Rob - how the heck did you get involved in Restructuring and Turnarounds???
Q: How did you get into turnaround and restructuring work?
Robert: I’ve always had some interest in the turnaround industry. I think it comes from a desire to make things better, to lean in where things are “broken,” and help resolve issues. I get great satisfaction in helping people — my reward is in the internal affirmation that I’ve left a situation better than it was before I got there and contributed to someone having a better day, life, future.
My first formal foray into turnarounds was when I bought a struggling business. Because it was my first experience, I had limited understanding of what it took to turn a company around in terms of training, experience, tools and what to focus on. I certainly learned a lot of what works and what doesn’t work, but I could have made it a much easier undertaking having had training and experience going in. For me, it quickly settled the debate of who brings more value — an industry insider or an experienced restructuring professional. I now always vote the latter!
After that experience, I was hooked. It also gave me the added credibility with, and empathy for those business owners who are lying awake at night trying to figure out how to make payroll, or why sales momentum is stalling.
Q: What are some of the lessons learned that you have brought forward from that experience?
Robert: The first lesson is to get educated to truly understand what you are up against. Turnaround cases tend to be multi-faceted, and truly having a breadth of understanding of issues is so vitally important. I poured a lot of time into formal education — I earned an MBA, became a Chartered Investment Manager, and Certified Turnaround Analyst, and I’ve read many, many case studies, books and articles on start-ups and turnarounds. Success leaves clues, look for them and use them.
Second, have a framework to approach a turnaround so you know what’s important and what’s not important. Stick to what matters — the rest is noise, and track progress of what matters.
Third, round out your skills with other subject matter experts of deep knowledge. Turnarounds are multi-disciplined endevours so have a rolodex of experienced accountants, legal, and other value-added folks to call on.
Leveraging my first point— learn enough to understand the important issues and know the tough questions to ask and bolster the upside through the use of other experts.
Lastly, I have adopted a maxim along the way which is: “Know the downside, protect yourself from the downside, but don’t fixate on the downside - focus on strategy!”
The reading and training is great support, but the best way to gain valuable reusable insights is through sleeves rolled up hands-on. As a result of working on turnarounds and with offshore start-ups (about 20 so far) you learn the importance of focus, speed, perseveration of cash, getting the product right, and calibrating the market and size accurately. Their all important for long term prosperity.
Q: Anything else that contributes to the perspective you bring to the table?
Robert: I worked a boutique hedge fund. It was a small firm, so I was exposed to stock picking, foreign exchange, trading, and compliance. I got to understand on what criteria stocks are bought and sold, and what key performance indicators drive each industry. It also afforded me the wonderful benefit of sitting in on over 150 CEO and CFO company pitches, and walking through strategies, financials, and operational challenges. Those meetings were so enlightening.
I also worked in Investor Relations of a public company for a period, so that gave me exposure to the ‘sell’ side of the street. We would produce and package up our results, do research on our competitors’ results and strategies, and joust with analysts for our position on the podium each quarter.
Between the buy side and the sell side experience, I have a great understanding of stakeholder’s perspectives, and that helps me keep the importance of constant and open communication and messaging top of mind during a turnaround.
Q: What have been some of the key milestones in your career that helped make you the professional you are today?
Robert: Early on, I was bumping along inside a major corporation, working my way up the bottom part of the corporate ladder, until one day new leadership came in and deemed the area I was in as ‘not-strategic.’ That meant our responsibilities were up for bid to the best outsourcing contractor. Being deemed a redundant commodity was a wake-up call. After a self-assessment, I knew that at the end of the day, I was going to be out of a job at that company and have limited options. Fortunately, the company needed someone to facilitate this initiative from the inside, and I was smart enough to raise my hand for the job. What it afforded me was exposure to executive management and senior management of finance, sales, operations, and their way of thinking. I called it my ‘on-the-job MBA.’ At the end, by leaning in, I left the company with a better understanding of what was important to running a good company, and I learned more about myself in the process. That kicked off the next 20-plus years of my career.
I learned that I am good at breadth, and where to stop with depth. I know enough to understand certain things quite well, and when to lay off analysis and [shift a] decision on other experts. That is super important! It wasn’t overnight, but I quickly went from a backroom operations guy to someone reading and negotiating major outsourcing contracts, working on M&A transactions, building financial models, and helping turn around companies. I have an insatiable appetite to learn, which keeps me humble, and to share what I learn, which keeps me grounded.
Of all the major milestones, the most impactful was meeting my wife. None of this would have been possible without her. She kept me and the family on track then and has since through many demanding times.
Q: What have been some of your most satisfying engagements along the way?
Robert: It is intrinsically satisfying to put a client in a much better position than they were in when they came to me. Beyond the functional aspects and financial results, you can see their shoulders relax, they can breathe again, and smile. For me, it’s all personal.
Recently, I have had the pleasure of working as a restructuring advisor to a CEO of a regional information technology case. They were struggling to maintain positive cash flow and profitability in a solid industry. It was a case of the more you grow, the more you owe. The value of the turnaround and restructuring experience is that we can quickly help get our clients on stable ground and from there, as was in in this case, in about six months reframe the operations and KPIs to get them back on a return and growth path and in line with industry numbers.
Q: What are some of the personal challenges that you have experienced in an engagement?
Robert: Next to a full shutdown it would be involuntary staff departure. The mindset you need to go in with is: ‘Turn this thing around or no one will have a job; your saving 80% of the jobs that were going to be eliminated.’ Still, at the end of the day, some people may not return. But engagements where jobs are saved are the ones that are the most rewarding.
Q: How do you approach these engagements?
Robert: Our approach uses a framework, so it is consistent, but allows for swapping certain components in and out to emphasize or deemphasise focus areas as the situation dictates. We are consistent in having strong feelings about certain approaches and policies in play. We define 2-week goals, 30-day goals and 100-day goals, each informing a set of actions.
As an example, during the first two-weeks, we are assessing cashflow related to cash expected to come in and cash earmarked to go out, reviewing key financial ratios for stability and liquidity insights, looking at the management team for enablers and blockers, and getting a sense of the company’s offering alignment with the industry outlook. We will build an action base off that set of facts.
Additionally, in every engagement we provide more that just advice. On top of nose-in we’re also fingers-in helping with research, making designs, craft solutions. We look for engagements where we can influence and help decide the outcome, not just pass on advice and hope its acted on.
Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?
Robert: Some of my passions have changed [over time], but there are constants—family and a small, close-knit group of friends. Unplanned family get-togethers provide an opportunity for unstructured conversation, and usually leads to interesting discussions. I also have a small group of close friends that I care for and love chatting with, traveling with, and sharing a drink with.
Q: What might people who only know you professionally be most surprised to learn about you?
Robert: That I can relax! For me, the best way to truly unplug and decompress is a family trip to Disney World. I’m a Disney nut. It’s our family’s thing — I love it to the tune of 8-plus visits so far. A couple of years back, 13 members of the extended family, cousins, and significant others attended, and we all stayed in the same house, which is something I remember with great fondness.