If you’re struggling to keep your life together with no kids or just a couple of children, imagine how it might be if you had quadruplets. That’s what happened to Larry Katzen, when, as a young accountant climbing his way up the ladder in 1976 at Arthur Andersen, a doctor warned him and his wife, Susan, to prepare for multiple births.
Imagine: Four babies to feed, four babies to diaper, four kids to watch over in what then was a two-bedroom apartment, all while handling some prominent Chicago accounts for the firm. Years later, he is somewhat matter-of-fact about it, but if somebody knows about the struggle to achieve work-life balance, it’s Larry Katzen.
“It was a very, very difficult time. We had very little sleep,” he said in an interview. It was very complicated to go anywhere with four infants, so he and his wife were, in his words, “landlocked,” initially in the apartment and then the first home they bought.
At the same time, he found he could compartmentalize his life, and to some extent look forward to his time at home. At work, he would focus on his accounting, with his wife calling only if there was an emergency.
“I would concentrate on work and Susan would concentrate on her job,” he said. He would take advantage of some transition time on his 45-minute train ride home, and then, knowing his wife had been struggling alone during the day, focus on the quads. “It was refreshing to come home,” he said, contrasting his energy at that time of day with his wife’s exhaustion. “I’d come home and play with these four rascals.”
As babies, the quads couldn’t communicate except by crying, and the parents had to put up with constant wailing. Weekends were tough, and at the end he would look forward to going back to work, but also realized his wife was stuck with them seven days a week. “It’s key that the spouse who is working, when not working, spend all the time with the kids so the spouse working at home can have a break,” he said. In a sense, he had more balance than she did, thanks to work, and they had to equalize.
The firm, and its clients, were accommodating. Arthur Andersen had been dubbed “the Marines of the accounting field.” It could be tough on staff. But he also found understanding. When the health insurance company wanted Mr. Katzen’s family to pay the cost of five deductibles, for instance, his firm threatened to take its account away unless the family’s hospital stay was treated as one claim.
That first year he also got one of the biggest raises for any manager after his performance review. “I thought it was purely for the good job that I had been doing, but not too long ago, I learned the truth. Jim [Brice, managing partner for the Chicago office] overruled the committee’s recommendation and gave me a larger raise so I could take care of those quadruplets without too much added stress,” he writes in his recently published memoir, And You Thought Accountants Were Boring.
Retailer Montgomery Ward, one of his clients, asked him what kind of gift they could make to help. He told the chief executive officer, Ed Donnell, that he couldn’t accept any gifts because of his firm’s policies, but was rebuffed and Mr. Donnell sent two twin strollers and blankets to his house. The advice from his bosses was to return the gift, but when he indicated that intention to Mr. Donnell the response was fierce: “You tell Jim Brice that either you accept my gifts or Montgomery Ward will look for new auditors.” Arthur Andersen reconsidered, and decided that, since the value of the gifts was nominal, they could be accepted.
Three years later, his firm decided to transfer him to Dallas if it could win the account for Zale Corp., the largest jewellery chain in the world, which seven firms were bidding for. It would be a big boost to his career but also take the family away from the social supports they had built in Chicago. Throughout the three rounds of the selection process, Mr. Katzen was doing his best to impress Zale while also secretly hoping his firm didn’t win the deal.
“How would I break the news to Susan?” was his first thought when his boss handed out cigars after their victory. But his wife was jubilant, and told him they would work it out. “At that moment I loved her more than ever. She was always there for me no matter what,” he writes.
Vacations were difficult with four children, requiring two adjoining rooms. But in 1980, when they were six years old, Zale booked a three-bedroom condo in Sun Valley, Idaho, so he could take his family along on an audit. The family tried skiing, and the Katzens so enjoyed the experience they bought a three-bedroom condo for a very affordable $90,000 (U.S.). The family was now able to vacation without headaches and he recommends to other working parents struggling with multiple children to consider buying a small vacation home.
Another piece of advice is to bring one child along on a business trip, adding in some time together beforehand. Often the trip was focused around a sports event featuring the child’s favourite team. As grownups, they fondly remember those visits and Mr. Katzen feels it also sensitized them to what their dad did when he was away.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter