Uplifting Downtime: Iowa Business Leaders Find Therapy, Challenge in Hobbies

July 13, 2018 | Uplifting downtime

Hobbies are an important aspect in any business leader’s life. These activities can serve as learning and growing experiences, and they also offer a much-needed place to clear the mind, allowing leaders to come to work sharp and focused day in and day out.

Iowa business leaders across the state have unique hobbies that help them in and out of the workplace. While they excel in the office, these business leaders use their free time to have fun and to grow and learn.

Just keep running

Debi Bull’s earliest memories of running are in high school. She doesn’t know why she started running — she wasn’t a part of her school’s track and field or cross-country teams — but she remembers how much she enjoyed watching the landscapes go by and the wind brush across her face as the miles ticked off.

Not much has changed, even after more than 100 marathons, 80 ultra-marathons and the many weeks of 100 or more miles of training. While she doesn’t run as much as she used to — she still gets up to 60 miles per week — it is still one of her deepest passions.

“It’s soothing,” said Bull, marketing coordinator at the BrownWinick law firm. “I run in the morning a lot, so it’s quiet. You can collect your thoughts. It’s my therapy.”

Her first race was in Ankeny, and Bull said she was the last one to finish.

“I was escorted in by a police car,” she said with a laugh.

She moved to Waterloo and continued to run, but her passion for running really took off when she moved to the Quad Cities in the 1980s. She hired a coach who told her to try every running distance to find which one she liked. And she always liked the marathons.

“I just love running them,” Bull said. “I love talking about it with people. I like to see people go out and run them.”

Running has been there for Bull when she needed it the most. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Bull used running as a coping mechanism when she went through radiation treatment for a month. She won her fight with cancer, and continued to run in events all over the country.

In 2016, Bull dealt with more adversity. During a run, she was hit by a car and fractured her ankle. She couldn’t put weight on it, let alone run. After a four-month recovery process, she came back, but she had to start over. She started with one mile and built her endurance back up, which she hadn’t done for more than 40 years.

“That was very difficult,” Bull said. “I couldn’t put weight on my ankle. When I got back to running, I had to start from scratch. I’m still not back to where I want to be, and I’m not sure if I ever will be because with a steel plate in my ankle, it doesn’t move like I want it to. But I’m still happy to go out there and pound pavement.”

Bull’s favorite marathons are in Des Moines because it’s home for her. She also enjoys the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., along with the Boston Marathon.

“Des Moines is home,” she said. “You can sleep in your own bed, you don’t have to travel, and you know where you’re going.”

Bull, who is 60, still runs marathons, but not at the pace she used to. She wants to run some marathons in the West, like in Utah and California, but she doesn’t travel outside of Iowa much anymore.

And she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. She will keep running as long as her body lets her.

“I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I just love running,” Bull said. “I hope I’m running when I’m 70 and 80, but nobody knows. That’s the unknown.”

A man of many interests

Paul Gregoire knows the importance of staying sharp.

Gregoire, who is recently retired as the vice president of global human resources for Emerson/Fisher in Marshalltown, has always been a leader, and that transitioned into his career, where he has served in leadership roles for more than three decades.

In his free time, Gregoire believes in exercising the mind and body. He loves doing activities with his hands. He paints and has an art studio in his home, he makes guitars — all from scratch, no less — he occasionally works on cars, and he golfs. If all that weren’t enough, Gregoire also just picked up welding by taking a basic class at Marshalltown Community College last month.

“I’ve been running pretty fast as a business executive for the last 36 years, so once I got away from work, I didn’t just let my mind go stagnant,” Gregoire said. “I need to have a lot of things going on, and once you go into retirement, that stuff becomes more critical. You need to keep in shape.”

Gregoire loved the feeling of finishing a product that he built with his own hands. About seven years ago, Gregoire, who had always been interested in music, wanted to build a guitar for himself. He watched hundreds of hours of YouTube tutorials to hone his skill.

Now Gregoire can make a guitar completely from scratch, from a tree he cut down himself to a finished product.

“I just said to myself, ‘I think I want to make a guitar,’ ” Gregoire said. “I have some land on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I cut down the trees up there. I’ll use those for my guitars. It’s like cradle-to-grave guitar making.”

In addition to his hobbies, Gregoire is also a political junkie, serves on many community boards of directors and contributes to philanthropic efforts.

And he is already interested in the next thing. He wants to earn his emergency medical technician certification. As a kid, Gregoire said he dreamed of being a doctor. His parents are in their 80s, so having some medical training could come in handy.

“I love it, the fact that you can help people,” Gregoire said. “This is something I wanted to look into. Not professionally, just want to have the skills. All of these are things that I wanted to do, but they also keep me sharp. They are so critical to somebody, not only while they are working, to de-stress, but as you enter into retirement.”

Taking off

Steven Bradford has always been interested in flying and aviation, but he never found the right time or a chance to take lessons and learn how to pilot an aircraft.

Bradford, the senior vice president and general counsel for HNI Corp. in Muscatine, has lived in metro areas his entire life, and finding an airfield to take lessons was hard. He grew up in Salt Lake City and went to Pittsburgh after graduating from law school. After more moves internationally, he found a connection to HNI Corp., which was looking for a general counsel.

In 2008, he took the job and moved to Iowa.

“Other than having driven across I-80, I didn’t really know anything about Iowa,” Bradford said. “I came out here and fell in love with the community and the local area. I decided to join [HNI Corp.] and haven’t looked back. It’s been a fabulous experience.”

Bradford was interested in learning how to fly at the small airstrip in town. His boss was a pilot and helped him along the way. Bradford joined a flying club, giving him access to a plane, and took lessons. He earned his license in 2011.

Now he flies every week. He can’t remember a week he hasn’t flown since earning his license seven years ago.

“Flying is a little bit of a skill sport,” he said. “It’s something you have to do frequently in order to stay proficient.”

Bradford owns two planes, one that’s slower and one that’s sportier and faster. He has flown across the United States, from the state of Washington to Vermont — not all at once. He has also flown around Puget Sound off the coast of Washington and the Grand Canyon area in northern Arizona and southern Utah.

“The United States and the country looks a lot different from the air than it does on the ground,” Bradford said. “So it’s just fun to see what the country looks like from the air.”

Bradford will even use his plane on business trips. Instead of driving to different locations across the Midwest, he will fly and make the trip a little bit quicker. He is also known to fly himself to ABI board meetings and other conferences.

He hopes to continue his love for flying by trying different types of aircraft.

“The one thing I really enjoy about flying is that it’s very challenging,” Bradford said. “There’s always a new challenge. There’s always something new to learn. Every plane you fly is just a little bit different.”

Climbing for the thrill

Jason Wells has never had an affinity to team sports.

Wells, an account manager at Trilix in Des Moines, likes to be in control of his performance. He was naturally attracted to running and golf, sports that are more individually based. Like many people, Wells would run after work at the gym, but he found himself getting bored with the monotony of that day-to-day routine. He sought something a little more exciting.

In October 2015, one of Wells’ friends referred him to Climb Iowa, an indoor rock climbing facility in Grimes.

“I thought I’d go over and give it a try,” Wells said. “I went over and ended up getting a three-month membership. I thought I could try it for a few months and see if I liked it. I ended up really enjoying it.”

Throughout the next winter, Wells climbed indoors. He became part of the climbing community at Climb Iowa, and some people recommended he try climbing outside. So that spring, he went climbing outside, and he was hooked.

“Climbing inside and outside are like two completely different sports,” Wells said. “I spent a lot of time learning and trying it out because there are a lot of things to learn in terms of safety and knowing what you’re doing. I spent a lot of time with people who knew what they were doing and tried to learn from them.”

Finding a good place to climb in Iowa is tough. There are some places in northeast Iowa, but good areas are few and far between in the state. Wells often has to travel to other states to get his rock climbing fix. His favorite place is at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Ark. It’s about an eight-hour drive from Des Moines, but a drive well worth it for Wells.

Wells wants to expand his rock climbing abilities. He is getting into outdoor mountaineering and biking, and in August he will travel to Colorado to climb a 14,000- foot summit.

“The first time you get 100 feet off the ground and you’re climbing the face of the rock, it’s scary,” Wells said. “You could be very safe, and you don’t have to take any risk that’s above your comfort level, but you do want to push yourself. You want to try harder things that might involve more risk taking.

“I’m attracted to that aspect. I think that makes me stronger. I think it pushed me harder to be a stronger person and just push myself to do things that I didn’t think I could do.”