Raising the Dead

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Leading a business turnaround is a gut-wrenching task. I know because I've led three:

In 1991, colleagues elected me manager of a two-channel TV studio in the Middle East. The bland programming our studio regularly broadcast was the focus of much viewer aggression. I didn't know anything about studio operations, so I asked the staff for the top three viewer complaints. The next day I issued three programming edicts, got rid of videotapes that didn't meet the criteria and left the well-seasoned employees to order replacements. The following week, viewer complaints stopped completely. Not long afterward, the Gulf War broke out. Despite 14 nights of missile attacks, regular air-raid warnings, countless broadcasting regulation changes issued by the government and the fraying mental stability of just about everyone, this remains the easiest of the turnarounds I've led.

One year later, I was lured to a company consisting of 12 recreation facilities scattered across a city of 2.5 million inhabitants. The business had been in decline for one decade-more than half its customer facilities either were unusable, or were so damaged or filthy, few people went near them. The board of directors, constantly arguing, offered no support. Employee morale was low.

When I arrived, irate customers swarmed around me like bees. By the end of the second year, however, most of the facilities had been cleaned and repaired, and the company was churning out twice the number of programs and activities it had in the past.

My third turnaround was an $8 million private leisure operation. The owner had built this "ranch" for his children, but they'd grown up, and he wanted to make it a business. Unfortunately, his shockingly incompetent daughter had crowned herself managing director, five general managers had come and gone in the ranch's five-year history, and employees were seething with frustration from conflicting company directives.

"Here we go again," loudly whispered one seasoned staffer at the first meeting I convened. The others rolled their eyes, wondering whose job was on the line. A year and a half later, expenses had been reduced 40 percent, the number of programs had risen 300 percent, and memberships had increased over 800 percent.

Three businesses. Three turnarounds. Three tortuous uphill climbs. What did it take? Determination and sound planning. If your business is in crisis, look to the following road map to get it back on course.

1.Determine Your Priorities
2.Be Prepared for Resistance
3.Make "Customers" the Focus
4.Don't Go It Alone
5.Focus on Ethics and Quality
6.Get on With It!
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This article was originally published in the February 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Raising the Dead.

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