Unretiring, with Passion

For some, retirement is about relaxing and traveling the world. For these women, it was about reconfiguring their lives and embarking on new career paths

by Alison Overholt
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Photograph: Big Cheese Photo/Aurora Photos

Mary Beth Casey, 58

Primary career: Advertising executive
Unretirement path: Travel franchise owner

As CEO and president of the advertising company N.W. Ayer, Mary Beth Casey was used to being away from home for long stretches. When she started at the company in 1997, she decided to live in Manhattan from Monday to Friday and spend weekends in Guilford, Connecticut, with her husband, David, and her two stepchildren. But years of long hours at the office, coupled with solo life in the city, took a toll. “I missed my family,” she says.

In 2002, Casey left her job. She had diligently saved throughout her career and at 47 had socked away enough money to afford a comfortable retirement. For the next several years, she gardened, rode horses, served on company boards and traveled.

But even in retirement, Casey’s reputation followed her, and soon she was asked to join J. Walter Thompson as vice chair of its digital-advertising organization. “I didn’t need the money, but the attraction of ‘They need me’ was bigger than ‘How am I going to make this work?’” she says. Casey accepted the position, and her commutes began again.

This time, though, the stint lasted just a year and a half before the appeal faded and she quit. She’d come to recognize, however, that traditional retirement didn’t suit her personality, so she threw herself into volunteer and nonprofit work.

Then, in 2008, David accepted a job in South Florida. “I decided if we both love work so much, let’s at least work together,” she says. She began researching business opportunities that would combine her knack for building teams with David’s talent for sales and marketing.

Buying a franchise appealed to her because of the track record that comes with an established company. Casey Googled “U.S. franchise opportunities,” and the first brand that caught her attention was the travel company Expedia, particularly the branch that books cruises. Still, Casey was hesitant. “It was a lot of money, and we had too much business experience between us not to ask, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario?’” she says. To quiet her fears, Casey spent four months researching the company.

In 2009, confident that she’d done her homework, she and David paid more than $200,000 to buy Expedia’s first U.S.-based CruiseShipCenter. Several years later, the couple support 110 independent consultants who sell vacation packages. Their franchise experienced a 30 percent growth in sales in 2012. But for Casey, it isn’t about the money. “The real satisfaction comes from nurturing the people who work for our company,” she says.

Casey’s unretirement tip: Expect to work hard. “Buying a business will probably be more difficult than anything you’ve done, but by building a financial investment in the future, you’ll find a sense of achievement that you may not have had before.”

Ruth Wooden, 67

Primary career: Head of a nonprofit
Unretirement path: family counselor

At 57, Ruth Wooden left her job in public relations to become president of the nonprofit think tank Public Agenda. Just a few years later, as she approached 62, she started to feel restless. Not long after, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Wooden struggled with how to perform at her job while making herself available to take her mother to doctor appointments and help her live out her final months comfortably.

Wooden’s epiphany came in April 2010, when she was in London for a conference and a volcano erupted in Iceland, grounding flights across Europe. “I realized that I didn’t want to resent that I had been working while my mother was dying,” she says. As soon as she got home, Wooden gave notice.

Her mother passed away in March 2011, and for the first time in years, Wooden was able to reflect on what, if anything, she wanted to do next. For several months she enjoyed a quiet retirement. Then she received an e-mail from a member of the board of Public Agenda asking her to meet with Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary. Jones was looking for someone to teach a course in advancing public change.

Wooden’s first instinct was to decline. She didn’t want to teach a subject in which she’d so recently been immersed. Then Jones mentioned that the school was offering the course only to students who would become ministers, and the idea of teaching future ministers made Wooden reconsider. She checked out the school’s website to learn more about the program and saw a major called Psychology and Religion. “I thought, Wow, this is what I want to do—spiritual counseling,” she says.

She applied to become a student and decided to teach the class on the side. Today, Wooden is finishing her second year at the Union Theological Seminary and plans to open a practice as a counselor for family-support programs as soon as she earns her M.A.

Wooden’s unretirement tip: Don’t plan on getting rich from unretirement.“This is the time to pursue your passion, not your skill set, and that usually means earning a lot less money than you did in your previous career.”

Juanita James, 61

Primary career: Executive at an S&P 500 company
Unretirement path: Head of a community foundation

As chief marketing officer for Pitney Bowes, Juanita James worked 14-hour days managing a staff of more than 40 executives. She also maintained what she calls a parallel career of working with nonprofit and community groups. James was passionate about her philanthropic pursuits and often thought about devoting herself to them full time. But with a special-needs son, Dudley Williams III, who was born premature and required years of therapy, along with medical bills that insurance wouldn’t cover, she needed her corporate paycheck.

That situation changed in 2010 when her son graduated from the Threshold Program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which helps -special-needs students prepare for living independently. Suddenly, James had some decisions to make. “For the first time, there was a freedom not to feel bound by my corporate career,” she says.

So, at 58, she quit her job, intending to take a couple of years off to think about her next step. Shortly thereafter, James was recruited by newly elected Connecticut governor Dannel P. Malloy’s transition team and decided the allure of working in public service outweighed her need for a break. Several people familiar with James’s nonprofit board activities then recommended her to a recruiter looking to fill the CEO slot at the Fairfield County Community Foundation, which manages more than 500 funds that support nonprofit groups in the region. “My first reaction was, Wait a minute. I haven’t taken that break yet,” she says. “Then I thought, Timing never works the way you want it to. This is the ideal thing for me to do.”

James’s unretirement tip: Return on investment does not apply just to money. “Associate yourself with an organization whose core values are consistent with your own.”

ALISON OVERHOLT is a writer and an editor based in Montclair, New Jersey.

Next: Reinventing After You Lose Everything

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First Published Wed, 2013-10-30 12:44

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