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“I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.” – Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, 1936

Employee Love > Customer Love

After 17 years, McIntyre and Company was a proud and established brand. Every one of our 30 professionals were positive about our future and it showed in their daily work ethic. Then, on a Friday in 1997, the unthinkable happened. We got fired.

Our largest Client had been purchased and the business we had built for them in the Carolinas was being turned over to a rival. Not only did we lose the income, but this change meant our competitor picked up the benefits from our years of work without lifting a finger. It was devastating news.

That late afternoon phone call wiped out 17% of our revenue, a huge number with 30 people on the payroll.

I spent Friday night and all of Saturday worried about my people, my company, and how we would survive! I was not ready to pick myself up and dust myself off from that bad news just yet.

It is a good thing I had given up drinking years earlier or that week-end, and the future of the company, could have played out differently.

Sunday was better. I was starting to shape a plan. I would not lay anyone off. We would keep our team together and replace the lost income as quickly as possible.

McIntyre and Company was a Sales Agent, or food broker, in the Carolina foodservice industry. We preformed a middle man function between the producer and the end-user. The end-user could be any restaurant, hotel, hospital, school or other operator offering meals away from home.

The Client Manufacturer contracted with us for the exclusive sales rights to their products in our territory. We then sold the Client’s food to our Distributor and Operator Customers.

It is a large, but little understood, niche in our food system.

Three things were clear:

We were family on a Christmas trip to Discover Place in Charlotte.
We were family on a Christmas trip to Discover Place in Charlotte.
  1. A domino effect can start when the remaining Clients get nervous. We would lose more revenue if any of them left.
  2. Now free from our largest Client’s demands, the team could spend more time selling for our remaining Client Manufacturers. These efforts would boost sales and help McIntyre fill the revenue gap faster.
  3. Finally, we were a family. We had enjoyed 17 Christmas parties together, many days at the lake, and more. Family hangs tight, especially in hard times.

I went to work crafting a banner from an old bed sheet.

Great People
   Dynamic Manufactures
      Wonderful Market
         Strong Customers
            Good Reputation
               Solid Relationships

…We have so much to be thankful for!

By Monday morning the old bed sheet had been given a new job, hanging from the office ceiling to announce the message.

We WOULD pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.

A big sigh of relief went up when the team realized everyone was still on the payroll, and without any salary cuts.

This was to be a defining moment in our history. Successful or not, this story would be re-told and shape our culture. My job was to create a positive plan and support everyone with the necessary confidence.

Just as I did in the lean start up years, I would hold my paycheck, saving the money for others. It was the right thing to do.

I believed in my people. I knew we could work together to overcome this set-back, but I had not fully understood how much our Customers cared about us, and how much they respected the decision to keep our team together. Every sales call brought greater and greater results. The Customer-Love we built over the 17 years was being returned.

I also learned that Employee-Love can be even stronger than Customer-Love. The team saw how much I cared about them and they returned that love. Each day they made extra sales calls. The plan was working and in the next 12 months we replaced the lost revenue, plus added 10% on the top. Then, in the next year, we grew 21%.

We had picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off.

Over the following years, as the business grew, we added more sales professionals. Our newer coworkers, never called employees, respected the company and what we stood for. They learned, and shared, the culture openly. The old bed sheet hung every March 7 and I re-told the story again each year. It became part of our DNA.

It was a good thing we saved the banner because in five years we needed to hang it again.

right-thing-cornerThis time, two Clients totaling 19% of our revenue had similar consolidations. For no fault of our own, we were fired, by both – just one day apart in 2002. The banner went up and the process started all over. No layoffs and hard work. Our revenue was up 21% at the close of that year. We had learned how to whistle the “pick yourself up” tune on the darkest nights.

Defining moments for companies and people are shaped in the bad times, not the good.

What would you have done? Can only small business do this or should larger companies care more about people?

Have these things happened in your company? To you?

As always, the conversation starts here.

“In the ordinary choices of every day we begin to change the direction of our lives.” – Eknath Easwaran

Epilogue

Wile E. Coyote is the best at picking himself up. “The Coyote” can dust himself off and start all over faster than anyone. Plus, he makes me laugh!