Aging can be issue for execs

For Georgia business leaders, working into senior years offers fulfillment

When is the right time to stop working?

For years, the retirement age was 65. Then 67. If you’re a member of the board of directors of one of several metro Atlanta public companies, you’ll be asked to step down when you hit 70 or above.

Monday, the founder of Atlanta-based Aaron’s, a rent-to-own furniture company, announced he would be retiring as chairman of his business. Charlie Loudermilk is 85.

“Maybe everybody ought to retire at 72,” said Loudermilk, who polled the other directors at his company about the retirement ages for their respective businesses after announcing his own intention. He said the average age was about 72.

“Everybody has a different retirement age in their mind,” he said. “I never thought about 72, or 73, or 75. I was enjoying it, the company was doing well. It was exciting.”

As the economy forces people to work longer — and life expectancy rises — questions arise about the impact age has on someone’s ability to perform duties or run a company.

About 15 percent of the members of ExecuNet, a business and career network for senior-level executives, are 65 or older, president Mark Anderson said. He said people are working longer, in some instances because they need the money and in some because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they no longer had a job to go to.

While experts in the science of aging say the risk of dementia doubles each year after 65 — until an 85-year-old has a 50 percent chance of having dementia of some sort — they are also quick to say that the trajectory of aging is unique for each person.

“Some people will live their whole lives without experiencing substantial loss of memory,” said Linda Van Eldik, director at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “If you have a retirement age of 65, it’s not going to be because you have a lot of memory problems. I think it’s just historic. Sixty-five is the new 40.”

SunTrust Bank does not have a mandatory retirement age for executives, but it is a tradition for CEOs to step down at 65. Southern Company senior executives and members of the management council are required to leave at 65. And board members at companies as varied as Delta Air Lines, Newell Rubbermaid, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Home Depot are all required to resign their seats when they reach a certain age.

Some executives stick around well past when their contemporaries have stopped working.

At 82, Warren Buffett still leads his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway. The founder of technology firm Cubic Corp., Walter Zable, ran the business into his 90s before dying at 97 this summer. The chairman and CEO of Tootsie Roll Industries, Melvin Gordon, is in his 90s as well. And Chick-fil-A’s S. Truett Cathy, at 91, is still chairman of the board and CEO of the restaurant chain he founded.

It’s their job that gives many people a reason to get up each day, said Theodore Johnson, director of the Emory Center for Health in Aging.

“If you think about what provides an engaging or fulfilling life, it’s a feeling of worth or value. It’s stature or esteem,” he said. “For many people, there’s nothing more exciting than fulfilling their life’s dream.”

That’s one of the reasons, Loudermilk said, that he stayed on at Aaron’s. But his legs have worn out. He has less energy than he once did.

He relinquished the CEO title in 2008. He cut down his travel schedule, and stopped going to new store openings. By his account, he slowed down quite a bit.

“I can’t stand the stress that I used to,” Loudermilk said. “Eighty-five is old.”

Still, the excitement of the job was what convinced him to stay this long.

“Each year, there are more and more people saying thank you, thank you, thank you,” Loudermilk said. “How can you walk away from that?”

In some cases, Johnson said, people are able to make notable achievements in advanced age, often in writing or painting. In other cases, there’s a reason to question whether those around them do enough when someone starts to decline.

“Retrospectively, someone like Ronald Reagan, it always begs the question what sort of impairments did he have in the midst of making decisions for this country,” he said of the former president, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after leaving office. “We have to be better at dealing with when is enough. …When people no longer have the capacity to work, they should retire.”

In addition to increasing the likelihood of dementia, age is also the leading contributor to stroke and cardiovascular diseases, Johnson said. The average life expectancy now — for a child born in 2009 — is 78.5 years. A child born between 1929 and 1931 had a life expectancy of 59.2 years.

Van Eldik, at the University of Kentucky, said people should not be punished for aging successfully.

“If you arbitrarily make a certain age when a person has to stop working, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” she said. “In examples where people who were very successful had to give up positions of leadership, they were not very happy. They get depressed sometimes.”

Many people create workarounds to enable them to keep up their pace, even as their energy levels cause them to slow down as they age, said James Herndon, a research professor at Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University. Typists who cannot move their fingers as quickly compensate by looking farther ahead on the page.

He said of business executives, “I expect that that class of people has enough reserve that they’re able to compensate for fundamental brain changes.”

The existence of an age limit for board members or executives brings up the conversation about retirement, said Paul Lapides, director of the Corporate Governance Center at Kennesaw State University. Without it, executives may simply plan on staying with a company forever.

Loudermilk, at Aaron’s, said he would have left the company sooner if his age had affected his performance. But Aaron’s continued to improve. Since the end of 2000, Aaron’s has increased its revenues more than 400 percent, to more than $2 billion at the end of 2011.

Still, Loudermilk said 85 was a good time for him to leave. Business moves much faster than it once did. Communication is faster. He’s slowed down.

“It’s hard to tell whether you’re affected or not, when you’re in top management,” he said. “You have to look at the numbers and see what the numbers say. … You are what your numbers say you are.”

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