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Downsized To The Fast Lane: From TV News to Porsche 911sBy Susan Crandell
Getting laid off after 22 years turned out to be a lucky break for Steve Weiner. The former TV cameraman started a company to fulfill his life passion: modifying high performance race cars.
Steve’s Lesson: Don’t be afraid to launch yourself out of the comfort zone of a salaried job if you dream of running your own show. There is life after corporate America.
Steve Weiner had worked at the NBC affiliate in Portland, Oregon, for more than two decades, and he loved his job. As a cameraman and sound engineer, he didn’t just film traffic accidents and house fires. When a national story broke anywhere in the Northwest or California, he’d cover the action in the station’s satellite truck. “The big earthquake in San Francisco—I was there. When the Unabomber was found in Montana—I was there. When the Olympic Torch went around the country, we chased it,” he says. “For a guy like me who’s really interested in news, it was the catbird seat.”
So it came as a shock the day Steve’s manager called him in and told him they were reducing staff. Steve, the second most senior person in his department, was out of work. “After 22 years, I got two weeks’ severance,” he says. “No parachute whatsoever.” It was a body blow to his family’s finances. His wife was on disability after a work-related illness, and Steve bartended nights to make ends meet.
There were two obvious directions Steve could take: look for another job in television, or ramp up the sideline business he’d run for 20 years, tuning and repairing race cars. He chose to hedge his bets by pursuing both options, but he was a middle-aged man looking for work in a shrinking job market. “Here I was almost 50, and TV stations were shedding staff,” he says. He sent out 40 résumés to TV stations and related businesses. “I spend nine months answering ads, and got one interview.” At that point, Steve says, the utter futility of trying to buck age discrimination sank in.
Rennsport Systems Is Born
At the same time, Steve was moving ahead full throttle to build his little moonlighting business into a big enough operation to support his wife and him. “I loved working on Porsche race cars and high-performance street cars.” Fueling the growth would require a substantial outlay of capital for equipment. Steve needed a partner. Luckily, he already knew the perfect person, a technician at an independent repair shop. “He’s an immensely gifted mechanic,” Steve says. “He, too, had been talking about wanting to go off on his own. When I got laid off, we both said, ‘Let’s do it together.’” They found a piece of property, signed a lease, and hired a couple of mechanics. For the kind of operation they planned, they’d have to attract a nationwide clientele of Porsche enthusiasts who would ship their cars to Portland, FedEx the engine or transmission to be overhauled, or order parts. One of the most critical, and most frustrating, early tasks was building a Web site that could form the backbone of the mail-order business. “People of my generation do not grasp computers very easily,” Steve jokes. “But I knew if I didn’t learn, we were screwed.” He taught himself to build pages and put them on the Web.
Rennsport Systems grew slowly at first. “Some weeks, I’d pay the property lease and the employees’ salaries, make my house payment, and realize there was nothing left over for groceries,” Steve recalls. “I’d be a terrible liar if I said I didn’t second-guess myself a few times.” Eventually, he realized that nearly everyone who launches a business lives under this pressure and even experiences moments of panic. “It was three years before the business was solid enough that I didn’t worry about paying the bills.”
His Life Passion
There was no question that Steve was well suited to the work itself. He’d been a car nut since the age of 13 when one of his older brother’s friends turned him on to hot rods. “I helped work on his cars, and by the time I got to high school, I knew a fair amount,” he says. His folks took a dim view of grease monkeys, so Steve kept a lid on his activities, renting a garage from an elderly lady in the neighborhood where he stashed his cars and tools. All the money he earned working at a local gas station and bagging at a grocery store was poured into his hot rods. He usually had two tucked away in the secret garage—one he was working on, plus a parts car. “My parents didn’t have a clue,” he says. “Toward the end of high school, when they finally figured out what I was doing, they weren’t happy. When you grow up in a middle-class Jewish household, building race cars is not acceptable.”
After high school Steve started racing sports cars while working at a British car dealer as an apprentice mechanic. “I bought a little ‘Bugeye’ Austin-Healey Sprite, got my SCCA competition license, and raced it for a year.” He sold the Sprite and purchased a ’67 Mini Cooper, which he rebuilt for the track and raced home until he got called up to Vietnam as an air force pilot. Back home after a year, flying two-seat O-1s on dangerous low-level missions over Laos and Cambodia, he started working on Porsches. He and a buddy went pro, entering Trans-Am races, a series for highly modified pure race-car versions of Mustangs, Camaros, Jaguars, and the like. “Guys like us with minimal experience out there on the track—these days, they’d never let you do it,” Steve says. “When I think about it, it’s a wonder we survived.” The prize money wasn’t great, but Steve learned something priceless—that he loved working on Porsches.
While Steve was honing his racing skills, he was also building a career as a sound- and cameraman. After his tour in Vietnam, he landed a job at a Portland radio station. A few years later, when an opportunity came to move to TV, he took it. “It was more money, more glamour, a chance to meet interesting people,” he says. At the same time, he was working on cars for a growing number of racer friends.
Today Rennsport Systems is one of the country’s most highly regarded builders of extremely powerful modified Porsche 911s. Steve enjoys the role of guru, and is well known among Porsche fans not only for the supercars he builds, but also for the advice he freely gives to enthusiasts. After almost a decade running his own show, Steve says he’s unfit to return to corporate life. “Being your own boss, you get an attitude. You don’t suffer fools anymore. Now, if I had to work for somebody else, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, which means I’d be back on the street.”
Living Outside the Comfort Zone
Nine years after the fateful day that upended his TV career, Steve says flatly, “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It pushed him to make a decision he admits he never would have reached on his own. “You sit in that comfort zone where you get a paycheck, you have health insurance, vacation. Life is good; you don’t have to think. But another word for ‘comfort zone’ is rut. I’ll gladly trade income for freedom.”
There is one downside to owning Rennsport: virtually no time off. “You have to be around to answer the phone, handle your customers’ needs, put out fires. I’m like a shark that will drown if it doesn’t keep swimming. Going at it six to seven days a week is tough.” Steve hasn’t taken a vacation since he launched Rennsport, and he fantasizes about spending a few weeks in Europe with his wife. Still, he’s content doing what he loves. “It’s a lot more fun than the TV business. Corny as it sounds, I’d advise people to follow a passion, whether it’s tuning race cars or mixing concrete. If you don’t go to work every day with a big smile on your face, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What does really melt my butter?’”
From the book “Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife” by Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. Republished by permission of Wellness Central, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.