Extreme Makeovers

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2004

The average American worker will change careers 6.8 times in his or her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's not just a change of employers but of careers-like going from artist to astronaut, human resources manager to herpetologist. Since it's a new year, a time when many people think of fresh starts, we found some inspiring individuals who left the security and prestige of former careers, took a deep breath and then jumped off the cliff into new careers.

Big Picture Thinker

Insurance companies. Trial lawyers. Medicare. Skyrocketing malpractice premiums. These are just a few of the reasons Dr. LeMoyne Johnson of Manatee County gave up his license to practice general surgery and pediatric medicine. "I didn't 'retire' from medicine," he stresses. "I quit."

Johnson reached a turning point on Labor Day 12 years ago. "My wife and I were on the beach, and I told her I felt I had to get out," he recalls. Her response? "Well, it's about time."

Johnson says his father, now 93 and living in Nebraska, gave him wise advice decades ago: "My dad told me, 'First, always be ready for your next job and second, when you stop having fun, it's time to look for a new job.'"

Today, smiles are the specialty at Johnson PhotoImaging in Bradenton, his full-service camera store, professional lab, portrait studio and custom frame shop. For Johnson, an amateur photographer since he was 10, the career change was part of a long-term plan. "I always thought I'd end up in some branch of photography, so I had been preparing for a switch for at least 15 years," he says. After opening a home studio in the late 1980s, Johnson attended local and national educational programs to learn his new trade. Then he launched Johnson PhotoImaging. "We opened Labor Day weekend of 1999, seven years after that day at the beach."

Does Johnson miss medicine? "No! I do photography for some of the hospitals in the area," he explains, "and every time I walk out the door, I say, 'Thank God I'm not doing this anymore.'" Besides, he adds, "I'm a people person. So now instead of patients I have customers."

Johnson's Rx for career changers:

Biggest challenge: "Adapting to a different type of pressure, and working even longer hours."

Income differential: "In a start-up company, the owner is usually the last to get paid, so the difference was enormous."

Length of transition time: A five-year plan that turned into a seven-year plan, due to road construction on S.R. 70 where his business is located.

Cost in training and education: Since Johnson was planning a career in photography after he left medicine, "The cost was really an ongoing fun project over several decades."

Biggest reward: "Once again I am having fun. I smile and joke like I used to, and it's great making our customers feel good about the portraits, or the education in photography we give them."

Major League Change

Sid Roberson is the Sarasota/Tampa Bay area sales manager for Morgan Stanley. Oh, and he also struck out Mark McGwire.

Prior to joining the financial services industry, Roberson, initially a minor league Pitcher of the Year for 1993 and '94, joined the major league in 1995 as a starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. It was, he says, "the best job in the world."

A rotator cuff injury in the late '90s forced Roberson to consider other career tracks. He'd already earned his bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of North Florida. "Financial services was always interesting to me, and I liked the idea that it was a faster-paced environment than accounting," he says. Roberson studied for and earned his first broker's license while rehabbing from surgery, and formally retired from baseball in 1998. He joined Morgan Stanley in 1999, and quickly advanced from financial advisor to management. In Sarasota since 2004, Roberson now manages 10 offices on Florida's west coast from Port Richey to Venice.

Though injuries brought an early retirement from the game he loved, Roberson has no regrets. "It was a great experience, and I played as long as I physically could," he explains. "If I knew I was still able to play, would I be playing? Absolutely." But, he adds, "I don't look back. I have a newborn, and the lifestyle of traveling all the time is not conducive to family."

Plus, being a manager requires the same team-building strategies as his former profession. "From a coaching perspective, we're building a dynamic financial services team, so baseball really translates into this business," he says.

Roberson's coaching advice:

Biggest challenge: "There weren't any major challenges, but it was just a completely different world from baseball."

Income differential: He declined to comment.

Length of transition time: Nine months.

Cost of training and education: Morgan Stanley offers a formal training program for new financial advisors that costs approximately $60,000.

Biggest rewards: "To help other people make important decisions regarding their financial future." In addition, the career allows him to spend more time with his family.

Cutting hair to cutting deals

Tom Beach, an assistant public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, spent the first 30 years of his life working in a dangerous profession filled with tears of joy and rage, and where he was often called upon to perform disaster relief and damage control. He was a hairdresser.

The road from hairdresser to public defender was inspired by Beach's decision to return to college in order to set an example for his young son, Matthew. "I had a nice business and a nice life as a stylist," Beach explains, "but I had to make a decision, 'Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?'"

Beach first went back to school to study music, a passion he shared with his then-teenage son. Eventually, he earned a B.A. from Eckerd College in 1996. Still, music was not where Beach's heart was. He researched other careers, including psychology, teaching and theology, before realizing that law school was the place to go. In 1998, he enrolled in law school at Regent's College in Virginia, where he met his wife, June. The couple returned to Florida in 2001, and Beach joined the Manatee County public defender's office in November 2002.

Though he initially thought he'd be prosecuting, not defending, Beach says there's nobility to both. "Public defenders are protecting the individual rights of people who are indigent, who have no one to speak for them," he says.

Beach also sees parallels between law and hair styling. "Law is a business," he explains. "You have customers. You treat people with respect." Both fields also require an open mind. "In law people are presumed innocent, so you have to look at people with open eyes, and you do that in hair design, too," he adds.

During jury selection, he's often reminded of his former clients at the salon: "The jury looks like my clientele. There are ladies with nice haircuts and ladies who need a haircut."

Beach counsels:

Biggest challenge: Going from having a great deal of experience in his former field to knowing nothing. "I was at the top of my career as a stylist. I was coasting. Then all of a sudden, I had no experience."

Income differential: In his first year practicing law, Beach says he made more money than in any year of the past 10, during which he'd been going to school and working part time.

Length of transition time: The road from being a full-time hairstylist to an attorney was a long one; Beach received his B.A. in 1996 and graduated from law school in 2001.

Cost in training and education: Law school cost Beach $70,000. "But I put it like this, my education doesn't cost me, it pays."

Biggest reward: Aside from the confidence his son has in him, Beach says the biggest reward comes when he tells people what he used to do before he practiced law. "Jaws drop. Eyes widen. And they say 'Really. That was a change.'"

Banking on Jewelry

A few years ago, Chloe Lee, the regional recruiter for SunTrust Bank had a great job with a company she loved, but she also had a husband, three kids and a 70-hour workweek. "I didn't feel I was giving my family what they needed," says Lee. "I was increasingly unhappy. And, along the way, I also turned 40."

In a move she equates to "jumping off a cliff," Lee quit the corporate world and this past July opened Chloe's Bead Shop at Ubiquity Gallery in Bradenton's up-and-coming Village of the Arts.

Lee credits the unfailing support of her husband, family and friends for her smooth, if slightly scary, transition. Though Lee recalls her parents' reaction was "You're doing what?!" she says her husband's attitude-"What's the worst thing that could happen?"- settled her decision.

Lee, who had been making necklaces and earrings for years, turned her hobby into a cottage industry, selling her high-end jewelry designs at private trunk shows in her friends' homes. "I have the most amazing group of girlfriends who've probably single-handedly supported me at times, buying my jewelry," she says.

After three years, Lee's following grew to the point where she could no longer run her business from her dining room table. "I needed to get the jewelry out of the house, and separate work and home," she says. Lee bought a house/gallery in the funky, eclectic Village of the Arts, and took on a partner, Pam Wall, to help her with the financial aspects of the burgeoning business.

Now, Lee's customers can come in and make their own beaded jewelry, as well as purchase her designs. She also represents local artists. "I love the creative energy of having all this neat stuff in the gallery," she says.

Looking back on her leap of faith, Lee says, "I really loved the corporate world when I was in it. But then you take on things like kids and family, and you reach the point where those things suddenly outweighed your job."

Lee's pearls of wisdom:

Biggest challenge: "In the corporate world I had daily, weekly and monthly goals. Self employment means you have to set your own goals and hold yourself to those standards."

Income differential: "I have surpassed my former income but it doesn't always come in the form of a steady paycheck." Besides she says, as a business owner, there are times she's had to reinvest in the business to elevate it to the next level.

Transition time: Though the idea had always tickled in the back of her mind, Lee says the actual transition time from giving her notice to starting her new venture was one month. "If I had taken any more time I might have talked myself out of making a move."

Cost in training and education: "I developed my craft over a long period of time under the guise of a hobby. I did have to invest quite a bit of resources in inventory."

Biggest reward: Lee cites the satisfaction of building something on her own, balancing work and family more effectively, and flourishing in a creative, fresh, healthy environment.

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