Wednesday, December 3, 1997
Real people, real dreams
at virtual firm

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Even a virtual corporation has to do lunch. Employees need the face time that e-mail, pagers and fax machines can't replace.

Besides, you can't get somebody to pass the salt over the Internet.

So, twice a month, three of the 11 employees of North Star Navigators - a virtual business that guides companies in their choice of computer and management systems - gather at a real table in a real restaurant. They asked me to tag along for a Lunch with Cliff.

''We'd like to explain how we make this virtual business work, and maybe provide inspiration for others in more traditional companies,'' said Joan Gutmann Roberts, North Star's director of marketing. Even though I suffer from an advanced case of techno-phobia, I accepted her invitation for lunch at the First Watch in the Rookwood Pavilion. Joan arrived with Eric Anderson, North Star's founder and president, and Terri Shannon, director of business development. I showed up with a double dose of dread.

I was afraid this was going to be a lunch about gigabytes and Web sites. Tech-talk glazes my eyes like icing on a doughnut.

My fears proved groundless.

Instead of discussing hard drives and computer chips, North Star's navigators pondered matters of life and death.

They warmed to the serious stuff by discussing where they came from and where they're going with this virtual business.

They're refugees from big business seeking a balance in their lives between work and family. Eric worked for Cincinnati Bell, Joan for Nutone, Terri for Ford.

Each had enough of corporate downsizing. And impersonal corporate relations.

After Eric formed North Star, they found a home for their work. Terri and Joan work out of their basements.

''I can be a professional, work at home and do what's near to my heart,'' Terri said. ''I can kiss my three little boys whenever I want.''

Joan has two young sons, and she wants ''to be home for them as they grow up. I'm an older mom, and I don't want to miss their childhood. This virtual company lets me do that.''

Eric works at the company's downtown office, which also is a storage facility, mail drop and brain-storming center. He would rather have his office at his home in Hyde Park.

''But my wife stole it from me.'' She's working out of their house after leaving her big-business job.

Eric Anderson founded North Star to dream.

''I worked in a big company where I felt I could not have any dreams. Every time I did dream, something would happen to prevent me from even trying to make it come true.''

In 1989 and 1990, his dreams were dashed at home and at work. Downsizing took his job at Cincinnati Bell in 1989, and the next year, cancer claimed his first wife's life.

''As my wife was dying,'' Eric said, ''we were exploring alternative kinds of medicine.''

They explored the healing philosophies of Australian medicine men, Aboriginal shamans who believe dreams can cure diseases. Eric came to believe in the power of dreaming. He uses it at work.

''We're always dreaming up new projects at North Star.''

And at play.

Eric loves to relax on his boat. ''When it comes out of the water in the fall, I'm in hibernation until April.''

His boat's name?


Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.