Bill Hunt ’79, founder of Cow Island Music Photo: Tom Kates
Three alumni leave behind their safe, comfortable careers to follow their hearts down unconventional paths.
By John Crawford
Bill Hunt ’79 lived a dual life. During the day, he made a good living in commercial real estate development. You name it, and he helped build it. Warehouses, college dormitories, labs, offices, hospital buildings.
But outside of work, there was something else, something that ran deep. Hunt loves classic country songs. Johnny Cash. George Jones. Buck Owens. He loves the music’s fiddle, steel guitar, and frank lyrics about life, work, and love. It’s authentic, and it’s true. “You can listen to one of Hank Williams’ songs now, and it’s still as relevant as it was in 1949,” Hunt says.
The music was an alternate way of life for Hunt. He played guitar, sang in a band, and liked to wear cowboy hats and jeans cuffed so you could see his boots. Ultimately, as Hunt battled persistent bladder cancer for two years, he decided that life was too short. After nearly 30 years in real estate, he quit his successful career to pursue a country music label that he had started. “There’s no time for messing around,” says Hunt. “I had a career. I wore a suit and tie and made good money. But I had the music thing that was always my passion. I wanted to give it a shot.”
This is the story of Babson alumni who pursued their passions. Leaving behind their safe, comfortable careers, they followed their hearts and chased new opportunities. By taking a chance on what they love, they traveled unconventional paths to more fulfilling careers and lives.
Chris Gallea ’00, owner of Crosswinds Golf Club Photo: Adam Kuehl
Chris Gallea’s office resides on a golf course. If he steps outside, he’s surrounded by pines, oaks, and wide, wonderful greens. Gallea ’00 owns Crosswinds Golf Club, located right next to the Savannah, Ga., airport, as well as I-95. He loves the free marketing to the thousands of people, whether zipping by in cars or flying overhead in planes, who see his course every day. “You can’t beat the location,” he says.
The game of golf delights Gallea so much that he spent years trying to find the perfect job on the links. “My life story is such a roller coaster ride,” he says. His original career goal, though, was to work his way up to be a sales and marketing executive, so he took a job in Reebok’s customer service department. He sat in a large room loaded with cubicles, and while the office did have big windows, Gallea couldn’t see them from his seat. “What am I doing here?” he asked himself. “I spend half my day talking to people about nothing, the other half on the computer.”
Then he watched Office Space, a comedy that pokes fun at corporate culture. The movie triggered something inside him. “I don’t want to work in a cube,” he thought. “There must be something better.” After watching the film a third time, Gallea quit.
His next move? To ditch the corporate life altogether and become a golf pro. “People were shocked, especially when they found out I wasn’t very good at golf,” Gallea says. Indeed, Gallea’s gutsy new career plan had one fatal flaw, the fact that he had a very average 20 handicap and typically shot in the high 90s.
Undeterred, Gallea took a job teaching children at a suburban Boston driving range. He worked just 15 hours a week at $12 an hour with no health insurance. “It was a leap of faith,” Gallea admits. But the job came with one big advantage: It allowed him to practice whenever he wasn’t working. For some 60 hours a week, Gallea hit as many golf balls as he could, and his handicap dropped to 4.
The following year in upstate New York, Gallea landed a job as an assistant golf pro at a public course. It was a small operation with low expectations. “They didn’t care if you had experience or not,” Gallea says. “They were happy if the grass was green.” Gallea worked there two seasons and then began climbing the ladder, bouncing between Florida and Massachusetts in search of better jobs at better courses. If he couldn’t find a golf gig in the winters, he worked as a waiter.
Eventually, he found the perfect job in 2007 on Cape Cod. He became first assistant golf pro at a high-end, private course designed by golfing legend Jack Nicklaus. He was employed year-round, and for the first time in years, he had health benefits. Feeling settled, he and his wife bought a home. “It was what I wanted,” Gallea says. “I was happy. I felt comfortable.” Unfortunately, that didn’t last. The economy tanked, and the golf course, facing financial difficulties, laid him off for the winter. Gallea suddenly felt uneasy.
Once again, he contemplated finding another job. Thinking he wanted more control and responsibility, he first looked for general manager positions at golf courses but realized he didn’t have the right experience. Then he had another thought: What about owning a golf course? It was a big, crazy idea, but with the economy down, so were prices. Gallea hired a consultant to help with the search for a course, and he secured critical financial backing from his father, a portfolio manager.
Finding the right course to buy was exhausting. From start to finish, the search lasted a year and a half, with Gallea researching more than 300 courses and personally visiting some two dozen. In 2010, after hard negotiations, Gallea bought Crosswinds. Now he spends his days tending to his course and listening to the jets rumble overhead. “I fell in love with the place,” he says. “It was the best decision I ever made.” The only issue is that the busy Gallea no longer has much time to play golf. Being the boss does have a cost.
Ellie Kerns, MBA’92, begins working at 6:30 a.m., an old habit from her days at a Wall Street firm, when she attended early meetings before the markets opened.
Ellie Kerns, MBA’92, artist Photo: Patrick O’Connor
Much has changed since those times. Now an artist, Kerns wears a hooded sweatshirt while working, the sleeves covered in color because she often wipes off her brushes there. She paints in a studio inside an old factory building, its drab, gray exterior betraying nothing of the creations that Kerns and other artists are making inside.
Until the midafternoon, when the cool northern light from the studio windows begins to fade, Kerns toils with her “magnificent obsession.” Painting with oils, she fashions portraits of the commonplace: a boy on a bench, a kitchen, a freight elevator, a rusty bridge guardrail. Once walking by a men’s bathroom, she was struck by the light on the porcelain and felt moved to paint. “I was startled by the beauty of the sink,” says the Sudbury, Mass., resident. “If you look for it, there’s beauty everywhere.”
Painting may be Kerns’ lifelong passion, but she had two other careers before becoming an artist full time. The first was as a promotion manager at a Boston TV station. She worked there 10 years, but needing a change, she went to Babson, earned her MBA, and became an equity analyst specializing in health care at a Wall Street firm’s Boston office.
It was work she excelled at for the next decade. She received multiple promotions, and The Wall Street Journal named her a top health-care analyst three times. “I liked my job,” she says. “It was exciting, interesting, and paid well.” But then her firm began having financial troubles, and one month after the Sept. 11 attacks, she was laid off.
Kerns pondered her options. Wall Street is a young person’s game, and she thought of all the stress in that world. Still, Kerns had been a good analyst, and she didn’t relish the idea of starting over once again in another career. “All the losses and uncertainties weighed on me for a few months,” she says. Eventually, Kerns saw her layoff as an opportunity. She decided to become an artist, knowing full well that leaving Wall Street to pick up a paintbrush would be a big financial sacrifice. “I have a realistic view of what an art career can be,” she says. “It’s a tough way to make a buck.”
While Kerns had studied art part time for years, she felt she needed more instruction. She signed up to study full time in a cramped, fourth-floor walk-up studio with no air conditioning but beautiful light. Initially, Kerns thought she would stay for six months. It turned out to be seven years. “There was much for me to learn,” she says.
Now Kerns works out of her own studio, with its well-used coffee machine and mirrors that bounce light around the room. Here she toils hundreds of hours on a painting, and then works to sell it, trying all kinds of ways to market her work. She maintains a blog and Facebook page, enters competitions, seeks galleries to show her work, and holds studio open houses.
While she has triumphs, there is also much rejection. Such is the career she’s chosen, and though Kerns realizes the bathrooms, elevators, and other mundane things she often chooses to paint aren’t necessarily the most appealing images for someone looking for living-room art, she isn’t interested in changing. She remains true to her art, to what she wants to say about light, beauty, and the everyday. “You have to pursue your ideals,” Kerns says.
Bill Hunt works out of his home, a renovated tobacco barn in Northampton, Mass. The house sits above a small valley full of trees, deer, and the occasional black bear. Inside, just off the living room, Hunt has installed a recording studio to record artists on Cow Island Music, the country label that he began in 2006.
The studio has a loft for musicians needing a place to stay during their sessions, and it offers plenty of vintage equipment, including a 1947 Kay upright bass, a 1951 Gibson electric guitar, and Fender amplifiers from the ’50s and ’60s. “That’s the sound,” he says. “They don’t make anything like this anymore.”
Hunt first started playing guitar in the 1980s, even though, at the time, he contemplated devoting his energies to golf instead. As a rising star in real estate, a solid golf game would have benefited his career. But he abandoned golf for good after an embarrassing business meeting on the links. “Screw it,” he thought. “I’m just going to play guitar.”
That decision, to focus on the guitar and his music, would profoundly affect Hunt’s life in the years to come. It eventually led him to start Cow Island and quit his job, and it led him to join various country bands, including The Twilight Ranchers, which would put out an album on his label. And, most important, his music gave him solace through the pain of losing his wife, Marci Kearney, who was struck and killed while riding her scooter in 2010. “It was a big part of how I got through this,” he says. “I played my guitar and sang and wrote songs. That was as important to me as anything.”
Hunt met Marci in Denver while on a motorcycle trip in 1995. During the next five years, the pair fell in love while riding their bikes all through the West. “We just rode,” Hunt says. “That was our thing.” The two were married in 2000, and as Hunt battled cancer, and as he debated switching careers, Marci was there to encourage him. “None of this would have happened without Marci,” Hunt says. “She supported it 100 percent.”
As it was, the last decade probably wasn’t the best time to start a music label. Hunt calls it the end of the “physical era,” as people stopped buying CDs and began finding their music online. That transition brought much of the music business to its knees, though Hunt looked for opportunity among the turmoil. “I basically said, ‘This is the best time or the worst time to get into the business,’” he says.
Hunt isn’t making a fortune from his label’s nine signed artists, whose sound is far removed from today’s slick Top 40 country songs, but he’s cobbled together a new business model for the 21st century recording industry. His one-man operation still sells physical CDs, particularly when its bands play shows, but Cow Island also receives money from iTunes sales and plays on satellite radio, cable music channels, and streaming sites such as Rhapsody, Spotify, and Pandora. “It’s nice,” Hunt says. “The checks come in on a regular basis.” Hunt also founded a publishing company, since publishers and songwriters are the only ones who receive money when songs are played on traditional broadcast radio.
In an age saturated with media, when anyone can make an album with just a microphone and a computer, Hunt views Cow Island as a gatekeeper to the good stuff. “It all comes back to the quality of music,” he says. “If it’s on Cow Island, you know it’s good.” The label also remains a way for him to carry on in the face of loss, as he heals his soul with his own music and that of the artists he believes in. “My life revolves around music,” he says. “There’s so much in me that I want to express.”