Sometimes You Never Go Back

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In four years, CFO Eric Evans helped turn private equity-owned Big Ass Fans into a more profitable business that was sold at double the investment. After a one-year sabbatical, he traded his career for peace and contentment.

By Russ Banham

Chief Executive magazine

In January 2018, 45-year-old Eric Evans was hired by private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg to lead finance at Big Ass Fans, a Lexington, Kentucky-based manufacturer of extremely large fans for industrial and commercial uses. The firm had just acquired the memorably named business and Evans was the first person the new owners hired to help run what was essentially a new company. A month later, the CEO was hired.

Business boomed and in 2020, Big Ass Fans generated record revenue and profits, its large fans selling in 175 countries and to 85 percent of the Fortune 500. A few months later when Covid-19 hit, it was erroneously reported that ventilation fans spread coronavirus particulates through the air. Sales fell by more than half. The future looked bleak.

Like a phoenix, the company whirred back to life, developing a series of new fans that combined bipolar ionization air purifiers used in the aviation industry with UV-C radiation, a water and air disinfectant, to destroy the outer protein shell of the coronavirus. The boom echoed again in record revenue, profits and cash flow, impelling Lindsay Goldberg to sell the company in July 2021 to Madison Industries for more than twice what the firm paid to buy it at the end of 2017.

To transition the business, Evans agreed to stay on as CFO through the end of 2021, in exchange for a one-year paid sabbatical and an offer to return to Madison Industries in some capacity. When that sabbatical drew to a close, he informed his former employer that he was not coming back. In the middle of his high-flying finance career, he terminated it.

In the Q&A that follows, Evans, previously featured in StrategicCFO360discusses how the sabbatical changed the course of his life. He now lives in a contented place of being he calls “the doldrums.”

The discussion has been edited for concision and clarity.

Let’s start with the gorilla in the room, the fact that most CFOs reading this article will think you’re out of your mind. You were a rockstar CFO destined for ever-bigger venues and a heaping pile of cash. Why, Eric, why?

I know, I know. I agree. I know no other CFOs who left their companies to do something completely different, but I’d like to believe it’s a more common occurrence than we think. If you told me when I was in my 30s that I would take a year-long sabbatical in my 49th year and then decide “never again,” I’d think you were out of your mind.

Obviously, you saved enough money to decide that, though.

Clearly it had something to do with my financial position, but it had much more to do with the insights I discovered while off the path I’d been automatically plying the past 30 years. I thought the sabbatical would be all about traveling and trying to cram as much life as I possibly could into a compact time. I compiled this big list of stuff to do, hit 10,000 golf balls, read War and PeaceDon Quixote, the Bible. I became a literary ultra-marathoner. It was all do, do, do. I enjoyed myself for a while and then six months in, I realized I knew less about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life than at the outset.

Did you consider your career during these contemplations?

Yes, very much so. In the beginning of the sabbatical, I decided I didn’t want to go back to Madison and a big company bureaucracy. I started laying the groundwork for my next private equity CFO role instead. I knew I was highly valued. Midway through, though, I read a book about Eastern cultures where there is a clear break from the first stage of life to the second stage. I was at the beginning of that second stage. In most cultures today, we start out at 22 and the next stop is 65, although many people just keep on working. I had built the career I had planned to build and now had this one year to jam in all the other stuff I wanted to do, a bucket list of sorts. Then, halfway through, I realized the real satisfaction was the peace, waking up and not having to check my emails, take calls from recruiters, look at LinkedIn posts. I drove the kids to school, took long walks with the family dog, spent quality time with my wife, just talking. I had found this place I call “the doldrums.”

What place is that?

I think of it in the nautical sense, a place of no wind, no prevailing direction you’re being pushed toward, all ports within equal reach. Only then can you truly know who you are and what you want to do for the next period of time you have in life. All destinations were equally accessible to me. That was the marrow of the bone of the sabbatical, clearing my mind and history.

Honestly, that’s the most “touchy-feely” thing I’ve heard a CFO say in the 35 years I’ve been writing about finance. I mean that in a good way.

It was full of emotion. I actively engaged with my family, my friends, people in general. I realized the adage, “Rich people have money, wealthy people have time,” was true. Time was my wealth, not possessions. The next private equity CFO role would likely require uprooting from Lexington. My family loves it here. Am I really going to do that, move everybody elsewhere to make more money? That’s crazy, no, I’m not doing that. I didn’t want to travel non-stop and compromise my family. I didn’t want to move. I then looked to work remotely or commute. And that’s when it hit. I’ve got four years left with the kids in the house. This is the best part of life. I had finally freed myself from, “What am I going to do with the rest of my career?” I didn’t feel agitated by not knowing what I wanted to do next.

And how do you feel today, more than 18 months since the sabbatical began? You don’t miss being a CFO?

I don’t. I do some freelance finance consulting locally, working two days a week on average, helping people with my trade. Most importantly, I have my freedom and my family. I still drive the kids to school each morning, with a clear mind now. Life is not plowing through stuff to do; it’s about living and enjoying.

Do you think you’ll ever again feel the tug, the sheer exhilaration, of leading teams of people in the successful turnaround of a company that had run into some serious challenges?

No. I actually won multiple dinners off people who said I’d be back in the game in three months. Society drives you out of fear and habit to emulate highly successful people. People confuse their jobs with their passions. You build wealth but never think you’ve built enough. I honestly cannot envision a scenario where I exchange nine hours of my day, five days a week, and my mental freedom on the weekends, for any kind of money. My wealth is my time. I feel no pressure toward a destination.

Is there some sort of moral to your story, something you think might be of value to other CFOs feeling such pressure?

Time is fleeting. People often don’t think about it until a memento mori realization arises to remind them of death. I’m a big fan of Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics. One of the classics I read during the sabbatical was his Meditations. I’ve learned to focus on the things I can control, giving me true freedom. I’m 50 now. Few people my age appreciate how short their time is on earth. They fear they will run out of money. They fall into the trap of thinking more money will alleviate their fear. Their job becomes their identity. That’s not me. Not anymore. “Eric Evans” is not a CFO. So, my advice, for what it’s worth, is to take the sabbatical. Not to drive through your list of things to get ahead, but to find out what you really want to do. Set sail, metaphorically, to find your doldrums.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and best-selling author.

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