Work is life. That used to be Derek Bullen’s motto. Like many entrepreneurs, the president and CEO of Calgary-based S.i. Systems Ltd. had a schedule that kept him in perpetual motion. Eighty-hour workweeks were standard. When he wasn’t at work, he was thinking about it. Stress was his only state of mind and, despite good intentions, his kids and vacations were a low priority. “I was stuck. I was a workaholic. I wasn’t spending any time with my family and I wasn’t making any money,” recalls Bullen. “My company was just wallowing.”
Fast-forward eight years. Today, Bullen is a changed man — and so is his business. He’s relaxed, quick to laugh and, while still intensely focused, the 40-year-old lives in the moment. “I go about my life with a lot of faith,” he says. “I’m driven by where I want to go, not by what I’m afraid of.” He works just 40 hours a week, and spends more than two months a year traveling. S.i. Systems is flourishing, too. From its launch in 1991, the firm has grown to 300 employees in four offices. Last year revenue reached $22.5 million, up from $2 million in 1996 — good for 116th spot on the PROFIT 100.
How does such a workaholic find balance? Through faith and spirituality, says Bullen. He’s developed an awareness of who he is, his purpose in life, his place in the world and, ultimately, his relationship with God. Such clarity has helped Bullen re-evaluate his life and find passion, confidence and inner peace in both his work and home life. He’s proof positive that you can have it all.
A former computer programmer, Bullen founded S.i. Systems to provide contract IT workers to high-tech companies. The fledgling company soon occupied much of his time, but his effort never produced the desired results. Predictably, his business and home life suffered. “You sit and spin on your problems all the time,” says Bullen. “I thought I was responsible for everybody.” By 1993, Bullen knew things had to change: “I knew I wanted a bigger life.”
He started the process with the help of business mentor and coach Doug Bouey, president of Catalyst Strategic Consultants in Calgary. Bullen plotted strategic goals for the company, and eventually replaced unproductive staff. As part of the change process, Bouey suggested Bullen undertake a “vision quest” — a native tradition whereby an individual embarks on a spiritual retreat to seek meaning and guidance on how to move forward in their life. Under the supervision of natives from Southern Alberta’s Blood Tribe, Bullen spent four days camped at the foot of the Rocky Mountains alone and without food or water. The experience proved rewarding. “Everybody comes out the other end better, sharper and clearer than when they went in,” he enthuses. “You are crystal clear about what the most important thing is for you to do in your life right now.” Bullen came away with two revelations: he needed to connect with his children and to take more personal time.
Meeting those goals meant Bullen had to alter his mindset radically. Like many CEOs, Bullen says he was afraid to delegate and take time off. Still, he was willing to do anything to change. “The toughest thing when you change yourself is to let go of your fears. You have to have a little faith to let go,” says Bullen. So he jumped right in, taking two weeks off. He had to force himself the next month to take off a Friday and Monday.
Despite the support of family, friends and employees, giving himself permission to take time off was hard. Bullen found inspiration in a book called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by American journalist and filmmaker Julia Cameron. Part workbook, part journal, the book gives readers specific activities designed to boost inner awareness and creativity. The book includes general writing assignments (three pages in a journal every morning) and specific projects (“List five things you’re not allowed to do.”). Meanwhile, Bullen bought a condo in Canmore, Alta., which he declared a work-free zone. Bullen, his wife Susan and their three children retreat there for weekend family time.
Bullen discovered that time off exposed him to new ideas. “Every once in a while you have to give yourself a chance to stop, to empty out,” he says. “Taking time off allows you space to let the big ideas in.” S.i. didn’t stumble, either.
Still, Bullen admits, his absences forced him to keep the company in shape with strong team players, clear accountability and a well-defined operating strategy. “We have a simple business model. We don’t keep people that are mediocre, and we don’t keep people that don’t perform. We usually weed them out in the first three months,” says Bullen. “We’re left with very functional, team-oriented contributors — even on the senior management team.”
With his corporate house in order, Bullen travels more. In 1999, Bullen and Bouey embarked on a seven-day walking trek across northern Spain to a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where James the Apostle is said to be buried. Another significant journey last May was a trip to Vellore, India, where Bullen celebrated his 40th birthday. Instead of a party, he spent the day helping to feed 3,000 people and giving local kids gifts he’d brought from Canada. And each summer, the whole family lives for a month in a different place. So far, they’ve visited Australia, France and India, plus New York and Vancouver.
Spirituality informs everything he does, says Bullen. He’s aware of those less fortunate and generously donates his time and money. He prays every morning, whether for a venture at work, or for family or friends in need. Each month Bullen attends prayer ceremonies in a variety of faiths. Twice a month he meets with an informal men’s group to discuss personal growth. But being spiritual is not just about trying to be nice. “You also do your daily duty as a businessperson,” says Bullen. “Your duty includes beating your competitors, making as much money as you can, being good to your people and not tolerating people or processes that don’t belong in your business.”
Bullen believes if he hadn’t grown personally, his firm would not have prospered. And he’s bullish on the future. His goal: to reach sales of $100 million in five years. He’ll do that by moving forward and facing his fears. “Everybody has fears,” says Bullen. “Whether you act on them, or whether you act on your higher purpose, makes the difference between each person and the kind of life they lead.”
© 2003 Jacqueline Louie