How a former Fannie Mae VP Avoids Burnout at Her B&B

Collective wisdom.
May 22 2013 7:00 AM

The Inn of the Second-Act Happiness

Operating a bed and breakfast is a common starting-over fantasy.

Ellen Goldberg grew up helping out at her family’s two furniture stores, and to her it was a lesson in the drawbacks of being your own boss: the long hours, the sore feet, the lack of vacations, the ceaseless pressure, the threat from encroaching competitors. (“Ever hear of Levitz?” she asks.) Her grandparents had started the business, in suburban Philadelphia, and she was determined not to be part of a third generation. So she got both an MBA from Columbia and a law degree from George Washington University and began a long climb up the world of corporate finance.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

She became a vice president at Fannie Mae, working primarily in investor relations, selling the company to the financial markets. But by the time she was approaching 50, corporate life was closing in on her: the shifting priorities of her bosses, the grueling D.C. commute, the time away from her two teenage daughters. Then, one fall weekend in 2001 while taking her mother for a drive around lovely Loudoun County, Va., to view the autumn leaves, she drove past a once-familiar place.* It was the Briar Patch, a bed and breakfast in Middleburg, about an hour from Washington, D.C. She had taken her daughters there when they were young, and now she was flooded with memories of happy, bucolic days running across the grounds and staying in the pre-Civil War main house.

There was a “For Sale” sign at the foot of the property, which consisted of 47 neglected and overgrown acres, a guesthouse in a state of disrepair, a dank swimming pool soupy with algae, and a few decaying farm buildings. She returned home that night and told her husband, Dan Haendel, that she wanted to buy it and turn it into a weekend retreat for her family. Haendel, a lawyer with the Department of Defense, didn’t suggest she talk to a psychopharmacologist. As a sideline, the couple had bought and renovated old houses, which they rented out for extra income, so he countered that if they were going to spend that much money, it had to be on a profit-making enterprise. It didn’t take Goldberg long to conclude that she needed to leave corporate life and resurrect the Briar Patch as a bed and breakfast. “I’m a people person. The prospect of the hospitality business was exciting, even though I’d never done it before,” she says. They bought the property for $1.3 million.

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According to Jay Karen, president and CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, of the approximately 15,000 B&Bs and inns in this country (the terms describe small, usually owner-occupied accommodations), about 95 percent are run by people on second careers. For one thing, with the average purchase price of lodgings at $1 million, it’s an unlikely enterprise for someone just starting out. Indeed, Karen says, the median age of owners is around 50. It’s a middle-aged “starting over” fantasy, with couples dreaming about working together, owning a charming getaway, and hosting fascinating (and paying!) guests.

But this romantic impulse can lead to the unleashing of an inner Basil Fawlty and a second case of burnout. The average B&B owner is in business for seven years, according to the PAII. In part, that’s because couples finally do reach the point where they’re ready to retire. And in part, it’s because the reality can be so grueling. “They do everything themselves. Breakfast, cleaning, marketing,” Goldberg says of her fellow hosts. While Goldberg is in the kitchen most weekends and has done her share of toilet scrubbing and sheet-changing, she says she has lasted more than a decade by applying both her business savvy and the lessons from her childhood to her new enterprise.

Once Goldberg, now 60, and her husband purchased the property, they put together a plan to make it habitable. Goldberg was undaunted by tackling what must have looked like a classic money pit. They hired a couple, he a retired D.C. police officer who had moonlighted for them as a handyman, who moved to the property full-time and worked for a year rebuilding the place, from the wiring to the walls. Goldberg continued at Fannie Mae during this process, finally quitting and re-opening the Briar Patch in the spring of 2002. She and Haendel decided he would keep his Pentagon job and help out at the B&B on weekends. “I’m glad Dan has his day job for two reasons,” she says. “His income and my sanity.”

Remembering her parents and grandparents who worked all the time and rarely took vacations, Goldberg decided to invest in a staff. She has a full-time and a part-time manager, a full-time handyman, and three part-time housekeepers. “It’s not as profitable as doing more myself,” Goldberg concedes, “But at this time in life, family and vacations are more import than money.”

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