From Passion to Opportunity: Transitioning From CEO to What’s Next
By Bruce White, YPO Member
A few years ago, a single business transaction became the catalyst for leaving my life as a CEO and transitioning into a life designed around personal passion.
In 1985, I established White Lodging with a single hotel and a singular vision — to provide significant and sustainable value and genuine care for associates, guests and owners. Over the past 30 years, the company’s managed portfolio grew to more than 170 mid-to-large scale hotels in 21 states in the U.S. And in 2006, a major milestone was reached — a USD1.7 billion portfolio sale of 99 hotels to RLJ Development. This transaction, however, was not just a business milestone, but also a personal milestone. It was the catalyst for my transition out of the role of CEO and into the next stage of my life … taking a passion I had long harbored and turning it into an opportunity to realize my second life’s work. This also necessitated a personal evolution to become more of a mentor/coach as opposed to the one-person board of directors I had become accustomed to being over the past several decades.
Shortly following White Lodging’s milestone transaction, my wife, Beth, came to me and said: “What are you going to do next … have you ever had any dreams?”
CEO Transition: The next chapter
Simply, yes. I had always dreamed of owning a ranch out West. We began searching, spending weekends in Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. After just a few short months, we happened upon Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, Wyoming. The land hadn’t been cared for in quite some time, but the inherent beauty was obvious and most importantly, it was part of a true ranching community. This was the place we had been searching for — a place that we could enjoy with family and friends, and create a new community, a new sense of place.
The first summer, we began by resurrecting the original homestead buildings with the help of our kids and their friends – dozens of teenagers came out to Wyoming and spent the summer doing trail work, baling hay, cleaning out barns, staining fences — true physical labor. Throughout that summer, their parents and siblings would come out to visit, and the vision for what Brush Creek Ranch could become was crystallized. Beth and I could see how magical it was to have these families together on a working ranch, removed from the busyness of daily lives and connecting on a truly deep level. My hospitality gene took over, and in 2011, we opened the doors of The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch to the public. While we remained committed to operating and maintaining a working cattle ranch, we could see that this place was special and that families from around the world would come here and experience the connection and the sense of awe that we did.
Engage without the burden of details
While Brush Creek Ranch shares a hospitality kinship with my previous work at White Lodging, I was forced to channel some key lessons I learned in my early days as an entrepreneur. That is, to diffuse effective decision making and determine when perfection becomes the enemy of progress. To build a sustainable organization, it was also important for me to spend time and focus on establishing the essential DNA components that build the requisite foundation for continued growth and improvement.
As such, we established a philosophy at Brush Creek Ranch that our goal is to “educate, enhance and enjoy.” We have had to educate ourselves about the history of the area so that we can continue to honor it, and there is continuous learning in ranch, watershed and land management. We have enhanced the community and the land itself over the years, adding two other boutique ranch experiences, establishing our own wagyu cattle herd and recently opening our own farm. As an award-winning global destination, we also contribute to the diversification of Wyoming’s economic engine.
As a passion project, Brush Creek Ranch has allowed me to express my creativity in a way I was not able to in my chief executive role. Here, I can engage and contribute without the burden of the details. We are very involved in marketing the ranch and the service philosophy, but we also enjoy the land itself – we hike and bike all over these 30,000 acres and we bring family and friends here to enjoy it as well.
Finally, we’ve established a 10,000-acre conservation easement to perpetuate the open space forever and to solidify Brush Creek Ranch as a sustainable, family-owned business for our family’s future generations. As I learned when transitioning from my role at White Lodging, integrating the next generation into the business to eventually become effective stewards of the enterprise while communicating family engagement does not necessarily mean family management is required. Management needs to understand the business remains a meritocracy but requires effective governance to sustain. Simultaneously, the advantages of private ownership and the stability of family involvement should be regularly communicated and reinforced.
Turn passion into opportunity
Ultimately, what I advise to others transitioning out of the CEO role is this:
- Don’t go “cold turkey.” Instead, plan for a successful transition that breeds confidence in the management team and communicates a clear vision for the future.
- Find a passion project that can utilize experience, allow for continued growth and, ideally, engage your spouse and the next generation.
- Utilize an effective and independent-leaning board of advisers that fully understand the organization’s strategic objectives, the needs and objectives of the family, and will engage in a way that facilitates focus on critical issues and accountability so that you don’t have to sweat the details as you embark on this next chapter.
These principals have helped me evolve a dilapidated bunkhouse on a swath of land with a lot of potential into an award-winning destination that became a vehicle for dramatic personal and professional growth for my wife and me personally, as well as for our hundreds of employees and countless friends, family and guests from the around the world with whom we share it.