Deb Copeland

Business Jet Traveler » October 2008
After hitting bottom in her teens and early twenties, Deb Copeland completely
Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 5:00am

Deb Copeland knows what it's like to fly high. She's doing that now, both on chartered aircraft and in her life. But she also knows how it feels to hit what seems like bottom-and then keep falling.

"Growing up, it was a family that was much like Ozzie and Harriet," Copeland told us. "My dad washed the dishes, Mom dried, they cut up and we had a good time. Then-literally within a day or two-my life came crashing down. My father left for another woman, my only sister went away to college and I was left at age 14 to take care of my mother, who had just been diagnosed with colon cancer. And I became her primary caregiver. The nurses taught me how to give her morphine injections."

That was just for starters. Copeland dropped out of high school, watched her mother deteriorate over three years and die and then began deteriorating herself. First came three years of alcohol and drug use; next, at age 23, marriage to a man who soon left her for another woman; and finally, a long series of medical problems, ranging from diabetes, lupus and chronic fatigue syndrome to grand mal seizures and a brain tumor.

So why does the now 53-year-old Copeland look so contented and prosperous in the photos that accompany this article? Because she is. She gave up drugs and alcohol many years ago, earned a high school equivalency diploma and attended college. Her medical problems are mostly under control and she has a happy second marriage that has lasted 24 years, plus six children, including three that she and her husband adopted internationally.

She also has a booming career. In 1983, she launched Smart Temporary Services, which grew to have 4,000 employees in seven states. She sold that firm in 1995 but continues to devote "probably more than full time" to Work Smart Business Consultants, a supplier of employee-training services to hospitals and major corporations that she founded in 1984.

These days, Copeland is flying around the country to make speeches, advise corporations and promote her book, Attitude Therapy, which tells the story of her life and describes the philosophy she preaches when she consults. According to the book, attitude matters at least as much as what happens to you-and the smile that Copeland often flashes is as much a cause of her happiness as a reflection of it.

You were on a downward spiral after your mother died. How did you reverse course?

I worked three jobs to survive. I was exhausted, so I started taking speed, and then I was so anxious, I started smoking pot. I was self-medicating. And one morning, I just got up and said, "It's either going to be live or die." I recognized at 19 that it was a pity party and I was causing my own anguish. You know, get over it. Get on with yourself. It was an a-ha moment.

So what did you do?

I poured the alcohol down the drain and the drugs down the toilet and said, "I have to live. And I am the only one responsible for making that happen." Today, other than seizure and blood-pressure medication- because I've suffered three strokes during the illness-I don't even take Tylenol. And I don't drink.

How did you start Smart Temporary Services?

One of my jobs was to stop by physicians' offices. There used to be ledgers on their desks and I'd take them home, type them up and bill their insurance. I had an a-ha moment that I'm not a typist and I'm much better at taking care of people. I hired my girlfriends to do the typing and learned that Olsten out of Westbury [N.Y.] had a medical temp side. I joined up with them and bought a franchise. In a couple of years, another person in our city was going out of business and offered it to me. Then another one went out of business and I purchased that one and grew it to 4,000 employees.

And then you sold out?

Yes, back to Olsten. I'd suffered a lot of health problems and the business had grown so big that it wasn't much fun. And it was a good time to sell-the offer was right.

Let's talk about aviation. How long have you been flying privately?

I've been using Learjets since the late 1970s or early 1980s with friends and clients, and chartering regularly for several years. For short trips, I charter a Piper Navajo [piston aircraft] from a lawyer who owns it. There's also another fellow my husband flies with who has a King Air 350 [turboprop] that I've used.

Do you get work done onboard that you can't do when you fly commercially?

Yes. It is so much easier for me to work. There's more space and I don't have to worry about someone reading what I'm working on. It is such a good use of my time. You just feel like you haven't wasted a beat. And the airport is so close it's awesome-probably eight minutes.

And you fly to cities that you couldn't get to easily on the airlines?

Yes. For example, I think Lynchburg [Va.] is hard to get to. I flew there in less than an hour last month, had three gigs there that day and one that evening and I was back. It was perfect.

Do clients sometimes pick up the cost of the flights?

Yes, probably 75 percent of the time.

What's the main reason you fly privately?

Being home for my husband and children. And the work is right there as a close second-I feel that I'm using every minute of my time wisely. It's just added years to my life doing this because, you know, flying commercially, there are always holdups and problems. The last time I flew [on an airline] out of New York, I had to fly through Detroit and then it was 11:30 p.m. before the plane came and I was supposed to have already been home and unpacked. And that's just so frustrating with kids, because you feel guilty enough being away from your children. I want to be there to put them in bed and it's priceless to be able to charter a plane to get home to do that.

How did you get into consulting ?

My first year in the temp business, a hospital executive came to me and said, "I want my people trained like your temporaries. They're awesome. What do you do?" I said I focus on attitude and he said, "I want you to come and teach it." I said, "I just can't. I'm working so much."

He said, "Well, here's the budget." I said, "I'll be there Monday. Is Monday too late?" [laughs] And I just started doing it and now it's all I do.

Your book made sense to me, but I did think, "What's new about this?" It sounded a lot like Norman Vincent Peale and the many motivational speakers who emphasize the value of positive attitudes.

It's interesting you said that because I just talked with a person who said, "This is not a new concept, but it's one we don't visit." It's just making people aware of how they're thinking. We all have so much "stinkin' thinkin'." OK, we're losing money in the stock market. Yes, that's tragedy-until you sit beside someone at dinner who just lost two children. It puts it in perspective.

I like to tell people to take a sheet of paper and write down what you have control of. We have very little control over many things, but one thing we have control over is the way we choose to think. It was Henry Ford who said, "Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right."

You just suggested comparing your problems to those of a parent who lost children. But what if you are that parent? Aren't there situations where being upbeat isn't realistic?

I do believe you're right. My oldest son ended up in rehab last October. And I'll never forget the pain of that phone call. If I had run into you and you'd said, "How are you doing?" I would have said, "Fine," and the tears would have just...you know.

But I recognized it and started doing work on myself about what I could and couldn't do about the situation.

Do you have any formal training? There's a real psychology element to what you're preaching.

You know, there really is and I do not.

It's all based on what you've been through?

It is. When people tell us what they're getting from it, they say the personal story helps them realize that they can do more. I'll talk about attitude and then I'll couple in some of my personal story and it's just easier to take.

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“"How many leaders actively seek out and encourage views alien and at odds with their own? All too few...Who in your organization serves as your Challenger In Chief? Interrogating the choices you are considering making? Making you consider the uncontemplated, the unimaginable and that which contradicts or refutes your position? And also challenging you?"”

-Noreena Hertz, author of Eyes Wide Open: How To Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World