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Entrepreneurs need to give themselves a break, experts say

Owners often forgo vacations, but getting away may help a firm.

June 27, 2007|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Seven days a week, most weeks of the year, you can find Sumi Chang in her Pasadena bakery, Euro Pane, at 3:30 in the morning churning out soft French breads, fluffy croissants and coffeecakes. Her days usually don't end until 5:30 p.m.

But once a year, she makes sure to leave it all behind and take a long holiday, said Chang, who opened the Colorado Boulevard establishment 13 years ago.

It wasn't always so.

"The first seven years I didn't take a vacation," said Chang, a former nurse who turned her passion for baking into a thriving small business. "The stress built up so much, I contemplated selling the business."

With the summer vacation season in full gear, many workers will be leaving for family road trips or long jaunts to exotic foreign lands. Their colleagues and bosses pick up the slack while they're gone.

But small-business owners face a much bigger challenge when taking a break. Because they are so involved in every facet of operations, their absences are much more keenly felt.

The daunting task of planning time away and the fear of leaving their livelihoods unattended mean many small-business owners forgo vacations altogether, said Brandon Shamim, president of Beacon Management Group, a business consulting firm in Pasadena.

About a third of small-business owners skip summer vacations every year, according to American Express, which conducts semiannual surveys of companies with fewer than 100 employees.

But taking time away from work may be even more important for such entrepreneurs, Shamim and other business experts say. Because small-business entrepreneurs are so central to their companies, when they are overwhelmed the whole business becomes overwhelmed.

"If you are stressed all the time, are you really being effective in your business?" said Shamim, who is chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council.

Lucy Gallegos, owner of My Hair Place in La Habra, said she would like to take vacations more regularly, but it wasn't always easy getting away from her responsibilities.

"It is so much work just getting ready to go on vacation that you almost need another vacation," said Gallegos, who bought the salon from her uncle a decade ago after working as an independent stylist in the business for 17 years.

She rents two of her studio's six working stations to independent stylists and employs four workers, including a receptionist and a part-time makeup artist.

Gallegos, 45, continues to style hair herself. When she goes away, it isn't only managerial decisions that must be postponed; she does less business.

"I don't get paid if I am not here," she said.

For Curtis Mann, not being there would send his gym business to the showers.

Six years ago, Mann, 48, quit his trainer job at 24 Hour Fitness to start End Results Fitness Training Center on Torrance's Pacific Coast Highway. He shares the 1,700-square-foot facility with nine other trainers who pay Mann to use the place and train their clients.

Mann has his own clients and he maintains the equipment, pays the bills and sweeps the floors. He works six days a week, usually from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and has yet to take a vacation, he said.

"I can't keep a girlfriend because nobody likes a workaholic," Mann said with a laugh that quickly trailed into a lament. "Vacation? I just don't see it unless I can hire somebody, but I can't afford a payroll right now."

Small-business owners can't afford not to take a vacation, Shamim said.

"It is easy to get stuck on survival mode," he said, "but in order to survive, small businesses need to think about how to expand and grow."

A few years ago, Shamim consulted for Gallegos, the hair salon owner. Part of his advice was that she take "working vacations," meaning taking time off from the daily chores of running the business to focus on strategies for the future.

On Wednesdays, Gallegos tries to avoid seeing clients and instead meets with suppliers of beauty products, a big portion of her gross revenue.

Gallegos takes long vacations about every two to three years, she said. Last year, Gallegos and her husband, Ron, a Los Angeles city employee, took two weeks off to attend his son's wedding in Evansville, Ind., and visit Chicago.

Weeks in advance, Gallegos began preparing for her absence by stocking up on inventory, prepaying bills, alerting her regulars and coordinating opening and closing schedules with her staff.

"It would be nice to get away more often, but it is really stressful going on vacation," Gallegos said. Instead, she takes several short trips to local getaways on the days her business is closed, Sundays and Mondays.

Short trips are good to alleviate the stress of the daily grind, but longer absences may be useful for the business in other ways as well, said Alice Bredin, a small-business advisor with American Express.

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