New employer and employee both find new energy

WHEN YOU QUIT A BIG COMPANY FOR A SMALL ONE, EVERYONE CAN WIN

August 10, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Can a "lifer" at a Fortune 500 company find happiness in a fast-growing upstart?

Some can. And when they do, the benefits are mutual, said Lane Kramer, founder and president of the CEO Institute, an organization of executives of small and midsize companies.

One successful life-changer is Jim Ridings, who left E-Systems Inc. a couple of years ago to become chief operating officer for JDL Inc., a $15 million Dallas technical-training and contract-services company.

Not that Mr. Ridings was unhappy at E-Systems. Quite the opposite.

He had started with Ling-Temco-Vought, predecessor of both LTV Corp. and E-Systems, in 1961.

Mr. Ridings -- a design engineer who spearheaded a variety of classified projects for the Dallas-based defense contractor -- says his E-Systems post was a job he could have stayed in forever.

But at age 55, another idea came knocking -- in the person of Aggie Jordan, JDL's founder and president.

Bill Ridings met Ms. Jordan and her husband, Robert DeLaurenti, when Mr. DeLaurenti was business manager for Boeing Inc. and monitoring a major project at E-Systems.

Eventually, Mr. Ridings landed on the advisory board of Ms. Jordan's fledgling company, JDL.

So he knew both product and management, a big advantage when you take a calculated risk. He was eligible for early retirement from E-Systems, and Ms. Jordan played that card when she paid him a call.

Her growing company -- a family affair after Mr. DeLaurenti left Boeing to join her -- needed operations expertise.

Would Mr. Ridings consider the chief operating officer job? He did -- and he says the move has "revitalized my energy level."

The change wasn't without problems. The biggest was "in my own mental processes. I had to rethink everything based on not having all the resources I had before."

His contribution included putting systems in place to more closely track costs and profitability of individual projects.

Revenues have risen to $15 million from about $10 million in the 2 1/2 years since he's been with JDL -- growth that he's had some part in. This year, the firm expects to approach $20 million in revenues.

What's he learned? How to work with small task teams. The importance of individuals.

"Aggie has taught me we're not so big that we can't have a one-on-one with every employee at least once a year."

With about 400 employees, that seemed impossible. It wasn't. "Not only can you do it, you learn so much. To me, it was a revelation."

He came in deciding to listen -- and says he's glad he did. "If you don't listen carefully, you may be providing a solution to the wrong problem."

The latter may be the biggest barrier for a Fortune 500 manager making the switch to an entrepreneurial setting, he said. "The individual has to have a pretty open mind."

Ms. Jordan agrees. Both Mr. Ridings and JDL's chief financial officer came from large-company backgrounds. And she just hired an executive from International Business Machines Corp. to head the firm's software operations support.

But a previous large-company hire who was "very qualified" didn't adapt well to the small, fast-growth environment.

"You have to look for somebody who has a lot of physical energy, some excitement about them, and is willing to take a risk," Ms. Jordan said.

She doesn't mean financially. "They risk their reputation in their minds," she said. There can be a subtle loss in self-esteem if they've personally identified with the huge firm and its perks.

The largest benefit? For Mr. Ridings, it's been "the excitement of being where things happen quickly."

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