The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Business

December 8, 2012

DON McNAY | Take a risk, go for your dream

— My father was a professional gambler. I’m an entrepreneur. However, the biggest risk taken by my family came from my wife, Karen, a Catholic school principal who grew up on a dairy farm.

She didn’t win the lottery, but she won a professional jackpot. Starting in July, she will be president of the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country.

Founded in 1727, the Ursuline Academy is the oldest Catholic School and also the oldest all-girls school in the United States. It has incredibly impressive alumni, with several nationally and internationally famous graduates.

Karen wasn’t looking for a new job. When the headhunters first called, her reaction wasn’t positive. We were just married in June, she loved her current job, had never lived outside Kentucky and was finishing her doctorate.

Her biggest concern was me. My structured settlement business operates nationally and my writing internationally, thanks to my syndicated column and Huffington Post contributions, but I am as deeply rooted in the legal, business and media communities in Kentucky as anyone can be.

A fear was that moving from Kentucky would damage my career. I love New Orleans and have been there many times, but have few clients in the area.

I happen to love Louisiana history. My high school civics teacher, Dick Maile, was an All-American basketball player at LSU and started me on a fascination that continues 40 years later. My friend and former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin (who wrote a must-read book about payday lending called Broke USA) is writing a book about post-Katrina New Orleans and told me I would love living there.

Being the son of a gambler and an entrepreneur taught me one thing: The biggest risk in life is not taking one.

We could stay in Kentucky and continue to be happy. Or she could try for a job that comes along once in a lifetime, and I could commute back and forth from Kentucky as I expanded my business to New Orleans and nationally.

Ultimately, we chose to roll the dice.

Karen read the description of what the Ursuline Academy was looking for and realized it was the position she had always dreamed of. It was also a position that would allow her to be a role model for a generation of Catholic girls and make a real difference.

I picked up a midlife, second career as a writer in order to advocate social justice and to educate people about personal finance. The Ursuline commitment to social justice is right up my alley.

The school took a big financial hit after Hurricane Katrina, but kept paying their teachers while the school was being repaired and no tuition was coming in.

That commitment was a big reason Karen applied for the position. She wanted to be in a culture that understood the long-term benefits of valuing its people.

As application time loomed, it was a time of prayer, intense conversations and gnashing of teeth. Love can conquer all, but developing a good plan really helps.

We developed a strategy where I would keep up our house in Kentucky and commute back and forth to New Orleans as I developed business in both places. I caught a break that my son-in-law, Clay Bigler, who serves as president of McNay Settlement Group, grew up as the son of a New Orleans bank president and saw the opportunity for us to open a branch in New Orleans.

I figured out that my years of accumulating frequent flier miles was about to come in handy.

One irritant is that several people kept asking Karen if I would go along with her going after her dream job. If it had been reversed, and she was asked to alter her career to follow my dreams, I doubt the question would have come up.

It also gave us a calling. To show the young women in her school that their president could be married to someone with similar professional accomplishments and make it work.

When we spent time with the search committee and board of directors, it was an impressive group of people with big time credentials, but what impressed us was their love and commitment to the school. She wanted to work with people like that.

Now she will.

I’m also proud that we both saw the opportunities and not the obstacles. My biggest fear was that my Kentucky clients would think I was abandoning them. I’ve been calling them in droves and the reaction has been enthusiastic. By keeping the house and office in Kentucky, they know I will be available when needed.

They also think it might be a good idea to visit me in the New Orleans office. Especially when Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl or the Jazz Festival are happening.

We don’t hit New Orleans until July, but it looks a trail of Kentuckians will be right behind us. Which means the risk of losing touch with our friends isn’t much of a risk after all.

Organisms need to grow or die. We are going to get a lot of change thrown at us at once, but out of change comes growth and opportunity.

Sometimes you get to fulfill your dreams. Sometimes you never knew they were your dreams until the opportunity knocks on your door.

Or a headhunter calls out of the blue.

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