Imagine, like so many businesses; you were hit broadside by this recession. It came out of nowhere and slammed into your company like a careening bus on an iced-over highway, threatening to destroy everything.
Part of the problem was that you’d spent the last four years of the “great overheating” (2004 to 2008) answering the phone, taking orders, barely keeping up as new customers all seemingly appeared out of, well, nowhere. Everyone worked hard, vacations were cancelled, and weekends put on hold as you expanded, took on additional lines of credit, claimed new territory and took market share. And then there was the relentless need for more people: you hired frantically even though it was very hard to find people. And of course you built “brick and mortar” facilities so you could be better, faster, and faster yet. Then there was the money. Oh yes, the accounting department said over and over you were making money: not so much cash mind you, but earnings, EBIDA
earnings, the ones that “average out” the interest expenses and the taxes and the brick and mortar and other growth costs which have been capitalized. EBIDA makes the picture look better, on paper at least. And so it was in the great overheating – you grew like crazy.
Now before I go any farther; you should know that this little fiction is not a set up. This
isn’t one of those MSNBC “what an idiot you were” sort of media riffs. In this story you stayed within borrowing limits, you hadn’t gone out and loaded up on 17% mezzanine financing, or entered into risky equity partnerships, or risky leveraged acquisitions, or
anything like that risky. Nor did you do all of this growing and expanding for some venture capital firm who wanted you to get big fast, profits be damned on the way to an imagined IPO. This story is about you building a good, strong, profitable, yet rapidly growing business which was experiencing an amazing expansion.
Now comes the careening bus. You’ve been going like crazy for four or five years, barely keeping up, feeling like you’ve been leaving chips on the table month after month in unfilled orders or potential services you couldn’t provide because there was always too much to do. And you, as CEO, have never worked harder, and your people, well, they have been heroic. Then someone in a provincial branch or office hears the first sound, a distant fugue of a jet engine, screeching tires and wind. By the time you see it, by the time you put the images and data together, its too late.. The bus approaches, out of control. You can’t believe it. In fact, you’ve been working so hard for so long to keep up with orders, you can’t make sense of what is bearing down on you. Bearing down on you and your company.
The crash takes three or four months. It is not a loud crash, as you might imagine. The bus hits you and leaves a loud silence. The phone rings less and less, until it doesn’t ring at all. Your deliveries are being returned, accounts receivable are extending from thirty days to forty five days to sixty days, then ninety days, until they fall off the table as collateral for your line of credit. The bank doesn’t call; they send you a letter: “broken covenants” it says, and your delivery trucks are all nested unmoving at the main beautifully built state-of-the-art brick and mortar distribution facility. All this and more happens without a sound. And the people who were exhausted with exertion are now sitting at clean desks, or in cars making fruitless sales calls, standing at idled manufacturing lines, all still, looking around because there is almost nothing to do. And everyone is wondering – what’s next?
At some point in the midst of this quiet and frightened place, you get it… you know there is a very real danger of going down. You also know that it’s your job to see that you don’t go down. In fact, it’s your job to make sure it lives, somehow, in some form, that when this crash is over, there needs to be a community of people to answer phones again, to fill orders again, to go back out there and grow.
We all know the kinds of sad and dispiriting steps you need to take. First everybody takes accrued vacations, and a 10% or 20% salary cut, bonuses are stopped, and then begin the layoffs as whole parts of the business are shuddered, idled, perhaps closed, and groups and teams and collections of talent broken up to become small and slightly profitable (if possible) as what’s left of your once upon a time growing business enters the dark world of recession winter and hope for survival. Overnight your strategic goals have shifted from grow, develop, take market-share, to stay alive somehow, anyhow, please stay alive.
Fast forward to today.
Imagine you did it. You survived. You saved the company. You have seen courage and humanity as you and your fellow travelers pulled costs below meagre revenue, absorbed bad debts, as new teams formed tentatively, made things right with the bank, the phone rings from time to time, and “the new normal” looks like a place where your “new normal” business can survive. Yes, it’s a different business than it was two years ago, but you’ve made it and you can see a future again.
So here you are, exhausted with a ringing in your ears. Six months later moving at this slower pace, you’re working a little less frantically, and the smaller more manageable business seems relatively easy to run.
This is the time you should ask yourself a few questions.
This is the “in-between” time. It is between one great adventure and another. It’s when you have a chance to make sense out of all that you learned during the great overheating, the crash, the firefighting, the saving of the enterprise, and the righting of the new normal business. This is a time to identify all of those lessons learned, all of those mistakes you made, all of those really smart things you all did. How do you do this? One way is to tell stories about the crash and what you learned, and to encourage others to do the same. This is a time to “write the book” about the past and how it informs your future. If you can do this, in the next overheating you’ll be a much smarter community, a much more robust enterprise. And when a bus is seen careening down the highway again – in maybe five or ten years – you will all know what to do. You’ll be a stronger enterprise and the “next normal” won’t be as painful to reach as it was before.
My old eyes have seen the bus that careened through in 1973, 1981, 1990, and 2007. There is no avoiding a bus: they just happen. It helps however, to learn as you go along.
Just use the “in-between time” as an opportunity to get way smarter about the whole adventure so the next bus won’t be nearly as dangerous as the previous one.
I have a wise friend who says “learning is difficult but development sucks.” He’s
right. But development is a lot easier when you understand that: “busses happen” and the “in between times” are for learning, regrouping, and rebuilding, using the past as a guide to help make the future a better place for you, your community, and your business. You’ve survived the bus; now make sense out of the whole picture. Make the in-between time investment time.