Life’s Lessons and Surprises: 18 Months at Life University

Life is full of surprises, and as a business leader, you can’t let those surprises turn your business upside down. If you learn to manage them as part of your business, expecting that they will be there and creating contingencies for them like emergency cash, a fully stocked resume and interview line should you need some fast hires, good networking, a solid relationship with your banker and so on, then you will likely survive when they surprise.

In 2003/4, I did a turnaround for Life University, the award-winning chiropractic institution in Atlanta, GA. Life had a lot of lessons about the power of surprises.

Life’s Problem

After achieving an all-time high enrollment rate and setting the standard of excellence in contemporary health for its chiropractic undergraduate and masters degree programs, Life University was challenged with a loss of accreditation and defaulted on $35 million in secured bond debt.

Our Solution

Upon becoming the Director of Refinancing and CFO, we redid the budget based on declining attendance and negotiated a forbearance agreement with the Trustee and Bondholders. We also sold assets and refinanced others while the board searched for a new president.

The Outcome?

Within 18 months Life University’s cash flow was stabilized, accreditation was granted and the bond debt was refinanced. As part of the long-term plan, the school retained a President and Chief Financial Officer from a competing school. Victory was ours, and we won the Non-profit Turnaround of the Year Award in 2004 from the Atlanta Chapter of the Turnaround Management Association (TMA).

What I Learned from Life?

Professionals need to hire consultants and advisors who have different skill sets than their own. When professionals go outside their sweet spots they often make mistakes or don’t consider all the issues. Business is not the forte of all professionals – and it doesn’t have to be. Bring in business people to do business.

Life Always Has Surprises!

There are always surprises and things you didn’t account for. At Life, the CFO had a heart attack and bypass surgery, and without him we couldn’t find all of the documentation or understand the cash flow budget.

This created issues with the bondholders because a key member of the management team had been changed. Then, six months in, the president was gone, too.

A new president and a new CFO do not breed confidence to lenders.

What You Can Learn from Life

Be prepared for unfortunate events: heart attacks, death, personal tragedy, community strife. These things are part of life, and as a business leader, you have to have contingency plans in place to know how you would operate should the unthinkable occur.

Ultimately, in this case – and many others – communication solved these problems. Through extensive meetings, we got support in a forbearance agreement, which gave us time to hire a new president and to show results from fund-raising efforts.

Always have open communication.

The spirit of the chiropractic staff was great. They were committed to their university and seeing it survive. Anything I needed from them I got. Being part of a team that believes in the cause is a great thing, and in a crisis it’s very important to return to core values and purpose and to be able to lean on them.

Parting Words of Wisdom

This was a wonderful, award-winning turnaround. In turnaround management – as in business – there are always surprises. It’s your job not to let those surprises undermine your goals, but to deal with them as part of a business day.

What surprises have you encountered in business? How did you deal with them?

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