This is the first of two articles on CFOs and their hobbies. Read the second here.
Tim Hudson’s favorite non-work activity can actually be like another full-time engagement.
Hudson, who runs finance for CoreRx, a growth company that does research and development work for pharmaceutical manufacturers, is a triathlete. He’s been doing triathlons since the mid-1990s, when he moved from Atlanta to Florida and met some enthusiasts of the sport, which combines running, biking and swimming.
Now 50, Hudson competed in the 2012 Ironman World Championship, the famous annual competition in Hawaii. It was the realization of a longtime goal. What was required to get there would make most mortals quake.
In Ironman competitions, the major leagues of triathlons, participants swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, ride a bike for 112 miles and top it off with a marathon-length run of 26-plus miles. To prepare for each Ironman event (he’s participated in five, including the world championship), Hudson trains at least 30 hours a week for six months, on top of his demanding job. That means getting up at 5 a.m. every morning and putting in more time after work.
When not getting ready for an Ironman, he typically devotes about half that much time to training.
What makes it worth the effort? “A lot of people who are CFOs have type-A personalities and set extreme goals for themselves,” he says. “And the world championship in Hawaii, accomplishing that goal, was a great, magic feeling. It was thrilling, with people lined up and down the street cheering you on, lights on you, and NBC television there.”
It was a grind, for sure. “It was windy, hot and hilly,” Hudson says. “It was brutal. I cramped up while on the bike and really struggled.”
How’d he do in the competition? “I finished,” he says, completely satisfied.
Since then, Hudson, who has been president of the St. Pete Mad Dogs Triathlon Club for five years, has continued to train but at a somewhat slower place. “I might do some shorter triathlons and will probably run in some marathons, but no more Ironmans,” he says. “It’s too time-consuming, and they’re a little extreme for most people. Even me.”
Hudson is hardly alone in using a sporting activity to chip away at the chronic stress that many CFOs endure. “The only thing I’m thinking about while water skiing is water skiing,” says Doug Smith, finance chief at Grossman Marketing Group, a $27 million promotional products company. “It’s huge stress relief.”
Smith and Hudson, like other CFOs interviewed for this article, entered a contest on the website of CBIZ, an accounting and professional services firm, for which they submitted a photo and description of their hobby.
Up to three weekday mornings per week and almost every Saturday and Sunday for at least half of the year, you’ll find Smith on the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts or on New Hampshire’s Great East Lake.
He and a small group of close friends, who have been water skiing together for about 15 of the 20 years Smith has been active in the sport, like to set up slalom courses, with buoys serving the same function as gates in snow skiing. They test the limits of their skill by shortening the rope, which makes it harder to complete the course. “Everything else in your life goes away for that 17 seconds you’re skiing that course,” Smith says.
There’s a serious side to the activity, though, deriving mainly from its speed. “It was Aug. 3, 2011, at 6:45 in the morning,” Smith intones with a solemnity that would be apt for, say, announcing a bankruptcy or layoff. “I broke my tibia and some bones in my foot.”
It was his own fault, he says. He had cinched one of his boots too tightly, and when he wiped out, that boot didn’t release his foot, as is supposed to happen at such times. That left the foot at the mercy of a thrashing, twisting ski.
When Smith resumed his hobby the next spring, he was initially gun-shy about getting back up on his skis, falling several times before regaining his sea legs. He also made an equipment change, “which allowed me to put that little bit of fear behind me,” he says.
The Peace of the Rock
Kira Spivak was 28 and newly divorced with two small children. She needed a coping mechanism to help with her life transition and an escape to fill the times when the kids were with her ex.
It was rock climbing that came to her rescue — specifically, “trad” (or traditional) climbing, where the climber is responsible for installing safety equipment in the rock during the climb. That was 11 years ago.
Like Smith, the relaxation Spivak finds in her hobby is its most appealing quality. “The hyper focus of both your mind and body that is needed for trad climbing is a way of shutting your brain off to everything else,” says Spivak, whose background was in investment banking and venture capital before hanging out a shingle as a CFO-for-hire. (She currently runs finance for three Colorado companies. One of them, Foraker Labs, is aptly situated near the rocks of Boulder. Another one, Rocky Mountain Excavating, has grown from small to midsize during her tenure, she says.)
“You’re solving little jigsaw puzzles the entire way up [the rock wall], with a lot at stake,” she says. “It’s relaxing, because you’re not thinking about anything but the minutiae.”
As her kids, now 17 and 14, grew older, she began to take them with her on rock-climbing expeditions. Other climbers did the same. “It was just a theme of kids running around and people climbing and everyone having a great time,” says Spivak.
Like other climbers, she has experienced falls (though not, thankfully, the kind where you’re stopped by the ground). Spivak finds the study of climbing safety and situation analyses fascinating. “For me, the perspective from 1,000 feet high is serenity,” she says.
Spivak was temporarily absent from the rocks in 2013 as she and her fiancé literally built their new home together and she performed her band-mom and volleyball-mom duties. But she still keeps busy with all manner of physical activity closer to home, including martial arts, yoga, mountain biking and road biking. Spivak also likes steep-slope skiing, surfing and kayaking. “I’m an experience pig,” she says.
A Tale of Two Sports
“It’s about the speed and the improvisation,” says Peter Iannone, CFO of freight forwarder Unitrans International, about his love of ice hockey. “You have a position, but that doesn’t mean much. You have to improvise and move around out there.”
At age 56, Iannone, who’s been playing hockey since he was five, still plays in an adult men’s league twice a week, year-round. “I grew up in New England while Bobby Orr was on the Bruins,” he says. “It wasn’t a matter of whether you played hockey. It was whether you were any good.”
Iannone lists snow skiing as a hobby of equal import as hockey. “In my mid-20s, I started dating a girl whose whole family skied. She said, ‘If this is going to work, you have to ski.’ Well, I’ve been married to her for 27 years, so I guess it worked.”
The tradition was passed down to the next generation. “We always told our three kids, ‘You can do whatever you want. If you don’t like hockey, no big deal. But you’re going to ski.’ It’s something we’ve always enjoyed together.”
In fact, Iannone’s son, who graduated from the University of Southern California in December, has been “a ski bum” since then in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the family has relatives. “It’s good work if you can get it,” Dad observes.
But, Iannone is asked, which sport is his personal favorite?
Long pause. Big sigh. “Can I say both?” he pleads.