CEO and president, TotalWorks
For the past 20 years, Gail Ludewig has been happily running her family business, TotalWorks, a Chicago-based publishing production company that has provided services for clients looking to outsource their internal publishing operations since 1927.
Ludewig had spent years carving out a successful career in finance when, in the mid-1980s, she suddenly received a new job offer: Come home and run the family business.
“My father had some plans to change what he was doing,” Ludewig says. “He sold the company to two employees and at the last minute, the transaction for the sale of the business fell through.” Despite having no experience with the family business outside of a summer job, she took the reigns at TotalWorks.
“I was separated from my first husband so my ability to take a career and business risk and change on one hand was easy — and on one hand, hard — but I decided to do it,” Ludewig says.
The change proved both challenging — immediately pitting Ludewig’s company against a new competitor and facing a technological overhaul — and rewarding. Not only has the company seen significant financial success in Ludewig’s era, employee satisfaction has also soared, with an average employee tenure today of 15 years.
As time passes, Ludewig’s focus is shifting to also increasingly include her personal goals. Although she doesn’t have a specific date in mind, Ludewig is working to prepare the company for her exit, transferring responsibility and authority whenever she can, constantly aware that her life’s work and the work in her life need to be equally weighted.
But at the age most people would be starting to daydream about upcoming retirement leisure activities, Ludewig is using her current career success to gear up for her second career change — which she hopes will begin when she retires in the next 10 years.
“I am attuned to the importance of balance,” she says. “My second career will be to work for societal changes. My retirement age is not 80.”
Ludewig hopes to dedicate her post-retirement time to working on solutions for issues facing women and girls today; it’s a subject matter that she holds as dear as she does the family business she will be retiring from. “The idea of balance [in life is important to me] partly because women are not as closely identified with their work life [as men],” Ludewig says. “Most women don’t get asked, ‘What do you do?’ Happiness and success [are] really more gender-based [in that way].”
“My success in business allows me to support philanthropic causes and vacation much more,” she says. “I have high expectations for myself. I always want to improve and do better, but not because of [business] competition.”
Although she has, over time, guided TotalWorks through a competitive crisis and seen it through a technological overhaul, Ludewig’s perception of her success has less to do with work goals and more to do with personal contentment.
“I don’t think I ever didn’t feel successful, since I’ve always supported myself,” she says. “I’ve never wanted for anything. Your financial point is [reaching a] comfort level. It’s not an amount. If you want to spend $1,000 on something, you don’t have to worry. It’s the little extravagances. Success now is more related to happiness to me.”