Career Shift: Goodbye, Law; Hello, 3 New Pursuits
Dan Berger quit his law practice at 55 and is now loving life as a maple syrup farmer, caterer and musician
Dan Berger had been a successful corporate lawyer in a large Cincinnati firm for more than 30 years when, in May 2000 at age 55, he sent a surprising memo to his partners. It said: “I am planning on leaving the firm as I have other things I still want to do.”
At the time, Berger wasn’t exactly sure what those other things would be. But he felt there were three good reasons to make the move.
3 Reasons He Shifted Careers
First, he wasn’t enjoying practicing law any more. Second, his wife Susan, who was just starting out as a mental health counselor, supported his quest for a career shift. Finally, Berger was confident that one of the varied talents and interests he’d cultivated would eventually assert itself.
What Berger didn’t know was that it wouldn’t be one of those interests, but three that would take him in directions he never could have envisioned the day he sent the farewell memo.
When he first left the law practice, Berger envisioned himself growing organic produce.
Farming was in his blood; he had fond memories of shelling peas and making jam with his grandmother on her farm in Mount Healthy, Ohio, outside Cincinnati. For the past several years, he’d been living in the country on a nearby working farm in Lebanon, Ohio, commuting to his job downtown.
Berger enjoyed growing his own fruits and vegetables, so he started selling the produce at farmers markets, local restaurants and to the Wild Oats supermarket.
Tapping Into Maple Syrup
Then, at a cocktail party, one of his neighbors asked Berger if he had any maple trees on his farm. “Sure, I have 12 big ones in my front yard,” he answered. The neighbor asked him to tap the trees and bring the sap over so he could cook it into pure maple syrup.
After a few years, Berger decided he’d also tap his back 15 trees, purchase the necessary equipment and cook the syrup himself.
“This syrup thing is addictive,” Berger says. “I mean what else can you do in the winter that’s this much fun?”
Today, Berger has 710 taps on trees on his farm and neighboring farms that all produce his Maple Grove Farm pure maple syrup. In a good year, such as 2011, he can churn out 260 gallons of syrup.
Food also served up another post-law career.
Berger had long enjoyed cooking and entertaining for his friends and family; his mother even bought him his own set of pots and pans when he was a boy. One day shortly after he left the firm, a friend told Berger that “your cooking is the best food we ever eat” and asked him to cater an important business lunch.
Although Berger had never entertained thoughts of cooking for a living, he accepted the offer. To prepare for the assignment, he bought the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook and read it cover to cover — twice. The lunch proved such a success that one of the attendees called Berger a month later to cater her event. Subsequently, his former law partners started hiring him for their corporate and personal events.
Suddenly, he was a chef and caterer as well as a farmer.
Life as a Caterer
Berger learned quickly that catering was not without its perils. “When I started out, I pretty much catered any kind of an event, including weddings,” he recalls. “But after catering weddings for about four years, I realized that I was waking up in the middle of the night, going over the hundreds of details, wondering how I was going to pull it off and just generally fretting about the event months before it was to occur. It was sort of like worrying about a big transaction or litigation when I was practicing law. Ridiculous! So I stopped catering weddings.”
His Third New Career
Although Berger was happy growing produce, making maple syrup and catering, he felt that it was time to act on another one of his passions: music.
Five years ago, he pulled out his old guitar, bought an amp and microphone and hooked up with his high school buddy Jim Hunt. Before long, Berger and Hunt started performing at local coffee shops and small venues. “I’m having a great time singing and performing again just like when I was in high school,” Berger says.
When asked what she thinks of her husband’s various second-act endeavors, Susan says: "I think it's terrific. It's what keeps him young and happy."
Advice for Would-Be Career Shifters
Berger offers this advice to others considering a career shift: “Look back over your life. What did you love to do, even as a child? I know that sounds simple but it worked for me. All the things I’m doing today, the seeds were planted as a child.”
Upon reflection, Berger says it’s not really surprising that his life has taken these interesting turns. He has eagerly pursued a variety of activities and avocations for decades.
He recalls being assigned to give a speech about himself while a college senior at Dennison University. Today, more than 40 years later, Berger still remembers standing in front of the class quoting Walt Whitman as he described himself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Dan Berger, career-shifter extraordinaire and Renaissance man, still contains multitudes.