Listen to our interview with Dick Cross
This week’s podcast is another great interview with 9x turnaround CEO Dick Cross. Today we’re talking about transforming your business from a good business to an incredible business. You might be surprised at what it takes.
Introduction: Information you need, the podcasts you trust, this is the PatrickWiscombe.com podcast network. Bringing you interviews with top business professionals and business financing tips to fuel your American dream. This is the Business Fuel podcast heard exclusively on Lendio.com. And now, here are your hosts, Ty Kiisel and Patrick Wiscombe.
Sponsorship: This podcast is sponsored by Lendio.com. The online source you need to find the right business financing to grow your company. Check them out for free at Lendio.com to get your business growing right now.
Patrick Wiscombe: Serving over 355,000 people, this is the Business Fuel podcast. Good morning, I’m Patrick Wiscombe. Thank you as always for tuning us in and taking us along each and every week on Lendio.com/blog. Coming up here in just a second we’re going to bring in the CEO of Battery Solutions, Dick Cross. We’ve been recording with him for just a little over a year. He’s also the author of the book that is already out called Just Run It. You can pick it up on Amazon. And he has a forthcoming book coming out in April called Sixty Minute CEO. We’ll bring him out in just a second but first before we do, let me bring in the co-producer and host of the podcast Ty Kiisel. How are you sir?
Ty Kiisel: I’m doing really good. You know this is like the highlight of the month talking to Dick. I’m excited about it and we’ve got a great topic today.
Patrick Wiscombe: Just quickly, I’m frantically typing in Forbes.com here because I didn’t see what the article of the week was.
Ty Kiisel: Well, you know that’s interesting because small lending is our thing, I pay a lot of attention to what the Small Business Administration is doing. Back on the 12th, they did the confirmation hearing for Maria Contreras-Sweet who I really like. She’s going to be a great addition to the SBA, and I came across Charles Green on the Coleman Report. He said, “Alright, let’s get her confirmed already.” And so I jumped on that, “What’s the hold up getting her confirmed” bandwagon. I think it’s really time to put her to work instead of just sitting on our thumbs waiting to see what’s going to happen with the confirmation process. It’s a no-brainer. She hit a homerun out of the park on the 12th of February and it’s time that we had a full time administrator. I think Karen Mills resigned her post and stuck around for a little while around this time last year. So we’ve been limping along for a little while in the SBA . Let’s get Contreras-Sweet confirmed so that she can go to work and do great things. One of the reasons I like her so much is her background is in community banking in California. She started a community bank, her roots are in the main street businesses we talk to all the time, and I’m just excited to see that resume in the Small Business Administration. So let’s get her to work.
Patrick: Who’s the gentleman who writes the Coleman report? Didn’t we have Charles Green or Mr. Coleman himself on the podcast before?
Ty: It might have been before I was here, but Bob Coleman is the guy, and Charles Green is one of his contributors. It’s a great newsletter if you’re involved in small business lending at all. Sign up for it because it talks a lot about industry trends and Bob is a smart guy. He wrote a book about a couple of years ago called, Money, Money Everywhere but Not a Dime for Mainstreet.
Patrick: Yea, that’s what we were talking about.
Ty: It’s not the same book as mine, but it’s a related. We’re talking about similar challenges. He’s a great guy.
Patrick: You can pick the Coleman Report at ColemanReport.com
Ty: I interact more with Charles. He’s a great guy. In fact, he’s a contributor on our Lender Blog.
Patrick: Well let’s get to the main event for this week, Dick Cross. A good friend of the podcast. A good friend of Lendio. It’s good to have you here and chat with you.
Dick Cross: It’s a great day and like Ty, I look forward to it every month.
Patrick: So we’re talking about transformations; starting at the top. So Ty I’ll let you ask the first question.
Ty: Dick, you spent a great deal of your career going in a helping companies that are struggling to regain their edge. Is there a difference between helping a struggling company transform to a better organization and taking a good organization and transforming it into something even better that will maybe outlast the current administration, or is it about the same?
Dick Cross: What a really good question and nobody has ever really asked me that and I guess I never really consciously thought about it. But it’s one of those things where the answer is right on the tip of my tongue and it’s not going to be what you expect. The fact is, it’s easier to deal with a company that’s not doing well. The momentum of being good, or the momentum of being great generally stands in the way of an organization being substantially greater. Companies with a hidden seed of greatness, where there is something inside that company, about the way it is built, about the customers it serves, about the way it could be positioned, could raise it to an entirely different tier of commerce. I’m always looking for companies with a seed of greatness that is hidden. The easiest places where you can reach down into the soil and pull that seed to the surface are the places where people already know that they are not doing as well as they should be. One of the questions I always ask businesses is, and it’s hard to answer honestly, “Is your business as good as it was last year? Is your business as good as it was three years ago? Is your business as good as it was ten years ago?” And for so many people the answer is, “No.” But they have a difficult time doing anything about it because it hasn’t really hit the wall.
Ty: Personally, I believe that as an individual if you’re not ever evolving into something better than you were last year, you become irrelevant, right? And I think that’s really true with companies. If you’re not pushing the envelope and trying to become something better than what you are today, then you run the risk of losing ground.
Dick: I agree with you 100 percent intellectually. But emotionally, that’s a difficult thing to do. If you are a public company or a private company, you have people who you need to promise a certain level of performance. And you’re always hesitant to go way out over your tips on that because you’d rather be long than short. And there’s a whole system. I think the public markets, banking and everything else, encourage people to be conservative and a little bit better than you were last year. It takes a very, very different kind of individual, with a very different mind set to say, “I’m not going to be better than I was last year, I’m going to be different than I was last year.
Ty: So how does that happen? What is the motivation that makes that happen? Because if your business is profitable and you’re chugging along and you’re hitting your number for growth, what is it that would inspire a business leader to say, “Hey, I want to be different this year.”
Dick: Ty, that is a perfect set up. I have have had the good fortune or bad fortune to have now run nine under-performing businesses. The theme of this discussion is there is only one place for that motivation to be nurtured and for that motivation to explode into a tidal wave, and that has to be none other than the job at the top. The person at the top has to be obsessed with creating something substantially better, not just a little bit better. Substantially different, not just a little bit different than last year and be able to see what that company can become and be obsessed with making it happen. It can’t come from anyplace else. And if you look at a lot of the examples of companies that really have become spectacular, the history of every one of those will tell you that there was somebody in the job at the top who was possessed to make something happen. That quite frankly, most everybody else couldn’t see.
Ty: Can you give us an example or two of these companies to maybe help everybody wrap their head around exactly what we are talking about?
Dick: A fairly recent one, if you look at what Alan Malally did at Ford. Came into Ford at a desperate time, Malally was possessed with world class product, world class quality, to heck with this recession, we’re not going to take the stimulus bucks. I know what we’re going to do, and I’m going to make it happen. And he’s done it. Another one is Steve Jobs coming back into Apple. Steve Jobs didn’t come back into Apple to make it a little bit better, or raise the stock price an incremental piece, Steve Jobs came back into Apple obsessed with some extraordinary things that he wanted to make happen. And that obsession at the top is in fact the only thing that can infect an entire organization with the zeal and the belief that they can accomplish something extraordinary rather than just a little bit better.
Patrick: I was going to ask you about Ford. Do you have a relationship with Alan Malally.
Dick: No, I don’t.
Patrick: Oh, I thought you did for some reason.
Dick: No, I don’t but I’m a huge fan. I’ve had companies in the automotive states, but I don’t know Malally. But I’ve followed that story, and what an incredible story it is.
Patrick: You go back a few years to 2008 or 2009 and everybody was saying, “Take the money, take the money from the government as a bailout.” And he was the only one who said, “No, we’re going to turn this company around on our own merits.”
Dick: He didn’t just say, “No.” He said, “Hell no. I have a vision. I know in my soul that I can make something extraordinary happen. It’s going to be risky, I can’t promise you how it’s going to work out, but if I’m running this company, that’s what we’re going to try to do.” And it’s that spirit at the top which I think so much of the forces are laid on people driving companies, that that spirit at the top is diminished by the fear of failure. And so many people who have an interest in it just being a little bit better are just surviving which come from the outside as well as from the inside. It is the contagion of someone who just sees it differently, who has the character, who has clarity of thinking, that can go against the odds that makes something happen. It never happens without that at the top of an organization.
Patrick: Have you ever been the CEO of a public company? And is there a big difference between being a public company and a private company, like Battery Solutions in this case?
Dick: I have. We executed a great turn around. But again it was a company that was publicly held that everybody had quite frankly given up on. So at that point, everybody just said, “Who cares? Go ahead and try it, it couldn’t get any worse.”
Ty: You know Dick, Ford is a great example and it queues up my question. Eight years ago I would have never bought a Ford. Today, I would. Because I think what they’ve done is so incredible. But in order to do that, the automotive industry is so entrenched in the methodologies and practices that go back for 50-60 years, and somehow he had to go in and get everybody to change the paradigm that they were making cars with, right? How do you do that? How do you get the whole organization to rethink the processes that they go through and the best practices that they’ve established and all those kinds of things?
Dick: Conceptually it’s easy, intellectually it’s difficult. First of all, you, I mean the person at the top, you have to become convinced yourself that something extraordinary can occur. Which means you have to spend time yourself thinking about your business, learning about your industry, hearing from people on the outside, hearing from people on the inside. I’ve always felt that when I’ve gone into a company, I’m not going to look like I know what I’m doing for about 4-5 months. Because all I’m doing is absorbing things. Somehow the human mind has the ability to see patterns and put things together the way no computer ever will. And eventually if you become an obsessed student of your business, most people will come to a picture of what the future can look like. And when it emerges, it is absolutely unavoidable for you. At that time, you need to get that picture into words as clearly as you possibly can and start talking to other people about it. Now, a lot of them are going to look at you like you’ve got two heads. But if you keep doing it, they’re going to finally figure out that you’re serious. That’s kind of phase one which is to kind of get your story together about what the business could be versus what it is. And then the next part says, “Ok, I’m going to start picking off a few little pieces of the business to work on.” Maybe it’s self-contained pieces that are relatively low-risk but I’m going to start applying that idea to the pieces of the business, gather some people together and see if we can’t transform some little part of it. Oftentimes that’s not going to work the first time, but then you try again. And then you try another little part of it and then you try another little part of it. Eventually people on the outside and inside are going to say, “Doggone, this just might happen.” And at that point, you turn on the gas.
Patrick: I just heard one of the biggest secrets you do. You just sit there and observe, probably take notes, observe the employees of the business, probably look at the business or product being sold, and you determine how things are going basically. You just sit back a little bit before going in with guns blazing so to speak.
Dick: Yea, a lot of people come to me saying, “This business is all messed up. Why don’t you come back to us in three weeks and tell us what we need to do.” Well if that’s your attitude, you’re going to be disappointed, and I’m not going to try. Because it takes awhile of asiduous study to read between the lines, to see patterns that no one sees, to absorb information, and to develop and evolve an idea of what the business could be. One of my big beefs, and it’s one of the themes in 60 Minute CEO, is that for some reason, we place no value on thinking at the top. We’re supposed to run around frenzied and harried responding to firefights, yelling at people, telling people what to do. And if you sit quietly in your office for an hour three times a week, maybe it’s a half a day, you just tell people, “Look, I’m just going to sit in a boat on the pond about my business,” they think you are goofing off. That’s the hardest work to be done. And that is by far the most valuable work to be done. The reason I think so many companies get stuck so far below their potential, is that nobody knows how or has the courage at the top to sit down and say, “Look, I gotta take a break. I’m going to take a considerable amount of time thinking about my business.” Because the seeds of the product of that effort are what make monumental leaps in businesses. It’s not the little incremental stuff, let’s be better today than we were yesterday.
Ty: I am so glad you brought that up because if I have learned anything in working with you over the last couple of years, it’s that you have to think about what you are doing. Just to illustrate this, years ago I worked with a CEO who thought he was the Chief Marketing Officer. He thought he was the Chief Financial Officer. He thought he was the VP of Sales, and he ran around doing all of that. And I remember looking at someone and saying, “I just want him to be the CEO. I want him to do the CEO job.” People will respond if you do the CEO job.
Dick: We’ve talked about this before. Somehow we’ve got this Newtonian idea, if we spent two years and we studied 26 courses on all the little details of the business, somehow through alchemy it adds up to knowing how to run one. So many of them are wrong that way. That’s why so many of them perform so poorly. Usually we launch 600,000 businesses a year in America. Last year we launched 400,000. But if the pattern prevails, more than half of them will be gone before the fourth birthday. Why is that? My contention is that nobody knows how to think about the whole of the business or takes the time to do it. But they believe if you are in charge, you are supposed to be running around like a crazy person all the time.
Ty: The course is actually the second Wednesday of every month of the Business Fuel Podcast. It’s this conversation that’s enlightening. The insight you bring is so logical to me. And the thing about it that I really like is that it doesn’t have to be a “MegaCorp.” You can apply these principles in a small business too and be very successful.
Dick: I think it’s easier and so much more effective in a small business. Because to get an organization on the balls of it’s feet, in the center of the ring, with a gleam in it’s eye, carrying the fight as opposed to covering up on the ropes and hoping you don’t take a bad punch, that requires infecting everyone with the zeal to do something great. And that, I believe, comes from touch with a person who’s already got it. And somebody that you naturally look up to already runs your company. That’s so much easier to create that infection in a smaller company. If in fact you have the temerity and courage to build time every week, alone, by yourself with no distractions to think about your business. Then handle yourself in such a way to inspire people to want to do what you want them to do.
Ty: You know, early in my career, I worked at a small business. I think there were half a dozen of us. This guy would come in at the beginning of every month, there was no sophisticated strategy. He hadn’t spent hours and hours building Powerpoint presentations. But he would get us together and he would say, “This is what I think we can do this month.” And he would get us so jazzed about it that it happened every month. It was almost prophetic the way he could do it. And sometimes it was big changes, and sometimes it wasn’t. But when you say the guy at the top is the key, it’s really true. You’ve been bringing up a couple of things that I think we ought to talk about in a little more detail. It’s not necessarily the strategies that produce incremental growth and change that really will be successful. Maybe talk about why that is. Because it seems to me that when there’s a problem, or when there’s a desire to grow, that everybody gets together and we create this strategy and we’re going to push forward. Sometimes it feels a little siloed, and sometimes it might not be. Why is it that that’s not the way to do this?
Dick: That’s another great question. And it’s sort of like you’re reading my mind. I’ll admit to you that I came into the business world in the late 70’s and the hot thing to do was to be a strategy consultant. And I was a great one. I could figure out exactly what a company ought to do, and put it together in fancy loose leaf binders, and charge outrageous amounts of money that people were thrilled to pay. But the reality is, and it hit me like a cold fish in the face, that work made no difference. There were several reasons for it. One of the reasons was, so much of that work, and so much of the way we plan our businesses, I think is a theory of planning that evolved in the 1960’s. We focus so much of our attention of making what we’ve got a little better. When we do that, we tend to do this Newtonian thing again and we disaggregate the business into all the parts and we plan for each part. Then you get this problem that they’re not synchronized very well. And then layering on top of that, we’ve got a history of processes and procedures and systems to reduce variance in the way things are done, in the way our company operates which absolutely stand in the way of us taking bold steps and doing something different. So yea, the planning thing for me, it’s not a whole lot of data, it’s not a lot of spreadsheets, it’s not a lot of charts, it’s not a big loose leaf binder, it’s a simple argument for the business that comes out of generally one mind which has the capability, and interest of synthesizing lots of information into a compelling idea of what the business can be. In one of the prior podcasts, I told you about being on the west coast, sort of in the era of strategy. A very, very slight woman with thick glasses looked at me after I had showed her this enormous and detailed, correct and backed by the data, strategic plan. She called me Cross and said, “If you can’t put your strategy on five bullet points on one side of an index card, you just haven’t thought about it hard enough.” And she was exactly right.
Patrick: So is that where you adopted your “back of the envelope theory?” Was that a major point for you?
Dick: That was a turning point that got me thinking. At that time through the 80’s, people were spending millions of dollars on strategic plans that kind of didn’t make any difference. And it took me a few years of experimenting to come up with some routines, some ways of thinking about a business which take into account the whole of the business that are simple, and yield a concept that is compelling enough to get an entire organization fired up about making it happen. And then of course the second half, if you’ve got that idea, and it’s clear and it’s sound, you have to be the kind of guy or gal by virtue of how you handle yourself, by virtue of your character, that people will be attracted to follow, that people will, ”throw their hearts over the fence for,” that create a “Braveheart” type of following rather than the limp leg well I’m going to go to work and get a paycheck and if the company works out great, if not I’ll go down the street and get another job. It takes a combination of clarity and depth of thinking, with character that inspires people to want to be part of your dream.
Ty: You know I’m think of this in a different way today just as we’re talking about this. You gotta know your stuff right? You have to have the skill set to be able to actually see this stuff, but the difference between the company that is able to make this transformation and the one that isn’t, is the nine traits we talk about. It’s all the other things we talk about. And if you’re not that kind of guy or gal, and you want to transform your company, should you find someone who is to put at the helm?
Dick: 100% Absolutely. One of my mantras is, “The single greatest determiner of business success is the job at the top.” There are two parts to that. One is can that person think clearly? Can that person connect the dots in a way that makes indelible sense that other people aren’t going to see necessarily? Does that person have the kind of character that inspires people to follow them with joy on a mission that has likely all the earmarks of being unsuccessful.
Ty: Offline we’ve talked about this alot you and I. This seems so logical for me, yet it seems so counter intuitive to so many organizations. And it’s almost like they do everything they can to create the opposite type personna at the top. Why is that? Where is the disconnect?
Dick: This sort of raises a lot of people’s ire, it has to do with a concept that was raised in the 50’s and 60’s – to make business and management scientific. The answers and the direction are in the numbers and if you just spend enough time with a number, you can divine exactly what needs to be done. I think businesses are much more social organizations than they are economic organizations. If they’re good social organizations, the economics pan out. If you spend all your time focusing on the economics, you pull the heart out of the social.
Patrick: You know that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about that.
Ty: I once worked for a guy, and we were reasonably good friends. He said, “You know Ty, my dad taught me that I need to avoid personal relationships with people and that the business is all about the numbers. Building relationships with your colleagues or your employees at work is a bad move.” I looked at him and I said, “What a miserable life you’ve got to be leading because we spend the lion’s share of our day with our colleagues and I personally think that business is 100% personal.” It’s just like you’ve described. It’s the social aspect of people working together to achieve a common goal. If we remember that, the economics just work out. But you know, I’ve looked back at that and he and I are still friends. But I look at him and I just think you’ve created this miserable existence for yourself.
Dick: Well, you look at the most compelling leaders throughout history. Pick George Patton. George Patton’s army did things most people thought were impossible. The reason he did it is because number one, he knew his adversary, he knew the terrain of the battlefield, he knew the competence of his equipment versus the others, he had that all figured out and he had a story for how he was going to win. But why did he win? He won because his men loved him. Because he demonstrated to them every aspect of everything he did. He cared more about them than he cared about himself. More about his country than he cared about himself. Somehow we lost a lot of that spirit, that concept of what it means to run an organization by believing it’s all in the numbers.
Ty: Part of that I think is the myth of the shark tank. We believe that if we spend 4 or 5 years, we’ll build up an organization, we’ll get some venture money, then we’ll flip this thing and we’ll get a big payoff and walk away. Whereas my father was looking to build something that would outlast him. The myth of the shark tank is you don’t have to make this your life’s career, you can flip it in 5 years and make x million dollars and walk away a millionaire.
Dick: I think there’s a cool thing going on, and Ty you have written about it so beautifully. And that is the different mind set of the “millennials” that are coming on right now. You pointed to me some data, I think is was the Eidelman Report that said a large percentage of people in their 20’s and 30’s would take a pay cut to work for a company they believed in. I think for the first time, and we’re four generations past the depression, the fear of not being “rich” is receding and people are beginning to understand a richness in life which is not built simply around money, not that I’m against money, I love making money, but I think it is in fact the by-product of the creation of a business that means more than a paycheck to everyone who is a part of it.
Ty: I agree with that. I think that profitability and rich reward is the by-product of creating the right environment. So a minute ago we said if you are not that guy or gal, you should put the guy or gal who is in your place. Short of doing that, if you realize that you’re not that person and you want to become that person, because you see the value in what we’re talking about today, how do you do it?
Dick: I think you have to be courageous enough to look introspectively at about three questions. One of them is, what is my business today? Is it as good as it was last year? What does it need to be? Where does it need to be, where could it be? That’s the process of miring around in the data until you get some blinding idea. But doggone it, it might seem crazy. But I just believe our business could be this. And then you have to ask yourself, how in the world am I gonna get it from where it is to where it needs to be? We normally look at that through our analytical lenses, we do return on capital investments and market studies, but quite frankly the answer I believe is yes those are all hugely important. This will sort of establish the boundaries on either side of the path that will lead you to that. The momentum on the path is your zeal, your character, the belief of your people in you. They love you and they want to help you succeed, and they believe that they can. So I think it takes a really hard look in the mirror for a CEO to say, “Am I thinking about my business the right way? Am I thinking about it as boldly as I should? And doggone it, am I living every moment of every day a life that will inspire people to want to be a part of my parade?” And it’s that second part that’s actually tough for a lot of people. We’ve come to the point where people feel like if we get to the top of the organization, I’m running this thing, I can do whatever I want to. I pay everybody so they should put up with me. It’s just the opposite.
Ty: You know, this has been a wonderful conversation. In fact, one of my favorite conversations on the podcast. I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for being here. Maybe tell us a little more about your new book before we wrap up so that we can all be watching. I know I’ve been through an advanced pdf version and it’s awesome.
Dick: Thank you so much for your comments on that. You gave me a little line that’s going to be on the cover. It’s coming out in April and it’s called 60 Minute CEO. It’s all about answering the question you asked me not too long ago Ty. Which is, “How do you get yourself out of the rut? How do you get yourself to be a rockstar in your own business?” The title is a little play on words. If you will spend 60 minutes alone, no phone, no e-mail, no distractions 3 times a week, thinking about your business, what it is, what it needs to be, how you’re going to get it there. And also how are you handling yourself. Are you handling yourself every minute such that it inspires people to want to help you succeed. That’s how you do it. The book is full of lots of tips and examples and war stories of those two things. One, how to think about the whole of your business effectively. And number two, how to handle yourself so that you inspire maniacal followership.
Ty: Watch for the book guys. It’s a great book and I think you’re going to love it. Dick Cross, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s been there 9 times turning around companies. This guy, he’s the real deal. Check out this book, it will be out in April. I imagine it will be at all the regular outlets you’d expect a book to be.
Patrick: It’s 60 Minute CEO and then of course the book that’s already out on Amazon, Just Run It. Dick Cross, always good to chat with you. We look forward to seeing you here in Salt Lake.
Dick: I’m just tingling with inspiration for our conversation. I love it every month. Thank you guys for letting me do it.
Patrick: You will want to check out his current project, Battery Solutions. You can check it out on Batteryrecycling.com.
Patrick: So for Dick Cross, Ty Kiisel, my name is Patrick Wiscombe. Remember you can pick up the podcast each and every Tuesday morning around 9:00 on Lendio.com/blog and you can also subscribe to the podcast at iTunes. Just do a search for Lendio.com. And be sure to just check out Lendio.com if you need financing for your small business. Get yourself qualified, it is free. Absolutely 100% free. Lendio.com check it out. So for Dick Cross, Ty Kiisel, I’m Patrick Wiscombe. Thanks for listening, we will talk to you next Tuesday.
Outro: Bringing you interviews with top business professionals and business financing tips to help fuel your American dream. This has been the Business Fuel podcast, with your hosts, Ty Kiisel and Patrick Wiscombe, heard exclusively on Lendio.com