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Small-Business Owners Rethink Their Priorities

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Though they're famous for long hours and neglected personal lives, American entrepreneurs are doing a lot of soul-searching--and rediscovering the joys of family life and vacations.

When Neil Abrams told his wife he wouldn't be taking a briefcase on their trip to Acapulco, she thought he was ill. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Aren't you feeling well?"

His wife wasn't the only one surprised. Mr. Abrams -- president of Abrams Consulting Group, a Purchase, N.Y., consulting firm for the rental-car industry -- also informed a manager at his company of his intentions, which included no phone calls to the office during the weeklong vacation. "Get out of here," the office manager jeered. "Who are you kidding?"

Their responses were understandable. After all, Ms. Abrams had questioned countless times why her husband was lugging a cellphone, Palm computer, laptop and stack of manila folders in a leather bag on trips. Now, after 20 years in business and 33 years of marriage, Mr. Abrams has finally decided to leave the excess baggage behind.

What gave him this new perspective? Sept. 11.

"I'm becoming more reflective of what I'm doing, why I'm doing it and how it relates to the people close to me," says Mr. Abrams, a former Hertz Corp. executive who has been in the rental-car business for 26 years. "I love my work, business is good, and the people I work with are great, but I guess I now have a better appreciation of another way of life."

Is This All There Is?

The terrorist attacks have caused many Americans to rethink everything from their career paths and relationships to life's most mundane activities. One group that's done more soul-searching than most is the nation's five million or so small-business owners.

In the drive to stay competitive, many small-business owners work long, exhausting hours, often at the expense of their personal lives, to keep their businesses afloat. Now, with Sept. 11 showing the potential fragility of life in America, some entrepreneurs are reconsidering the very behavior that made their companies successful. Many are rediscovering the joys of family life and work-free vacations and are embracing everyday tasks with more tolerance and patience.

Duffy Kincheloe, president of RP Kincheloe Co., a Dallas company that sells medical-imaging equipment to hospitals, agrees. As a youngster, Mr. Kincheloe watched as his dad and granddad left the family to head off to an annual convention in Chicago during the Thanksgiving Day weekend. After Mr. Kincheloe took over the company's reins in 1993, he made that same trip and hundreds more without a thought.

But in the past five months, Mr. Kincheloe says, he has limited his business trips -- including the Thanksgiving trip -- choosing, instead, to spend more time at home. "There used to be a time I'd pick up and travel at the drop of a dime to go see a customer," he says. "There were lots of times I might just say, 'I'm going to Houston to call on customers,' just to keep the relationship going."

He says he also talks more with his children -- a 15-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son in out-of-state schools. Following Sept. 11, "having them out of town made us a little anxious, so we spent quite a bit of time on the phone with them."

Adding to those changes, Mr. Kincheloe, 50 years old, says he no longer gets exasperated by long waits at airport security checkpoints. Before, "my wife would always say I need to take a patience pill," he says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Abrams, 55, says that for the first time, he is seriously contemplating retirement. "The reasons we have been around so long is we work hard, never stop and never take anything for granted," he says. But nowadays, he says, "you're forced to really reflect on how you live your life and how you interact.... My definition of long term has changed." If he retires, Mr. Abrams says, he'll consider merging the company with a larger firm or leaving the business in the hands of a close colleague.

Hard Times, New Ties

Many Americans say they've formed stronger bonds with family and friends since Sept. 11. But some entrepreneurs also are forging closer ties in the workplace. Richard Shachtman, chief executive of Now! Audio Video Inc., a Hillsborough, N.C., consumer-electronics retail chain of six stores, says Sept. 11 and the recession have given him a greater appreciation for the company's employees.

Facing a difficult retail environment, Mr. Shachtman, who co-owns the company with his wife, earlier last year made some inventory adjustments and took other cost-cutting measures. But the events of Sept. 11 pushed sales lower, forcing Mr. Shachtman to lay off three full-time employees after operating the business for 27 years without job cuts.

He also had to cut, and in some cases eliminate altogether, the annual bonuses of the remaining workers. "I was unhappy I had to do it, but I had to make a decision," he says. "I lost a week's sleep" while making the decision.

Over the winter holidays, to show his 132 employees that he considered them extended family, he toiled at a computer screen for hours, searching to find the right words to thank them for their patience during difficult times. Although Mr. Shachtman sometimes sends out correspondence to employees about important corporate decisions, he said the November letter was the toughest he has had to write. "We're a family company, and these people deserved thousands [of dollars in bonuses], but were getting just hundreds."

Mr. Shachtman, 60, says employees responded by thanking him for his generous thoughts as much as for the money. "They showed enormous maturity and resilience," he says. "It's like they're saying, 'There's been some nasty things out there, but we're going to be resilient, deal with this and move on.' It's almost noble."

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