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Flying on the edge: for instant perspective, Jerry Curtis of Nationwide Recovery Systems goes to the extremes. (CEO Extreme).

The force of gravity wrenched his stomach. It pressed his spine, neck and head against the seat, making him feel like a wrestler on the losing end of a pin. Still, Jerry Curtis felt exhilarated; in fact, he'd paid some $7,000 for this thrill of roaring 6,000 miles an hour over Moscow in a Russian MiG.

Flying in a fighter plane might not be everyone's idea of a fabulous vacation, but Curtis never was one for lounging poolside. Although for more than 20 years he worked such long days building his $600 million Carrollton, Texas, collections firm, Nationwide Recovery Systems, that he seldom took time off to indulge his passions, Curtis seems to be making up for lost time. In addition to his flights in a MiG, his recent trips include an excursion to the North Pole, a jaunt hunting mountain lions in Colorado (he bagged a 150-pounder) and a stint on a naval carrier during training maneuvers off the East Coast.

"I'm attracted to things that expand my boundaries," the 59-year-old president and CEO says of his yen for extreme vacations. "They teach me about myself and my endurance--and they also help in my business life."

"'Status quo' are two words that are not in Jerry's vocabulary," agrees Curtis' longtime friend Martin Birnbach, principle of Martin Birnbach & Associates, an executive recruiting firm in Dallas. Birnbach, 65, shares Curtis' love of action. A few months ago, the two of them were discussing Birnbach's alma mater, the University of Miami, and its big, impending football game against Tennessee. The next day, there were on a plane to Knoxville.

Still, there's a big difference between flying over the American South and zooming into the stratosphere. But Curtis, who got his pilot's license in 1989, would have headed for Moscow on a day's notice, too, when a client mentioned the MiG opportunity, had the trip not required months of paperwork and medical exams. Seven months later, he finally found himself walking through the gates of the formerly top secret Zhukovsky Air Base, an hour outside Moscow. After strapping on a pressurized suit and helmet, and training in the ejection-seat simulator, he and an English-speaking Russian pilot climbed into the cockpit.

Flight school at 80,000 feet

On Day 1 they flew in a MiG 23, barreling through the air, rolling and flipping from side to side. "The G-force is probably seven to eight at that speed, which nails you to your seat and produces an incredible sensation," Curtis says, confessing that he didn't exactly adore the rolls.

But it was the second day's flight, aboard a MiG 25 reconnaissance plane, that really blew him away. While the Russian pilot flew the plane ("he did let me take over the stick a little bit," Curtis says), Curtis was content to sit back and watch the awesome view unfold, as the plane lifted in increments of 20,000 feet, circling several times to stabilize before proceeding onward. "Even at just 20,000 feet, you're breathing pure oxygen, so you feel incredibly light," Curtis says. An hour later, they reached a maximum altitude of 80,000 feet--a height at which civilians are barred from traveling in the United States--and the pilot began an intense watch of the fuel. With only enough gas to stay at that altitude for a few minutes, Curtis knew he needed to quickly absorb the view--and what a sight it was.

"You're actually at the edge of the atmosphere," Curtis remarks, awe still in his voice three years later. "Out the window you see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth." With the infinite vastness on one side and the swirling blue waters and green land masses on the other, Curtis felt his own insignificance for the first time. "I saw how big the universe is, and I realized I am an ant," he says. The experience also gave him new perspective on business setbacks. "Things in the office don't seem as monumental as they used to," he observes.

People who meet Jerry Curtis hardly get the impression of insignificance. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound executive has a commanding presence, a ready smile and a keen wit. Initially, however, he doesn't always seem the CEO. "My first impression of him was of a ranch hand in a Larry McMurtry novel. He comes across as just a nice and loyal guy," says Stephen Dujack, editor of the Environmental Law Forum, the policy journal of a Washington-based think tank. He met Curtis on the North Pole adventure.

In fact, ranch hand isn't too far from Curtis' roots. He was raised on a 500-acre farm just north of Dallas, and as a boy he spent long days helping his parents tend the crops. His parents didn't travel much, but as a youth Curtis always knew there was more to life than the rows upon rows of wheat, oats and cotton. After attending college at Texas Tech and the University of North Texas, he worked at several collections companies until 1977, when he started his own. Nationwide Recovery provides such services as collections, diplomatic arbitration, asset and liability searches and credit-risk assessment. Its clients include GE Capital and American Airlines.

After experiencing the ultimate soaring adventure in Russia, Curtis was ready for other extremes. His next destination: the North Pole.

The trip, last April, began in the remote town of Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada, where Curtis and his six fellow travelers watched Eskimos hunt polar bears on dog sleds. Several days later they were off to Greenland, where Curtis got to ride on a sled himself.

After a final night's rest at the world's northernmost weather station in Eureka, Canada, the group was finally ready to reach the top of the world. The pilot, one other crew member and the seven adventurers flew in a skitipped propeller plane until their GPS told them they were directly over the Pole, and wild cheers broke out in the plane. Then the pilot hunted for a strip of ice long enough to land on. "Although I have flown many times, this was different, and I had knots in my stomach until we touched down," Curtis relates. The actual landing turned out to be a few miles south of the North Pole, but for Curtis it was close enough.

At 40 degrees below zero, the cold bites through the layers of clothes and parkas. All around were vistas of frozen snow, mostly flat, but some forming shapes of the trees and bushes that could never grow up there -- a virtual Saharan desert in ice. Forty-five frigid minutes later, the group was back on the plane, beginning the trek home.

Impress the troops back home

Dujack of the Environmental Law Forum, Curtis' roommate on the trip, says the thrill of those few minutes is enough to last a lifetime. "As little boys, our globes had that hole in the top where the peg fits in, and there we were in that unreachable place," he says. Then there's the kick of being beyond easy rescue. "It's not like an amusement park where there are safety features built in. There's an excitement to that risk," he adds.

For Curtis, the camaraderie among the people on these adventures is a large part of the appeal. "There's a bonding because you're all doing this incredible experience together. Stephen and I would sit and talk way into the night, as if we had known each other for a long time," he says, noting that the constant daylight (except for a few hours of early morning twilight) made it feel like "there was no sense of time."

In addition to the thrill of seeing vistas and feeling sensations few people ever have, Curtis believes that his extreme adventures assist his work life. The experiences expand his comfort zone and his ability to overcome fear--key assets in business. "I feel that if I can do this, I can do anything," Curtis says.

What's more, knowing their boss has pushed the envelope to such a degree inspires his firm's 256 employees, Curtis believes. "It helps them see that if I can accomplish these things, perhaps they can have bigger goals for themselves," he says. It also doesn't hurt to have such a fabulous conversation starter with potential clients. Framed above his desk is a map of the world with Curtis' North Pole trek outlined in blue. "Clients may think I'm a little bit crazy to do these things, but they're also very interested," he observes. "I think it gives me a sort of credibility."

Having been to the top of the globe, it is not surprising that Curtis has already begun to ponder another rather out-of-the-way destination: the South Pole.

Send comments to CE at features@ chiefexecutive.net.

RELATED ARTICLE: Do you have what it takes?

ACCORDING TO CURTIS, participants on extreme adventures should pack the following along with their passport:

* An ability to tolerate discomfort. Although most high-priced adventure packages include beds and hot meals, bumping along behind sled dogs or feeling crushed by extreme gravity in-flight are part of the deal.

* Good physical conditioning. Curtis didn't have to prepare for his trips, because his typical exercise routine includes running several miles four times a week, and regularly lifting weights and doing tae kwon do.

* Patience and acceptance. On his North Pole trek, Curtis spent some 50 hours in planes. In addition, a several-day storm delayed the trip, and had the storm continued, he would have had to abandon his quest for the top.
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Title Annotation:related article: Do You Have What It Takes?; extreme adventures
Author:Landau, Meryl Davids
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:1591
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