Owning a Small Business: From Fortune 500 to the Fish Market

by What's Next

Buying a small business meant a loss of status and income for John Harvey, but it also brought him freedom and a fuller life.

When John Harvey was a senior vice president at American Express, he never imagined he’d find himself the owner of Freeman’s Fish Market in Maplewood, N.J. But as it turns out, the job of shop owner—and the name of his shop—fit Harvey well.

Harvey left Amex in 2002. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, he recalls it as “a head-on crash with my boss, Attila the Hun,” that left him shocked, surprised and angry, especially since he’d received a leadership award less than a month before the confrontation. Then, not long after, a local man named Ed Freeman suggested that John Harvey buy his family fish market. Harvey knew nothing about the fish business. In fact, he knew Freeman only because he was a customer at the shop. Coincidentally, he was soon offered another job—a big one that he knew would mean 70-hour work weeks.

  “In my corporate life, I used to feel
   that I was looking at photos of my
   life. Now I’m a part of things.”

“I couldn't get the word ‘yes’ out of my mouth,” Harvey recalls. Suddenly, owning a small business seemed like a fine idea. Ignorance of the fish business was not a problem. “The fish part was easy; the people part was harder.” The loss of status was perhaps the hardest part of Harvey’s new career. His mother was speechless. His siblings thought he’d lost his mind. And, as another local businessman told him, “Some days people are going to treat you like a fishmonger.”

There were growing pains, of course. There usually are when you take control of your destiny. The family moved to a smaller home, for instance, but remained in their beloved Maplewood. To Harvey, such sacrifices were a small price to pay for the independence and freedom that only owning your own business can afford. Harvey has the sound of a man who has found better life balance. “I’ve recovered control of my time. My kids come in and hang out. My eldest works here sometimes. My youngest sits and does her homework here. They’re all happier now...In my corporate life, I used to feel that I was looking at photos of my life. Now I’m a part of things.”

These days, with a reliable staff helping to run the store, Harvey consults with corporations on leadership and group dynamics, and he runs workshops for people changing careers. Just down the street from his shop is a supermarket that sells lower-priced fish, but Freeman’s Fish Market isn’t hurting. “People come in here because it makes them feel good,” he says. Maybe that's because customers can taste the happiness of a free man.

by What's Next | Friday, May 1, 2009 | Entrepreneurship, Buy or Start a Business

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