As the right-hand man for a hot-tempered entrepreneur, I had thoroughly prepared for a crucial weekend meeting at his Minneapolis home. As soon as the meeting convened, he asked me to give copies of specific documents to the other two people there—the writer of the investment newsletter we produced and the copywriter of our promotional material who had flown into town expressly for this important strategy session.
I I had indeed brought those documents, but hadn’t thought it necessary to make copies for everyone else. Big mistake. Much screaming and swearing ensued. My two colleagues remained stone-faced and silent. I was ordered to return to our office to make copies and gather even more documentation.
That was one long fifteen-mile car ride—I felt humiliated and furious. Hoping to avoid another tirade, I lifted all the Pendaflex files out of my desk drawer and put them in the trunk so I’d have access to every last shred of information. The rest of the meeting went off without a hitch—except for him yelling at his wife because she hadn’t prepared dinner just the way he liked it.
I was only twenty-six, with a young family to support. I took his abuse because I was afraid of losing a good paycheck. Still, within a year, I found the courage to quit and landed a much better, much calmer job. Looking back, I don’t regret working there at all. It made me stronger and taught me how to stand up for myself. We learn those life lessons more quickly when we’re shoved into the fire.
All of us can recall such moments of adversity. The prominent businesspeople I interviewed for Twin CIties Business magazine had no trouble immediately recalling their worst day on the job. Their stories differ tremendously, but the end result is the same—they emerged stronger, more confident, with a renewed sense of purpose. In retrospect then, perhaps our worst days aren’t so terrible after all.
JILL BLASHACK STRAHAN
WHO: Founder and CEO of Tastefully Simple, an Alexandria-based direct sales company whose gourmet foods are sold by independent consultants primarily at home taste-testing parties nationwide.
WORST DAY: In 2000, our company was five years old and getting ready to move to our third location. The first three years, we had been in a 1,200 sq. ft. shed with no running water. We would end 2000 with $11.8 million in sales, but we were still using QuickBooks 6.0 for our order entry system. We could only have five users on it at any given time so our accounting people would come in at five in the morning to do the accounting, and then our customer service people would enter orders from eight to three. Whenever there was a quiet moment, they would close out so accounting could get in. It was a mess.
We were going to be switching over to a new vendor and new software when we moved into our new building in June. But in March, the vendor stopped returning my calls. I could not figure out what was going on. We had already put down $18,000, which was the most money I had ever invested in anything in the history of the company. Finally, I got a call back from Bob Hipple, the sales rep who had sold the software program to us. He informed us that the company was going bankrupt. It was one of those moments when you think, “Crap!” I had just started taking a salary, but not much. We were still bare bones. I was absolutely sick that we had lost our $18,000.
AFTERMATH: I thanked Bob for his integrity because he didn’t have to get back to me. He could have ditched us, too. He ended up putting us in touch with another vendor. Thanks to Bob stepping up to help us, we pulled through it. When we moved into our new location, we had the new program installed and were up and running.
LESSON LEARNED: It seemed like a killer at the time but I believe that emotional and psychological recovery is a mental discipline. After having gone through personal crises, including losing my husband and brother a couple years before, I learned how to flex that mental muscle that asks, Is this in my circle of influence? And it was not. I couldn’t expend emotional energy dwelling on it. The next question is, What are my choices? I would also think of the Serenity Prayer. I’ve often said that entrepreneurs have to have faith. Some people might have faith in themselves. I have faith in a higher power, and the faith that I’m always going to pull through somehow.
WHO: Owner of the Harlem Globetrotters.
WORST DAY: My dear friend and mentor at Honeywell, Ed Spencer, the chairman of the company, brought me from Boston to Minneapolis in 1982 to run a new company inside of Honeywell called Communication Services. The goal was to create breakthrough technology for intelligent building control systems. Starting from zero, I identified eight target companies, courted the owners, structured the negotiations and closed eight good-sized acquisitions that gave us a presence nationally. In five years, the business grew to $75 million with an operating profit of 18 to 20 percent. I was voted executive of the year in the industry two times and became a popular figure in the telecommunications industry.
In 1989, when I thought the company could take the next step and get to a couple hundred million, I got a phone call that said we were going to shut the business down. I immediately thought of the thousand-plus customers I had deep relationships with, my staff of smart, hard-working people that had followed me in blind faith, and the marketplace that had come to respect us so much. It felt like the whole world came crashing down around me.
That was a bad day. But the worst day was when I had to bring all of the employees together and tell them that, after tomorrow, we’d be in a close-down phase. I remember standing in front of that group wondering if I could get a word out of my mouth. I literally went down in tears and could not finish the meeting.
AFTERMATH: I realized that, while the business was gone, I had acquired valuable knowledge and valuable insight into my own capabilities. I thought, If I can just find something I’m really passionate about, I can hit some home runs. Looking back, I think that dismantling the company was the best thing to happen, because after a year and a half of some clearheaded thinking and getting positioned, I ran into the opportunity to buy the Harlem Globetrotters. The company was in bankruptcy; all I bought was the name. It went from $5 million in revenue and a $500,000 investment in 1993 to a value of over $100 million today.
LESSON LEARNED: Out of adversity comes strength. Find something you’re passionate about and willing to put your heart into and you can win. I won’t touch any venture unless I feel a burning desire to do it above anything else.
WORST DAY: It was the day that GM announced that the Oldsmobile franchise line was being eliminated. That was a bad day on many levels. It was difficult because it put a lot of our employees’ futures in question. And when you consider that the car line was over 100 years old, and that at one point it was not unusual to sell 750 Oldsmobiles out of one store in one month, to have watched its decline and then to ultimately hear of its demise was painful. It was the end of an era and for that reason it was scary. End of the eras frequently are.
AFTERMATH: We had two stores selling Oldsmobiles at the time—Golden Valley and Rochester. I spent the better part of a week going between those stores and assuring our long-term employees that we would do whatever we could to continue running a business at that location. Within three years at both locations, we were able to acquire a full complement of Buick, Pontiac and GMC franchises for them to service and sell.
LESSON LEARNED: The incredible power of loyal employees. Throughout that entire time, we did not lose any employees. We were honest and candid with them. We said we expected there to be some rough patches, and there were. But we also told them we would do our very best to remedy the situation. Ultimately, their hard work and dedication allowed us to acquire those other franchises to have complete locations again. I had always valued employees because ultimately they could do their jobs without me, but I could never do my job without them. And this really proved that to be true.
WORST DAY: It was a normal day until late afternoon when one of my policy aides told me that an 11-year-old girl named Tyesha Edwards had been shot while doing homework at her dining room table. I raced over to Hennepin County Medical Center where she had been brought and, in the hallways there, met her parents. Several minutes later they were told that she had died. We were immediately brought into a very small room where we joined other members of the family and a minister. These people were strangers to me and I was to them. And we were dealing with the most horrible tragedy you could possible think of. (NOTE: I interviewed Mayor Rybak just weeks before the I-35W bridge collapse on August 1, 2007)
My daughter was Tyesha Edwards’ age. And I imagined, as I tried to think of something to counsel them, how I would feel if Grace had been shot doing exactly what we had asked her to do. I couldn’t even begin to understand the level of grief they would have, but I tried to express that there was a whole city of people who had them in their hearts and prayers.
AFTERMATH: It forced me to think much more deeply about the causes behind a death like that, and about youth violence here and in other cities. It’s clear there are too many kids raising themselves, too many kids having kids of their own, too many kids with access to guns. All of that makes it much more difficult for good kids like Tyesha with good parents who were doing everything right.
Since then, we’ve done a lot to deal with trying to turn things around with a whole series of initiatives on disconnected youth and public safety strategies focused on attacking gangs and guns. It’s important policy work but I have to say that just below the surface for me is always the memory of that horrible day and how much I’d love to do anything possible to keep there from being another child and family in the situation that I found that day.
LESSON LEARNED: I remember going to sleep that night and just laying in bed hour after hour trying to figure out what I could possibly say. Over the next few days, it became clear to me that sometimes there aren’t perfect words to say, and the important thing to do is to just be there.
It was a tremendously tragic event. But out of that I did develop a great friendship with Tyesha’s family. There have been times since then when they have been able to lean on me and I’ve been able to lean on them. I’ve learned out of that that people who you come together with in times of great crisis are often people you can turn to when something happens later.
WHO: Co-owner and team president of the St. Paul Saints minor-league baseball team.
WORST DAY: July 12, 1979 at 8:30 PM. I was Director of Marketing for the Chicago White Sox. We invited everyone in the Chicagoland area to bring a disco record to Comiskey Park for a twi-night doubleheader with Detroit. Anyone who brought a disco record got in for 98 cents, which was the position of WLUP on the dial. Steve Dahl, a DJ there, had been fired by another station that had gone to an all-disco format, and we came up with the idea for Disco Demolition Night. We put the disco records in a dumpster and, between games, blew them up with a stick of dynamite. Fans stormed the field. The newspapers called it a riot. We had to forfeit only the fourth game in the history of major league baseball. It was just ten years after Woodstock; I guess the fans wanted their own version.
AFTERMATH: It didn’t make me heavily employable. I left that job the following year, and my next job in Major League Baseball was with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998.
LESSON LEARNED: I was young and stupid. And I believed that the definition of my job was also the definition of myself. Obviously, if that’s true, that’s very sad. But I was a number of years recognizing it. The greatest lesson I learned is that the sun still comes up the next day and you can’t control everything. I went from being a 28-year-old control freak to being very loosey-goosey and understanding that the best-laid plans are subject to change at a moment’s notice.
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ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the one book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.
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SEE EVERY MOMENT AS A GIFT
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