We’re wired differently,” says Jim Pyle, owner of a boyish face and an accounting firm.

They drink cocktails at the hotel bar as hundreds of members of stream through the second-floor lobby. A talking robot and attractive young women work the registration booths.

This new boys club is actually 14 percent women. But they seem underrepresented at this seminar. Most attendees here are from the United States and Canada. They are fit, predominantly white and markedly positive.

Phill Young, 37, owns a for-profit substance abuse rehabilitation center in Dallas. He is a picture of good health, something he makes readily apparent in his tank top, shorts and tennis shoes. On his shoulder is the red mark of a full pair of lips. Perhaps it’s lipstick. Perhaps it’s a tattoo. Perhaps you’re supposed to ask.

We don’t ask. Young feels good about his company because, “It’s almost recession-proof.”

“Actually, we do a little better when the economy is down,” he says. “People tend to drink a little more. Get wasted a little more.”

He smiles — the tool of the entrepreneurial craftsman. They trade in good vibes. They ply you with positive energy. Their can-do magic will pull the money right out of your wallet. They can charm you even as you grow aware of your shortcomings.

Young represents a different sort of executive than the ones shown on CNN explaining their accounting practices or the failure of their inflated dot-coms. He says he’s unaffected by the recent corporate scandals, and he survived the bust of the 1990s Internet economy.

“I think it shook out a lot of people. A lot of people got rich quick,” he says. “It was a lot easier then. The strong are surviving now.”

Surviving and loving it. Though this seminar is loaded with business advice and guest speakers, Young admits he’s “definitely here for more of the social aspects.”

This seminar is called the Four-Day MBA — a crash course for the work-hard, play-hard set. Along with marketing sessions and information technology presentations, the Four-Day MBA includes classes in yoga, cooking, self-defense and — not surprisingly — intimacy.

“The nice thing about this is that it’s not just about business,” says Matt Mladenka, a Young Entrepreneurs spokesman. “We’re about balance.”

Mladenka grimaces a bit when he admits he’s not an entrepreneur. Fortunately, he has a degree in entrepreneurship and can go into depth on the struggles of the young, the independent and the driven. “Entrepreneurs are successful primarily because they’re passionate about what they do,” he says. “That can tip the balance to work, and they neglect family and a personal life. They have to learn balance. You see an amazing support system at YEO.”

Perhaps that accounts for all the smiles at the hotel, the cheerful piling into tour buses that take the group to dinner, the raucous mood at the buffet tables in the National Air and Space Museum, rented for exclusive use on this evening by the organization.

Ben Lemieux of Montreal has the look of your archetypal playboy. He is indoors, but he wears Oakley sunglasses atop his sun-bleached hair. He’s got a tennis player’s tan and a golfer’s shorts.

In French-accented English, he says he found a common ground in this group that he had lost among his friends from school. “It’s a special bond,” he says. “When you lose $ 20,000 in one day, you can’t go to your college buddy and say, ‘I need your help.’ He’s been trying to make $ 20,000 all year.

“So a lot of people here like to talk about business. We also talk about personal stuff. But everybody is excited with what we are doing.”

For all the new boys club excitement, for all the networking energy, you can’t miss the distinctly independent vibe of this room.

“I think entrepreneurs by definition are rebellious and independent-type folk,” says Jeff Bissett, founder of the Toronto marketing firm Interact Direct Marketing Inc. Conversation often sounds like product pitches, though soliciting is forbidden here. Discussion of management style is laced with the same tension of neighbors comparing new cars. Annual revenue numbers are dropped like names in a gossip column. Accolades are measured. There is much discussion about the future.

Bissett says: “What you see happening in the Enrons of the world, all the scandal, is the old boys club. I think in this millennium we’re going to see a big shift for entrepreneurship and small business. I think we, as entrepreneurs, are feeling the need to act differently and conduct our businesses differently. To guide our own destinies. In a way, to work against the old boys club way of conducting business.”

What then will the future hold for this new business class?

“We all want to be rich old guys who retire and play golf all day,” he says with a smile.

The new boys club is nothing if not visionary.

Copyright 2002 The Washington Post

Comments are closed.