When my business book Do Less Better was published, I had the pleasure of meeting National Post journalist Peter Kuitenbrouwer who interviewed me about the challenges facing an ex-CEO hell-bent on finding a publisher for his historical fiction manuscript. But the longer we talked, the focal point of Peter’s story evolved into a tale of how I went about re-inventing myself from my former life as a business executive.
I am republishing Peter’s editorial in this post because The Circumstantial Enemy has just been released by Endeavour Press of London, England. I expect to hear from Peter again and he will surely ask me how I did it. I will tell him that I never gave up. He’ll dig for more and he will get it because good journalists never give up.
From coffee boss to ‘rookie novelist’: How Nabob’s former CEO found meaning after the corner office by Peter Kuitenbrouwer
What do you do when you climb the corporate ladder and then get kicked from the top? Many chief executives face this challenge. Some find a new job. Some join boards or run for public office. Some become consultants. And one spent years writing a potboiler about a Yugoslav pilot in World War II betrayed by his girlfriend, shot down over the Adriatic Sea and jailed in a U.S. POW camp full of homicidal Nazis.
For John Richard Bell it was a bizarre change in career direction. Yet it all worked out in the end. Sort of.
Last month, a U.S. publishing house released Mr. Bell’s first book. It is not his war thriller novel, The Circumstantial Enemy. Rather it is a business book, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World.
“At least I am a published author,” Mr. Bell says from West Vancouver, where he lives with his wife Jasmin. “At least they know that I’ve been published and I can write.”
Mr. Bell immigrated to Toronto from the United Kingdom at age 4. He landed his first job at Bristol Myers, selling Bufferin, Ban deodorant and Javex in the west part of greater Toronto, all the way north to Owen Sound.
“Go into the drug store, see what they had on the shelf, and take an order,” he recalls. He climbed the advertising and marketing ladder, and eventually became marketing director at Nabob Foods in Vancouver.
Nabob, when Mr. Bell arrived, had too many brands, and lost money. The management team focused on coffee. More than 300 workers lost their jobs. The move succeeded: Nabob became the top coffee brand in Canada.
“Few people have the will to make an ugly choice that leads you to an advantage”
“Few people have the will to make an ugly choice that leads you to an advantage,” says Hugo Powell, who nurtured Mr. Bell at Nabob and later ran Labatt Brewing and Interbrew.
After 10 years at Nabob Foods Ltd., in 1987 he became CEO, a job he held until Jacobs Suchard, the company’s Swiss parent, sold Nabob to Kraft in 1994 — for “much more than” $100 million, according to Mr. Bell.
“They took care of me,” he recalls. “A big payout is like your annual bonus. You feel good for about a day or two. The golden parachute was nice, but the passion and the purpose was suddenly gone.”
Mr. Bell became a consultant. He helped big brands, including Maple Leaf Foods, Starbucks and Campbell’s Soup. But ennui set in.
“It wasn’t as much a sense of purpose as being a CEO,” he says. “The quintessential CEO has all the support systems. And suddenly there is this emptiness because they define themselves by their job.”
Mr. Bell took a time-honored route to ease the pain: he started a blog. The CEO Afterlife gained a cult following. Forbes and Fortune reprinted his words.
Of leaving the executive suite he writes, “I felt an ominous and inexplicable separation from the world. I had not nurtured my soul with the passion associated with the corner office.”
To regain his sense of purpose, Mr. Bell turned to another form of writing. During his years as a consultant, on airplanes and in hotel rooms he wrote the story of his father-in-law, who piloted a Luftwaffe bomber over the Soviet Union in 1941. “The seeds of passion had begun to germinate in me,” he writes. He decided to write a novel.
“I started from zero,” he recalls. “I spent a year in the West Vancouver Memorial Library, reading about plot and character and dialogue. Every character must have a different style of dialogue. For an uneducated person, I am going to have to use slang.”
Concentration and focus are in Mr. Bell’s DNA. “He has this tenacity and unshakeable confidence in his capabilities,” says his oldest friend, Joe Morin, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin. He notes that Mr. Bell recently won two gold medals at Pickleball, a variation on tennis played with a wiffle ball.
Still, for Mr. Bell, writing comes first these days. A Vancouver friend, Geoff Danzig, notes, “I’ve watched him impale his guts on the typewriter.”
Eventually, Mr. Bell wrote 200,000 words. An author he met through his blog connected him to Eric Nelson, a New York literary agent. Mr. Bell sent him the manuscript for the novel.
“It was very, very long,” Mr. Nelson recalls. “We talked about how to focus it.” Mr. Nelson then told Mr. Bell that, while he knew little about fiction, he had sold four business books in six months. So Mr. Bell pitched him a business book, originally titled Kill Your Darlings. They settled on Do Less Better.
“He writes very well,” Mr. Nelson says of Mr. Bell. “Editors got back to me and asked, ‘Who did he hire to ghost-write this?’ One wonders whether spending years on this long, character-driven novel didn’t teach him how to be a better writer in a way that made the non-fiction book so good.”
“Would this book suffer if you started at Chapter 12?”
Even so, today Mr. Bell plugs ahead with his novel. He had to take some of his own business advice, to do less better: the third editor he paid to read his novel asked him, “Would this book suffer if you started at Chapter 12?”
He has cut The Circumstantial Enemy down to 104,000 words. Mr. Bell is not prepared to kill any more of the darlings in his pulp fiction début. He wants to leave in his hero’s dalliances with his prison camp commander’s randy wife, his underground bookie operation, and the conniving girlfriend who bears the pilot an unexpected child. Even as he remains optimistic about this project, he is philosophical.
“The challenge of trying to get historical fiction published is incredibly invigorating to me, even though my odds aren’t great because I’m a rookie novelist.”
John Bell Update:
My odds of finding a publisher continued to diminish as time marched on. But I persevered. And finally Endeavour Press said, “We’d love to publish your book.” E-book and paperback now available at amazon.com.