Rory Strunk had a decision to make. He left RSN, the Portland company he founded, to start a new business, an action sports marketing firm that would work with major companies such as Jeep, NBC, and Men's Health magazine. There was just one problem: "The influencers and power brokers in my business are out of state," he says. "At that juncture, it probably would have made a ton of sense to move out of Maine."
But Strunk, a Farmington native and graduate of the University of Maine at Orono, didn't call the moving van. Sure, his family and his wife's family were nearby; since the couple had young children that made staying in Maine attractive. But there was also the skiing at Sugarloaf and the surfing at Higgins Beach to consider. Eventually, Strunk decided, "Unless something comes up that is so compelling that I have to move, I'm bound and determined to maintain what I love - and that's being in Maine."
Still, when Strunk, 45, wearily recounts the itinerary from a recent business trip - Seattle, Portland (the other one), San Francisco, L.A., Orange County - it's clear that staying in Maine has come at some cost to his professional life and to his business. For every potential client who's intrigued by Aura 360's off-the-beaten-path location, there is the considerable headache of finding a new Maine employee with the right mix of skills and experience. For every morning he heads into his Danforth Street office with his hair still wet from a few hours on his surfboard, there is the wealth of business opportunity on the West Coast that he just can't tap into with an occasional one- or two-day visit. And Rory Strunk isn't alone. Maine is rife with residents who prioritize the state's vaunted quality of life - whether that means hiking in the western mountains, paddling in Penobscot Bay, snowmobiling in Madawaska, or simply sitting in a comfortable chair and looking at the scenery - then figure out their career options afterward.
Some, like Strunk, are so-called "lifestyle entrepreneurs," for whom the growth of their business is secondary to the ability to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Others decide that staying in Maine is important enough to step off the career ladder and get creative about how to trade their skills for a paycheck. And then there are the lucky few who've managed to follow a career path that keeps them steadily advancing in Maine. Lew Moynihan falls into that last group. A graduate of Portland's Cheverus High School and the University of Southern Maine, he left Maine for a job in retail management with JC Penney. He worked long hours, and he spent years living in Springfield, Massachusetts; Hartford Connecticut; and Worcester, Massachusetts. After eight years, he began to look for opportunities to switch to a career with better hours and more opportunity for growth. With his professional life his main concern and proximity to family and friends a distant second, Moynihan was surprised to find himself back in Maine, working for the company now known as UnumProvident as an underwriter trainee. A few years later, again looking to advance his career, he made the move to Disability RMS, the Westbrook disability insurer that is one of the several Greater Portland firms started by Unum alumni. The conventional wisdom, Moynihan says, is that "in moving back to Maine, you make the choice of sacrificing the career to get a better quality of life. But," he adds, "that hasn't necessarily been my experience." In fact, for Moynihan, 41, the lure of life in the Portland area - the restaurants, the easy access to the beach and the mountains, the lack of traffic on the morning commute - came as a pleasant surprise.
"Growing up in this area you don't really appreciate it; it never really occurred to me in my teens and twenties that Portland was this destination spot," he says. "I just didn't realize how appealing the area was, and I appreciate it a lot more since I've been back." Still, careers like Moynihan's, with a clear progression to more desirable titles and greater responsibilities at a large company, are more the exception than the rule in Maine.
"If you are in a relatively specialized field, there tends not to be a very high density of job opportunities within easy reach in Maine," says Charlie Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at USM and a former state economist. "So people do make a choice about trading off quality of life, if you will, for a lower density of opportunities."
That's exactly what Tracy Michaud-Stutzman and Sunny Stutzman have done. Graduates of Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford High School, respectively, the couple left Maine after earning their undergraduate degrees at the University of Maine at Farmington. Tracy ended up getting a PhD in anthropology, and Sunny earned a post-baccalaureate degree in industrial design. Living in Pittsburgh, the couple knew they wanted to get back to New England, but they figured Portland or, more likely, Boston was as close as they could get to Piscataquis County if they were to find jobs in their fields. But then Tracy was offered a job researching the culture and heritage of Piscataquis County for a local economic development agency. Family and friends who longed for the couple's return set about looking for opportunities for Sunny, and eventually discovered that Dexter Shoe had spent two years looking for a designer it could convince to move to the area. Sunny got the job, and the Michaud-Stutzmans returned home.
What's more remarkable is that after those first jobs disappeared - Tracy's research project wrapped up, and Dexter Shoe moved its manufacturing operation overseas - the couple was again able to find challenging, satisfying work in their fields. Tracy is the founding director of the Maine Highlands Guild, which helps Piscataquis and Penobscot County artisans find new markets, and Sunny works for Moosehead Furniture, which never previously had a designer on staff.
The key fact here? The Michaud-Stutzmans essentially created their own jobs. "If you want to stay here, you have to be flexible and adaptive, and be entrepreneurial in creating something for yourself," says Tracy, 32. "A lot of times you might have skills that some established business might need but they just don't know it yet."
Of course, putting Maine first and career second is not a new phenomenon. The back-to-the-landers of the 1970s took that impulse to its extreme, forsaking career entirely (at least until the money ran out). And then there are people like Fred and Nancy Hastings, who in 1982 quit their jobs in Manhattan, where they worked for IBM, and moved to Maine without any job prospects but with a desire to create what Nancy describes as a holistic life.
"Our family, our friends, our employers - everyone thought we were nuts when we packed up the U-Haul and drove to Maine," Nancy recalls. "But it was absolutely euphoric." Like so many resourceful Yankees before them, the Hastings found a way to make it work, first teaching - he at the University of Maine at Machias, she at Washington Academy in East Machias - and then running Downeast Coastal Press, the weekly newspaper they founded in 1988.
Along the way, they discovered another lesson well-known to many an entrepreneur in Maine and elsewhere: running a small business leaves precious little time for a weekend of snowshoeing or an evening out with friends. "We worked all the time, so we didn't do anything," Hastings says with a laugh.
It's important to note, however, that spending hours at work in a home office while home-schooling a child feels absolutely nothing like working fourteen-hour days for a large corporation in an impersonal office building. "You're not driven by the money," Hastings explains. "You're driven because you're seeing a need and meeting it. It's spending time problem solving, and loving what you do."
No matter how much Rory Strunk loves his job, working all the time is simply not the answer for him. So he's gotten creative about how to balance the demands of a growing business with his desire to spend time enjoying Maine with his family. The answer, at least for the time being, is to bring a little bit of Maine to California by planning a few more business trips and simply taking his family along. Strunk is also considering hiring a West Coast employee to manage some of the demand. While he'd much rather have employees in-house, if the business is going to grow he's got to be realistic about where that growth is going to come from (hint: south of the Piscataqua River).
"You've got to create a solution for some of the things that you give up by being in Maine. It does force you to be resourceful," he says ruefully. For other lifestyle entrepreneurs, though, the answer is to simply limit the extent to which their company grows.
"They often start a company and get it going until it's fairly successful, but they never let it grow past a certain level," says Charlie Colgan, the economist. "Because managing a company for growth interferes with their basic purpose, which is to fish and ski and so on."
That's become a problem for New Zealand, which attributes a lagging standard of living to entrepreneurs who are too busy enjoying life outside to stay in the office and grow their business. So it would seem that companies that eschew growth are problematic for Maine, which was one of just two states to experience declining economic activity in 2005 (the other was hurricane-ravaged Louisiana). But Colgan says the reality is much more complex. "Some people will come and stay for the lifestyle, but others won't. What matters is numbers. The lifestyle entrepreneurs have to be balanced by a certain number of growth entrepreneurs, both of whom are going to play an important role in the economy," he says. "We can't select how people are going to start and manage their businesses - we just need a lot of them."
That line of reasoning rings true to Aaron Anker, owner of Grandy Oats, the Brownfield granola maker. Like Nancy Hastings, Anker admits to spending less time than he'd like pursuing archetypal Maine pastimes such as camping and hiking now that he's immersed in his own company. The company has been doing well in recent years, increasing revenues 65 percent in 2005 and 15 to 20 percent in 2006 (the final numbers aren't in yet). For 2007, though, Grandy Oats plans to grow by just 10 percent. "Because of lifestyle, we want to slow the business down and let it mature," says Anker.
That's why Anker, 34, and his business partner, Nat Peirce, have declined offers from outside investors looking to put money into the company. "Once you create something you really like, you become the business and it becomes you, so trying to grow it is risky," he says. "You ultimately are risking financial stability and your quality of life and your employees' quality of life, plus the quality of your product."
In fact, rather than jeopardizing Maine's economy, putting lifestyle ahead of career - and emphasizing the importance of small and even micro-business - may just get the state on the road to prosperity. "I tend to see it as a really positive thing that people want to retain the lifestyle and retain what's special about Maine. In the long run, that's going to attract more people," says Tracy Michaud-Stutzman. "If you don't have that attitude, eventually you're going to lose what's special and Maine will become like every place else."
And, it's safe to say, that's a fate we'd all like to avoid.
This article appeared in the January 2007 issue of Down East Magazine.