Meet Javier de la Uz. In August 2009, while on vacation in Vail, Colorado, with his wife Angela and their four young daughters, Javier suddenly had difficulty breathing. He chalked it up to high altitude, and continued to enjoy his family holiday.
Back home in Rockford, Illinois, elevation 715 feet, Javier dove back into his businesses, ADV Enterprises (which adds value to real estate by urban planning and design and build services), and its subsidiaries, ADV Partners and ADV Real Estate Investments.
The labored breathing continued. Maybe it was asthma, he thought. He was too busy for distractions. But Javier's chest still wheezed and crackled; Angela insisted he see a doctor.
He finally went on September 8. "I'll never forget the look on my doc's face when she returned with the test results," he told me. "It's severe," she said. The diagnosis: Lymphoma. "You're in for a battle," the oncologist said. Immediate surgery was required.
Javier barely slept that night. "I had three major concerns: my health, my family's financial well-being, and the stability of my businesses. My bottom line: If I'm dead, nothing else matters. I decided then and there to focus on fighting my cancer. Other people would have to focus on my businesses for me."
Planning for the worst
Javier called an early morning meeting in his hospital room. In attendance: ADV's senior management team, his twin brother JosÃ© (ADV's Field Operations Manager at the time), his lawyer, and his wife. Javier surgically dissected his businesses, indefinitely removed himself as President, and redistributed authority and responsibilities among them.
"When the surgeon walked in, he couldn't believe I was holding a business meeting."
That procedure achieved its aim, but additional biopsies brought a clarified diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Diffuse large B-Cell (NHL-DLBCL). Treatment required a 6-cycle course of chemotherapy followed by radiation.
Once home he suffered multiple side effects of the chemo -- constant profound exhaustion, nausea, headaches -- the psychological whiplash of being abruptly unhinged from work, the specter of mortality, and a visceral fear of infection.
Catapulted from leadership of ADV, Javier took the helm of combating his NHL. He re-directed his entrepreneurial skill-set -- being ultra organized, forward-thinking, and purposeful -- to navigating the quagmire of insurance procedures and studying his cancer.
A turning point came when his Oncologist's office offered a stack of pamphlets instead of answering his questions. "I immediately decided to switch hospitals and doctors," Javier told me.
He located Dr. Andrew M. Evens, an oncologist at The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, a 2-hour drive from Rockford. "I have 4 daughters, a wife, and my businesses. I want to live," Javier told Dr. Evens; they met 48 hours later.
New tests showed markers for Burkitt's, a more aggressive and lethal form of lymphoma. Javier's new treatment, Hyper C-VAD, amped the nastiest side effects off the charts. He was a dish rag.
A new perspective
Where are Javier and his businesses now? He's responded well to the chemo, and his long-range prognosis looks good. While ADV's overall profits modestly declined just after Javier disbursed management authority from his hospital bed, the businesses rebounded and stabilized.
How is ADV holding its own without him? Among many factors, I think these are the most important:
1. Great staffing: Javier already had key people in place capable of responding to the psychological and procedural challenges of being prematurely thrust into new positions
2. Solid customer and vendor relations
3. Well-constructed and defined business development plans
4. Excellent company values -- be honest, responsive, do what you say you'll do, work hard -- which match its people, culture, and market
5. A strong, smart leader who had the good sense to take himself out of the picture so his businesses could take care of business
"It's been overwhelming but also moving," Javier said. "My brother JosÃ©'s not only had to deal with having his twin brother fighting for his life, but has stepped up on no notice to many of my responsibilities in the businesses."
He continued, "I'd never considered it before, but I wouldn't have predicted the business could operate so well without me. My cancer has given me an opportunity for a new perspective on organizing my business. I can see the benefit of standing back, and once I'm able to return I'll think about how I might run things differently."
Many executives have more than just a deep personal investment in their business; work can be a proxy for their identity and a barometer of self-valuation, with their sense of self-worth yo-yoing with the business' ups and downs. By contrast, Javier doesn't feel threatened or marginalized by his managers' success.
This could just be a healthy but transitory survival response -- cancer is the beast to fight now; all others can wait -- which will shift once Javier recovers and returns to work. Even if so, he embodies an important psychological characteristic of success: the ability to convert adversity to sustainable achievement.
Javier's advice to other business owners: "Have a plan, on the business and the personal side, in the event you become ill or die. Have insurance and understand your policies. Don't wait."