Start with your head, leave with your heart

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This may be the last thing on your mind right now, but unless you’re carried out in a box, all entrepreneurs eventually must leave what they started. That’s what I did after more than 40 years at the helm of what became Edward Lowe Industries. I unearthed the cat-box-filler industry, and maybe some people expected me to be buried in it. But in a move that surprised many who knew me, I sold it.

Moving on

The good news is that I wasn’t forced to sell; the company had never been in better shape. And although the startup mission of some entrepreneurs is to build a company until they can divest it for a quick profit, it wasn’t mine. Nor was passing the reins on to my children a consideration; they had all exited the business years earlier.

Approaching age 70, I was wondering what to do. In the product category I invented, there was little left to prove. My original brand, Kitty Litter, had been elevated to a generic term for the product, and my Tidy Cat line remained No. 1 in the industry, despite market attacks by much larger companies.

I certainly liked the idea of spending more time with my wife, Darlene. We had married about 14 years earlier, and she had never known a time when I wasn’t perpetually busy. Still, even though selling my business would ensure financial security, I was too bound by my work ethic to go cold turkey and spend the rest of my days wandering the world or playing golf. What’s a lifelong entrepreneur to do?

My solution was to finish a new venture — perhaps the most important one of my life. Five years earlier I had established the Edward Lowe Foundation with the simple goal of helping entrepreneurs succeed and compete in the world market. I felt that the United States was losing its manufacturing edge and believed that entrepreneurism — that can-do spirit that first lifted us to the top — was our best chance of winning it back.

It had been difficult to both run my company effectively and give the Foundation the attention it deserved. That’s when it became apparent to me that this was the right time to fold my tent. So I sold the business and, putting my money where my mouth was, I endowed the Foundation at a level to guarantee that it would continue to help entrepreneurs long after I was gone from this world. Darlene has become very involved as well, and the time spent building the Foundation has been more fun than any other retirement pastime I can imagine.

Share the wealth

When the time comes for you to move on, you’ll undoubtedly consider aspects such as your age, finances, children and — most important — whether or not you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.

There’s no exit strategy that’s universally sound for everyone. You’re a successful entrepreneur partially because you used your head when launching your business. Leaving it is like letting go of a cherished but maturing child; it’s a decision that you’ll make just as much with your heart. But if you do leave your business, consider taking some time away from the garden, fishing hole or wherever you’re relaxing to help nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.

This column is one in a series that explores the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe that these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

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Edward Lowe

During his life, Ed used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these articles, which have been updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.