May 11, 2015
Excerpts: Happywork by Chris Reimer
A Cleanup Job
“You have 30 days, Mr. Vunorri.”
“What???” Dick shouted into his office phone.
“This bank is not a charity, and we don’t look too kindly on four overdue interest payments, a tapped-out line of credit, and unreturned phone calls.”
“But we’ve been your loyal customer for years!”
“And we appreciate your business, but…”
“You keep switching bankers on me! It’s impossible to establish a working relationship with you. Look, you gotta give me more time!”
“We’ve given you more than enough time. In deference to the long relationship we’ve had with your father, we’ve shown extreme patience.”
“Guys, I need more time.”
“This is more time. You have 30 days to provide us a working plan—one that we approve—on how you’re going to right the ship. Vunorri needs to begin paying down this line of credit, and we need a payment schedule for the overdue interest payments. We don’t want to liquidate your business. However, unless you can come up with this money, you’ll leave us no choice. A plan, 30 days from today, or we’ll have to start foreclosure proceedings.”
Dick fumbled the phone as he grabbed a pen and his calendar.
“OK,” he sighed. “I’ll hit the deadline. I have a guy I can call. A turnaround specialist…”
• • • •
When the call came in on Sam’s cellphone, he didn’t recognize the number. He had a strict policy of never answering “stranger” phone calls, which, out of a peculiar mixture of adventure and addiction, he broke constantly. Of course, it made financial sense to answer those calls. A consultant never knows where the next job is going to come from.
“This is Sam Maslow.”
“Hi Sam, my name is Dick Vunorri. Jerry Singleton at Abacus referred me to you. He’s a good friend of mine. He told me you did some great work for his company.”
“Indeed,” Sam said. “We made some big changes at Abacus. They’re in much better shape now. What can I do for you?”
“I’m the president of Vunorri Inc. We manufacture electronic components and distribute them domestically and internationally. We’re facing some major financial and operational challenges, and I understand that’s your specialty. I’m wondering if you can assist us.”
“I may be able to help,” Sam said. “Would you like to meet and discuss?”
“Absolutely,” Dick answered. And he lobbed that answer over the net quickly. “Are you available for hire immediately?”
“I do have capacity right now.”
“Perfect! Can you come by at two o’clock today?”
After a nearly 20-year career as a CPA, Sam had grown bored. Performing and managing hundreds of audits had taught him a great deal about business and the numbers, but he wanted to do more. Instead of merely depicting and verifying a company’s financials, he wanted to change them for the better. Turning companies around afforded him the chance to really move the needle, and giving businesses what they needed most, when they needed it most, also allowed him to increase his earning power and set his own schedule.
He deeply appreciated entrepreneurs and the businesses they built, and was now a one-man entrepreneurial show himself. He relished the role of the “fix-it guy” who comes in and solves the problem a company couldn’t solve themselves. He may have even once deluded himself into thinking of his role as the “mercenary” or “hired gun.” He was good. Companies, both local and national, called him when they needed help. His advice was not always easy to hear—”You need to cut staff,” “This person has to go,” “Restructure this department,” “Stop selling this product,” “Close these underperforming locations.” Sam was a master at compartmentalizing people, streamlining processes, and creating systems of control. Black is black and white is white, and Sam reliably found and implemented solutions on those peripheries. The numbers never lied, and there was comfort to be found in them. If the financials could be coaxed into the black, he was in the win column.
The recommendations he made to clients often left collateral damage, even a wake of destruction depending on the severity of the crisis faced. He didn’t devote time to worrying about this; saving companies was his gift to the people who paid his fee and the employees who remained employed after he was gone. Life wasn’t fair, and it didn’t have to be. To make things work, sometimes bad things had to happen to good people. If business tasted like vanilla, nothing would ever get invented. Amazing businesses would never get started; empires would go unborn.
And, hey, the money was good. You don’t need to know what kind of car Sam drove, except to say it was nicer than yours. The hours were long, but that didn’t matter to him. “Workaholic” is such a negative word. Sam was an executioner, someone who always finished the job. No matter the scene, he’d outwork and outsmart his opponent. Failure was a foreign concept to him. Some hard-nosed businesspeople made it personal—me vs. you—but not Sam. He didn’t need to gin himself up to push through and win. It was simply about victory in business, because why not? For Sam, the object of his affection was the work, and himself. While his absence from the home might have mattered to his wife and daughter, it was a nondiscussion, a moot point. Sam worked, Sam achieved, and Sam won.
• • • •
“Nice to meet you, Sam! Right this way.” Dick led Sam off the elevator onto a quiet fourth floor with several nicely appointed offices and a wood-paneled conference room. Dick was a tall, fit man and looked to be in his mid-50s. He was lean, with broad shoulders and big hands. He still had a youthful face, with a square jaw and blue eyes. His short salt-and-pepper hair was perfectly cut, and he had a penchant for wearing nice clothing. So he looked like a company president. He was gregarious, excitable, and prone to smile, which was curious, considering his predicament.
“Well, as I’m sure Jerry told you,” Sam said, “I’m a turnaround specialist based here in town. I help organizations solve their problems. Business challenges take many forms, and I can help in many ways. I have experience with financial statements, cost accounting, human resources, marketing, and especially operational architecture—are people ‘sitting in the right seats on the bus?’ I come in and assess the situation, leaving no stone unturned.”
Dick blurted out, “That sounds great. When can you start?”
This immediately raised Sam’s antenna. Even with his sterling reputation, people at his hourly rate were rarely hired without at least a brief discussion. Was Dick just not that sharp, or were things much worse than Sam even imagined? Or was this Dick’s idea of a “brief discussion?”
“First, Dick, I need to hear what your challenges are to make sure I can help you guys,” Sam said. “While I’m very good at what I do, Jerry’s recommendation aside, you should probably size me up as well.”
“I trust Jerry’s judgment,” Dick shot back.
“Well…Jerry is a smart fella,” Sam responded. “You don’t even know how much I cost yet.”
“Money won’t be an issue,” Dick said.
“Look, let me be up front with you. I’m the kind of consultant who’ll tell you how it is. It’s nothing personal. I take my job very seriously. It’s the principle of the thing. If I have an idea that can help you, it’s my duty to share it with you, even if it’s not something you’re going to want to hear. My methods aren’t always popular with people, but the problems I’m dealing with are usually pressing. If you have too many employees, or unprofitable locations, you’re going to get recommendations from me that’ll have your HR department very busy.
“All of this sometimes rubs people the wrong way, but…”
“No problem at all,” Dick interjected. “If we retain you, I want you to shoot me straight. Deal?”
“Yes, that is how it has to be. To start, why don’t you tell me a bit about your organization.”
Dick laid out Vunorri’s history, explaining that his father founded the company back in 1969 with a $5,000 investment. He hired his first employee less than a year later, and built a nice little team. They experienced growth over the years, expanding the warehouse and manufacturing area twice. Dick joined the company in his late 20s, and had been working there for almost 25 years. He finally took over the role of president from his father seven years previously.
“We’re facing challenges from every direction,” Dick explained. “China, squeezed margins, young employees who aren’t as loyal as their predecessors, you name it. Our turnover is just…we keep losing good people, Sam. I don’t understand it. We pay people well, but attitudes are terrible.”
“What do you think is causing this?” Sam asked.
“I just don’t know,” Dick answered. “I think that’s why you’re here. I…I don’t even know where to begin. You’re one of the few people I’ve ever even admitted this to. It’s not easy being a leader who doesn’t know what to do next. I have an MBA, a ton of experience here at the company. It just feels like it’s…” Dick paused, his face contorting with a mixture of thought and a little pain. In a quavering voice, he continued, “It feels like it’s all kind of slipping away. Am I making sense?”
Sam established firm eye contact with Dick, with the hope of reassuring him. “Yes, I know how you feel. I’ve never run a company this large before, but I do know how hard it is. You’re not the first stressed out CEO I’ve sat across from. Let me ask you this: Is the product…do you make a high-quality product?”
“You bet we do,” Dick said enthusiastically. “We can compete on quality with most anyone.”
“You’re not receiving excessive customer complaints, poor Better Business Bureau ratings, losing big clients, anything like that?”
“No, no, not at all. I would know about that if it were happening. Our problem is cash flow. Well, it’s more than that.” Dick stopped talking for a moment to collect himself.
“Reserves are dwindling, and our line of credit at the bank is maxed out. My CFO and his team are juggling the bills as best they can. My bankers want answers, and I don’t know what to tell them. They just gave me an ultimatum—they’re going to start foreclosure proceedings in 30 days unless I provide them a plan to get us out of this mess.” Sam now understood why Dick wanted to bring him on immediately.
“I haven’t told our employees this,” Dick said, “and I hate even admitting it to you. It feels like the walls are closing in. We’re a failing business, and you’re my last-ditch effort to figure out why.”
Sam gave some thought as to what might be causing the trouble. He knew people always wanted quick answers, and Dick certainly needed answers yesterday. But Sam was not a quick-answers kind of guy. He understood how complicated running a business was, and judging by his discussion with Dick, there were probably all sorts of things wrong with Vunorri Inc. He was interested in the assignment and wanted to close on the proposal.
“Dick, I can help you. I can’t tell you what’s wrong without really diving into your business, and I hope you understand that.”
“Yeah, sure, what do you have in mind?”
“Well, you should embed me in the company for four weeks. You can let the bank know I’m here—they know me. I need to tear this place down to the studs to truly understand it. I need access to information—financials, employee records, everything. I need to interview everyone who works here.”
“Holy cow,” Dick exclaimed with a hand on his forehead.
“Being thorough is going to give us the best chance to identify what’s wrong and impress the bank. Can we make it happen?” Sam asked.
“Wow,” Dick said. He thought about it for a moment. “Yes, I can tell people to cooperate.”
“Sure, you could do that. I guess what I’m asking is…can you roll this out in a way that’ll get your people really opening up to me?”
“I think so.”
“I don’t want to waste your time,” Sam said. “To get a plan to the bank that they’ll buy off on, I’m really going to need access and cooperation. Can this work?”
“I’m not going to tell everyone about the foreclosure stuff, but I can pull together our managers and staff and explain what we’re doing. Maybe you can be there to introduce yourself and answer any questions.”
After the slightly unpleasant exchange where they discussed compensation for a four-week engagement, it was settled. Sam would be back tomorrow. He had every confidence in the world that he’d be able to produce results at Vunorri. As long as the company hadn’t slipped beyond saving, he knew he could help them. If there was fat to trim, he’d find it. He’d been on this bicycle before.
Actually, Sam had no idea what was
about to befall him.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Sound Wisdom Press, from Happywork by Chris Reimer.
Copyright © 2015 Chris Reimer.
All rights reserved.
About the Author
Chris Reimer is an award-winning communications strategist, a humanist, and a student of human interaction, and is Associate Director of New Media at Maryville University. A marketing career is not where Chris expected to be, as he spent almost 20 years in finance (which scares him to even think about). He founded Rizzo Tees, a t-shirt company headquartered in his basement. Using the skills gained from marketing his t-shirt business, he went on to become possibly the only human alive who went from being a CPA and CFO to a marketing and communications strategist. Chris is also a graduate of Marquette University here in good 'ol Milwaukee.
About Blyth Meier
Blyth Meier joined us to lead our marketing department in 2015 after doing that work for the Milwaukee Film Festival for the previous five years. While she made good use her filmmaking degree at that job, here she returns to her first love—books. As an undergraduate English major at the University of North Dakota, Blyth’s favorite time of year was the annual Writers Conference, which brought many of her soon-to-be favorite authors to the remote Northern Prairie: Peter Matthiessen, August Wilson, Toi Derricotte, Mark Doty, Natasha Trethewey, and Terry Tempest Williams. Blyth lives in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, where she gardens, cooks, takes photographs, makes films, and participates in a yearly 24-hour bike race. At 800-CEO-READ, she runs our social media accounts, writes for In the Books, and is the keeper of all our marketing spreadsheets.