Cool exit from corporate life Risk: Tom Washburn left a corporate job and its handsome salary to open an ice cream parlor. Now he faces long odds and longer hours.

July 27, 1998|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

On a quiet Saturday morning, Tom Washburn stood in his ice cream parlor, dressed in shorts, a polo shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap, peeling 120 bananas so he could make homemade banana ice cream.

Just weeks earlier, he wore a suit and tie and pulled down a handsome salary as a corporate bond analyst at BT Alex. Brown Inc.

But Washburn, who is 31, married and has a child and a second on the way, decided to risk it all on ice cream.

With more than $100,000 of his own money and funds borrowed from family members, he quit the corporate world in April and opened Moxley's, an ice cream parlor in Towson.

"You have to be ambitious," said Washburn, standing behind a long marble counter at the ice cream parlor. "I didn't leave Alex. Brown to break even, and I didn't leave Alex. Brown to have just one store."

Hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs each year do what Washburn is doing. They quit their jobs and risk money, marriage and family to start their own business. Some are convinced they will become millionaires, and others, like Washburn, simply want to take charge of their destiny.

"I've gone from thinking about doing something entrepreneurial to actually doing it," Washburn said. "It is up to me to make it work."

The odds are stacked against the Washburns of the world. More than 842,000 small businesses opened in 1996, while 975,000 failed or simply closed their doors, according to the Washington-based Small Business Administration.

And the smaller the business, the greater the chance of failure. One out of every two sole proprietorships doesn't make it after four years, although the odds improve as the company grows.

"It is tough," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "Competition is just ferocious out there. If you get past the first two years, you can probably take a deep breath, at least for the next five years. The odds improve, but the landscape is littered with those who couldn't manage their growth."

With the chances of failure so great, why would someone like Washburn risk it all?

His wife, Nettie, answers the question best.

"He has always wanted to do his own thing, be his own boss," she said. "He is a risk taker. He is always coming up with ideas of some sort."

When the two lived in New York, where Washburn was an analyst at Lehman Brothers, he wanted to open a store that sold pies, but he quickly shelved the idea because he wasn't ready to take the risk. He also toyed with starting a furniture delivery business, but that never got off the ground either.

Moxley's was hatched about a year and a half ago over dinner at a friend's house in Baltimore.

The hostess had lived in Ithaca, N.Y., and she said Baltimore needed an old-fashioned ice cream parlor like the one she frequented there.

Washburn, a Baltimore native, seized on the idea and scratched out a business plan to gauge expenditures.

He ran it by family members, who agreed to back him financially, and he scouted for a location.

Washburn hired a consultant to advise him on equipment he would need to make his own ice cream. He took a four-day course at Penn State University on running an ice cream store, and he spent three days learning how to make ice cream at Ice Cream University in Scarsdale, N.Y.

On April 9, Washburn quit his job at Alex. Brown and plunged forward.

Washburn's former boss, David L. Hopkins, chairman of Alex. Brown Capital Advisory & Trust Co., half-expected the decision because he had sensed that the young man wanted to try something new.

"People have done funnier things," Hopkins said. "He is a bright fellow, and he is an eager guy. We were sorry to see him go."

No time for family

The decision hasn't come without a personal price.

Since opening the store, he barely sees Nettie and his 2-year-old son, Ty. At Alex. Brown, Washburn went into work about 6 a.m., was home between 5 and 6 in the evening and had weekends off, his wife said.

Now, he works 16-hour days, including weekends, and the family squeezes in visits in the morning and at dinner time.

"Our lives have totally been changed," Nettie said. "Since he has been opened, we barely see him. It has been hard. He usually crawls in bed and falls asleep. He is just so focused right now."

Washburn has left running the household to Nettie, who expects to deliver their second child in October. He once let the grass grow knee-high around his Baltimore home, which prompted Nettie to call him at work and demand that he cut the lawn.

"It is hard not having him around," she said.

They have also had to keep a closer eye on how they spend their money because they are living off their savings.

"Nothing like this is easy, and the risk is our nest-egg money," he said. "But this is a calculated risk."

Washburn, too, is earning his degree in Business 101.

He struggled for the first hour opening day because he couldn't figure out how to work the cash register. He lost $80 because he was shorted two boxes of nuts and didn't realize it until it was too late.

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