By 1989, Superfund was in its ninth year of operation. It was a major business opportunity for environmentally-oriented consulting firms across the country. Billions were being spent each year on cleanup. And it seemed that the more sites they cleaned, the more new sites they found. Many major consulting firms’ – Dave and Amy’s among them – supported policy in Washington. They then benefited from those policies when they worked on cleanup in the field.
That year EPA issued a dictum: support policy making in DC or win cleanup contracts in the field. From then on, consulting firms could no longer do both. Dave and Amy realized their firms would leave the small stakes in Washington for the big stakes in the field. This, they understood, would force their own consulting practices to shut down. They were going to lose their jobs.
Dave, ever the consultant, saw his chance to make a move. He approached me one day in early ’89 and told me he planned to break away from Booz Allen and start his own company. He surprised – and flattered – me by offering me a partner role. Then he told me he had also recruited Amy. He didn’t ask me to commit, he just invited me to a Saturday meeting to talk it through. When I arrived, I found that both he and Amy had their principle lieutenants’ in tow, Tom and Jim respectively. They were people I respected but didn’t particularly like. They shared that sentiment towards me as well.
We continued to meet most Saturdays as Dave got us to think through what it would take to build a business. He got us to create a Mission Statement that defined both the breadth and the boundaries of our work. We said, for example, that we didn’t want Defense-related work. That position moderated somewhat over time. He had us define an organizational chart for a sixty person firm. He had us draw up job descriptions, position qualifications, and salary structures.
Amy had a well-deserved reputations as one of the best marketers in the business. She set about developing our government contract ‘capture’ strategy. It consisted of talking other firms into subcontracting their work to us while we grew. Her goal was to make us strong enough to unseat Booz Allen’s position in Superfund. They had maintained a strangle hold on the program since its inception. Her plan was to unseat one of the world’s top consulting firms. And she planned to do by winning one of their most highly prized contracts. The plan struck me as outlandish. I thought it over-confident enough to qualify as crazy.
On the home front, Nancy – ever the planner – crafted her next career move. It had nothing to do with my starting a business in DC. She scouted opportunities for moving overseas. She opposed my even discussing starting a company. It was in clear conflict with my agreement to split careers and join her overseas.
Then Dave and Amy, both married to others at the time, began sleeping together. It seemed like a very bad way to start a company. Dave then announced that we needed money to get started. Each of us had to ante up twenty-five thousand dollars as the cost of admission. I didn’t have that kind of money. Between Nancy’s opposition, Dave and Amy’s affair and the need to find a bunch of money, I was ready to throw in the towel.
I scheduled a heart-to-heart with Dave. I told him I had neither Nancy’s support nor twenty-five thousand dollars. I also said I feared that when Dave and Amy’s relationship went south only one of the two would remain with the firm. The real strength of the new company was the two of them.
What I didn’t say was that I had a personal plan I labelled ‘TFI’. Total Financial Independence. TFI was my path to attaining my cherished ‘writer’s life’. As I mentioned, ‘TFI’ entailed making enough money to not have to worry about money anymore. I had made a decent start on that goal by growing my systems development team from just me to almost fifty folks. And that had allowed me to negotiate with my current employer for a cut on any business I brought in. So I had a shot at TFI without the risk of striking out on my own.
Dave told me during our discussion that he had filed for divorce and settled accounts with his wife. He said he’d left her the bulk of the assets but that he was walking away with a hundred grand. “That’s how much I am bringing to the firm – every cent I have. I’ve decided there is no one I’d rather bet on than myself. You might want to give that some thought. You might find you feel the same,” he said.
I thought about it for a moment and then said, “I couldn’t agree more. There is no one I’d rather bet on than…you.” When I got home, I told Nancy I couldn’t follow her overseas. Then I took out a second mortgage, wrote a check for twenty-five thousand, and joined the firm.