WSJ.com (The Wall Street Journal)
TitleVest’s President and CEO, Bill Baron, profiled.
Many executives in big-city financial centers endure long, draining commutes so their children can grow up in a quiet suburb. Inspired by a childhood memory of his grandfather's happy post-retirement life in Florida, Manhattan business owner Bill Baron, a husband and father of two boys, ages 3 and 1, asked himself, "Why wait?" He and his family now live in a gated golf community in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Although he still heads a growing Manhattan-based company, Mr. Baron acted decades earlier in life to stake out a place in the sun. His story shows the power of technology to transform the work-life equation of even the most hands-on, work-driven executive.
The Problem: "I founded my company, TitleVest, a title insurance and real-estate services business, in 1999. Our headquarters are on Wall Street; we have thousands of New York-based clients and we are a large provider of real-estate services specific to New York City. At the time our first son was born in 2003, my wife and I were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a two-bedroom apartment. But it was never our intention or desire to raise a family in Manhattan. My wife, a former senior advertising executive who is now a stay-at-home mom, is from Ohio, and she was never a big fan of staying in the city. We wanted a big house with more room. We'd been thinking of moving to Westchester.
The Solution: "I started my business thinking that investing heavily in technology, finding more efficient ways to deliver our services via the Internet, would give us a competitive edge. As the firm grew from just myself to 40 employees, and our client base and revenue grew, I continued investing heavily in technology at an even faster pace. Our Web-based systems and hybrid IP phone setup enabled me to work and respond to after-hours calls at night and on weekends. So I had this platform in place.
"In the winter of 2004, my in-laws were thinking about buying a place in Florida, so I said to my wife, 'Why don't we go down with them, and maybe we'll split a place with them?' Ironically, they ended up not buying a house, but we liked it so much that we decided to build one, in a gated golf course community. I rationalized it by thinking that I could entertain clients.
"I also had a childhood memory: Growing up on Long Island, I remember my grandfather as a serious, intense person. After he retired, he and my grandmother bought a home in the same area. And he was a different person when I visited him. He just fell in love with Florida and was so happy. I remember thinking at the time, at about age 10, 'It seems like such a shame, such a waste, for people to have to wait until they're that age to start enjoying themselves.' If you really like the lifestyle and you can swing it, financially and from a work standpoint, why do you have to wait until you're a retiree to start?
"At first, we stayed in our Florida house for three weeks; it was the longest time I'd been away from my office since I started working after graduating law school at 24. I brought my IP phone with me and my computer, and I found I could work very effectively away from the office. My wife was pregnant with our second child. After several months of back-and-forth from New York to Florida, we started talking about making Florida our home: 'Why don't we give this a shot?'
"I typically work from a small office near our house; my presence in Florida has been a source of some new Florida clients. I come to New York every few weeks, usually for about three days. I'm reachable by phone and BlackBerry pretty much 24/7. In fact, I keep my BlackBerry by the side of my bed.
The Downside: "There's potential risk in being an owner who is not physically in the office. The toughest thing has been making sure that I have enough depth, in high-level, trustworthy staff. My ability to live this lifestyle is dependent upon having other generals manning the ship in New York.
Still, I'm not just kicking back and putting everything on auto pilot. I'm still in many respects a micromanager. I'm automatically copied on emails to various addresses for TitleVest. On others I encourage my staff to copy me. I speak to key staff members by email or phone 20 times a day.
"Another challenge is that I'll be talking to a client or vendor, and they'll ask, 'Why don't we get together for lunch?' Often they don't know I'm not working out of our New York office. So when I come back, it's a mad rush to get to back-to-back appointments. [ One client, New York City attorney Larry Hutcher, says Mr. Baron's remote-office setup is so transparent that the only way to figure out his whereabouts is to ask him. Regardless of his location, "if I say to Bill, 'We need a face-to-face,' he'll come in," Mr. Hutcher says. ]
"I have trouble letting go. For a couple of months this summer, we're renting a house in the mountains of Park City, Utah, where it's cooler. When I go on bike rides here in the late afternoon or on weekends with the kids, I'm constantly checking my BlackBerry. What really annoys my wife is when I read and type emails in the car, stopped at traffic lights. Although she's pretty tolerant, sometimes she gets frustrated that I put in such long days. Even when I'm not physically at my office or at my desk or in front of a computer, I'm still on call, still working. My brain doesn't have a great ability to turn off the work.
The Outcome: "The quality of life is the No. 1 advantage. While many south Florida gated golf-course communities cater primarily or exclusively to retirees, ours is much younger. There are some snowbirds, but there are also plenty of year-round, full-time residents in their thirties and forties with young kids. My wife and I and our kids have made plenty of friends – within our community, as well as surrounding neighborhoods.
"My commute to the Florida office is about three to four minutes. I wear shorts and a T-shirt. There are palm trees, I'm driving by a golf course, the sun is out. I can occasionally take my son to lunch after his preschool, and I'm home for dinner with the family. If I were living in Westchester, I'd be spending at least an additional two hours a day commuting. That's time I'm now able to spend with my family.
"Working in Manhattan, I struggled with my long to-do list, just prioritizing and getting things done. I'm much more efficient working remotely, without the distractions of a 40-person office.
"But it's still not a kick-back, carefree existence. I'm often reminded that there's a very hectic, thriving business going on back on Wall Street. At the end of the day, I'm still the sole owner and ultimately responsible for everything. It's still a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility -- even though I'm living hundreds of miles away."