All Distressed Businesses Have the Same 3 Problems

All Distressed Businesses Have the Same 3 Problems

I am amazed how boards, when they are hit with a crisis, look for a fix from the guy who has been in the same industry for the last 15 years. While this might be important for a company on a predictable path to growth in a stable industry (something very rare if not extinct these days), it becomes a liability when the industry is being disrupted by substitutes or by an industry cycle (see recent crude oil price crisis).

In my 20 year career as an interim exec, I have worked across many industries: electronics, software, oil refining and distribution, food packaging, retail and most recently agriculture in the jungles of South East Asia. These industries have been scattered across 12 countries on 3 continents. The problems faced by an interim are never the same, but the basics are always the same. It’s always about (in this order):

▪ Cash (can we reverse the bleeding?);
▪ People (Do we have the right people and culture in place to get us back on our feet?); and
▪ Business Model to Market Fit (Is our business model a fit for the current market?).

An interim assignment is 9-12 months, a very short period of time to turn around a company in distress, especially while you are running out of cash and trying to figure out how to make changes to your business model to become relevant again for the market that just shifted.

Because the basics are the same, industry-specific experience for an interim does not matter.

The first reason why industry does not matter in the world of interim is that companies need to think outside the box. Thinking outside the box is hard if you are stuck in the confines of an industry that already has a “book”. On the other end, when you did not read the book, you don’t know what is not possible. Picking a corporate executive who was previously successful working for the competition has little to do with the firefighting that needs to happen immediately to save the company to fight another day.

The second reason why industry should not be at the top of the list when bringing on an interim is because it is so much about people. I find that people leadership is the most critical point of a turnaround. Interims can figure out the rest with the help of others, more often than not from the people who are already in the business. What an interim provides is the operational expertise and the necessary uncomfortable decision making needed to instill confidence back into an organization. No matter what industry you are in, human nature remains constant.

The third reason industry does not matter is perspective. Often problems found in one industry have been solved in another industry. The same problems may be called something different, but the pattern for identifying the problem and finding a solution remains the same.

For example: I recently changed industries to head an operation that was in a cash black hole for the last 6 years, accumulating crushing debt. The business environment was fine but poor execution was condemning the business.

The first action in the battle was to dig out the numbers and understand the extent of the bleeding. Experience and good investigative skills helped me uncover that in about 30 days. The second action was to understand the people and the culture of the company. By day 45, with the help of behavioral and cognitive investigative tools, I was able to map the organization and figure out the mismatch between people, roles and responsibilities. These steps were accomplished despite the fact that very few people in the organization spoke English and I do not speak the local language. By day 60 we had figured out what was wrong in the execution model and had an action plan in place.

The fact that this was a turnaround in a new industry was never a hurdle to helping the company. The knowledge within the organization itself, augmented by expertise from external advisors, was sufficient to build a thorough understanding of the business model, the key drivers of the industry, and what steps were required to execute a turnaround.

About the Author

Eric Kish

Eric Kish is a CEO and turnaround executive with expertise in private equity backed turnarounds. Among his accomplishments, Kish turned around a refining and petrochemicals business from $7M to $450M market cap in three years, created a retail division from scratch and grew from zero to $3.6 billion in revenue in 5 years, and expanded operations in 7 countries resulting in acquisition of the company for $3.8 billion.