The CEO in the woods, revealed

June 21, 2008, 2:00 AM UTC
Fortune

Jirka called! On Tuesday, I told you about my unforgettable interview with Jirka Rysavy, the founder and former CEO of Corporate Express, the office-supply company that Staples is buying for some $4.7 billion. This is the guy who lived in a cabin in the woods above Boulder, Colo. “I still live in the same place,” Rysavy told me when he phoned Friday afternoon. Now he’s the CEO of a Nasdaq-traded company, but he still lives simply and yes, uses an outhouse. “I didn’t want money to change me,” he professed. He doesn’t even own a BlackBerry.

Notoriously press-shy (until today, he hadn’t talked to a reporter in years, he said), Rysavy mentioned that a few things have changed in the decade since I visited him. On his plot in the woods, he now has a greenhouse, where he grows veggies, and a one-acre garden, with berries and currents. He’s still an avid athlete – trained for the ’04 Olympics, at age 50, in the 110-meter hurdles (with his native Czech team). Now 54, he’s training for international competition in the 400-meter hurdles.

You probably don’t know Gaiam , the media/retail outfit that Rysavy started after selling Corporate Express. It’s an impressive operation. Gaiam controls a big share of wellness/fitness DVD sales—a growing market – and sells balance balls (those big, brightly colored balls that you see in your gym) in some 70,000 retail outlets. Riding the wellness wave, Rysavy has built Gaiam’s stock-market value to $330 million. Not bad for a guy who lives without running water.



P.S. I mentioned to Rysavy that two CEOs I know are into meditation – which is core to Gaiam’s business. One is Procter & Gamble (PG) chief A.G. Lafley. Another is Ron Sargent of Staples – the office-products retail giant that, coincidentally, is buying the business that made Rysavy his first millions. Do you know any other CEOs who practice meditation?