Douglas Barry was all of 12 when he ditched his dream of becoming an archaeologist. It was too much hard work, with all that digging. Instead, he decided managing...

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PHILADELPHIA — Douglas Barry was all of 12 when he ditched his dream of becoming an archaeologist.

It was too much hard work, with all that digging.

Instead, he decided managing archaeologists would be the way to go.

“I began to wonder if it might be better to just sit in a nice office … while I still got to reap the benefits of the dig,” Barry, now 18, wrote in his book, “Wisdom for a Young CEO,” a collection of career-advice letters from chief executives across the country.

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Ah, spoken like a true chief executive officer in the making.

Barry, a New Jersey resident, has received a flood of media attention since his book hit stores last year.

He has been interviewed by Deborah Norville on MSNBC, the Financial Times and Parade magazine, among others.

“This is a window into a world a lot of people don’t get to see,” Barry said.

“I didn’t think it would be this big of a deal.”

He began mailing his inquiries to CEOs for a class project in 2000.

About 200 wrote back, including Jack Greenberg, then the CEO of McDonald’s; Jacques Nasser, who headed Ford; and Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel.

Some executives went a step further. After receiving Barry’s letter, Millard Drexler, then at Gap, called him.

Pat Croce, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, took the time to meet with Barry.

“I talked about myself for half an hour,” Barry recalled about his time with Croce. “Someone so influential and a big name in the city really cared.”

The CEOs’ letters ranged from a couple of sentences to several pages.

(Since Barry started the project, some of the executives have retired and some have left under pressure.)

While many told Barry the best route to success in business was to work hard at something he loved, they also advised him that being a CEO should not be the sole goal of a career — or his life.

Words from the wise

From Erroll Davis Jr. of Alliant Energy came this advice: “Do what makes you happy! Do not choose a direction or a vocation because of money. You will only get one time around in life. And you should enjoy all of your experiences, not just your payday.”

From Jean-Pierre Garnier of GlaxoSmithKline: “Learn your craft one step at a time. Dedicate yourself to the details of your enterprise, and the rest will take care of itself.”

From Anne Mulcahy of Xerox: “I am still learning. That is an important mark of a good leader … to know you don’t know it all and never will.”

“A break from the battle”

In all, about 80 percent of the CEOs Barry contacted responded to his questions.

Very few sent form letters.

William Avery, the former CEO of Crown Cork & Seal, in Philadelphia, said in an interview that he took the time to write back because Barry’s letter sounded sincere.

“CEOs respond to that,” Avery said. “Sometimes, I’d see something that was obviously a form letter. It was probably sent out to 500 people, so I don’t have to answer it.”

Sam Caggiula, director of publicity at Philadelphia’s Running Press Book Publishers, which published the book, suggested that Barry’s query letter might have been a refreshing change for some CEOs at a time corporate America was coming under increased scrutiny.

“Without a doubt, it was a break from the battle,” Caggiula said. “It was a chance for them to revisit why they became CEOs.”

Wide appeal

The notion of turning the responses into a book grew out of Barry’s dinner conversations with his mother, a human-resources executive at chemical-maker Hercules, in Wilmington, Del.

“She made it seem really exciting to manage a bunch of people, basically grown-up kids running around with their own little problems,” Barry said.

Also, Barry said, his father, a chiropractor, thought the letters would make a good book.

Through his mother’s friends, Running Press heard about Barry’s project and contacted him.

“We see this book as having a broad audience,” Caggiula said.

While the book has obvious appeal to teens and college students, “it’s also for businesspeople who are interested in what these top people have to say,” he said.

Barry said Running Press gave him a $2,000 advance for the book, and he will receive royalties of 76 cents for each book sold.

The first press run was 30,000 copies; so far, 17,400 have sold, Caggiula said.

That would mean more than $13,000 for Barry so far.

Change in direction

So, is Barry heeding the advice he got from all those executives?

Absolutely, he said, by not pursuing a business education and instead majoring in English.

“I really, really wanted to become a CEO when I was young,” Barry said. “Now, I think it’s more important to follow what you like to do.”

An avid surfer for the past nine years, Barry said his ideal job would be writing for a surfing magazine. He also is an accomplished pianist, and he lifts weights six days a week.

“It would be great to be a full-time writer,” he said. “I’ve always had a flair for writing. I hate math. I hate science.”

He has started work on his next book, “Wisdom for a College Student,” a compilation of letters from businesspeople, celebrities, athletes and politicians on how students can get the most from college.

Running Press expects to have it in stores next year.