Saying No to Archie
Why I severed my ties to the family business.
by David Silberkleit
Another skirmish in the culture wars erupted last month when Michael Silberkleit went public to defend the honor of Sabrina, the teenage witch. Silberkleit is the publisher of Archie Comics (www.archiecomics.com), the company that created Sabrina and that specializes in wholesome characters. He was incensed that Melissa Joan Hart, who plays Sabrina on TV, had posed in the altogether (well, almost) for the men's magazine Maxim.
At one time, Silberkleit's son, David, would have been in battle at his father's side -- or more likely, arguing with him behind the scenes. But six years ago, David severed his ties with Archie Comics, choosing to go his own way. Now he was watching from the sidelines -- and pretty comfortable being there. It's a sense of detachment that came only after a long, sometimes wrenching process. Earlier this year, we asked David to tell the story in an essay. As he wrote draft after draft, he says, he came to see one thing clearly: "My father was willing to give me the company. That I chose not to take it says more about me than it does about him." Here's how it happened:
When I was eight years old, "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies went gold. Like a lot of other kids, I knew the words by heart. But I wasn't just any pre-teenybopper with an AM radio habit. As grandson of a co-founder of Archie Comics, I was son No. 1 in the "Archie family."
From the moment I was conscious, I felt famous. Ours was the house that gave out comics, not candy, on Halloween. When I went to the office with grandpa, I'd help open letters addressed to Archie from kids all over the world. And at summer camp, a box from the printer arrived weekly, making my bunk the headquarters for a personal comic book cartel.
My grandfather and a partner started Archie Comics in 1941, and by the time I was in elementary school, my father and his partner were in line to run the company. None of my siblings was interested in succeeding them. I knew that someday Betty and Veronica would both be mine.
I had the first twinge of doubt about my destiny when I was 13. A friend had come over, played backgammon with me, and left behind a message of sorts. Inside the backgammon case, next to the spot where I had neatly written "David Silberkleit," he had scrawled the words "is wealthy." It made me wonder if that was all I was. Did I have my own identity?
By the time I left college, I was full of doubts about a life with Archie. But my inheritance-and an incredible business opportunity-were beckoning. In 1984, at age 23, I decided to re-enter Archie's world.
The first thing I did was assess the strength of our brand. Since the '60s, when Archie was a Saturday morning TV and Top 40 staple, the company's marketing energy had waned. While Disney and other companies were busting open the concept of licensing, Archie was set on cruise.
Yet when we mailed a survey to 3,000 readers, we got back an astonishing 1,500 replies, all expressing an enduring bond with the characters. I was thrilled with the possibilities. We could build on that loyalty and bring Archie up to date, creating a full-blown, diversified entertainment company. We'd reach out to the 8- to 11-year-olds reading Archie, and to their brothers and sisters and baby-boom parents.
At first, putting the plan into action was a blast. "Archie" and I were synonymous again, much as we had been in my childhood. His name was an instant calling card, opening doors everywhere.
We created a "Say No to Drugs" campaign, which appeared on one billion kids' milk cartons. We got into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and I strolled down Broadway myself in a Jughead costume. We were invited to the White House, to the United Nations, and to Hollywood to watch the filming of a TV movie we had brokered. ("To Riverdale and Back," as it turned out, wasn't much of a hit.) For a good five years, I threw myself into the business and felt we were making progress.
But the uneasiness crept back. I began again to wonder who I really was and grew increasingly impatient with the pace of change. I had become confident, even arrogant, about my talent and my vision for the company. I was blinded sometimes by a sense of entitlement and by an urgent sense of responsibility (entirely self-imposed) to make Archie's future my own.
I remember my fury at a meeting with an apparel manufacturer who turned down an Archie license in favor of some new Fox TV characters. I scoffed at him. How was he ever going to make money on such funny-looking yellow creatures? (I wonder how many millions he's made since he decided on The Simpsons.)
Back at the office, my dad and his partner were on a completely different mission. Prosperous and enjoying their lives, they had finally emerged from the shadows of their own fathers. They had waited their turn to lead with the patience typical of their generation. They were comfortable now, and the stable company culture reflected that. My entrepreneurial energy was fundamentally at odds with their style.
For a long time, I was reluctant to face my feelings. I kept talking myself into staying. My father agreed to work with a family business counselor, and we tried to resolve issues about money and succession. But my incessant arguments with my dad were merely a symptom. I wasn't willing simply to adopt what he and his partner had created; I wanted to make it my own. And I realized that no matter what I did-or what they did-I would always know that Archie had been handed to me. I would be riding through life in a borrowed jalopy.
Worst of all, I realized that I was growing dependent on the very comfort that confined me. I had to leave Riverdale. In May 1993, I quit. Now, there was no longer anything to complain about, nor anyone to complain to. I had to find the answers myself.
The financial consequences were significant. Although I kept my company car and had saved up some money, there were no trust funds, and I had no ownership in the business. There would be no inheritance. I had turned in my Archie Club membership card, and I was completely alone. For the next year, I drifted. I interviewed at another comic book company and considered work in kids' entertainment. But gradually I saw that I was headed in the wrong direction. Archie was part of my past, only one piece of my life's journey.
So I set out to learn everything I could about how to change my life. I read books, went to workshops, and worked with personal coaches. One of my first discoveries: I wasn't so alone. Many people feel constrained by lives they want to change but can't. I was intrigued with new ways to define security. I wanted to help people with what I was learning: to find truth and to be courageous in the face of change.
I set up my own coaching practice www.empowercoach.com. Initially, I worked with family businesses. But I found that the solutions to their problems were often as elusive as they had been for Archie Comics. Now I focus on entrepreneurs who are change junkies like me. Far from being shackled by tradition, they are consumed by their visions. I form a collaborative partnership with these executives and coach them to bring those visions to life with grace. Together, we look at their blind spots, the roadblocks they put in their own paths. When they get derailed, I remind them of their mission. Most important, we try to get past the fear of taking the ultimate risk: creating a life that authentically expresses your soul. I've come to feel that it is not only my job but also my destiny to help others embark on these adventures. And, of course, in doing so, I engage in my own.
I spend much of my time adventuring in the physical world: rock climbing, scuba diving, and flying. But I remind clients -- and myself -- that you don't have to fly to Katmandu to experience a thrill. Everyday life is the true adventure.
From the inside of the family business looking out, I couldn't have imagined the life I lead now. Walking away six years ago, I felt a deep sadness. My father too was sad, but (I think) proud. Since then, we've stayed in close contact, seeing each other at family gatherings. But for many years (it amazes me how many), part of me yearned for a moment when my father would say, "The company misses you. It's not the same here without you."
Now those feelings are mostly a memory. I can see that I was, even then, almost the man I am now: passionate, driven, greeting life with vigor. The difference is that this life is 100% mine. And I'm richer, in many ways, for having had the experience. I've taken satisfaction in replenishing the bank account that plummeted in value on that day six years ago. More important, my spiritual bank account is earning triple-digit interest.
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