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Will Power

What would you do if you suddenly inherited a business?

After a colleague died of a stroke at age 32, Thomas Leonard was seized by panic. He was only in his 40s, but he was single and childless, and heart disease ran in his family. Calling his best friend, Dave Buck, Leonard asked, "If anything happens, what would happen to CoachVille?" He was speaking of his business, an online hub with everything from industry news to online classes for personal-growth coaches. Buck was a coach and was familiar with CoachVille, so Leonard asked if Buck would take over the company, should Leonard die prematurely.

"Of course-but don't die!" exclaimed Buck. The next day, he was in possession of Leonard's will. Buck stuffed it in a filing cabinet, believing he'd never use it. And there it remained for almost two years.

"The day he died, we spoke on the phone," says Buck, sounding a little haunted. Leonard, a "working machine," may have been working too hard. He died of a heart attack in February 2003, shortly after leaving the gym. He was 47.

Buck had lost his closest pal and gained a business that has 45,000 subscribing members and brought in more than $2 million in 2003 in reserve. "I was in shock," says Buck, 42, who runs the company from his home in Hopatcong, New Jersey. But he persevered. "You need to figure out who you can trust," says Buck. "The people at the company are there because they liked working for the other guy."

Which ties in with another important lesson: As much as he misses Leonard, Buck has had to learn to rely even more on his own instincts. "You have to be willing to make changes to the company and make it your own. If you try to keep it like it was and do everything your predecessor did, it won't work, because you're not that person."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Will Power.

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