CEOs Who Work Hard and Play Hard

These business leaders take their leisure time seriously.

July 29 2010 by George Nicholas


Some see the CEO role as all encompassing. Not so. In fact, a fair number of CEOs pursue their outside interests with the same intensity that they show on the job. Warren Buffet, whose passion is bridge, plays 12 hours a week and would like to get by on less sleep so he could play more. He has been quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had the right three cell mates so we could play bridge all the time.” Sumner Redstone, chairman of National Amusements, keeps almost 300 species of fish in aquariums in his den and can reportedly identify each of them on sight. Steve Miller, chairman of Mid Ocean Partners, built a 2,000-square-foot train set in his home basement.

In fact,CEOs are a font of knowledge on after-work interests that range far and wide. Want a recommendation for a good Parisian restaurant? Ask CEO Lars Olofsson of Carrefour Group, who is passionate about French cuisine and knows the city’s top chefs. Planning to snowboard down a mountain side? Jim Hackett, CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, knows how to avoid spills. Thinking about breeding Aberdeen-Angus cattle? Michael O’Leary of Ryanair is your resource.

Like many business leaders, these CEOs are passionate about “serious leisure”—or the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting and fulfilling. Interests can range from the competitive to the contemplative, from rocketry to antiquity, from portraiture to poker. What the CEOs who pursue them have in common are a passion for that interest and, for many, an impressive level of knowledge and accomplishment. Here’s a look at some favored pastimes and the CEOs who pursue them.

CEOs on Skates

John Surma typically clocks a 12-hour day as CEO of U.S. Steel, but once or twice a week he rises early for a 6 a.m. ice hockey game as a defense man for his team in The Pittsburgh Morning League.He plays a 16-game season, plus playoffs, competing for the league’s Stanley Cone (made from a traffic cone wrapped in tinfoil and two stainless steel salad bowls).

Surma also skated at the opening of a new 10,000-seat ice arena in Kosice, Slovakia, where his company has a large presence. “I joined Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda at the opening ceremony,” he says. “After my speaking role, I hustled out of my tuxedo and suited up to play on the opening shift in the inaugural exhibition match between the Slovakian and Czech teams. It was a great day at work.”

Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, also skates—off the ice. “Growing up, I was extremely athletic—and very competitive,” says the avid rollerblader. “I played four varsity sports in high school and went to Cornell because they had a fabulous women’s athletic program.” A person who witnessed her skating warns, “You don’t want to get in her way.”

Behind the Wheel

Robert Rodriguez, CEO of First Pacific Advisors, has been racing Porsches for 13 years. “It requires focus, determination and the ability to deal with quickly changing circumstances while assessing risk and return,” he says. Last year, driving with his co-driver and chief mechanic in his first pro race, he finished third in class. In the Patrón GT3 Cup Challenge, he finished first in class and fourth overall. “I always wanted to do this but when I was much younger I did not have the money.When I got older, I had the money but not the time. Finally, I decided that if I did not start now I would never do it.”

The Collectors

A good number of CEOs acquire art, while others specialize in objects that have particular meaning for them.Dick Mahoney, former CEO of Monsanto, collects everything that has to do with Winston Churchill; he reveres the British PM’s judgment in wartime, his writings, his wit and his larger-than-life personality.He has acquired all manner of Churchilliana: his paintings, photographs, books and memorabilia including some half-smoked cigars encased in Lucite.He also has published a book of Churchill’s sayings, “The Quotable Winston Churchill.”

“Churchill had an uncanny ability to see linkages between disparate events, a trait I worked hard to emulate,” Mahoney says. “He was a brilliant orator who moved millions with his words and speaking style.”

Miles Young, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, collects modern Chinese sculpture, which he says “reflects the mingled pain and exhilaration of recent Chinese history…from uninhibited humor to deep cynicism.” He views modern Chinese painting as overpriced and sculpture as a better value. His collection, he says, “spans the earliest stirrings of the contemporary spirit from the Cultural Revolution (when much was destroyed) to the latest product of the arts schools.”

Other CEO collections include former Arrow Electronics CEO Bill Mitchell’s accumulation of old maps; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s fighter planes and rock guitars; and Exelon CEO John Rowe’s antiquities from Egypt. Rowe even has an Egyptian mummy case in his office.

Solitary Sports

Kayaking appeals to Paradigm Learning’s Ray Green because, he says, “It can be a completely solitary sport. I can launch my kayak from my backyard in just a few minutes and next thing I know I’m gliding across the Gulf and the only sound I hear is water dripping off the paddles. I have had dolphins follow me and roll over on their sides to take a closer look. I could hear their breath escaping out of their blowholes.”

Whenever Kay Koplovitz,CEO of Koplovitz & Co. and chairman of Liz Claiborne, gets the chance, she goes white water rafting or has herself dropped by helicopter to wilderness inaccessible by ground. “When you are in class V rapids you only think about survival and enjoying the thrill of the ride—the world of business and personal challenges melt away,” she says. ” It’s exhilarating, seductive and frightening all at the same time.”

Chandra Tata, CEO of Tata Consulting Services, took up running in 2007 because of a family history of diabetes. “For me it’s all about completing amaranth, not competing in one,” says Tata, who runs “to reflect on my day” seven to eight hours a week. He finished his first marathon in 2008 in Mumbai and has since run full and half-marathons in New York, Prague, Stockholm and Vienna.He hopes to run in the Berlin, London, Boston and Chicago marathons.

Making Marriages

Howard Brodsky, co-founder and co- CEO of CCA Global Partners, started his hobby when an employee about to be married asked if he knew any JPs. Brodsky is one, so he volunteered for the job, hosting the ceremony on the sales floor of one of his company’s home furnishings stores. An announcement invited shoppers to the wedding. Since then he’s officiated (without charge) at 27 more.

Brodsky has two four-hour meetings with each couple before the ceremony. “I want to know them— to be involved emotionally,” he says, adding that all of the couples are still married.

Passionate about Precision

Bobby Owens rebuilds— and then fly’s—historic warplanes. An area president of Risk Placement Services, he comes from a family that always owned an airplane for vacations. Owens got his pilot’s license when he was 18. His particular specialty is cloth-covered aircraft from the late 1940s. Among those that he rebuilt is a Piper Cub that saw service in World War II. It’s believed to be the oldest aircraft of its type still flying. He is now working with fellow warbird restoration enthusiasts on two historic planes that should be flying this year.

Samir Brikho, CEO of the Amec engineering consultancy, shoots clay pigeons, a sport that refines sensory awareness and reflexes. “I’m competing with myself,” he says. “You need enormously good reading of the clays. You need to understand their speed, their weight, the wind, which direction they’re going in, and you need to synchronize your body. All the senses are used.”

Deloitte LLP CEO Barry Salzberg’s passion is for games that sharpen the mind: crosswords, sudoku and kakuro. “Puzzles help sharpen my focus,” he says. He tries to do them as quickly and accurately as possible so he strikes a balance between speed and precision. He calls puzzles “mental gymnasiums… exercising and testing the mind and the will itself.”

Vinyasa Vigor

A devotee of ashtanga and vinyasa yoga, Carla Zilka’s typical workout includes 15 minutes of meditation followed by an hour of postures. A practitioner for more than a decade, she also incorporates principles from yoga into her interim CEO role at health and wellness technology company TruSage International.

“Yoga is about wholeness,” she says. “As a CEO I’ve learned to focus on the whole person—what inspires the people who work with me, what motivates them, and what is standing in their way. This allows me to create solutions Carla Zilka in a yoga posture. they care about.”

In the Ring

“Boxing is like business,” says Ronald F. DeMeo M.D., CEO of Radiation Shield Technologies. “Both require always being on the offensive and defensive, continuously assessing and modifying your strategy.” When his schedule permits, DeMeo trains “with explosive intensity” twice a day on weekdays and spars or fights Saturday mornings.

His morning sessions include a series of 100 squats for three minutes with one minute’s rest. At night he does shadowboxing, bag work and punch mitt work with his trainer. “The ring is a lonely place to be when you’re not in shape,” he says.

Making Music

Picture this decidedly unusual sextet of CEO instrumentalists: Tony Tyler of Cathay Pacific and Martin Cohen of Cohen & Steers, on dueling guitars; James Murdoch of News Corp. CEO for Europe/Asia on the mandolin; Eyal Goldwerger of TargetSpot on the piano; former Dell CEO Kevin Rollins on the violin; and Ed Sayres of the ASPCA on conga drums.

Like many musicians, these CEOs began playing at a young age. Goldwerger, who started at five, is partial to jazz and sees parallels between it and business: Both require listening and responding to multiple sources, and improvising but also keeping within a structure, he says.

Rollins began the violin at age 7 and played in youth symphonies.He played piano with his rock band, winning a National Battle of the Bands award with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.He still performs Kevin Rollins on the violin. occasionally.