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Notes on Camp

Executives quit the rat race to manage the sack race.

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As the cubicle class spends its summer under fluorescent light, Roger Black is officiating at a hockey game played with a frozen Twinkie. After nearly a decade as a general manager for restaurateurs like Drew Nieporent and Terrance Brennan, a burned-out Black, 32, quit to buy the Stonybrook Day Camp in Randolph, New Jersey. “What better way of life could there be?” he gloats. After all, this is camp, the mere mention of which conjures innocent, infinite possibility. Disney’s Michael Eisner even wrote a memoir (called Camp) about how it “holds a romantic and special place in your mind.”

Quite a few corporation men seem to agree. “Over the last ten years, a lot of people in their twenties and thirties who were doing something else are looking to make a living owning a camp,” says Tony Stein, 43, a former direct-marketing executive who now owns the posh Camp Echo Lake in the Adirondacks. Those mom-and-pop shops run by teachers on break have exploded into a $20 billion– a–year industry. “Camp is now a year-round business,” says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, the industry’s accreditation body. “The business skills that you need have changed and grown.” Hence all the suits who are switching to cargo shorts. “It’s a very hot investment,” insists Brian Cohen, 41, a former senior vice-president of Elektra Records who started Beam Camp in New Hampshire two years ago. A camp can gross $1 million a year and sell for up to $10 million. Sam Borek, a 31-year-old law-school grad and associate director of Candy Mountain Day Camp in New City, New York, adds that it’s “a way to bridge the gap between what you really love and earning a nice living.”

Of course, it isn’t all volleyball and bed checks. “Everyone thinks I’m out playing basketball,” says Jed Buck, the owner of New Jersey’s Meadowbrook Country Day Camp, who used to work for Procter & Gamble. “This is a huge business. We hire hundreds of people and always have renovation projects going on.” Not to mention labor issues, marketing, and demanding parents. “I do more shit than I would ever have to do in the office,” says Cohen. Plus there’s the matter of one’s own expectations. “When you’re growing up, your parents ask whether you are going to be a doctor or a lawyer,” says Black. “No one ever asked, ‘Are you going to own a summer camp?’ ” He doesn’t have any regrets about giving up the restaurant world, though. “Have you ever seen a 3-year-old trying to eat a Fudgsicle as it drips all the way down his face? I mean, it’s just unbelievable.”


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