John Smith was "living the dream." With a nice house on the Main Line, a wife and five children, gardeners, a luxury vacation every year and a big corporate job it sure looked like the American dream.
It was a dream job, but it was not his dream.
Smith graduated from in 1981, majored in accounting at Drexel University, and landed a job with Toll Brothers, the national home building company based in Huntington Valley.
While he was thriving on the outside, Smith says he was withering on the inside. "I knew 10-15 years ago," that it was not the job for him.
Smith is clearly a people person who values his customers as friends. Walk into his Berwyn breakfast spot for the first time and it's likely the only time he will need to ask you your name. Regulars, and there are many, are greeted as friends and always with a smile. The vibe is "Cheers" without the beers. It's a relaxing, warm atmosphere that's about as far from crunching numbers in a corporate setting as one could imagine. And that's exactly how Smith, who bought the business from Patty McElaney in May, likes it.
For two decades, Smith had a great accounting job at Toll Brothers. He was able to crunch numbers, and find savings, and track down problems when they arose with the balance sheets. He describes himself as a guy who could parachute in to Toll Brothers offices around the country when needs arose and hit the ground running. He developed a training program for accountants and kept track of billions of dollars.
He also took a lavish vacation every year and went out to lunch every day, not because he was 'living the life' but to escape the drudgery. "I used to go out for lunch 'cause I hated" the job. The same went for vacations. "I made good money and I took expensive vacations," Smith explains because when you can only escape once a year from a job that's not right for you "you gotta make the most of it."
Now Smith eats breakfast and lunch every day at his favorite restaurant—his. Vacation these days is a week at the Jersey shore. He takes it to spend time with his wife and five children. Instead of dreading the return to work, he looks forward to going back to the new career he is personally invested in.
That's not all that has changed in Smith's life and outlook.
Scaling back and breathing easier
"I have no more professionals at my home," Smith says. He cuts his own grass and does his own handy work, the things he never had time to do when he was working late all the time. "It's amazing (how much you can spend) when you look at the cost of going to work. I've probably scaled back $1,000 a month from what I used to pay."
Smith has also stopped worrying about retirement. He said he used to have a goal of having "three million dollars" in the bank so he could retire. Now he has no desire to retire. "When you're in that (corporate) situation, you're gonna retire, travel, play golf?" It always seemed kind of empty to think about. Now when he talks about retiring, Smith looks around at the people enjoying his restaurant, a broad smile comes over his face, and he says "this is it! I don't worry about how I'm gonna get to my $3 million when I'm 65. I could be dead when I'm 65."
Welcome 'bad' news
None of Smith's new-found job satisfaction, fulfillment and sunny outlook on life would have been possible without the collapse of the housing market. Smith saw the writing on the wall and had time to prepare financially. Even as he was laying off accountants who worked for him at Toll Brothers, he took steps to start banking against the chance he would be laid off. When it happened, he was happy to get the news and to be set free from a situation he hated, but would have stayed in for the security.
Smith said he knew that he was good with numbers but he wanted to buy an established business. After two years of looking at possibilities, he found Pattymac's Cafe. It seemed like a good fit for both Smith and Patty McElaney. She still works there part time and it's her name on the front door. She wanted a buyer, he wanted a place that had a following and the potential for expansion. In May they closed the deal.
"Patty is the goodwill," Smith explains. It's a combination that seems to be working. Smith has made some changes like featuring weekly lunch specials instead of daily specials (to let word of mouth spread) and plans to add an outside deck down the road. Both Patty Mac and John Smith are connected to their customers old and new. Spend a few lunch hours in the cafe and you quickly see there are no strangers at Pattymac's. There's nothing corporate/cubicle about it. Just look at the photos of the signs that hang on the walls.
The accountant in John Smith took a long hard look at the numbers before taking the plunge. His heart told him buying Pattymac's was the right thing to do.
Smith cautions his dream—changing experience may not be for everyone. "You need to be a little desperate and a little bit crazy to do this. I'm OK with not playing it safe."