Work This Way

Jim Pitts wants to open an Ultimate Frisbee hall of fame. He's already built computer devices that now sit in a California museum, volunteered for Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign when he was in his twenties, and worked at Maynard-based Digital Equipment for 30 years. He's a 62-year-old, well-worn beanstalk of a man whose trade is organic farming but whose life's work will add up to more than a retirement plan.  

For 30 years Pitts rose through the ranks at Digital, from technician trainee to executive director of a program that solicited employee ideas. Unlike some workers in the corporate sphere, he liked it. “It was the best place to work in the world.”

But outside the office, Pitts nurtured an amateur green thumb. During an archetypical midlife crisis, he and his wife decided to cash in his stock options — effectively forfeiting the couple's life savings — to buy 40 acres of farmland in Amherst. And when Digital downsized and Pitts got a pink slip, he decided to leave the 9-to-5 routine behind altogether and move to the farm. “Many of my friends were devastated at how quickly their status, their business, their relationships were just cut out from under them. They were left hanging out to dry. At least I had a vision,” he says.

“People say it took courage,” Pitts says. In fact, moving to the farm allowed him to abandon the confines of corporate culture. “It's a whole headset. Got to have a portfolio for my son so he can go to college? Bullshit. Got to have health coverage? Bullshit. Clear it out of your head. Think about what you really want to do.”

Pitts says, with a broad smile, “For the first time I had a child I could grow up with.” His teenaged son, whose national championship on an Ultimate team has inspired his father to propose a hall of fame for the sport, runs past Pitts to go hang out with friends. “Didn't make any difference,” Pitts notes, laughing. “But still.”

A lot of us have dreamed of tos sing out the suit and dead-end career to pursue a passion. Today more than ever, working Americans have reason to wrangle better-quality jobs. Though a handful of companies offer top-of-the-line benefit packages (you can find a complete list of workplace benefits at 110 Boston-area companies at, many are cutting back on health coverage and only barely raising salaries. Jobs are paying less in real terms, and offering fewer benefits, than they did four years ago.

When some employees don't get what they want, they find it on their own — by fighting for better benefits (as the employees of Shaw's supermarkets did with a threatened strike in the spring), going into business for themselves, or even buying their companies outright. They're turning hobbies into profitable businesses and changing careers midstride. These days, employees are fighting for themselves. And proving that it's possible to love their jobs.

Among its employees , Foreign Motors West in Natick is known simply as “the country club.” The luxury car showroom, which displays shining Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, hums with jovial receptionists, unobtrusive salesmen, and apparently satisfied customers. According to employees, the dealership has been this way since founder Thomas Mix opened it in 1970. The only difference now is that these good-natured, attentive staff members also own the place.

In the early '90s, Mix struggled with a declining luxury car market and the tingling anticipation of retirement. Instead of selling the company to an outside buyer, potentially killing the culture he'd worked to instill, Mix went to his employees. “He didn't want to have someone come in and disrupt all the years of work he had put into it,” says president and general manager Fred Tierney. “We stumbled on the ESOP [employee stock ownership plan] process, and the more we looked into it, the more we thought it would work.”

The business was appraised and the employees bought 51 percent of it, leveraging their investment over 10 years. In five and a half years, they had paid that off and bought more shares. This year, on the 10th anniversary of the original deal, the employees bought the final shares, and the company became 100-percent employee owned.

A sense of responsibility permeates every level of the dealership, from general management to new hires. “It has the small mom-and-pop feel,” says Mark Erwin, a BMW shop foreman who just celebrated his 17th anniversary at the company. “I'm in charge of purchasing equipment. I don't even need to discuss it [with management] because I know it's the right decision. If it wasn't my money I was spending, I might say, the heck with it, I want that $4,000 piece of equipment.”

Phil Cicio, the Mercedes-Benz service director, takes his stake in the company to heart. “I really do feel like I'm an owner,” he says. “I worry about this place when I'm not here. If I'm on vacation I'm calling in. All those things that an owner does with his business, I do here.”

The company now has seven buildings and 390 employees and plans to expand further. “[Mix] wanted to do well for us,” says Cicio, “but I don't think he imagined it would ever work out like it did. We're all sitting very pretty, and it's a great thing.”

Decked out in a pink baby-doll tee and yoga pants, 33-year-old Lynne Begier looks as if she's never worn a suit. Casually sipping boba tea before heading to work, the owner of the Back Bay Yoga Studio seems so comfortable with herself she's almost giddy. It's a far cry from the seven years she spent working in finance. Her only goal beside satisfying her own well being, she says, is improving everyone else's.

Before starting as a Fidelity real estate analyst in 1998, Begier had jumped from the restaurant business to retail to finance. Then around her 30th birthday, she hit a wall. “I used to go to my therapist and be like, 'What am I doing?' Fidelity wasn't working. I was going through bouts of depression. Two weeks of vacation? That doesn't give you a whole lot of time to be spiritual.” Seeking answers, she treated herself to a month-long teacher-training program at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox.

Though she'd been practicing sporadically for almost eight years, teaching yoga had never been Begier's intended career. After she left Kripalu, she returned to Fidelity, but started teaching yoga part-time.

Boston's yoga scene had not exploded into what it is today, so Begier had to create her own space. With her hefty annual bonus in hand and the seeds of a grander vision, she signed a year-long lease on a studio on Boylston Street.

Begier would wake up at 6 a.m. to practice, work a full day at Fidelity, and teach two classes at night and more on the weekends. Despite this hectic schedule, she finally felt she was on the right path.

By the summer of 2002, with layoffs threatened at Fidelity, “I told my boss, half-joking, 'If you need to lay someone off, lay me off.' Everyone else was older, had kids, a mortgage, and I was willing to give it a whirl,” she says. The following October, she collected a severance package and focused on her new business.

Today, Begier's studio has seven teachers leading more than 30 classes a week and offers massage and weekend workshops. Though she's no longer making what she earned at Fidelity, Begier has no debt. She has added a second studio, a changing room, and an office and is making plans to expand again.

“I'm not about instant gratification,” she says. But corporate life was too slow. “You're going to be at a company 20 to 30 years before you're a senior VP.” Now, she says, “I work just as hard as everybody, if not harder. The difference is that I'm my own boss.”

When Boston's iconic furniture store Repertoire announced it was closing the doors this summer after 18 years, no one took the news harder than its employees. They had cultivated one of the most prominent design and furniture resources in the city, selling top-quality furniture lines including Flexform, Promemoria, and Flou. So when the closing threatened the jobs they loved, employees Doug Gates, Petra Hausberger, and Barbara Rosen each decided to rebuild the business for him- or herself. Next month, Gates, 34, will open his own retail space on Stuart Street called Showroom. It will have many of the same lines once found at Repertoire. “The relationships that we developed were tremendous. We all fed off each other's good energy,” says Gates. “But it's a new time now. And my goal is to hold onto all that and make it better.”

Designers Rosen and Hausberger, who worked in Repertoire's interior design department, have forged their own firm, RH Interiors & Design, with minor startup costs and a ready Rolodex of clients. Their new business starts off with a bang; it has the contract to design Seth Greenberg's new nightclub-lounge, set to open this year.

“We've worked for other people for many years and think that it's our time to be independent, happy, and enjoy every day,” says Hausberger, hitting the nail on the head about what so many people want in their work. Adds Rosen: “We define our lives for ourselves every day from now on.”