A sabbatical is a tradition in the academic world -- why not for hard-working plumbing pros?

One of the most memorable periods of my life occurred in the early 1970s, when I bought a 41-ft. boat down in Florida and spent most of the ensuing year living on it. My wife and kids joined me for various periods of time, and I was away from the business for around 11 months altogether.

It was a time when I had finished transitioning out of new construction work strictly into service plumbing. A bunch of retainage money came my way all at once from jobs I had finished months before, and with no more projects to finance, it served as something of a windfall that enabled me to enjoy life as I never had before.

The way I looked at it, I had been busting my tail for many years with almost no time off to enjoy life and spend quality time with my family. It was time to make up for it.

The business was being run at the time by my brother and partner, Ed, along with a trusted bookkeeper, Jean Perrin, who was with me more than 20 years, along with a crackerjack service technician, Frank Lant, who I trusted to handle all field operations and later went into business for himself. Ed spent considerable time with me on the boat, so in the end it was my dear and trusted business associates from outside the family who made it all possible.

I bought the boat in Ft. Lauderdale during the spring of 1971. Initially, we had it shipped via barge up north to our hometown of Milwaukee. By the time it arrived, cold, weather had set in and I learned it didn't make much sense to keep a luxurious boat so far north.

Instead of shipping it back, my brother and I decided to pilot it back down the Mississippi, across the Gulf of Mexico and then into Florida where we had it moored near Clearwater. Our adventures alone would make for several articles, but this is a business magazine rather than a travelogue, so I'll try to stick to the point.

The Point

This sabbatical of mine would not have been made possible had Blau Plumbing not had a business structure and capable people in place to run the show while my brother and I were away playing. I told the office staff that I didn't want to hear from them except in a dire emergency, and I almost never called in.

I simply left instructions that every month, no more than 10 days after the close of the previous month's business, I expected a copy of our company's Profit & Loss Statement to be in my dockside mailbox. It told me all I needed to know about how my business was being run.

I was reminded of this recently when a young prot¿ of mine told me of his pending plan to take a month off. Partly he looked at it as a well-deserved vacation, but he also saw it as an experiment.

He had taken over the family business from his retired father about five years ago, and had been working hard ever since to build business systems that didn't depend on him to oversee. He was greatly influenced by Michael Gerber's book, "The E-myth," and was doing exactly as the author suggested in trying to build a business that outlasts the owner. In addition to rest and recreation, he decided on an extended vacation as a way to see how far he progressed. He wanted to avoid contact with the office as much as possible during his month off.

Not a bad idea, in my opinion. Unfortunately, there aren't too many contractors in this industry who would dare attempt to stay away from the business for a month, not to mention take off almost a year as I did long ago. Look at how many former presidents of our national trade associations have had their businesses fail shortly after their term of office.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is the amount of time away spent by the owner tending to association affairs. It tells me they didn't have a handle on things on the home front, and if a contractor can't manage his own business well, he doesn't have much credibility as an industry spokesman.

Three essential ingredients are necessary to be able to take an extended leave from your business:

1. Keen financial oversight. I've said it many times in the past, every contractor needs to see a finely-crafted P & L Statement at least once a month in order to keep in touch with what's going on in the business. If the numbers are good, no need to worry about anything else. If they're not, you need to react immediately to make executive decisions to correct them. If you don't have this information in a timely manner, then you're inviting trouble straying from your business.

2. Capable and trustworthy business associates. The people who work for your company are your most valuable business asset. Pay them well, treat them with respect, and give them the opportunity to grow and prosper in your organization. Do that and they will develop a sense of ownership in your company whether or not that is literally true.

3. Business systems that don't depend on specific individuals to operate smoothly. As Michael Gerber puts it, you need to work on your business, rather than in your business. Our industry is filled with control freaks and workaholics who feel they need to fulfill or supervise every business function. This is wrong. A good business is one able to function in the absence of the owner.

This is what defines a business. Otherwise, what you have is an expensive hobby.