From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Chicken Stock

They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.

Andy Warhol

As an adult, I have many fond childhood memories of summers spent with my grandparents in rural Canada. One in particular was of a neighbor’s farm. It made quite an impression on me as a kid. The owner was what folks called a “gentleman farmer” whose acreage was surrounded by crisp, white fencing. His home stood on a hill overlooking majestic horses, and well-fed cattle grazed contentedly in lush pastures. Although I had no idea what a gentleman farmer actually farmed, I decided that I wanted to be one someday.

I worked my way through college in a variety of jobs. Then, in 1970, I packed my bags and my newly acquired master’s degree and headed out into the business world. Visions of white-fenced pastures occasionally popped into my head, but I was no longer an impressionable young boy. Hard work, and who knows how much divine luck, stood between the stately home of a successful businessman and me. At that moment, I was a guy sitting at the kitchen table scanning the want ads.

My search for gainful employment ended when I accepted a position with the Addiction Research Foundation, a huge provincial government agency in Toronto, Canada. Alcoholics who were homeless or had hit rock-bottom participated in clinical studies conducted by psychiatrists and scientists. The foundation chugged out tons of paperwork filled with statistics and correlations about the impact of addiction. Until then, I had never given much thought to those who were less fortunate than I am, and in that respect my new position was enlightening.

For their cooperation, the research subjects were given a place to live and access to counseling and rehabilitation. They were “employed” at a farm operation run by the foundation. One of my first assignments in my new position was to develop a more meaningful work program that would challenge and interest the men, as well as create a variety of tasks requiring different skills. The program also needed to keep the men busy and generate some revenue.

I decided on an antique refinishing business. At the time, it was popular with Torontonians to scour garage sales outside the city for discarded treasures. I was fond of antiques; I admired the craftsmanship and beauty and had an appreciation for the history of different periods. The patina of the wood belied not only character, but hinted at the mystery of memories absorbed over many years. What better way to combine my interests and my new challenges at work? I thought. We converted one of the old barns on the farm into a workshop, bought a few tools and started accumulating discards—furniture and people.

It didn’t take long before the men were genuinely interested in their work. Each day they arrived at the barn and tackled their assigned tasks. Our next expansion was to begin building pine reproductions. We sectioned off part of the workshop and opened a retail shop. Sales were steady, and the program was a success! I had been taught in school to measure business success by profit-and-loss and marketing effectiveness, but how these men responded to their work surprised me and became an equally important lesson. Each restored piece of furniture became a metaphor for a life thrown away, a life that was now salvaged and returned to a desirable, useful, valuable state. The program was putting life back into their eyes, and they found a renewed sense of self-respect, thus reclaiming a productive place in society. They held jobs, learned and refined new skills, and found their misplaced honor once again.

I learned a lot from those men, knowing what they had been through and how they were turning their lives around. And they didn’t do that alone; a staff of dedicated social workers cared deeply about these men, too. When I accepted that position with the Addiction Research Foundation, I certainly expected to apply what I had learned at the university and to acquire new knowledge and experience, but I never expected to include compassion, understanding and patience. And I certainly could not have imagined the impact this career opportunity would have on my future.

I spent another five years at the Addiction Research Foundation. During that time I married my wife, Anne, and we had our first baby, a girl. Life was good, but we were about to learn how fragile the good life could be. Our baby had a rare genetic disorder called Werdnig Hoffman disease and had only six months to live. Losing her was devastating. Shortly after, we decided to make some changes in our lives.

I enjoyed my work, but I often chafed at the serious culture, the endless bureaucracy and the tricky politics. One of my co-workers, Gary Seidler, had become a good friend, and we decided to become partners, move to the United States and start a publishing company. We chose south Florida, an unlikely place for a publisher of a trade tabloid newspaper specializing in the alcohol and drug field. The majority of writers and information related to the field were located in Washington, D.C., and this was 1976, before computers and high technology made information sharing seamless. We founded Health Communications and worked out of a small storefront for many years. In the 1980s, we started publishing self-help books for the professionals’ clients, and when our first New York Times bestseller hit the list in 1983, we started being noticed by the New York publishing establishment.

My professional life was going well, but there was something missing for Anne and me in our personal lives. We wanted a family, and against everybody’s advice, we had another child, a boy. The first time I saw my son, I knew instantly he had the same disorder our daughter had had. We lost him also.

I knew a few things by now. I knew the value of life. I knew how important love was and how much loss hurt. I knew it was just as important, if not more so, to address the human side of business, and I knew that the company I owned had to have a purpose other than making a profit. I wanted to wake up every day and be excited about coming to work. I wanted to know that the success I achieved was based on helping people reach their potential and live better lives. I wanted to honor those men who had taught me so much about compassion and resilience. I wanted to build a business that made a difference in people’s lives—our customers, our employees, my community.

When we celebrated the tenth anniversary as a company, our list boasted two New York Times and dozens of national bestsellers from the experts in the addictions and self-help field. Health Communications played a significant role in developing the publishing genre of “recovery,” and we had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with our books, magazines and conferences.

Like business cycles do, ours turned. In the early 1990s, the recovery genre peaked, and we explored other niches to develop. Self-esteem was an area of interest, and we were introduced to an energetic young man named Jack Canfield who had developed a reputation as an expert in that field. We liked Jack’s enthusiasm and his content, and we signed him to a book contract. As fate would have it, that manuscript never got delivered because Jack was focused on an oddly titled anthology called Chicken Soup for the Soul that he was developing with Mark Victor Hansen, one of the country’s most sought-after motivational speakers.

Jack and Mark took their energy and enthusiasm to New York and pitched their idea to several publishers hoping to get a contract with an advance on Chicken Soup. Even though dozens of publishers declined, Jack and Mark never faltered. They were diligent about their efforts and undeterred in their beliefs that what the world needed was a little chicken soup. Still they received rejection after rejection. Finally, during a publishing industry trade show, they made one last push to get a deal, using the Health Communications booth as a base of operations. At show’s end, Jack and Mark still had no takers.

As we packed up the booth, Jack asked if we would take a look at the proposal, give them some feedback and perhaps even be interested in publishing it. It wasn’t the type of book suited to our publishing program, but we promised to do so, and I put the manuscript in my briefcase. While waiting for my flight home, I made use of the downtime and pulled out their proposal. By the time I read the story “Puppies for Sale,” the lump in my throat turned to tears in my eyes, and we became committed to the title, to the authors and to the series. As they say, the rest is history.

Today, Anne and I have two wonderful, healthy daughters. Melinda has finished college and is a newlywed. Hayley starts her sophomore year at college this fall. They are beautiful, smart, compassionate women—just like their mother. The business Gary and I started nearly thirty years ago continues to thrive and has lived up to my expectations of what I wanted my company to be and exceeded my definition of success. And yes, I still remember that gentleman farmer—I’m working on that.

Peter Vegso

EPILOGUE: The first Chicken Soup for the Soul book was published in 1993. The series continues to make publishing history, having released its 101st title in 2005. Millions of people worldwide have enjoyed Chicken Soup for the Soul, and millions of dollars from the sales of the series have been donated to charities associated with each book. The success of the series has also enabled Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Gary Seidler and Peter Vegso to privately fund worthwhile causes that are close to their hearts and to reach for their dreams. Peter owns a 140-acre thoroughbred horse breeding and training facility in Ocala, Florida—complete with pristine, white-fenced pastures.

Dahlynn McKowen

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