Eleven years into the job, Balciar had worked her way up to executive secretary, and GM paid for her to take college classes after hours. In 1997 she got her MBA and was later promoted to sales-account manager. In 2003, at age 54, Balciar retired after three decades with the company; by then her division of GM had spun off into Delphi Corporation, which was the largest automotive supplier in the U.S. “On my last day, I wrote an e-mail to my coworkers saying, ‘I owe everything I have to this company,’ ” she says.
Balciar’s husband, Paul, who also worked for Delphi, retired a year later. Their joint pension guaranteed them almost $1 million over the next 20 years, so they built their dream home in Westhaven, Tennessee. But in 2005, three months after they moved in, Delphi declared bankruptcy. Balciar feared for her pension. “My sense of security was blasted,” she says. “I wondered how bad it was going to get.”
To ease their anxiety, Paul got two part-time jobs. When it seemed that Balciar’s age was keeping her from being hired for the various sales jobs she sought, Paul persuaded her to get a real estate license. She poured all her energy into the new career, staying up late drafting contracts and marketing new listings.
Delphi’s bankruptcy hearings continue to drag on. In August 2009 the company stopped pension payments to its employees. (Former Delphi executives face trial this fall on a fraud lawsuit brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.) Balciar’s pension is insured by a federal corporation, so she is still getting checks, but she worries that she won’t be fully compensated. “It broke my heart that the company I loved would do this to us,” Balciar says of the thousands of employees affected.
Turns out she didn’t need Delphi after all. Last year she sold $4.6 million worth of property working for Crye-Leike, the largest real estate company in the mid-South region, and she ranked 19th out of 3,600 agents nationwide. She attributes her real estate success to her work ethic and focus on customer service. Balciar and her husband are back on track with a savings plan, but she no longer thinks in terms of retirement. “I made more money last year in a down market than I ever made before, and selling beautiful homes is a lot more fun than selling automotive wiring,” she says. “The sweetest revenge is being able to thumb my nose at Delphi. I can survive anything that life throws at me.”
Judy Pugh, Long Beach, Calif.
Burned by: Infidelity
Her comeback: A total body and business transformation
Judy Pugh had been married for 12 years when, in 2006, she discovered her husband was having an affair. She cried, tore up pictures and confronted the other woman. “I saw myself as broken,” she says.
As her husband filed for divorce, Pugh got another shock: Her daughter was being deployed by the Air Force to Djibouti, Africa, while her son-in-law, a soldier, was going to Iraq. The newly single Pugh, who worked for a custom-landscaping business, would become the temporary guardian of her two-year-old grandson, Marcus. Adding to the stress, a freak medical condition temporarily debilitated her right arm after Marcus came to live with her in April 2007. She changed diapers with one hand, often crying from frustration.
Pugh soon realized, however, that caring for Marcus helped her focus. “I switched priorities and spent less time thinking about my problems, because I had to make sure he was OK,” she says. “I finally got to the point where I was done sulking.”
By this time, Pugh had lost 12 pounds from her “divorce diet.” She loved the way she felt and looked. To keep it up, she started eating right and bought a jogging stroller to take her grandson for twice-daily walks. (By midsummer she had traded in her size 18 black velour tracksuit for size 8 skirts.) She built a collection of sassy shoes and got the Chinese symbol for life and birth tattooed on the back of her neck. “I felt reborn,” she says.