Funny, But True: Give a Second Thought to That Second Chance

You have an employee who makes a big mistake, but comes to you to admit it and offers a solution. So, you forgive him and move on. We all mess up sometimes, and this employee handled it correctly. You give him a second chance.

As Warren Buffett said, “I make plenty of mistakes and I’ll make plenty more mistakes, too. You’ve just got to make sure that the right things overcome the wrong ones.”

But some mistakes aren’t forgivable and employees who make them don’t deserve a second chance.

publishing-scamI once worked with a company whose sales manager was running a scheme. He would sell their widgets to a customer who was a partner in his crime. After the sale, the sales manager would issue a credit, reducing the price of each widget by $1 to that customer. The sales manager and the customer split the extra $1.

The scheme went undetected and over time amassed both the sales manager and the accounts receivable manager a lot of money.

The fraud was only detected because the sales manager accidentally sent a credit to the wrong company, which reported the error. The fraud was uncovered and both managers were fired. But they were not prosecuted for their crimes. (I always advise business owners to prosecute thieves. Read more about that in “Why You Should Always Prosecute Fraud”)

And it turns out the sales manager was actually really good at sales, and once he left, sales declined 25 percent. The CEO couldn’t find a suitable replacement in the following year, so what did he do? He hired back the thieving sales manager.

The CEO’s explanation? While the sales manager never paid any of the money back, he said he was sorry. During that past year, he had found God, repented his sins and begged for forgiveness as a friend and long-term employee.

He lasted six months, until he moved. To jail. Where he was sent for stealing again.

Beyond the obvious lessons of prosecuting fraud and not rehiring people who steal, the other lesson is that some people deserve a second chance and some don’t. As a business owner/CEO you need to know the difference.

 

 

 

Funny, But True: Having a Blast

Well, at least some people thought it was funny. I didn’t happen to be one of them.

I was in a staff meeting of a steel company where I was the chief restructuring officer. The company was not doing well for multiple reasons and was facing a huge cash crisis.

We had decided our only option at this point was to reduce the 2,500-person workforce by at least 10 percent to keep the company competitive, a tragic outcome for those 250 workers and their families. We were also going to have to reduce union employee benefits, which we had discussed the day before with the union representative.

All of a sudden, I hear BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! In shock, I quickly hit the floor, only to find I was the only one there. When I got back up, the other senior staff at the table were laughing at me.

I was right to duck – those were shotgun blasts that smashed into the windows. But none of them made it through the bulletproof windows the company had installed 20 years previously. It seems shotgun blasts were a frequent means of expression for unhappy union members.

So here’s some free advice. If your workers are routinely so unhappy they are shooting at senior staff, rather than spending money installing bulletproof windows, spend time thinking about rethink how you are managing the company.

My book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes, is now available as an ebook.

Funny, But True: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

We’re all familiar with that phrase of British origin that means you may be saving a few pennies in one area, but wasting bigger money in another. But in one case I dealt with, it was more like, “Thousands wise, millions foolish.”

I took over the presidency of an apparel company that was in serious trouble. During this crisis period, we needed to send out a time-sensitive catalog. Sales from this catalog would generate 80 percent of the annual revenue of $65 million for this company within a four-month period. That’s how important getting this catalog printed and mailed out was.

But we needed $25,000 cash immediately to make sure that happened. We had to pay for postage. The company didn’t have it, and there was nowhere else to get that much cash, desperately needed to generate more than $52 million in sales.

The CEO was worth several million dollars. But he froze when I asked him if he could put up the $25,000 to get these catalogs out the door. It was such a no-brainer to me that I was stunned. Because guess who would be wiped out if we didn’t make the projected $52 million in sales from that catalog? The CEO was personally guaranteed on $40 million.

It took all my powers of persuasion, but as we were just up against the deadline, he finally agreed. The good news is he followed my advice after that and we were able to successfully follow our restructuring plan.

So next time you’re tempted to save a few pennies, remember that other famous quote. The Roman playwright Plautus (born 254 BC) said, “You must spend money to make money.”

Funny, But True Stories: Keep Your Girlfriend Out of the Picture

Cheating on a spouse has been the downfall of many a business owner or CEO. Some of these stories aren’t too surprising. Consider the case of the founder of the famously hacked website Ashley Madison, created specifically to make it easy for people to cheat on their spouses. At one time the cheaters’ website claimed earnings of $115 million and a membership of 39 million around the world.

So can anyone feel surprised when it was revealed that founder Noel Biderman had cheated on his own wife, despite his claims to have a strong marriage? He called himself the King of Infidelity and in June 2014 when asked if he had ever cheated on his wife, he said, “Not yet.”

He got outed by the hackers, as did thousands of others whose extra-curricular activities were uncovered. Many divorces and some suicides have been linked to the hack.

Obviously it’s not good for anyone to cheat. Not on their taxes, not on their spouses. But it’s even more critical when you’re a CEO or business owner. You stand to lose a lot more than your marriage.

Yet, it happens. All the time. Take the case of the married president of a pipe manufacturer I worked with. In addition to running his business, he wanted to craft a racer with an innovative design.

He was successful and was asked to be on the cover of a prestigious industry magazine. Sounds great, right? Except when the photographers came to shoot the cover, his girlfriend was there, in her revealing bikini. Did he ask her to make herself scarce for a bit? He did not. And who shows up in the background on the cover with him? Yep, the girlfriend in the bikini.

It didn’t take long for his wife to figure out what’s up. And oh yeah, her husband had started the business with her father’s money. She filed for divorce and he lost control of the company. I’m not sure what he did with that magazine cover, or whether he got to keep that racer or not.

5 Reasons CEOS Wait Too Long to Address Problems

The worst cases in my career in the turnaround industry are when I work with businesses that could have been saved. If only we had been called in earlier. Those are the ones that really bother me, because these business failures didn’t have to happen. Had we been brought in earlier, we could have determined where the problems were and had many more options to fix them.

But often we are like firefighters who are called in after a home is in ashes, rather than at the first sign of smoke. Then all we can do is sift through the ashes.

Sometimes the best we can do is to get the most for a business in bankruptcy or through a fire sale, pun intended. And I always think, “If only they had called us earlier.”

The saying we have is “If the alligators are snapping, it’s too late to drain the swamp.” You have to pay attention when things are going wrong and fix them early on, before they become larger problems later, possibly even insurmountable.

If you catch a problem early, you have options. You can drain the swamp. But if you wait too late and the alligators have moved in, well, now you have to face them head on. Those alligators aren’t going to just relocate and find food elsewhere.

So why do CEOs and business owners wait until it’s too late to ask for help? Here are five reasons:

  1. Hoping the situation will change

Your sales manager isn’t meeting his quota and he is experiencing a lot of turnover in his department. He keeps promising he’ll hire more sales reps and “we’ll exceed our quota next month!” But he doesn’t and the competition is taking over your accounts. He should have been fired or refocused and now your competition is taking your accounts.

  1. Thinking you can fix it yourself

When I get time, I can focus on the problems in our accounting system, you think. It’s not working correctly and you aren’t getting the financial information you need to make the best decisions for your company. If you could only take a day to focus on where the problem is and what you need to do to solve it. Every day comes and goes, each with its own set of priorities, and you never do get around to focusing on the issues with accounting. And your business is suffering.

  1. Not wanting to admit mistakes

Sometimes with big jobs comes big egos. And an unwillingness to admit that you’ve made a mistake. Larry, the CEO of seminar company, hated change and would not admit to mistakes. He firmly believed that people were more likely to respond to the hundreds of thousands of mailings he sent if they were posted from their home states. So he had trucks driving hundreds of miles so mailings would carry a local postmark, to the cost of around $400,000 a year.

Fortunately, I was called into this company in time, and despite the fact their EBITDA was -$4 million, I was able to pull off a successful turnaround.

  1. Reluctance to ask for help

Some people see it as a sign of weakness to ask for help. As reported in the article “Why is Asking for Help So Difficult” in the New York Time, “There is a tendency to act as if it’s a deficiency,” said Garret Keizer, author of ‘Help: The Original Human Dilemma.’ “That is exacerbated if a business environment is highly competitive within as well as without. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.”

  1. Denial of the problems

It’s the head-in-the-sand tendency. “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson said, “It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”

The sooner you accept your reality, the quicker you can get help. You don’t want to come face to face with those alligators.

Funny, But True Stories: The Thoughtful Thieves

 

“No way that really happened!”

You know that saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I’ve lived that during my career in the turnaround industry. I’ve seen the look of disbelief cross people’s faces when I’ve recounted one of my unbelievable-but-true stories. Like the one I call The Cases of the Thoughtful Thieves.

I’ve dealt with my share of messy fraud and embezzlement, cases in which I had to dig deep and do a lot of research to track down the missing funds and identify the perpetrator. That’s why I was so appreciative of the Thoughtful Thieves. They made my job so much easier.

I was sitting at a CFO’s desk one time while he was on vacation. I recommend to all my clients they encourage their CFO to take two consecutive weeks off and sit at his or her desk, open their mail and just see what happens. You can learn a lot that way.

So I decided to check out this CFO’s mail. Imagine my surprise when I found bank account statements from an account in the Cayman Islands where he’d been stashing the money he had been stealing from the company. Had I been his advisor, I would have strongly recommended having those statements sent to his home or a PO box. Anywhere other than to the company he was stealing from. But maybe there aren’t a lot of fraud consultants available with these handy tips for success.

I was poking around on the computer of another CFO and found a folder on the desktop. It was password protected, but with the blessing of the CEO, I used my handy-dandy password decoder and opened it up. And I found an Excel spreadsheet neatly detailing all of the money he had stolen from the company. Everything had a date on it and tracked the path of the funds he had embezzled. He even had an entry for paying the contractor for his home, done with company funds he’d helped himself to. It’s like he had given me a gift, one that I happily shared with senior management at the company.

For more stories, check out my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”