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Business Observer Friday, May 11, 2012 6 years ago

On the Trail

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Business owner David Mulicka provides insights on what it's like for an entrepreneur to run for public office.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Could your business and family manage without you for six months?

If you've ever thought about running for public office, you might want to have a chat with David Mulicka, the president of Honc Marine Construction in Cape Coral.

Mulicka recently came to the painful conclusion that political campaigning and serving as a representative in the Florida Legislature would harm his business and family, so he dropped out of the race he was leading.

The announcement came as a shock to supporters who had bankrolled the Cape Coral entrepreneur into first place with more than $80,000 in contributions. Many of them hoped he could be their voice promoting free enterprise in Tallahassee.

But Mulicka's predicament illustrates the painful realities of why so few entrepreneurs are willing to put their businesses and personal lives on hold to pursue public office.

Mulicka didn't run on a lark. Despite meticulous planning, campaigning proved to be more grueling than he expected. “It's a pressure that's hard to describe,” says Mulicka.

Still, if you're running a business and contemplated running for office, Mulicka's experience could provide valuable insights into the process. And, Mulicka says, the experience is worthwhile. “I got a degree in political science on the side,” he chuckles.

Preparing the business
Mulicka carefully planned his business 18 months in advance so he could hit the campaign trail full-speed in the last six months. He sought valuable insights from two other state representatives in the region who have successfully managed their businesses and politics: Gary Aubuchon and Trudi Williams.

Mulicka hired management executives and invested in technology at Honc (pronounced “hontsch”) so he could delegate more tasks while he was on the campaign trail.

But Honc specializes in sea-wall construction, a complicated business that involves navigating a labyrinth of permitting, complex engineering and construction near water. One mistake can easily eat into profits. “This market is very unforgiving,” Mulicka says. “Your business margins are going to get squeezed.”

Despite the fact that he had hired talented managers in the last two years so he could delegate to them, Mulicka says the work is so challenging that he still had to oversee most jobs. “You can't hire experience,” he says. “It's a very challenging business to learn.”

On a typical day, Mulicka would attend a campaign-related breakfast meeting then change into work clothes at a job site before changing clothes again and heading out for a lunch event. He'd be back at work in the afternoon, running home to take a shower in time to hit an evening event.

Mulicka estimates he attended 15 events a week, shaking hands, answering questions and giving speeches. “It'll test your time-management skills to the max,” Mulicka says.

It didn't help that redistricting efforts constantly shifted the boundaries of his territory. He started running in District 75 and ended up running in District 78 because of political wrangling over borders.

Mulicka says he survived on Red Bull and protein bars because he wouldn't eat at events he attended. He worried about spilling a drink on his tie or choking on a bit of food. “I hardly ate anything,” he says.

Backing off this challenging schedule was out of the question. “You run like you're 20 points behind,” he says.

Besides the rubber-chicken circuit, Mulicka says the Internet has ramped up the pressure because of the constant barrage of emails, Facebook posts and tweets that have to be monitored and replied to swiftly. “It is so unrelenting,” he says.

While Mulicka had prepared his business for his absence, he realized that the demands of the campaign would have required him to be gone for six months. He found no way to manage a business and campaign successfully at the same time. “You can't cordon it off,” he says.

“Everyone wants to hear from the candidate,” says Mulicka. “You are the product.”

Mulicka says the only business he knows that managed this successfully was a pest-control firm that two brothers operated in the Florida Keys. The two men shared a camping trailer and one would run the business while the other hit the road, alternating every six months.

Family strains
Two significant events in March made Mulicka reevaluate his campaign.

The first was a conference on autism at Florida Gulf Coast University. Mulicka was attending because his son, Charlie, 8, was diagnosed with autism three years ago.

The speaker, Temple Grandin, an expert on the subject, reminded Mulicka that 87% of families with autism end in divorce. “Your son really needs you,” she told him.

A few days later, Mulicka was attending his grandparents' 65th wedding anniversary. His grandfather told him the key to a successful marriage was each partner should want the other to have the bigger piece of cake. “Family is everything,” he told Mulicka.

Mulicka realized that his wife, Stacy, who also serves as the chief financial officer at Honc, wasn't getting the larger piece of cake in this deal. “She's covering everything,” he says. “Young families makes it very hard.”

Shortly thereafter, Mulicka came to this conclusion: “The biggest place I can make a difference is in my son's life,” he says. “Ultimately, my business has to succeed to care for my son. Harvard would be cheap by comparison; he needs my best.”

Telling his supporters he was dropping out of the race was difficult, Mulicka says. Though he was confident about his decision, he spent days crafting a letter that outlined the challenges. “I ran for the right reasons and ended my campaign for the right reasons,” he says. “Everyone cares about their family.”

The positives
By nature, most entrepreneurs see the positives in difficult circumstances, and Mulicka is no exception. Despite the challenges, running for office had benefits, he says.

For one thing, Mulicka says the investment in technology and additional staff helped Honc post 20% higher sales in 2011 than in 2010. “We are a stronger organization for having gone through this,” he says.

Through relentless campaigning, Mulicka says his network of contacts grew exponentially. “I met so many people and learned so much about my hometown,” he says.

Mulicka says he learned that many influential people operate outside of politics. “The vast majority of them are not elected officials,” he says.

Now that he's seen how politics operates, Mulicka says he knows better how things get done in that sphere. The key to political action is knowing the right person in authority.

“I can get someone on the phone and get my calls answered,” he says. “I don't know of any successful businessman who doesn't pay attention to politics.”

On a personal level, Mulicka says attending the occasional community event doesn't seem to be so challenging when you've been to dozens a week. For example, he plans to attend the once-a-week lunches of the Rotary Club. “I've always wanted to be a Rotarian,” he says.

Mulicka says he may reconsider running for public office one day, but he'll wait until his son is an adult. “I enjoyed the entire journey and have no regrets except that I can't be three people at the same time,” he says.

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