Raising the curtain on Act II

From baby boomers who are in a position to pursue a passion to restless young professionals yearning for change, second and sometimes third career acts can lead to professional nirvana.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Second chances take many forms and admittedly give the impression that you flubbed your first chance, but many second career chances are pursued willingly, not as the result of failure.

Some people will make the transition out of boredom, others out of necessity, and others because they simply want to pursue a passion. As we learned in speaking to local professionals, the pursuit of a second career, especially if it’s based on a personal hobby, often comes with the help of additional education, professional certificates, and online programs.

With the number of available educational and business resources and the ability to market and engage in commerce through the internet, there has never been a better time to reinvest in your professional self.

Inside these pages, we profile the following people who have found another, or perhaps their first, happy professional home: Robyn and Stan Kitson of Driftless Chocolates LLC; Laura Kaiser, conference and social media director for the Wisconsin Technology Council; Ted and Joan Ballweg of Savory Accents in Verona; Kevin Henry, founder and principal of Resilient Insight; Jackson Fonder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Madison; and Emily Bissen, business development and marketing coordinator with ActionCoach.

We hope their stories inspire others who want to pursue a second career but for whatever reason are reluctant to dip their toes in the water.

Stan and Robyn Kitson

Drifting toward entrepreneurship

After 32 years with Kitson Marketing Inc. and 40 years of marriage, Stan and Robyn Kitson decided to find another way to taste success. With Driftless Chocolates LLC, a fine chocolate company, business is sweeter than ever before, especially after a good holiday season.

They still operate KMI and serve their marketing clients, but in 2019 they wanted to celebrate their 40th anniversary by working together even more, and given the full-time demands of their new venture, incorporated a year ago, they are enjoying more togetherness than ever before.

Like most couples who are in business together, they have complementary skill sets. Stan’s joy of cooking is evident, especially when creating hand-dipped chocolates. He loves to experiment with different flavors — often with chocolate sourced from different countries — and he’s fascinated by the science of it all. “Stan is an artisan at heart,” Robyn says. “I know scalability, and he knows the product.”

Robyn had a strong entrepreneurial spirit before she met Stan, and after three decades of helping other small business owners with research and marketing services, they wanted to be their own business consultants. “We would work with clients who have their own business, products,
and services,” Stan says. “This is our chance to create something of our own.”

Needless to say, they didn’t wake up one day and decide to make chocolates. A lot of planning went into it, and they had a pretty good idea their chocolates would fly off the e-commerce shelf. Since it’s hard to make chocolate in small batches — at least for Stan, a certified chocolatier — the Kitsons shared their confections with clients, friends, and neighbors and got plenty of positive feedback. “They were an unstructured focus group,” Stan says.

Family also played a role in confirming their chocolatey ambitions. During the week of Christmas 2017, they brought out chocolates gathered from various artisan chocolatiers around the country. Robyn, Stan, and their sons and significant others savored the different flavors, and it served as their first chocolate-tasting event. It wasn’t long before they were all in.

In part because they offer single-origin chocolates, they are planning to broaden their horizons with what they call a “world tour,” where each month they create a new chocolate sourced from a different country. Most of their chocolate is sourced in Columbia, but one chocolate, sourced in Madagascar, is used to create a raspberry truffle. New flavors will be introduced each season through their online chocolate shop.

Interestingly, the Kitsons were not deterred by the number of established chocolatiers in the Madison market because that told them Madisonians appreciate fine chocolate and there was room for more. “We like to make people happy,” Robyn says, “and chocolates bring us together.”

With chocolate as a passion and 30-plus years of business experience, they didn’t have much trepidation when starting a new company. Their biggest fear was having regrets later on, and there isn’t enough time to be scared because this business consumes of lot of their energy. “In 10 years, we did not want to have any regrets about not doing it,” Stan declares.

“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” adds Robyn.

The same goes for chocolate.

Jackson Fonder

Passion for nonprofits

Jackson Fonder has learned there are key moments in life that give us direction. He also realizes how fortunate he is to have a wise woman, his wife Kathleen, to share his life with. If it had not been for Kathleen’s epiphany, a eureka moment she had on Jackson’s behalf, he might have never transitioned to the nonprofit sector.

Fonder may also have never moved his family, including three children at or near middle-school age, from Phoenix, Arizona to Madison in 2010, when he accepted the executive director position at Middleton Outreach Ministries. Before that, the 22-year Air Force and Air National Guard veteran had the same job title with USAA, a financial services company for the military and its families. That work required him to be in the community and hobnob with people at nonprofit organizations, and he found himself heavily involved in such causes.

While driving home one night after attending one of many rubber chicken dinners, Kathleen remarked, “Hey, when are you going to stop faking this thing?” At first, Jackson had no idea what she was talking about, but she explained that his most animated conversations with people are about his nonprofit activities, including a children’s charity he was working with. “The next thing you know,” Kathleen told him, “you’ve got a captive audience and you’re telling them about the work you’re doing and the help the kids are getting, and your whole body language changes, your eyes light up, and it’s so obvious that this is your passion.”

Says Fonder: “Leave it to your spouse to make you look in the mirror, right?”

Right. The reflection led him to enroll in a certificate course on nonprofit leadership at Arizona State University, which led to family conversations about a job search and a move back to his native Wisconsin. Fonder, a native of Green Bay, admittedly took a risk, but when he and Kathleen visited Madison to interview with Middleton Outreach Ministry, it wasn’t long before they fell in love with the community.

Fortunately, they have outdoorsy, adventuresome kids who were willing to make the move. “Believe it or not, they were very supportive,” Fonder states. “We brought them in early on the conversations. We didn’t just spring this on them at dinner. This was quite a process. They knew what they were getting themselves into, along with us, and they were excited to be part of that decision.”

Fonder, now president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Madison, is accustomed to making moves. When he left active duty in the Air Force in 2004, he had already been with USAA in various roles for a decade, and while it’s easy to assume he didn’t have the usual anxiety a person might feel, he insists that’s not the case. “Going from the security of the military and having a known commodity, knowing exactly what was expected of me, to all of a sudden going into the business world with USAA, I won’t lie to you. I was frightened, as anybody would be.”

The transitions were difficult because Fonder had wonderful, rich careers in the military and the private sector. He had a chance to travel the world and enjoyed life in Texas and Arizona, but how many people can honestly say their profession is also their passion? Having moved on to Middleton Outreach Ministry and to Catholic Charities, where the lifelong learner has since attended an executive education program centered on strategy and nonprofits at Harvard, he has no regrets about taking that risk.

Making a career transition requires personal courage, but Fonder was confident that the problem-solving capabilities he developed at previous career stops would serve him well with nonprofits. “I was really blessed in having a spouse and a family that were so supportive and allowed me to even have the conversation around, ‘Hey, what if? Or what would this be like? Just imagine what our lives would be like,’” Fonder says. “A lot of people won’t even entertain that conversation. They are too worried about the money or they are worried about their situation in life.

“Possibly, they are just worried about change in general.”

Kevin Henry

Resilient creativity

A few months have passed since Kevin Henry left the Food Fight Restaurant Group to launch his own business, but at age 43, he has no doubt that he made the right call. Henry, now founder and principal of Resilient Insight, a business consultancy he launched in October 2019, could be called a mid-life entrepreneur, but his move is hardly the result of a sudden crisis. He’s been thinking about it for years.

Henry donned several hats with Food Fight, including controller, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and CEO from 2016–2019. In all, he was with Food Fight for 20 years after earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UW–Platteville. With Resilient Insight, Henry provides business-planning services aligned with his past career roles: financial and operational evaluation, process streamlining, cash-flow management, and marketing and branding.

“I’ve really been involved in all of that, and then it also helps that my wife Maria’s career has been in branding and social media and marketing, and so I’ve learned a lot from her, too,” Henry notes. “She helps bring all that to the picture, as well.”

Maria Henry (pictured above with Kevin) has her own natural skin-care line called Rosey Skin Care and hosts yoga classes in a classic red barn that is part of the couple’s small, 16-acre farmstead 25 miles northeast of Madison, just outside of Columbus. Maria created Kevin’s business website, helps with social media, and offers suggestions about blog posts, among other contributions.

In addition to “yoga in the barn,” the couple plans to hold a variety of events on the 160-year-old property, operate it as a retreat center — under the name Rooted Soul Farm Retreat — and share it with people as an oasis for meditation and mindfulness outside of Madison. In case you’re wondering, there still is some agricultural activity going on, but its Vintage Chicken brand refers to its folk school classes, art and crafts markets, and other personal enrichment activities on the farm.

Henry enjoys the freedom to work on these other businesses with Maria while helping other small-business owners run restaurants and other types of ventures. “She’s always been an entrepreneur herself, so she and I work together in businesses that she’s been growing, and so that’s part of my whole reason for making the switch. Part of the switch was to be able live my life and live with my wife, live the way that we want to, and with that, I was looking for more flexibility and freedom with, essentially, how I made money. That was really the key.”

Henry notes that he made the decision to pursue a second career “while he was getting older but still young.” It took him a while to reach this point, in part because the journey toward a second career required thinking in a nontraditional way. “We get a job. We work 40 hours a week, but it’s for someone else, or maybe it’s not,” Henry notes. “Maybe it’s our own thing, but it’s still that traditional idea of this is what I do, and this is how I make money. Everyone is different, but I found that the excitement comes in tackling all my passions, to be able to do things in nature, provide the space for people to do healthy, nourishing things for themselves, and then at the same time help my wife with her business and then help other businesses.

“It’s a nontraditional way of making a living, but a lot of people don’t think about that. It doesn’t need to be just one thing. You can be creative with it.”

Part of taking the plunge was relying on the network of people he built over 20 years with Food Fight. They offered insight, advice, and encouragement, and as a financial officer, Henry instinctively knew those relationships would be on the positive side of the ledger. His advice to would-be entrepreneurs who are reluctant to take the plunge is to look at their personal balance sheet. Citing Maria’s skin-care line as an example, he notes the balance sheet can include personal passions.

“It is not just the financial, which you do have to look at, but in your life, what are these positive assets that you can utilize?” he asks. “Sometimes, it’s relationships. It can be a building. It can be hobbies. People underestimate their hobbies and their ability to make a living or a partial living off of those.”



Ted and Joan Ballweg

Business as the spice of life

Over the course of his business career, Ted Ballweg has been involved with a small, privately held business, he’s been part of a large, publicly traded business, and he’s worked in government entities. In each situation, he’s created business and strategic plans and motivated teams of people to execute those plans.

When it came time to venture out on his own, the former assistant general manager and director of sales and marketing for Alliant Energy Center was well prepared to develop strategies and plans for Savory Accents, a seven-year-old Verona business that produces and sells chili-pepper products. In addition to his experience in the corporate world, he also credits good timing that went along with his burning desire to be an entrepreneur because when he was ready, all the “e-tools” were in place.

Ballweg often wonders what would have happened if he tried it sooner, before e-commerce, search engine optimization, and other marketing changes that have allowed his small company to thrive while working out of a home office and growing most of its peppers on swatches of land in Cottage Grove and Verona. “Having gone through this, I have set those fears all aside,” he says. “I used to get up in the morning to go to work. Now, there is nobody telling me I have to be anywhere at any time, and yet I get up earlier in the morning than I ever have because I can hardly wait to get my day started.”

Spoken like a man who loves what he does, not to mention the woman he operates the business with. Wife Joan Ballweg still is employed as the vice president of sales at Uniek Inc., a home decor company, but she plans to retire in 2020. Until now, her role with Savory Accents has been product development, some assistance in the kitchen, and sales and marketing, particularly working with local chefs and retailers. As she retires from Uniek, Joan plans to transition into a larger business development/sales role with Savory Accents.

“My biggest role has been the development of products,” she explains. “Ted has a passion for gardening. I have a passion for the kitchen.”

Ted Ballweg’s entrepreneurial journey was set in motion long before he left a successful tenure with the Alliant Energy Center in 2013 to devote all his time to Savory Accents. That urge has been with him his whole professional life, but his journey through the corporate world was important to learn things he needed to know.

“I talk to other people my age who have left the workforce and they say the same thing — that doing it for somebody else, for a corporation or for a government entity like Alliant Energy Center, just doesn’t fulfill that entrepreneurial urge. You can talk all you want about becoming an entrepreneur in the workplace but until it’s your idea and your execution, it really doesn’t serve the need to be an entrepreneur.”

As a direct-to-consumer business, Savory Accents has not only benefited from advances in computing technology and e-commerce, it has contributed to Madison’s increasingly sophisticated food scene. The creativity of chefs such as Tory Miller is well aligned with the company’s own creative approach to chilis as illustrated by its specialty hot sauces, seasonings, and mixes. “We really, really enjoy that and the interaction with chefs,” Joan says. “We both love to travel and part of our travels, everywhere we go in the world, is going to the markets. We experience the food, and that’s kind of how we came up with the name of our company, Savory Accents.”

With years of business planning under his belt, Ted’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs is simply to understand what success looks like, which requires a well-crafted business plan. “We go to quite a few events and I remember talking to a gentleman who was about my age — mid 60s — and he was selling hot sauces. I said, ‘Are you making any money?’ And he said, ‘Well, not yet.’ And I said, ‘I don’t mean to intrude on your business, but if you’re not making money now, when will you make money? You can’t just do this at a loss and sustain yourself.’

“It was almost as if that was a revelation.”

Laura Kaiser

Got skills, will travel

Laura Kaiser has never been “the job,” she’s been “the skills,” which helped her when she grew disenchanted with the office politics of the large banks she once worked for and decided it was time for a change.

Kaiser, now conference and social media director for the Wisconsin Technology Council, faced the prospect of being typecast as a banker, but when she learned to focus her job search on her skills and not previous workplaces, that professional stereotype faded.

The Eagle River native had launched her career in banking while also handling a full-time student load at UW–Madison, so she had the confidence to handle most anything. Add single motherhood to the mix and Kaiser had a multitasking force multiplier that was tough to beat. “There was a lot of re-shifting of focus and being able to highlight my skills outside of being in a bank,” she explains. “So, it was about the time management skills, the organizational skills, the interpersonal skills, and the managerial things that I learned along the way. I learned to put more emphasis on my skills and not just in the context of banking.”

Never having organized a conference in her life, that skill set helped her land the conference director’s job at the Wisconsin Technology Council, which is the science and technology advisor to the governor and the Wisconsin Legislature. The council puts on several annual events, most prominently the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference and the Early Stage Symposium, and Kaiser was immediately thrown into the event-planning fire —speakers, panels, and working with the venue, the caterer, the hotels, and the steering committee, pulling together the PowerPoints, and handling all the marketing.

“I’m not going to lie — it was really terrifying,” she recalls. “When somebody said they had a job opening for a conference director, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how to do event planning. People have certifications for that. I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and then I thought on the other hand, I’m really not good at failing. If this is something that somebody else can pick up, then I can pick it up, too, and I can conquer this. I’m good at organization. I’m really good with details.”

So good that shortly after her first event, the 2016 Early Stage Symposium, Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still asked Kaiser to handle social media. The thought of coordinating the social media for the conferences was fine with Kaiser, and she pursued a social media marketing certification from Northwestern University. She now tests her multitasking with side hustles like Engage Social Media, where her first client was Foxconn and its Smart Cities, Smart Futures competition.

Since Kaiser admittedly, “does not fail well,” she has developed a healthy fear of it. She recalls overcoming a mediocre high school performance in math classes to excel in a high school accounting course, even though she, herself, secretly predicted failure. The “F” word also came into play in college when she bombed in her first two attempts at algebra but kept plugging away, acing her third attempt with a professor who could teach the subject matter in a way she understood.

Not surprisingly, her advice for people who are reluctant to pull the trigger on a career change is to ditch the job hunt’s old, conventional ways. “My biggest advice would be to say, ‘Take a strong look at your skills and understand your strengths and weaknesses’ because your strengths are things that you can apply to any job, whether they are typing skills or whether they are interpersonal skills, and whether you’re really good at research or you really like doing things online,” she explains. “Take a look at things you’re good at, and then if you’ve got weaknesses, find the people who can work with you and either turn them into strengths or become more confident in the things you don’t know.”

Emily Bissen

Third time’s the charm

Not everyone is limited to two career acts. Emily Bissen, formerly employed as a middle school teacher and financial advisor and now a business development and marketing coordinator with ActionCOACH, once thought she had settled career plans.

Coming from a family of teachers, Bissen graduated from UW–Madison with a Bachelor of Science degree in family and consumer science, and she taught cooking, sewing (fashion and design), and a life-skills class in the metro Milwaukee communities of Mequon and Pewaukee. She loved the kids and she loved the content, but she also wanted to raise a family and she quickly realized that she would have to work more hours than she wanted, and she wasn’t going to get a raise. “I wasn’t sure how people could have a family and teach at the same time because I was doing so much work outside of the school day,” recalls Bissen. “It seemed impossible.”

For Bissen, leaving the teaching profession wasn’t an easy decision because there were several teachers on her mother’s side of the family, and the former Stoughton High School student grew up with the conviction that teachers could have a positive impact on kids. “It was partly family and I just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” Bissen says. “That was the way that I saw people around me making a difference.”

During her fourth year in teaching, Bissen was recruited for a job by her own financial advisor. She was brought to an event where she heard from other women in the financial services industry about how there is great flexibility and great pay and how a woman could build a career with work-life balance. Hearing that, she was sold. “That sounded great,” Bissen acknowledged. “My husband [Matt], who was in college at the time, and I decided to have a baby and then move back to Madison and change careers, and we did that because we wanted to be closer to family.”

Unfortunately, Bissen was led astray by well-meaning people. In financial services, she wasn’t making any money and she was stressed out. “For a year and a half, I was a financial advisor and realized pretty soon, about one year in, that it wasn’t really what I thought it was going to be,” she says.

Fortunately, one of her financial clients also was an ActionCOACH client, and that client was the part of her network that helped steer her in the right direction. The client told her of an “awesome position,” an administrative position, that was open at ActionCOACH, the business coaching consultancy, and encouraged her to apply for it. The client also told her she would be perfect for it, which sounded familiar given her previous experience, but it also sounded too good to ignore.

So, Bissen went through the interview process with ActionCOACH, including a DiSC [Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness] profile, which is a personality profile that helps reveal strengths and weaknesses. “I got a call back for the second interview, and I sat down with Mike [McKay] and Susan [Thomson] and they said, ‘We love you, but you cannot be an administrative person or you would bang your head against the wall. You’re a people person and you need to talk to people.’ So, they created a marketing position for me.”

Impressed that the organization thought enough of her to establish a suitable position, especially someone who was 10 weeks pregnant at the time, she accepted the offer and has been with ActionCOACH for nearly two years. At first, Bissen didn’t know how she would reach all the key performance indicators the company set up for her, but she was excited about the challenge and knew she would find a way to make it work.

“There is nothing in my background that said I would be good at marketing and business development, but I was determined to make it work because I’m excited about where this company is going and the impact it wants to have,” Bissen says. “This was something that was going to challenge me, and this is what I was looking for. I was looking for something that was going to be exciting and impactful and was going to challenge me along the way. That’s exactly where you should go.”

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