Today’s discussion couldn’t have come at a better time where many business’ stability is at the brink of collapse. Domenic Rinaldi talks with Jeff Sands about corporate turnaround, how you can set things right and save not only your business but people’s jobs as well. Jeff is the Managing Director of Dorset Partners LLC and the author of Corporate Turnaround Artistry: Fix Any Business in 100 Days. He shares with us his expertise about the topic, highlighting the importance of team effort to the process. For business owners, Jeff then gives out some pointers about the things to consider first as well as the major blocks that go into the life cycle of a turnaround. Turnarounds are all about speed and precision, so it helps to do it as fast as you can with the right professionals to guide you. Don’t miss out on what Jeff is going to share in this episode.
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Corporate Turnaround In These Uncertain Times With Jeff Sands
I am thankful that we have people like my guest now who have a particular skillset to help business owners navigate through these difficult times. Jeff Sands is the Principal of Dorset Partners, which specializes in corporate turnarounds. In a nutshell, he helps business owners save their businesses, their fortunes, their employees’ jobs and the communities they support. For three years running, Jeff and his firm had been awarded the prestigious Turnaround of the Year Award. In 2020, they were recognized as the Turnaround Consultant of the Year. Jeff is also the author of Corporate Turnaround Artistry: Fix Any Business in 100 Days. Jeff, it’s such a pleasure to have you here. This discussion couldn’t come at a better time.
Domenic, thanks for having me. I’ve been a fan of your show for quite some time. I’m thrilled to be on here.
I appreciate that. Jeff, maybe if you could give our community a quick background on yourself and talk about how did you get into the world of turnarounds. It’s not an obvious career direction for a lot of people.
It is not obvious and it is nowhere I intended to be. I got into it the hard way. My first turnaround was my own business. As I tell the story, all of a sudden, I realized I don’t know anything about fixing a business. I had an MBA. I had an Economics degree. I’ve been in the workforce for many years. I thought I was pretty smart. I realized the world never teaches you about running a business for cash, thirteen-week cashflow forecast, and all the obvious ways to fix a business when the chips are down. That set me on a path where I ended up becoming obsessed with a topic, turn around my own business twice. The second time was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I lost everything and that put a chip on my shoulder. I was determined to set things right and go save other businesses, their jobs and their communities. I’ve been doing that ever since. I love it. There’s nothing I would rather do than do this.
It’s good work and it’s certainly going to be needed again now. After coming out of 2008, I was hoping that was the last time, at least in my work life, that I’d see major effort having to go into turnarounds. It looks like you’re about to get very busy again here unfortunately.
I was waiting for a normal recession, which was a bit overdue, but this is more than anybody ever wanted. This is shocking dislocation that we’re seeing. Hurricane, I was right smack in the middle of it, but you knew it was over. The recovery had begun. Even when you look at ‘08, ‘09, you knew where the bottom was and that recovery was coming. I don’t know how to predict this thing other than it’s going to upset a lot of people’s businesses and dreams. Unfortunately, it is already.
Let’s dive in. If somebody calls you or you get a referral into a business and the business is in trouble, how do you assess whether or not that business is a good candidate for a turnaround? Buried in that question is there are situations that probably don’t warrant a turnaround, I would imagine. How do you go in and initially assess and decide, “This is a business we can turn around?”
Superficially, if you’re a typewriter store these days, you shouldn’t be around. If you’re in a turnaround, it’s probably your time to look for the exit. Beyond that, it’s generally the customers. If the customers want the business to survive, we’ll find a way to make the business survive. That’s the big thing. If you’re running a stunningly mediocre bumping along business and you get in trouble, there’s often not a lot of people willing to bail you out. I’ve been in businesses where the customers didn’t care, the vendors didn’t care and the employees didn’t care. It’s hard to do much there. Turnarounds are 100% a team effort. All my success is getting all the stakeholders to support, lift up the company and bring it back to health. What’s there and do the stakeholders care enough? When they care enough, it’s absolutely amazing what you can pull off when the customers, vendors, employees and the banker are pulling in your direction.
Those stakeholders are key. Does it require all the stakeholders to be on board or can you do a turnaround if one of them is lukewarm to it and doesn’t want to come along? Can you eventually pull them along or do you need all the stakeholders to get through a successful turnaround?
You pretty much need them all. If it’s a minor thing, maybe not. We look at turnarounds as a four-legged stool. All I need is everybody to do their job. I need the workers to work. I need the lenders to lend. I need the customers to consume. I need the suppliers to supply. If everybody does their job, we can get out of it. What normally happens when I’m called in, the employees are scared, the supply chains are locked up, the bank is upset. Those have created problems that impact a customer. Maybe it’s late deliveries and incomplete shipments. The customers start losing faith. If I can convince all of them, “Let’s get back to where we were when everybody was happy here. Here’s a good point. We’re going to follow this. This is what I do. It’s all I do. It is a very transparent plan that makes sense, that’s executed quickly. If you do all that, most people step in and follow.”
A lot of CEOs have burned up all their credibility in the process. Them telling the suppliers that they’re going to get paid again for the twentieth time, it rings hollow. If I come in and I say, “You’re going to get paid. Here’s why and here’s how it’s going to work, but you’ve got to be patient. No one’s rolling in with wheelbarrows full of money. We’re going to get you paid and we’re going to keep a good customer of yours alive,” suppliers will help you. It’s amazing what we pull off strictly through team effort.
What you’re point there is you’re an independent third-party coming in. It’s not hollow promises from the management team that’s been giving them hollow promises for six months, 1 or 2 years.
A lot of it is shocking amounts of confidence that, “I know what I’m doing, I’ve done this before, I’m going to do it again. I’ve seen much worse. This isn’t so bad. We’re going to get through this.” When you say that with unshakable confidence, people believe it and they get in line. Business owners can do that too. They have to in these situations. If I was going to self-criticize, I did not project that confidence I needed to and should have in my first two turnarounds mostly because I was completely over my head. I didn’t know what I was doing. Even so, that was my role and I failed at that role.
I flat out fake at times and the results turn out great because everybody bought into, “We can work our way out of this even if I thought it was impossible.” You’ve got to get everybody believing. In a time like this, that’s the CEO’s job to project that confidence and get everybody to rally around. It’s a lot of numbers games. There are 100 companies in the bank workout department. Somebody is ranked last and somebody is ranked first. When you’re the A-student, showing up every day with a smile on your face, willing to take the beating, with a chipper attitude and determined to work your way out of this, people are going to treat you well. They’re going to reward you for your hard work and attitude.
If you’re at the other end, either freaked out and frozen in place because you can’t process everything that’s going on. You don’t want to let go of the fantasy of success that was in your head. You don’t want to face reality like it’s hitting it now. If you’re those people, you ended up getting chewed up by the bank. They go and liquidate their collateral. You get ground up. The numbers can be the same. The balance sheet can be the same. All the problems can be the same. It’s entirely attitude that pulls you out of this.Turnarounds are 100% a team effort. Click To Tweet
We say the same thing in M&A, leadership matters. These are healthy deals, but you have to provide good leadership to your clients. When you can provide good leadership and be confident because you’ve got years of experience and how many deals behind you, they’ll follow and that matters. Let’s talk about business owners. Let’s wind back to when you were first introduced to a business owner. What questions should a business owner be asking themselves before they decide to retain you and your firm? From an outsider looking in on turnarounds, because we have never done a lot of turnarounds, you have to be committed to the process as an owner and a CEO. What soul searching should they be doing that you recommend with themselves before they retain you?
I’ve never been asked that question. While you were asking it, what popped into my head is a picture of morbidly obese person outside of Weight Watchers or Planet Fitness. What’s in their head is all that matters. Are they truly honestly resolved to fix their problems? They’re a bit freaked out, a bit scared, but 100% committed to getting out of this situation. If that person has that attitude walking into the gym, a year later, they’re going to be a different person. If they’re the person that goes along with it and doesn’t have that commitment, things aren’t going to change. I use the Rocky Balboa analogy with clients. Everybody has seen the movie. They know it. If you’re willing to get up at 4:00 in the morning, drink a whole glass of raw eggs, run around like a maniac and completely exhaust yourself, I will absolutely positively get you out of this hole.
We’re going to have a fun time doing it. We’re going to leave everybody else in the dust because the people who aren’t drinking that metaphorical glass of raw eggs, they’re the ones who are going to catch all the problems. Turnarounds are all about speed and precision. If you know what to do and you do it fast and aggressively, you’re going to pull out of it because all your problems only move so fast. That bank only moves so fast, reality only moves so fast, the laws only move so fast. You cannot hustle all of them if you know what you’re doing and you go strong in the right direction.
I’m curious how you test that in your world and in the owner’s resolve. In healthy transactions, one of the things that our team will ask owners to test their motivation around selling the business is, “What are your plans post-transaction? What are you looking to do?” When they can describe to us in tremendous detail what they’re doing the day after they sell the business. We know they’ve got their head wrapped around selling. How do you test whether the owners got their head wrapped around a turnaround? Can you or is it too chaotic of a time to be able to pinpoint that person is ready?
The extremes are easy. The person who says, “Get me out of this, I don’t care.” I remember I had a CEO of a $80 million trucking company who said, “I don’t care about anything in the world. I don’t care about my kids. I don’t care about my dog or my wife. Get me out of this bank. That’s the only thing I care about.” That was obvious. I get others who are at the other end. They want the results to change but they don’t want the inputs to change. They want to keep the fancy car. They want to keep the country club membership going. They want to keep all the dumb things they’ve been doing and going. They’re not truly committed to salvation. Most people are in the middle. Quite frankly, I was in the middle. I was confused and scared. My pride had been wounded, all that stuff. That’s where most of my job is, to take them from that befuddlement into clarity and into salvation, point them in the right direction and not let them drift back into normal human instincts.
Let’s go back and talk about the four constituents in a successful turnaround. They are the employees, the lenders, the clients and the suppliers. What is your approach there? Are you bringing all of these groups together? Is there a complete transparency among the groups or are you still isolating the groups? You’re providing transparency, but you’re working with them one-on-one. Do you bring everybody together and is it a team effort?
Let me step back one step. I often go into the client and say, “If you look around, your employees have always been paid full and on time, every two weeks. Your customers have gotten their shipments and probably at a world market price for years and years, they’ve been happy. Your suppliers, up until, were always paid completely and on time. Somehow, you’re broke which means we’re uneven. The customers have to pay a bit more, the suppliers have to discount a little bit more and the employees have to work a bit harder. Everybody can’t benefit except the owner. Everybody has to benefit equally. When we go into it, everybody has got to do their job. It’s as much transparency as I possibly can. The first few things I do is a thirteen-week cashflow and a liquidation scenario, “Here’s what we got. This is the most reality-based thing you’ll ever face.” I shared that with suppliers, “I’d love to pay you. Here’s the situation but here’s the path of how we get out and how you get paid.”
We do that with the bank because the banks are already doing a liquidation analysis. I want to make sure I’m comparing mine with theirs. You don’t want to freak the customers out. We generally protect them and make it seem more operational with maybe a little bit of cashflow issues, but nothing for you to worry about. We’re know on this. Employees, we’re straight up honest with them. Maybe not bearing all the numbers that they can take home and analyze. I’d tell them, “It’s no secret that the company is in trouble. They haven’t been recurring equipment. They haven’t been reinvesting in their employees. We’re broke but the bank’s going to support us. We’re going to get everybody else’s support and we’re going to work our way out, but I need you all to work a whole lot harder than you have then. This is a Rocky Balboa time for everybody.”
As far as how it lays out, are you meeting with them individually then as groups? Are you meeting with the employee separately? You’re not really bringing the banks, the employees and the suppliers together. You’re dealing with them in silos and yet being transparent with all of them equally.
In silos and often in building contingencies. We saved a business that was in the process of closing. We ended up buying it two months after it closed. We got the politicians to support us. We got customers to support us. We went into the suppliers and said, “The state is going to give us some grant money. The customers are with us. We need you to be with us. We got the suppliers. We went to the United Steelworkers who was a union.” I said, “Everybody else is with us, but now we need your help. Will you help?” They said, “Yeah, we’re in.” All four of us went to the bank and broke down the bank store and got them to be supportive initially against their will, then we had everybody. If we got that, then we took an old, 113-year-old-factory that had been shut down for two months. We restarted it with everybody’s support and help.
I’m assuming there’s no one life cycle of a turnaround because every situation is so different. Without putting timeframes on it, can you give us a sense for what are the major blocks that go into the life cycle of a turnaround? Is there an average of how long it typically takes?
It’s generally 3 to 9 months. The first step is controlling cash. You have to control the cash. That’s your oxygen. Once it’s gone, you’re cooked. That’s a thirteen-week cashflow. The first thing you do is that. I just abandoned the P&L. I don’t even look at it for a while. I run the business 100% on the thirteen-week cashflow. Once that stabilized and we can start generating some free cash, then you’re in a turnaround plan. Turnarounds are simple, cut costs and increased revenues. How do we do that? How do we go raise prices on people? How do we decrease our costs? How do we run more efficiently?
Skew rationalization, a lot of times it’s recruiting back to a core. Often, I’ll get a call making up numbers. They’ll tell me they have a $10 million business. I’ll say, “Send me the financial.” They send them and I say, “You are only doing $7 million. I thought you said $10 million?” “We were doing ten. We just got to get back to that.” I look and say, “There’s a fabulous $5 million company. If I was going to buy it, I’ll jettisoned the other $2 million and focus on that $5 million core. Get strong there for a couple of years and build back.”Turnarounds are like a four-legged stool. Everyone in your team is important. Click To Tweet
That’s how to get to $10 million, not this house of cards thing that a lot of people have been doing. Once you’ve got that strong core, you can start figuring out, “Where do we want to go from here? Do I want to sell the business? Do I want to hold on to it? Do I want to do an ESOP? What does the entrepreneur want with their business? Where do they want to go?” I tried to drive to a point of maximum optionality within 6 to 9 months where the clouds are parted. The sun’s coming out again and the owner gets a step back with a clear head and figure out where they want to go next.
How much work after that 3 to 9-month period do you do on a go forward basis with a client? That’s just to make sure that they don’t revert back to their old ways, get into trouble and they stay in the course of this new path that you’ve put them on.
None. They all want me gone. They all want to pretend it was a bad dream, that it never happened. Me leaving helps them paint that story in their head. I have two brothers a couple of years save a $80 million great business. At the end I said, “Everything is fine. We got a new bank. Everything is great.” I said, “You are totally going to screw this up again in a couple of years. Here’s the proposal. I can come in as a third partner and guarantee your success. It’s cheap insurance policy. I’ll eat last.” It was a great deal. They said no. They wanted to pretend it never happened. They didn’t like running a tight ship. They wanted to go back to their old habits. Five years later, they lost the business in two catastrophic weeks and that was it. That’s normal. They all want me gone.
Any sense for what the recurrence rate is in these turnarounds? I imagine there isn’t a national statistic on this, but is it something that would surprise me? Is it 50% of the time or is the success rate much higher than that after they’ve been turned around?
I would totally be guessing. It’s hard to define too. Were they a C-student who dropped down to an F when I got called in? They’re probably happy being a C-plus student. It’s few that go from average to superior but some do. When I do an acquisition, I’ll be the incredibly active turnaround manager and move to a board seat and help. We’re trying to get a perpetual C-student up to A over a course of five years. That’s slow incremental improvement. Some entrepreneurs see the light through the turnaround. You look at billionaires, many of them have been forged through the dark valley of the turnaround. They say, “I would never have accomplished what I accomplished without the scars, beating and life changing event that I went through. I turned around and that’s what changed me.”
I’m assuming you’ve seen this throughout your career, that even though these are going to be tough times for a lot of people, there’s also going to be tremendous opportunities here.
You think how hard you’re moving, hustling and working in a turnaround, your competitors are still working the same pace that they’ve always been. Now, you’re hustling twice as hard to restructure the debt. At the end of a turnaround, you generally come out as the sharpest knife in the drawer compared to all your competitors. You’ve got a cleaned-up balance sheet. If you want to go kick ass, you can go kick a whole bunch of butts or if you want to go back to a level of comfort and a balanced lifestyle, you can do that as well.
We try to do everything from the P&L to the balance sheet, to the org chart and get a super tuned up business. If you compare to humans and a 55-year-old, I can get a 55-year-old on the treadmill in great shape in one year, looking super and they’re going to have a good healthy five years ahead of them. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the age of 80 or 90 and what pre-existing conditions there might be. I can totally tune them up and give them a couple of years of great vitality that they get to choose what to do from there.
It sounds a lot like a bootcamp. You go to the bootcamp. You’re in the best shape of your life. It’s the genesis of my earlier question is how many of those people can stay at that point? I’m glad to hear that you stay on in a board position. To me, that’s a discipline that they need on an ongoing basis to make sure they’re staying the course and being nimble. I love the examples you’ve given. Any others that you could think of that M&A Unplugged community would enjoy?
I’ll give you a couple of quick ones, but as you’re mentioning bootcamp, everybody knows bootcamp is tough, but you go ask anybody who’s been through the military, they’ll say that was some of the best times in their life. There’s the old saying that, “Which was most bitter to endure is sweetest to remember.” That’s what turnarounds are. I have a blast. I try to help everybody else have a good time and make it. We’re going to go through this. Let’s enjoy it and have good attitude. Go kick butt while we can.
I’ll give you a simple one and I’ll give you a couple of the extreme ones. The simple one is a super nice couple, always running out of cash about once a month. The bank was always over advancing them. The banks said, “Would you go help these poor folks? We love them to death. We’re tired of the over advance.” I figured out how to help them get paid a week earlier on average, how to pay their vendors a week later on average. We created two weeks of free cashflow and kept them away from needing an over advanced. They were happy. The bank was happy. The customers and suppliers were very happy to participate.
Some of the more extreme ones I’ve had, I was called into a company the day after the CEO committed suicide. The FBI was ready to arrest employees in three different felonies. Revenues have fallen from $45 million to $6 million. All of the equipment was broken down. Nobody was working or paying attention. They all had a bad attitude. Detroit in 2009, revenues have fallen 90% in nine months. The owner was going off to the hospital for three months for intensive cancer treatment. The executives were having fist fights. We made that thing profitable in two months. We took over a paper mill that had three weeks from closing.
The customers were all gone. The suppliers were gone. The inventories were run down. The employees were looking for work elsewhere and leaving. I’m sure about ten other things I can’t even remember. Three different unions and I had tremendous success there. I liked the harrier stuff. It helps people focus. People don’t focus on little problems. People focus on big problems and take them seriously. That’s where you get to superhuman efforts and where we can get the great results. All mine are Bad News Bears’ stories. Alabama’s football team and career winning season, I’d go into Bad News Bears. Everybody has a bad attitude. Everybody’s been mistreated and under-appreciated for years, but they all want to win deep down inside. If I can tap into that and get everybody to say, “We’re going to go taste victory again,” it’s contagious. That’s the fuel.
Although I get the sense that with this economic downturn, we’re going to have more situations where things haven’t been going poorly for a long time. It was due to this international pandemic and things turned ugly very quickly, but they’re still going to need people like you to help them. Along that point, how does somebody know that they’re bringing in a turnaround specialist that has the goods? What separates the good from the so-so turnaround specialist?
In ‘08, ‘09, it seems like every unemployed CFO in a country was calling themselves a turnaround specialist. Every CFO has either done one or always wanting to do one. I talked to a private equity firm and he literally said, “I’ve got a buddy who’s a CFO who I would call.” My dad always says, “That’s great, but when you have a heart attack, you need a cardiologist, not a chiropractor regardless of the price.” The answer I would say is track record. That proof is in the pudding. If somebody kicked butts on a couple of dozen turnarounds, there’s something there. If they’re a CFO who always wanted to do a turnaround, probably go somewhere else.
Personality fit and temperament because in my experience, somebody that’s had to go through that aren’t with their own business and turn around their own business. It’s walk the proverbial mile in your shoes. That’s invaluable. That’s my biggest strength because I’ve been there. I know what it’s like not to sleep at night, go through bankruptcy schedules and ultimately lose my business. I’m not a consultant. These are deeply personal for me. I pour my soul into these turnarounds. A lot of people are just another consulting project. It’s the way to ring the cash register. They’re not going to care themselves up deep inside worrying about these jobs, this community and the tax space but I do.
This has been tremendous information. I hope that you are well-rested because I get the sense that you’re going to be a busy guy, you and your firm because fortunately there are going to be too many opportunities out there to save.
To that end, I’m going to use that as a segue. Over the last few years, I wrote a book, 336-page manual that’s essentially a book to my prior self or for any CEO who finds themselves in the myths of a turnaround. It is all the deep tactical tricks that I’ve learned. I’ve read over 50 turnaround and distressed investing books and focused on what was missing, which was largely deep cashflow tricks, mindset and debt restructuring. It’s the most coincidental timing ever why we published it. It’s everything I could pour out of my head in 336 pages. It’s on Amazon. I wrote it as I’m moving upstream working with bigger and bigger companies. I didn’t want to let the $5 million, $10 million revenue companies not have my help. In a way it was let me dump it all here. It will always be available for everybody while I go work on bigger and bigger deals.
The timing is impeccable. Jeff, if people wanted to get in touch with you, how could they reach you?Which was most bitter to endure is sweetest to remember. Click To Tweet
My website is DorsetPartners.com. I’m simply [email protected]. Shoot me an email. I’m happy to talk. We always start off with a bunch of free advice. If there is a relationship and we want to work together, we’ll probably find a way.
Jeff, thanks so much. I appreciate you being here.
Thank you, Domenic. It’s a great opportunity. I’m a long-time big fan of your show, so keep it up.
I appreciate that.
I want to highlight a few things that Jeff brought up that resonated with me. First off, this is very much a team effort. If you’re going down this path or if you’re in a turnaround, you need to get everybody on board. If you’re the owner and CEO of that business, you have to be 150% committed to this process. I don’t think you can go into this thinking you can retain some of the assets that you’ve accumulated over time. You need to go into this with eyes wide open and be completely committed to the process and then work with professionals.
This is not something where you want to cut corners and bring in people where they would hope they’ve done these things before. They have some minor skillset. You want people that have done this and done it many times. If you would like to learn more about the process of acquiring or selling a business, please visit our website at SunAcquisitions.com or feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]. I look forward to seeing you again on the next episode. Until then, please remember that scaling, acquiring or selling a business takes time, preparation and the proper knowledge.
- Dorset Partners
- Corporate Turnaround Artistry: Fix Any Business in 100 Days
- [email protected]
- [email protected]
About Jeff Sands
Jeff Sands is the Managing Director of Dorset Partners, a company that revitalizes troubled businesses. Jeff Sands has spent the last 18 years fixing distressed businesses, starting with his own, twice. He’s fixed dozens of businesses in dozens of industries and has built a reputation as the best person to call in the worst situations. Jeff has won 4 of the industry’s biggest awards and recently published his 336 page manual; Corporate Turnaround Artistry, Fix Any Business in 100 Days.
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