Retire Before Forty
John Wilen (ex-Bain), Former Corporate Vice President of Strategic Planning, PepsiCo, Inc. Worldwide Snacks:
When he graduated from Dartmouth in 1980, John Wilen set a most improbable goal for himself: retire by age 40. Wilen, however, would miss the mark by two years.
He retired at 38.
John Wilen was a deft manager, a master planner, and most importantly, a whiz when it came to his own money. His life is a blueprint for consultants looking to break into management and for those hoping to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, then effortlessly walk away.
When Wilen graduated from Dartmouth in only three years, having taken many Advanced Placement courses in high school, his work experience consisted of little more than a paper route. Nonetheless, Wilen decided to pursue a graduate degree, and Stanford Business School accepted the rising star. At just 20 years old, Wilen was on his way.
20 years until retirement and counting.
Wilen wanted to earn an MBA and eventually try his hand at consulting. He put off school for two years, and with Stanford’s help, he began interviewing with consulting firms such as Bain & Company, BCG, and McKinsey, among others.
Wilen settled on Bain. The firm was small – only 120 employees – had a quiet, almost secretive feel, and was barely seven years old. He worked for two years as a Research Associate while he earned his MBA, and Wilen says the years there were perhaps the most exciting of his life. The work was exhilarating, the people were amazing, and Wilen acquired valuable skills in data research, data analysis, and business presentation and delivery.
Starting work in the fall of 1980 was ideal, as it almost perfectly coincided with the start of a great bull market that would last for nearly 20 years. For two years Wilen funneled his excess cash into stocks, poured $2,000 into an IRA each year and vowed to do the same every year going forward.
18 years to retirement and counting.
Wilen returned to Bain full-time after school as a Consultant and made Manager in a short two years. His responsibilities grew rapidly, and Wilen was soon considered an “old-timer.” During these four years, Wilen never considered working anywhere else; he was having too much fun. His whole life had been geared toward creatively solving problems, setting and making goals, and being surrounded by smart people, which in this case included Mitt Romney as one of his bosses, and Meg Whitman, the current CEO of HP, as a colleague. Consulting fit his needs perfectly, and he was getting recognition from clients and Bain for a job well done. Where else would somebody pay him, at age 26, to manage three different clients simultaneously in the Midwest, Beverly Hills, and Hawaii?
14 years to retirement and counting.
An Unusual Client
A year into his tenure as Manager, Wilen was given a plum assignment for Pilkington, a large glass, and construction company. Pilkington also had an ophthalmic division called Visioncare that made glass and plastic lenses. Visioncare was moving its headquarters from Australia to the U.S. as a result of several relatively large acquisitions, and Wilen was to oversee the integration. His work was well received, and a year later, Wilen was offered a job at Visioncare as its VP, Strategic Planning. The offer was too good to turn down, and a new stage of his career had begun at age 28.
12 years to retirement and counting.
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
At Bain, Wilen had been a star. Each year brought more responsibility, more prestige and, of course, more money. So why did he leave?
The opportunity with Visioncare was unusual, and Wilen liked the startup feel of the company. Visioncare’s CEO had also promised Wilen a line / operating job within three years. Wilen also knew that it would be an advantage to leave Bain on a high note, while his career trajectory was soaring. After all, one never knows whose path you might cross later in life.
But Wilen says one of the reasons he left is that he was just tired of consulting and was ready for new challenges. “Consulting doesn’t give you a chance to operate or manage anything. You’re managing a bunch of young people solving analytical problems. That’s a lot different than manufacturing, marketing, and selling a product or service,” Wilen says. The job at Visioncare would allow Wilen to capitalize on his consulting skills and direct them into a single company and industry. It was the attraction of depth over consulting’s breadth of experience that ultimately lured him away.
Just 18 months later at age 29, Wilen was promoted to President of SOLA’s International Division, Visioncare’s largest and most profitable operating company.
11 years to retirement and counting.
Shifting Into High Gear
Under Wilen’s leadership, SOLA had three consecutive years of record sales, earnings, and cash flow. And the company grew to become the market-share leader. Then in late 1993, Pilkington began to dismantle Visioncare. For Wilen, it was time to move on.
Joining Visioncare / SOLA was an invaluable experience and one that Wilen never regretted. He says the jump from consulting to management isn’t that difficult. “If you were a good consultant, you should end up being a good strategic planning person.” But the change can be rough at first. “When you go into a company, it’s not like you and your staff have an eighty-hour week to work on a problem,” he says. “You have all these other things to do that are part of the company that you didn’t have to do when you were a consultant. There are a lot of Human Resources issues.” Wilen says there are some things a consultant can do to prepare. “Work more as a line manager while you’re a consultant, for example, in change management projects. Try to do more of the implementation, almost as if you worked for the company,” Wilen says. “Use any opportunity that you can to actually get embedded in the company.”
Wilen says moving from strategic planning into executive man agement is sometimes more difficult. “I still have scars,” he says. “It is not something you can learn in business school or from consulting. The reason is that as a line executive, at least in my case, you are less worried about strategic issues and much more worried about Human Resources and financial issues.”
Crunch Time: The World of Salty Snacks
In April 1994, with the help of an ex-partner at Bain with whom Wilen had worked years earlier, Wilen joined PepsiCo as Corporate Vice President of Strategic Planning, Worldwide Snacks. He was just 34 and was easily the youngest officer at the company. PepsiCo provided Wilen with a healthy stock options package, but the biggest draw was an attractive deferred compensation program that Wilen soon realized could be the key to his early retirement plan.
Six years to retire and counting.
How To Retire Safe, Wealthy, & Happy
During his four years at PepsiCo, Wilen didn’t take a dime in salary or bonus. Wilen had traveled the world at SOLA and was able to save money during his three years there, in addition to making some excellent real estate investments. This provided living expense money for the ensuing four years, and he chose to defer 100% of his pay at PepsiCo, investing it in an S&P 500 index fund. Instead of having nearly half his salary taken in taxes, Wilen’s money grew quickly. “Before you know it,” he says, “your money is working for you, not the other way around.”
“Some relatively simple math shows you are better off using funds you have already accumulated and paid tax on to meet living expenses than to lose up to 50% or more of new, current income to taxes,” Wilen says. “It can even be wiser, under certain circumstances, to borrow to meet peak expense requirements than to accept current salary. And because deferring, in effect, is a forced savings plan, it better positions one for retirement as the funds are not temptingly available for frivolous spending.”
His planning had paid off. At age 38, Wilen left PepsiCo – and the working world – for good. His financial plan had worked, and he was able to retire with enough accumulated wealth to live comfortably off his investments. And he was two years early.
Wilen has been out of the “jungle” almost 14 years now and has never regretted leaving. At first, his time was spent tackling something far more difficult than cost projections or branding: golf. Wilen played three times a week initially with other retirees and must have smiled at how much older the other players were. Over the years he has pursued other hobbies which include fixed income investments and wine. He is an expert at both. He writes articles for several bond media outlets and is a frequent visitor to Napa Valley, where he has befriended many of the owners of the area’s best “boutique” wineries specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon. Life is good!