'Dad ... I guess I still love you'
'CEO Dadism' victim finds relief in self-deprecation
BY JULIA M. SCOTT, Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 04/16/2007 08:59:26 PM PDT
WOODLAND HILLS - Tom Stern has been in recovery for five years, two months and 25 days. His addiction? CEO Dadism - when workaholic business executives treat family like employees.
Stern, 51, beat his addiction by creating a comic strip poking fun at himself. In one comic the main character, Frank Pitt, considers rewarding his second child's stellar grades by promoting her to first born.
Now, with fresh successes - the strip is the basis for a new book and series of animated shorts to run on CNBC - Stern's micromanaging tendencies are flaring up.
"That's the thing with CEO Dadism," Stern said from behind the desk of his immaculate home office. "You never fully recover."
Stern tames his dark side by volunteering with recovering drug addicts and by following a strict regime of pushing his two daughters, ages 4 and 10, on the swing set in the backyard of his Woodland Hills home.
He still works 50 to 60 hours each week, but he does it around his daughters' schedules. Used to be that wasn't the case, as Stern highlights in one comic in which Frank Pitt gets a Father's Day card from his son:
"Dad, you never come to my soccer games and you treat your customers better than your Advertisement own family ... but I guess I still love you," the card reads.
"These are your words?" Pitt asks.
"Mom helped," the son replies.
Stern's life-altering epiphany came on Jan. 23, 2002. He was watching a Lakers game on television when he decided to fulfill a promise to his wife, Lisa, and feed the dog. When he got to the dog bowl in the back of the house, he heard muffled screams coming from the garage. Stern opened the garage door and saw armed men punching his struggling wife. One pointed a gun at him, but he stayed calm.
"What do you want?" Stern said.
"The ring," the man said.
Stern told Lisa to give them her diamond engagement ring and they fled with the jewel.
But the life-and-death moment was not what changed Stern. Instead, it was how his daughter, who was then 5, reacted to the crisis. Unlike Stern, who was frantically calling 911, she calmly fetched her mom a glass of water and a towel to wipe her bloody face.
The little girl's focus on her family struck Stern, who vowed to remake his life.
Stern's new book, "CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family," retells his epiphany with a heavy dose of fiction and funnies. It was published earlier this month by Davies-Black Publishing based in Mountain View.
Laura Simonds, director of marketing and sales at Davies-Black, thinks the book will appeal to top executives, their families and the employees they terrorize.
The underlying theme doesn't worry Simonds because workaholic parents are a reality.
"I think it's something that families have had in the back of their minds for a long time," Simonds said. "It's one of those unspoken things that Mom or Dad just has to be that way. But in their heart of hearts they are screaming, `We want you. We want you back."'
Five one-minute animated shorts based on the strip are slated to air on CNBC in June. A spokesman for the network said they are "in talks" with Stern but declined to confirm details.
Bob Balaban, who co-starred in "For Your Consideration" and "Best In Show," is directing the shorts. He said he signed onto the project because it passed his three criteria: It was "innovative, funny and good."
The main character, Frank Pitt, "has no balance whatsoever" between work and life, Balaban said. "But he keeps trying. And I think that's an inherently funny concept."
Writer finds jokes in CEO's dad role
Outsourcing list likely to include diaper changes in Valley man's new syndicated 'CEO Dad' strip
by Brent Hopkins
WOODLAND HILLS -- Frank Pitt is a distant, unfeeling, single-minded, neglectful father, and Tom Stern loves him.
That's probably because Pitt's not Stern's actual dad, but rather his creation. The balding chief executive, the namesake of the comic strip "CEO Dad," is a self-absorbed jerk, but one who's struck a chord as he tries to reconcile his roles as a boardroom shark and a family man. Stern, who co-writes the strip from his Woodland Hills home, has watched his brainchild grow from a funny joke to tell at parties into a syndicated comic running in five newspapers nationwide.
"His idea is to outsource empathy and listening to people who will report back to him," Stern said, chuckling over the hapless Pitt's attempts to apply corporate logic to his home life. "He wants to interview his family in a focus group to address happiness levels."
While Stern laughs at Pitt's clumsy attempts to relate to his family, offering to reward his daughter's good academic performance by promoting her to first-born, the strips, co-written and drawn by Austin-based artist Chad Darbyshire, have a truthful edge to them. Stern learned this firsthand in his own relations with his father, Alfred R. Stern, a longtime player in television and the early days of cable.
"I used to tell people that when I was 7 years old, I was afraid he'd call me into his office and say, 'Well, Tom, I love you very much, but we're going to have to let you go. You'll have a couple weeks to get your toys together, but we just want to go in a different direction now."'
After dabbling in stand-up and comedy writing in the 1980s, Stern joined the corporate world himself, starting his own executive-recruiting company in 1994. As a headhunter, he snared management away for companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers, dog-food maker Purina and aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas. His tenacity made him a wealthy man, allowing him to live in a gated community with a Mercedes in the garage, but transformed him into the sort of parent he used to ridicule. Suddenly the joke he told about his father's distant approach to child-rearing didn't seem so funny.
"I realized it wasn't just about my dad, a big shot, but it was about me," he said. "I'd become robotized by business."
At the same time he arrived at this family satori in 2002, it was hammered home with dreadful reality in his garage. Thieves, noticing his wife, Lisa's, diamond ring, tailed her home and beat her badly before making off with the jewelry. Stern quickly shelved Stern Executive Search, relocated his family to a more secure home and concentrated full-time on playing gin rummy with daughter Alexandra, going to the pottery shop Color Me Mine and watching the Lakers in the family room.
In swapping the boardroom for the playroom, Stern still found himself itching to work, so he began trying to convert his CEO Dad notion into a strip. After developing a few samples with a Spanish artist he'd found on the Internet, he submitted a pitch to Creators Syndicate Inc., which handles widely read strips like "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id."
John Newcombe, Creators' director of comic development, receives around 12,000 such pitches each year, but something struck him about "CEO Dad." He wasn't wild about the artwork, but the core idea drew him in.
"The concept was terrific," said Newcombe, who also writes the "Zack Hill" strip for Creators. "I asked him if he could find a different artist, which is not something we usually do. I just didn't want to pass it up, because it was really something."
Stern eventually connected with Darbyshire, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and the two produced the strip Newcombe wanted. The syndicate began shopping it last fall, attracting notice as far away as Guam. The Seattle Times was the first and largest paper to pick it up, running it on an ongoing test basis. Cynthia Nash, the paper's director of brand content development, said readers had warmed to Pitt's cold, fumbling attempts to relate to his children.
"He was engaging in some way, an exaggeration of kinds of people you see in everyday life," she said. "It's not about evil-doing, taking people's retirement funds away, getting paid $12 million when the average wage in your company is $40,000. To some degree, the CEO Dad is believable. You make fun of him and laugh at him, but he looks like a lot of guys you know."
Getting him to look that way is not always an easy process, though. Stern churns up ideas, drawing upon his argumentative youth with his father and his experiences in his corporate days, then phones Darbyshire to turn them into comics.
"Tom can throw out 10 punch lines in a row off the top of his head, but he won't always know which one's the funniest," the artist said from his Austin home. "He can just go and go and go, so I listen to what he says, then take it back, pick what works and see if he likes the way it's going. It's a crazy, Jekyll-and-Hyde process, but I look forward to it every week."
While the strip remains his main focus, Stern brims with ideas on where else he wants to take Frank Pitt. He's working on book pitches, entertaining notions of a TV show and considering getting into motivational speaking, and he has managed to parlay the character into an occasional commentary on Minnesota Public Radio's "Marketplace," heard locally on KPCC-FM (89.3) and KCRW-FM (89.9).
"He has sort of a street smarts, a back-alley fighting smarts, a down-to-earth common man smarts," said Liza Tucker, the show's commentary editor. "He can apply that to business, which is really complicated. He brings it down to a level where anyone can plug into it."
And at the same time, he's slowly easing back into the recruiting business. Though mindful that he'll have a hard time juggling his new vocation, corporate life and his family, he thinks writing the strip has given him new perspective on how to balance his obligations. Now, when his baby daughter begins to cry during an interview, he bolts out of the room to pick her up and comfort her, rather than assuming everything's OK.
"I just got a check for my first month in comic strips -- $33," he said. "The second month was $110, so ... it'll take a long while before this is anything. But I can come back as a recruiter until it does, and I can do it as a much happier recruiter."