03/13/2012 09:14 am ET Updated May 13, 2012

Second Act: Reflections On Retiring From A Second Career

"What can I do to ensure that whatever positive things I helped create continue after I am gone?" Professor Jim Hammons of the University of Arkansas challenged an audience of community college professionals to think of their legacies in terms of durability as well as content as they approach their own retirements (1).

On the last working day in March, I'll wish someone else success as director of the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College. My second retirement will begin six years to the day after my first career ended. This time, retirement is my choice, and I have an answer to Professor Hammond's question.

Like many people in the boomer generation, the end point of career number one was not really my choice. One morning in March 2006, my boss asked me to join him in a conference room, and when I saw the head of Human Resources there too, I knew what was coming. "We are eliminating your position ...." And while I can recite with clarity the rest of that conversation, I'd rather not.

I counted myself lucky, then and now. I was allowed to retire at the end of that month with some dignity. I had the opportunity to say goodbye to friends and customers, and I wasn't left in financial peril. I know way too many people who got bad news about "downsizing" and had 30 minutes to empty their desks before they were escorted to the door by security, minus their computers, cell phones, company car keys and livelihoods.

In the six months that followed, I was never bored. After working continually for 38 years, a break was nice. My wife and I found a balance where most days we each did our own thing until noon, and then shared lunch and planned an outing for the afternoon. The shrubbery was trimmed and mulched, my body mass index was dropping, and while life was OK, I had this nagging thought that I wasn't really accomplishing anything. Maybe I didn't have to. I was 60 years old, and even with two kids in college, we could make it financially with a bit of belt tapering, if not outright tightening. And yet I sensed something was unfinished.

I've often used the phrase "this job came and found me" when I talk about the Textile Center. That's actually an oblique reference to the lyric "when my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it." We found each other about seven months after my first retirement began. I'm certainly glad we did. Whatever I was able to bring to the Center, I was rewarded ten fold in return, with new knowledge, experiences and friendships that I will carry with me to whatever comes next.

Surprise was my initial reaction when I was offered the position. My entire business life had been spent in Marketing and Strategic Planning. Technology was what those guys in R&D and Manufacturing did. I never really paid much attention to it beyond learning what the selling points might be surrounding a particular product.

When I joined the Center in November of 2006, the future of the organization was somewhat cloudy. A year earlier, the North Carolina Community College System had restructured its textile trade school to create a "Center of Excellence," with a charter to "assist the Textile Industry by identifying and solving problems." A state-appointed Advisory Board set a direction that the Center would assist firms in the textile chain with new product development and product testing. We were to be the place people came to make a prototype and prove a concept worked. In the first year of operation, as a fee for a service entity, the Center had billed $50,000 for total services delivered, a fraction of what the operation was actually costing taxpayers.

Looking back, we came an incredibly long way from where we were in the closing weeks of 2006. Today, innovators from around the world come to the Textile Technology Center with ideas, fibers, yarn and fabric to have a concept demonstrated, a problem solved or a product tested. We share their sense of urgency. The best compliment I can think of came from a client: "What I like about the Center is that you do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it." Who wouldn't feel proud and confident in the future of an enterprise with that reputation?

Numbers tell part of the story. Our total revenue for services delivered grew over twenty fold in five years, and continues to grow. The Textile Center professional staff expanded from 6 individuals to 22 today, all funded from operations. The remainder of the story is about people, attitudes and relationships.

Change is a fascinating phenomenon, and you can't be an agent for change unless you start with yourself.

Whatever sense of entitlement I felt owed by virtue of my MBA and years of marketing experience went to the dumpster first, right along with my concept of being an "Executive." I learned what that "technology stuff" was about, and in the process developed an incredible appreciation for the people who practice it every day. Delegation is a nice concept, but in a small operation, you do whatever needs to be done. I help load trucks, move equipment and run samples up and down the highway right along with recruiting new clients and managing sophisticated technology projects. While we are a state agency inside a community college, collectively we treat our enterprise as though it was our own private firm, and that sets us apart.

You can't help but bring a piece of yourself to a group process, and I believe that some of the principles and values that I brought to the Center will remain after I've left. Leaving a legacy was the piece that was missing for me when I left corporate life, and I didn't realize what that meant at the time. I am grateful for my time at the Textile Technology Center. It has been fulfilling to work with a team to build the Center, and I retire this time with the confidence that the Textile Technology Center team will continue to grow. I move on to whatever is next, satisfied that I was given a chance to give back and I took it.

So what is next? In addition to the "day job" I'm about to leave, five years ago I also became a "Community Columnist." I write a weekly column for the Charlotte Observer that has nothing to do with business, textiles or technology. I get a lot of satisfaction meeting new people and describing unique and interesting happenings in and around Waxhaw, North Carolina. When I uncover something that I think will be of broad interest, I will share that here.

Second careers and those that might follow aren't necessarily about the money. We don't know how many days we have left, so if you have small hollows in your psyche that need to be filled, there's no time like to present to go find your trowel.

1. Vol. XXXIV, No. 2 January 27, 2012 NISOD Abstracts