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Professionals buying into perfect jobs

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Annette Walter was chief operating officer of a fast-growing Baltimore real estate company. Her husband, Shawn, a former construction project manager, had launched a successful career in sales.

But in March, the Hunt Valley couple walked away from the corporate world of fixed schedules and long commutes and went into business for themselves. They bought a 75-year-old company in Baltimore that distributes wooden and plastic pallets. The Walters will run the business from their home.

"This decision was to benefit our lifestyle," said Annette Walter, former COO of The Strata Group. "Shawn and I had realized the opportunity was to create your workplace, not have your work create you. I wanted something that had a little bit more autonomy. And we wanted something that was focused on Shawn and I and was something we could build and grow for our family."

At a time when workers want greater balance between work and personal lives, some professionals find their perfect job by buying into it. Even in a rocky economy, the timing can be right to buy a business, invest in a franchise or start a company from scratch, experts say, especially for those who have built experience and financial resources working for others and can make the jump.

Some professionals turn to entrepreneurship after becoming frustrated with the job market and what they consider a lack of quality jobs, said Bill Clark, a senior managing partner of the business coaching firm Clark Leadership Group in Baltimore.

"One way to beat that is to do something on your own," Clark said. "This trend is going to grow. It will continue as more and more people in the job market are unable to find employment, particularly those who are willing to take risks and those comfortable in being creative and finding different ways that they can earn a living. The job market five years ago was pretty plentiful, and there wasn't much reason to risk. Today, it's a whole different ballgame."

It's still not the best time to start a new business. Demand for goods and services remains tepid in the current economy, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

"That doesn't bode well for somebody who wants to start their own business," she said.

Business startups, which tend to rise and fall with the cycle of the overall economy, have fallen steadily since peaking in mid-2006, when more than 650,000 establishments were less than a year old, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the recession started in December 2007, business startups have seen the steepest decline since the early 1990s. The number of new businesses in the year ending March 2010, just over 500,000, was lower than in any year since 1994, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking entrepreneurship.

Regardless of whether the economy is strong or weak, entrepreneurship is not for everyone, Clark said.

"It requires being ... comfortable with taking risk" and approaching business creatively, he said. "If I said to you, 'I know a great business to get into, and it will cost you $50,000,' and you look at your home and say, 'I have $50,000 of equity,' a lot of people would say, 'No, I won't touch that.' Others would say, 'It looks like a good opportunity, I'll take the risk.' Everyone approaches this differently."

Alan Klug, a Baltimore native with an accounting background, had worked in the consulting branch of KPMG for six years, traveling the East Coast for his job, when he ran across an ad for a 1-800-Got-Junk franchise and found no one had claimed the Baltimore territory. It appealed to him because he could stay in Baltimore, where he and his wife wanted to raise a family, rather than relocating to New York or Boston, and cut back on travel. Yet he struggled with the thought of leaving the corporate world.

"I liked the polish that came along with a corporate environment, but as the job search unfolded, the only way to stay in Baltimore and raise a family here without traveling was to start a business of some sort," he said. In the Got-Junk franchise, he saw "a huge opportunity. These guys have taken this down-and-dirty fragmented business and polished it and professionalized it."

He also felt the timing was right. He could afford it without taking out loans or finding investors, and he and his wife were expecting their first child. He invested nearly $60,000, including $32,000 for part of the Baltimore territory and working capital for trucks, uniforms and advertising.

"I got into this thinking, 'If I don't do this now, it will be that much harder every year that goes by,' " he said. "I never looked back. I never worried or considered the possibility of failure."

That was 10 years ago. After strong pre-recession years followed by a slowdown, the business that removes junk from homes and businesses is on track to surpass its 2007 peak, Klug said. Now he and a partner are launching a moving company franchise in the Baltimore-Washington area, a concept called You Move Me, created by Got Junk's founder.

"Every day you're dealing with people's life stories and helping them get over some big obstacle," he said. "I've had plenty of 80-hour workweeks, but I get to decide when to switch it off. If I need to go to dinner with my family or have a kid's activity at school, I'm in charge of what's important and what's not. That's the biggest thing."

Nick Travelstead, former vice president of sales and marketing for a local agent of a moving and storage company, launched his own moving and shipping firm in March 2012. His wife, Lydia, left a job as an accounts director with Norwegian Cruise Lines to help run the company, Travelstead Transportation Group, based in Rosedale.

Other moving and storage companies were struggling in a still-recovering economy and many were closing, but Travelstead forged ahead, convinced that he had learned enough about the business to offer something he believed was missing.

"This was the next challenge for me," he said. "Moving is not an industry that has the best reputation. I felt I could contribute by putting a customer-friendly business out there ... and provide a service I would want in my own home or my own office."

The new business gives Lydia Travelstead more flexibility to plan around their children's schedules and take them to school and play groups, he said.

For the Walters, the decision to buy Timber Industries grew out of a realization that the couple could find both professional fulfillment and family balance by working together.

And the timing was right. Annette Walter's real estate company was merging with Prudential Homesale Services Group, leaving her a choice of staying with the new company or pursuing something else as she was expecting her second child. Shawn Walter had become general manager of exterior building maintenance company Valcourt Building Services, but it came with a long commute.

After hearing that Timber was up for sale, they started researching the pallet industry. The company, which works with small mills nationwide, distributes wood and plastic pallets and crates to customers in the construction, electronic, consumer goods and other industries. The couple saw a chance to broaden the customer base and expand the product offerings. The sale closed in March for an undisclosed amount.

Annette Walker, who also runs the consulting firm iEvolve Consulting LLC, said her new working hours can stretch from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. But she can arrange work and client meetings around her older son's preschool schedule and activities. She plans time for handling paperwork around family meals.

The business also has been a good fit professionally. Shawn Walter handles sales, while his wife works behind the scenes on operations.

"The client base for Timber was there, which was a big attraction for purchasing," she said. "Everything in this day and age is shipped at some point on a pallet."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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