Execs’ jobs can hurt their health

As chief executive of the rent-to-own furniture company Aaron’s, Robin Loudermilk had to juggle demanding shareholders, growth plans that would add 1,000 North American stores and the beginning of a European expansion.

He also had to stay ahead of the anxiety and depression that led him to take a leave of absence from the company about 15 years ago.

Nov. 4, in the face of a recurrence of those diseases, Loudermilk walked away from the company his father founded, and resigned from its board. He had been CEO for three years.

Though it is estimated that depression affects 121 million people worldwide, only a handful of high-level metro Atlanta executives have openly acknowledged their own struggles. While experts say the stigma against discussing mental health may be lessening, they also say that CEOs — who are often the faces of the companies they lead — may have more trouble than most admitting to, and dealing with, their diseases.

Executive positions such as those Loudermilk left may look glamorous, but they come with stressors other jobs don’t share, said Dr. William McDonald, the J.B. Fuqua chair for late-life depression at Emory University.

“These people have a lot of money, but they’re also in a very vulnerable position,” McDonald said. “You would imagine a CEO has a lot of control over a situation, but that’s not true. They’re beholden to a lot of different groups. They’re very vulnerable to developing stress out of that.”

CEOs and other executives often feel the need to be the strong, sturdy face of an organization, even as they worry about increasing profits, serving employees and enhancing shareholder value, McDonald said. For those who are predisposed to depression, the combination can be a trigger that brings on the disease.

Neither Loudermilk nor his father was available to discuss his decision to leave Aaron’s, a company that made $28 million in the third quarter and operates more than 1,900 stores.

But Aaron’s referred to the 52-year-old Loudermilk’s struggles with depression and anxiety in discussing his departure with analysts and in a letter that Aaron’s Chairman Charlie Loudermilk wrote to associates in response to his son’s exit.

“As some of you remember he left Aaron’s for about 2 years because of depression and anxiety,” the elder Loudermilk wrote. “With relaxation and medicine he came back to Aaron’s and has done an outstanding job as CEO, but now he feels that he seems to be slipping into that problem again so his Doctors, me, all his family, and a number of friends has [sic] said that he should resign from this ‘pressure cooker’ job.”

Robin Loudermilk, in a 2009 speech to business leaders at the University of Georgia, recounted stress he was under while working in collections with Aaron’s. He discussed taking beds and televisions away from families that had not paid, chasing people at midnight and seeing guns, drugs and abuse. Loudermilk said he suffered from post-traumatic stress after seeing two people killed. He burned himself out.

“So I know depression, I know anxiety. Been there. It is a horrible, horrible thing,” he said a year and a half after becoming CEO. “Fortunately, I’ve come out of it. ... The issues I had really set me up for where I am today.”

Tom Johnson, the former CEO of the 24-hour news network CNN and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times — who since retiring in 2001 has spoken out about his own depression — said it is important to be open about mental health issues.

CEOs often feel the need to be “supermen,” he said.

“We aren’t supposed to show our staffs we have weaknesses,” he said. “Many, many CEOs are coping with it. They’re afraid to acknowledge it. They’re afraid to admit it.”

In part, Johnson said, that is because executives can see such admissions as an acknowledgment of imperfections that could undermine their authority and scuttle job prospects.

The stigma may be abating, albeit slightly, as more people acknowledge depression. Executives such as Johnson, Cousins Properties CEO Larry Gellerstedt and the now-deceased J.B. Fuqua, who built the conglomerate Fuqua Industries, came forward about their own struggles. The World Health Organization reports depression is one of the leading causes of disability, and affects 121 million people worldwide.

While Aaron’s said Loudermilk intends to focus on his health and the family real estate business, senior Gilford Securities analyst Rob Straus said he would be glad to see Loudermilk return to Aaron’s if he was interested in doing so. A spokesman at Genuine Parts Co. said Loudermilk is expected to remain on that company’s board.

“I don’t think twice if an executive left, if an executive needed time off and returned,” Straus said. “I wouldn’t think twice about it if they were skilled running the company to begin with. ... If they are capable before, I would want them back.”

Loudermilk, a hands-on executive, was on Aaron’s board for 28 years and had been its president for 14. The company is now being run on an interim basis by Ronald Allen, a board member since 1997 and the former head of Delta Air Lines.

While depression is diagnosed across the socio-economic spectrum, the well-off are least likely to be diagnosed with the disease, said Dr. Ray Kotwicki, medical director and vice president of professional services at mental health services facility Skyland Trail in Atlanta. Loudermilk is a board member there, and has been a frequent donor to the facility. He was also treated there.

McDonald, with Emory, said CEOs often go to the doctor infrequently because they are busy juggling other things. He said as such, executives who are diagnosed with depression are less likely to seek treatment than others are.

Kotwicki said executives often are misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, or told that they’re simply having a stressful period. This may be because people with depression who have more resources are able to hide their symptoms longer, he said, asking deputies to pick up work or hiring people to care for children or clean a house.

Some have trouble convincing themselves, or others, that they are depressed because they are high functioning, he said, and from the outside, their lives look good.

“A lot of people look for other explanations for feeling the way they do,” Kotwicki said.

Because mental health issues still carry a stigma, people often look to cope on their own, so they do not have to admit they have a disease. For instance, a person may turn to alcohol instead of dealing with symptoms.

But medication, therapy and relaxation can help executives and others manage depression and reduce the number of depressive episodes they experience. Kotwicki said he thinks people can recover from the disease, much in the same way cancer patients can go into remission.

Gellerstedt, whose Cousins Properties last year owned more than 7 million square feet of office space and nearly 5 million square feet of retail space, said in an email that in his experience, recovery is possible.

“Depression is treatable, but knowing that is not enough in and of itself,” he said. “You have to actively seek treatment. If you do, and if you’re diligent, you can and should be fine.”

Loudermilk, in his 2009 speech, described himself as “one of the most fortunate people in the world.” Still, he said he didn’t take it for granted.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I knock on wood every morning.”

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