There are those who dream all their lives of making it to the top in the world of business. Joseph P. Sullivan reached that peak, mapped a successful turnaround for the financially troubled company he headed, and recently decided at the age of 50 to give it all up.
After three years as president and chief executive officer of Swift & Co., capping a career of more than 20 years there, he resigned a few months ago to move on to what he calls his second career. Although he will still spend the bulk of his time in business - primarily as a consultant - he hopes to devote as much as one-third of his time to public-service activities.
Mr. Sullivan has long been involved in a variety of civic causes, from local opera to efforts to ease racial tension and unemployment, but he says he has only been able to give about 5 percent of his time to volunteer work.
''The demands of business today, particularly when you're running an enterprise, are very unforgiving. There are so many more businesses in trouble . . . that you have to not only be looking into the next valley but over the next range of hills, or your company can suffer. I wanted to be able to stay in business but do a lot more in the public-service area, and I thought that by going out on my own, I could manage that breakout better.''
One of the chief gainers from his job shift will be the American Refugee Committee (ARC). It sends volunteer medical personnel to hospitals in two Thai refugee camps and runs an English-as-a-second-language program and provides health lectures for refugees who have made it to this country.
Sullivan has been a member of the committee's board of directors since its 1978 beginning. He has worked actively to raise funds for it and lobbied Congress, under a separate subsidiary organization, to increase refugee quotas.
''There are people who lend their names to things and people who come aboard and really get things done,'' notes Neal Ball, ARC's founder, who recruited Sullivan. ''He's a coming-aboarder and a getter-doner. I knew he'd give a nonprofit group the same kind of attention to detail, planning, and effectiveness that he was giving in his corporate life.''
In giving more time to the committee now, Sullivan expects to make at least one trip to the Thailand camps in the near future.
''Having the time to go there is one of the real excitements of being out on my own,'' Sullivan says. ''I think how we handle the refugee problem says a great deal about us as a country and a civilization. The next 25 years will be much more difficult, because there will be so many more refugees - just look at the hunger problems and the political dislocations. Yet the economy will be growing much more slowly. It's going to take sacrifice. It won't be easy.''
Still, he says he is basically an optimist: ''I think people in the US are enormously giving and generous on the whole. If you show them the opportunities as well as the challenges, they generally will respond in a positive way.''
When Sullivan resigned from Swift, he also stepped down as a board member of Esmark Inc., Swift's parent company, where he was considered a likely candidate one day for the chairmanship. But he insists his decision was in no way antibusiness.
''I'd really been thinking about doing this for the better part of 10 years, '' he says. ''We're all living a lot longer, and with the ability to plan ahead financially, I think people are developing a more balanced outlook and realize that they have the opportunity to do perhaps more than one thing in life. I think you're going to see a lot more of this - I really do. And I don't see it as a negative, 'Gee, I don't like business anymore.' ''
Still, this businessman suggests that no one should take the step without carefully thinking through the reasons and consequences.
''Be sure you've thought about it for a long time,'' he urges. ''Don't leave when things are going badly or when you're unhappy with something. Your reasons for making a move like this ought to be a lot more deep-seated than that. But if you do decide to do it, don't worry about what people think. There will always be people running around looking for hidden reasons. Doing it because you think it's right should be your criterion.''
Many of his colleagues at Swift were shocked by his decision.
''I guess most people leave when things are going badly,'' concedes Sullivan, who is viewed by many business leaders in this city as a particularly astute manager. As the head of Swift, which had been losing $10 million a year, he brought earnings up to $38 million in 1981, $50 million by 1982, and to $82 million, after two major acquisitions, in 1983.
Although he offered to stay on to help with the transition, his superiors accepted the resignation effective immediately. ''I think one of the negatives was, 'You've decided to leave the team, so leave it.' ''
Still, once his reasons for leaving were made clear, he says he received many supportive phone calls from both friends and strangers.
''I suppose the easy thing would have been to stay with the corporation - not too many would walk away from the salary he's been making,'' notes a longtime friend, Richard Cusak.
''But I think he'd reached the point where he was ready for something different,'' Mr. Cusak says. ''He's a deeply spiritual man who believes he's been gifted and rewarded and that there's a need to return that in kind. It's not a phony sentiment with him. So all of this is a natural part of his growth and personal development.''
Sullivan says support from his wife, Jeanne, who founded and operates the Industrial Alcoholism Institute here, and from his three children was strong all along. He has two daughters in graduate school and a son working in Chicago who recently earned a master's degree in real estate. When he told his children that he had purposely delayed the move until he was sure his finances would cover their education, ''they really landed on me,'' he says.
''They said, 'Dad, that was a dumb thing for you to do - to wait that long. We'd have found a way.' ''
A graduate of the Latin School in Boston, Sullivan met his wife in Cambridge, Mass., while she was studying education at Radcliffe and he was majoring in government at Harvard. He went on to get his master's in business administration from the same university. It was while he was stationed in Indiana with the Army that he first began to look into business opportunities in the Midwest. In 1959 he began with Swift as a market researcher and spent many years working with the company's chemical division.
When he was handed the challenge in April 1980 of trying to turn the company around as its president, he spent the first several months analyzing who the outstanding people were and trying to devise the best administrative solution. He decided to decentralize, paring the headquarters staff from 650 to 270 and moving more of the decisionmaking to field offices, and launched a new promotion campaign for the most promising Swift products over the long term.
But his business progress over the years, as he looks back on it, was always day to day rather than aimed at a lofty goal.
''I tried to look at it from the standpoint of, 'Am I enjoying what I am doing now and making a contribution?' I wasn't worried about what the next step would be. That was probably beneficial, not only for me but for Swift and Esmark , because you're doing what is right rather than what is right for you five or 10 years down the road. It unburdens you of some tremendous concerns.''
Now Sullivan looks forward to having more time for a number of other interests, including his new ''job'' in June as chairman of the Mundelein College board of trustees as well as reading books - especially about the period between World War I and II.
''Maybe I'll go on and get my doctorate when I'm 65, and that will be my third career,'' he muses. ''I'd love to do that - really!''
So for the moment he is headed forward with no regrets.
''You never know till you cross the Rubicon how you're going to feel on the other side - but so far I feel great.''