The Other Time I Got Shot At

A while ago I was the CRO of Gulf State Steel in Gadston, Alabama.

We were in a board meeting debating the effects of imported Asian steel on our cost structure – the effects were bad – and we decided that in order to remain competitive we needed to reduce our 2500 person workforce by at least 20% while also reducing certain employee benefits.

The day before we’d discussed this with the union representative, and though nothing was official, the news was out.


All of a sudden 4 shotgun blasts hit the windows. I hit the floor.

The other directors and board members started laughing at me.

Apparently, they’d installed bulletproof windows in the board room twenty years ago, because shotgun blasts from the union were not an uncommon event.

Now, why did we get shot at?

You may say, because the union was comprised of disgruntled psychos. I wouldn’t fight you on that conclusion, but if this had been happening for twenty years, then obviously there was something else wrong here.

This steel company was in a crunch. It had a huge cash crisis, and it was knee-jerking. There were no more options to contain costs at this stage than a 20% reduction in the work force.

If the CEO had been proactive in keeping costs down 6-12 months prior, though, these kinds of cost reduction processes could have been adjusted more gradually and reasonably – and in ways that didn’t affect the union so dramatically. Asian steel didn’t just show up right before I got there. This was ongoing activity in his market-place and competitive space.

There were options before the crisis, but no one calls me before a crisis. They call me after, and at that point, it’s my job to save a company – not make a series of strategic moves to oust a stronger competitor.

Be proactive. If you have cost problem, an earlier enacted austerity program could keep you from getting shot at. Avoid knee-jerking, and solve your crises before they happen.

And I don’t care if the glass is bulletproof. When I hear unexpected shotgun blasts, I hit the deck.

The First Time I Got Shot At

A few years ago I got a call at 2 a.m. and was told by my plant manager in Greensborough that there was a dangerous oil spill at our plant. Hoping to avoid a major catastrophe with the EPA, I jumped into my car and drove to Greensborough. I made it there in record time, hoping to contain the spill by 6 a.m.

As we got ready to enter the plant, two hundred rounds were fired at us from two different uzis.

After speaking with the police later, a member of the railroad crew that our company used came over, pulled his shades down to his nose and looked me in the eyes and said, “If my fellow union railroad members had meant to hurt you, you would be hurt. So, get back in your fancy car and get your ass back to Atlanta.”

So, why did I get shot at – but not killed? Let’s see if you can learn a lesson from my situation and avoid your own problems in the future.

This happened because the CEO of the oil company that I was turning around wasn’t watching its demurrage charges from the railroad. They got their oil off-loaded from the cars but the railroad workers who were supposed to move the cars weren’t moving them, and the charges kept adding up. The oil company had financial controls in place to be notified if certain expenses were growing at an unreasonable rate – and that’s great – but when they got the notices they ignored them for 18 months.

When I go there I started asking questions about hundreds of thousands of dollars of fees; the railroad investigated and found that the three employees who were supposed to be moving these cars out after we emptied them were actually goofing off, playing tennis, fishing and so forth. One was fired and two were suspended.

They retaliated against the oil company by breaking an external oil valve and releasing thousands of gallons of oil, which was heading towards a nearby stream – hello, EPA! – and that brought me there in the middle of the night.

And then the shooting began.

The lesson learned goes back to being proactive and having proper financial controls, but what good are financial controls if you ignore them. Put your policies in place and follow them.

Have you ever experienced extreme employee retaliation?

Living the Lessons of Turnaround Success

Cash is King – Living the Lesson

In 2007, a large Southeast-based contractor called us at GGG for the usual reason: they were having a crisis. This call marked the beginning of an 18-month turnaround, during which the company regained its financial health to continue operating profitably.

For decades prior to 2007, business was booming. After many years of profitability, and coinciding with the broader economic decline in the USA, unprofitable long-term contracts with major customers resulted in severe declines in cash flow and ultimately the business overall. Its unsustainable position also put the operations of the utility company’s customers in jeopardy.

Business Facts, Not Beliefs – To the Bank, It’s All About the Money

Anxious about these alarming trends, the bank cut back on the company’s availability (they decreased the amount the company could borrow against their receivables), shrinking the cash available to operate. When we arrived, we were asked to act as advisors to find new financing opportunities, to streamline operations and to act as interim CFO.

Besides the unprofitable contracts and unfavorable cost structure, the company was operating in a saturated and highly competitive market. It therefore had limited ability to raise prices despite improved operations.

Banks, naturally, like to rely on numbers rather than hopes and promises. Thus, in order for any troubled company to get financing, the company needed to be fixed first. When it was clear to the bank through facts and data that the company has regained its stability and had long-term growth potential, the bank was more likely to provide additional funding.

What We Did

First thing was first – and I recommend this for you and your business – we renegotiated contracts that were generating losses and reengineered the cost structure to accommodate prevailing economic conditions. We worked with the company leadership to eliminate unprofitable product lines, renegotiated vendor debt, and executed on a forbearance agreement with the senior lender. We also solidified a long-term contract with a key customer.

You should always have controls to monitor your product lines, so as to avoid losing money (or too much money) in the first place. Don’t assume because something worked once it will continue to work.

One of our largest vendors (Big Gorilla) was paying every 90 days which was creating huge cash-flow problems. Implementing tighter credit criteria was a must. Consider your credit risk based on who you offer terms to and consider overhauling your system and reducing your risk. We introduced the requirement of collaterals or guarantees when necessary and shortened payment terms for the company’s customers across the board. Though most of our efforts with the company were geared towards creating cash flow, each of the above actions was necessary to ensure the company’s survival.

The Hard Part and the Happily Ever After

Despite the turnaround success and the awards and accolades GGG received for it, there were some expected difficulties. We had to lay off some people, remembering that despite being a tough thing to do, letting some workers go saved the jobs of many others.

As a result of our efforts, the company shifted from a significant loss to positive cash flow after 16 months. The bank debt was significantly reduced, and a new two-year bank loan was executed.

Due to the speed of the turnaround, the bank elected to extend the company’s credit. An important factor in the bank’s continued partnership was that we educated our banker about our turnaround efforts and successes. The bank was happy to maintain a client when it could see the signs of a positive transformation and have open lines of communication. Always make sure you communicate with your bank by following The CEO’s 10 C’s of Borrowing.

Currently the company has an excellent relationship with the bank that includes ongoing and honest communication. In fact, the company completed an acquisition in 2011 and its employees received raises across the board.

Lessons Transcending Industries

This case reinforced for me that 95% of any turnaround is not about specific knowledge regarding any particular widget or industry.

GGG had a lot of construction experience by this time, but only about 5% of the turnaround had to do with construction company issues. The rest had to do with basic blocking and tackling issues: watch your contracts, watch your cost, watch your headcount, negotiate with the bank.

You can hardly learn these important business lessons from a textbook – you learn them from getting the bloody noses that my partners and I got throughout our decades of experience.

How can we learn from this case?

When your numbers start getting soft or you start losing money, be proactive. If the company is highly leveraged, has a decreasing cash cushion and is maxed out on its credit, these are among the signs that it’s time to take more serious action.

None of us has a crystal ball to know exactly how long this current economic downturn will last. If you are seeing problems and intend to survive, restructure sooner.

Be proactive. Be decisive.

If you must let people go, do it in one confident move. If you have multiple layoff weeks or even months apart, you will demoralize your employees who will feel insecure in their positions. As CEO or leader, you need to be aware of the economic reality and act decisively based on them.

Whatever your business, face your harsh reality and be proactive.

6 Questions to Ask Yourself to Face Your Business’s Harsh Reality, Part 2

Last week we discussed the first 2 questions you should ask yourself to confront your business’s harsh reality, which you can read about HERE. This week, we’re going to ask ourselves the next two questions your should be asking.

3. Am I leading by example and delegating to the right people?

Employees follow the example of a company’s leadership. A huge part of being a good leader is knowing how to share responsibility and credit, and ensure that your managers are setting good examples for those who work with them.

All CEOs have egos. How they survive a troubled situation depends not only on their work ethic and ability to set those egos aside, but also the perception by others of these factors. If employees see you put cash straight from the register into your pocket, they will consider that acceptable. If they hear you bad mouthing clients and customers, they will consider that the company’s attitude – and follow suit.

Part of leading by example and delegating is recognizing that, at some point, all entrepreneurs need to either hire a professional manager or become a professional manager in order to reach the next level of success. Typically, entrepreneurs that don’t make this leap are those who ultimately call upon turnaround management professionals.

4. Am I constantly reacting to business issues, or am I being proactive to minimize problems?

Being a reactive business manager won’t work in the long run. You’ll be distracted and putting out fires rather than creating value. You need to be proactive about your product line, financial state, management challenges and business. If you see obsolescence of your main product line and don’t look for substitutes in order to stay profitable, then you’re not a good manager.

Consider the case of General Motors. They allowed their car lines to get stodgy and produced something the consumer didn’t want. Rather than proactively changing the way things were being done at GM, the company didn’t face the harsh reality of its situation and reacted by filing bankruptcy.

On the other hand, there’s Apple. They evolved their product line even before they saw obsolescence with existing products. They invest heavily in R&D, a very proactive approach.

Be proactive – not reactive.

Get ready for next week, when we’ll learn the final 2 Questions we should be asking ourselves in order to face the harsh realities of our business’s situation. Until then, share the kinds of questions you ask yourself about your business in the comments below.

What Cheerleaders Can Teach Us about Big Business


Last night I did a radio interview (that I’ll post when the podcast becomes available), and I was asked a question that I thought I’d share my answer to with you here.

I was asked about my guiding principle – one that helps me lead my firm and other companies that hire me as their CEO.

My Guiding Principle: Be Proactive, Not Reactive.

I live by this motto, give speeches about it, and I’ve mentioned it here before.

All businesses have problems. Nothing goes as you expect it to. But if you’re proactive in your leadership, decision making and planning then you’ll have the tools, people, and ideas in place to handle much of what comes at you.

On the contrary, if you’re constantly reacting to everything, you’ll never get your feet underneath you long enough to resolve your problems.

I’ve also found that honest communication goes a long way. People try to lead secretly, and that doesn’t work. Yes, leaders run businesses, not committees, but if leaders are honest with those involved, especially key stakeholders like boards, banks and creditors, there is a much greater chance for success.

Ra Ra Ra!!!

My initial turnaround success was a Chapter 11 restructuring at a company called Cheerleader Supply, a $50+ Million revenue business with over 1000 employees. As their name suggests, they made cheerleading uniforms, pompoms, etc., and they sent kids to summer camp to learn how to become cheerleaders.

It was the spirit of Cheerleader Supply that helped get it through Chapter 11 restructuring, and I learned a serious lesson about attitude from them.

Think about football games. When your team is down, the cheerleaders cheer harder – they don’t get dejected. Seeing that attitude – embodied by everyone at Cheerleading Supply – inspired me and allowed me to be the best catalyst for big change that I could be and ultimately brought that company through Chapter 11.

I’ve applied that attitude to everything going forward. To this day I still have a pompom in my office reminding me of this original successful turnaround and the importance of cheering harder and having the right attitude even when things seem their darkest.

What You Can Do

I encourage you to go forward with this attitude, which goes hand and hand with being proactive instead of reactive.

The proactive leader is cheering constantly for his company by saying that nothing is going to stop it from being successful – especially not his own complacency when it seems like he’s up by four touchdowns and can just coast (are we good with the football metaphors?).

Learn from the cheerleaders and be a proactive leader.

What’s your guiding principle? How do you think these notions can help you in your life and business?