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Colorado Springs bike company owner urges graduates to balance their work with life

May 14, 2016 Updated: May 16, 2016 at 11:42 am
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Steve Kaczmarek, owner of Borealis Fat Bike Co., speaks during the commencement ceremony for The Pikes Peak Community College class of 2016 May, 14, 2016, at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Businessman Steve Kaczmarek has had as many ups and downs in life as a mountain biker on a winding trail - successes, doubts and heartaches.

But of the lessons he's learned, the owner of Borealis Fat Bike Co. in Colorado Springs urged graduating students at Pikes Peak Community College to balance their work and life pursuits.

At times in his professional life, Kaczmarek said, he's missed some of his family's most precious moments - something he deeply regretted, despite his business successes.

"Pikes Peak Community College has taught you a lot of things, but they may not have told you or taught you the significant importance of a work-life balance," Kaczmarek said. "This is what it's all about. And this is what I didn't have. I can tell you emphatically - beg you: Don't do what I did. It's not worth it. Figure out a way to do what you love, work hard, but come home to your family and friends."

Kaczmarek was the keynote speaker Saturday during Pikes Peak Community College's 2016 commencement, which took place at the New Life Church auditorium on Colorado Springs' north side.

The graduating class totaled 1,617 students, ranging in age from 16 to 71, according to Pikes Peak Community College officials. Of this year's graduates, 60 percent received associate's degrees and 40 percent received career or technical certificates.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Kaczmarek said his father died when he was 12, leaving him to endure periods of worry, stress and fear. He turned to education to fill those voids.

"I was hungry and needed to get something in my bones that relieved that uncertainty and made me feel happy," he said.

With an academic scholarship and financial aid, he attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs for two years before graduating with an economics degree from Pepperdine University in Southern California.

When he couldn't find a job after graduation, he returned to the Springs and then to Milwaukee in 1989. He wound up taking a not-so-glamorous customer service job at a printing and packaging company.

Still, that job taught him the value of networking - making friends who can introduce you to other friends and opportunities as you go through life, Kaczmarek said. It takes time and energy, he said, but social media make it easier and all graduates should establish their personal networks.

"This network you've created and nurtured will help you in every step of your life," Kaczmarek said. "Trust me, it will pay off and it will make your life easier."

Kaczmarek's network took him to two more jobs. Despite some successes, he nevertheless had too much stress, constant moves and bad bosses.

In 2001, with a wife, 1-year-old son and a mortgage, he was fired from a job. On the one hand, the job loss allowed him time to spend with his infant son - "absolutely the two best months of my life and they were the most amazing memories that I will never let go of," he said.

Even so, he had entered into a mid-life crisis, and considered going to medical school. That's when his network came calling; friends were launching a packaging company and asked if he wanted to invest and become a sales manager.

He took the opportunity that his network provided - and the company took off. For the next seven years, its sales grew from $10 million annually to $135 million.

But that's when his work-life balance got out of whack, he said. He traveled constantly, and his wife functioned as a single mom to his son and later a daughter. He said he missed his kids' first walks, first Halloweens and first recitals.

"Time is the most precious commodity you have," Kaczmarek said. "Treasure it, and realize once it's gone, you can never get it back."

He and his partners sold the packaging company in 2008, which allowed him to spend time and travel with his family. In 2012, he became an adjunct professor at Colorado College - teaching an entrepreneurial class and then becoming director of innovation and entrepreneurism.

In fall 2012, Kaczmarek and Colorado College student Adam Miller - a bike enthusiast - partnered to launch what is now Borealis Fat Bike Co., which designs and manufactures bikes with wide tires for biking in snow, mud and other tough terrain. The company has proven a huge success, with $3.2 million in sales in its first year since starting in September 2013.

Fat Bike's success, however, sent him heading in the wrong direction. His hours grew longer, his travel more frequent and he again began missing more firsts.

Two months ago, Kaczmarek said, he re-evaluated his work-life balance and successfully adjusted his work schedule, "and everything seems to feel better."

While Kaczmarek implored graduates not to forget that balance, he also warned that hard work lies ahead for them.

"Some of you are working full- or part-time," Kaczmarek said. "Some of you were deployed and I thank you for your service. You have sacrificed a lot to get here. But I hate to tell you, the work is just beginning. If you want to succeed in life, and your career, you'll need to work harder than you've ever worked before. You will struggle, you will succeed. And there will be times that you will fail. Embrace those failures and learn from them."

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Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228

Twitter: @richladen

Facebook: Rich Laden

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