A revolution began to happen in my life when one Sunday morning I was driving to the office and passed a church whose bells started to ring just then. I stopped the car, asked myself what on earth I was doing with my life, and instead of going to the office I went to church. It did me a world of good. A couple of months later I met my present wife, Edith, who is the opposite of my first wife in everything. After much hesitation she agreed to start a relationship with me. She knew of my ambition, my craving for success and my none too decent lifestyle. Yet we got married and now have four children.
Please do not think that I was converted or had all at once become a model father. On the contrary, I was still working day and night, eaten up with ambition. After our second baby was born on a Friday night I was on a plane to Japan the next morning for a meeting I thought I couldn't skip. Very stupid in retrospect, but at the time I didn't know any better.
This kind of life continued till mid 1996, and I brushed all my wife's objections aside. I was making a fortune and doing it for the family, wasn't I? I wasn't travelling for fun, was I?
What I didn't realize was that, although I had become a regular churchgoer, I was increasingly shifting my standards and values, and my busy life was more and more an alibi to ease my conscience. I set up companies in India and South Africa where bribery and slush money are part of the pattern. Aged 45, I was Financial Director for a major Japanese multinational, responsible for Europe, Africa and Asia, up to and including India. I was the youngest statutory director in my company, part of the worldwide management team and one of two Europeans on the Board. Yet I was stressed up to my eyeballs, was a jerk at home, and took to drinking more and more.
Early in 1997 I stopped drinking from one day to the next. This may have seemed very easy to people like my wife who hardly ever used alcohol. But in professional life, and even more in the company I kept, all of a sudden I found myself pretty much an outcast. 'Where is that jolly Maurice Stroop who went boozing night after night with his business partners?' I no longer belonged. Too bad. My eyes were slowly opening again. My stress and agitation began to decrease. All at once I knew how to say no to yet another business weekend travelling to Japan, India or the United States.
One example of what made me decide to do things differently was when I was in New York for a quarterly management meeting in December 1997. With a couple of colleagues I crossed Time Square where a tramp was lying on the ground dressed in nothing but a plastic bag. I stopped short, hoping to help her. My colleagues pulled me away, saying, 'Don't get involved'. Later that night, during dinner in an expensive restaurant, I realized I did not want to be a part of such a company any longer. I don't blame the companies I was working with for this. They were all very good to me. But I decided to do something else.
It led to the opportunity to fulfil one of my dreams: to dedicate my energies to a company that is partly my own. A few business colleagues and I founded Panta Electronics which in January 1998 bought 10 companies from Philips Electronics. They have 1,500 employees and a turn-over of Dfl 500 million. Our first year was not easy but we have shown a small profit and even bought and sold a few businesses.
I still work very hard, with 60 per cent of my time spent abroad. But I have also made firm deals with my wife and children about the part I play in our life together. I am supervisor of my eldest son's baseball team and assistant coach to my second son's soccer team. I have become treasurer of the foundation which manages Catholic elementary education in my town. I help my wife in her church activity and try to be more of a father to our younger children. In the past, whenever I came back from a business trip the children hardly noticed me; now there is disappointment when they ask my wife, 'Why is Daddy not coming home tonight?'
I am still ambitious and still want to achieve a lot, but no longer at any price. Professionally I have stopped compromising on the basic values of life. Less is more. I admit that all this may be easier for me than most people. I have a good income with a surplus every month. My colleagues believe in the same basic values as I do. Our investor is interested in more than just the short term.
Yet I am also a realist. If the survival of one of our companies depends on laying off a number of employees, then that's the choice I have to make. The collective comes before the individual, though we try to solve things in a humane way. Taking a person's job away, however humanely it is done, destroys dignity. But we have to be realistic. If a business is not competitive it will not survive. It is our task as managers to make sure that we steer our companies towards more profitable ventures. That is why we receive high pay and high rewards. But we managers should never blame the government or the economy when things are difficult. We are paid to look further than next month or next year. If Panta doesn't succeed I will only have myself to blame and not the workforce.
I do not want to give the impression that I have found the perfect balance between work and family life. Ask my wife and she still feels that my work comes first. But she is happy with what has been achieved so far. We took the decision together to put everything we have into Panta, and she would rather have a husband who is happy with what he does than continuing as before.
We still have our arguments about where and when the balance should be. But one thing I have learnt: money is important but it should never result in squandering the basic values of life. We must use the talents God has given us as best we can, in our private lives as well as professionally. We must be as good as our word and I realize that the values of honesty, selflessness and love are no empty words but the very pillars of our existence. Most of all, I realize that happiness with one's family - wife, children, relatives and friends - far exceeds material prosperity.
by Maurice Stroop