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Nothing gets your attention like a catchy title. A recent Forbes magazine article: "I Took Over The Company From Crooks" sure got mine. I read the entire piece, which is short and very directly written by Todd Wille, the man who took over ailing Unify Corporation, teetering on the edge of collapse in 2000, hardly taking a breath. This is so good, so timely and so important, I just had to share it with Daily Fix readers.


If you don't get to any other articles in your stack of waiting-to-be-read material, please read this one. You might even save it or print it out. It's that good.
The story: Todd Wille, was a former controller and CFO of Unify Corporation, from 1995-1998. Unify is an application development, database and migration products supplier based in Sacramento, California. Wille received an SOS phone call from Unify board member and present-day chairman, Steve Whiteman one day. It seems the former CEO "had committed securities fraud and overstated earnings and was likely to be tried for insider trading and securities fraud".
Mr. Wille was asked to return to Unify to take control of the situation. He decided to take the challenge: "Let's get going and save this company." What he stepped into, was tougher than he had ever imagined or expected. Todd Wille relates his two defining moments and the "four key strategic decisions" he made in response to them.
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Defining Moment #1: on the day Todd Wille walked into Unify's offices, 19 Federal agents gave him some very bad news. Company revenue was about $3.5 million per quarter but with a cash burn of $6.5 million per quarter, Unify was going to run out of money in 90 days. Not only that: the Feds informed Wille that 39 shareholders had filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. Unify stock that had once been listed on the Nasdaq and valued at its high at $42 a share had dropped to $1.
Wille considered filing for bankruptcy to give him time to reorganize, but a bankruptcy attorney told him he would need a $400,000 retainer. Out of the question since Wille was days away from making a $300,000 payroll. Memorable quote: "We're too poor to go bankrupt."
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Key Strategic Decision #1: appointed the head of customer service to the position of VP of Sales. Why? Customers had known him for years; they had confidence in him and trusted him. Wille encouraged his new VP to call every customer every week to hear their problems, frustrations and concerns; to ask for their patience and to reassure them that the company was going to be saved.
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Key Strategic Decision #2: focus the product development team to build new products based on customers' true needs and wants, rather than continuing to support old products. In order to do that, Wille told his team to "Ask the customers what they needed, and then go and build it."
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Key Strategic Decision #3: Wille went out on the road to meet key customers himself. In London, he met with 60 key accounts one day.
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That London meeting led to Defining Moment #2. The CEO of an accounting software firm told Wille in front of the group "that he was uncomfortable signing a $100,000 contract for the following year because he wasn't sure we would be in business". Wille's response after collecting himself: "You know what? You're right to feel the way you do. But if you don't sign your contract, I will be out of business, and your worry will become reality. Then your company will need to find another supplier for database development tools, and it will unfortunately be a long, complicated and potentially expensive process." That CEO's response: "You know what, Todd? That makes a lot of sense. Let's make sure that doesn't happen."
Many of Unify's customers came to that same conclusion, ensuring a high percentage of contracts were signed, bringing in much-needed cash flow.
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Key Strategic Decision #4: Wille knew his employees were hurting. He held weekly meetings with the entire company and vowed to tell the truth, no matter how painful it was. Heart-to-heart meetings with the entire staff were sometimes very difficult. Especially when Wille had to initially tell them they were almost out of money. That 35 of them had to be let go one day. That he didn't know for certain the company would make it. The dividend: only one staffer left the company over 18 months. Acts of selflessness became commonplace.
It seems leveling with customers as well as employees pays off.
This all happened nine years ago but it is more relevant now than ever. In the past 3 years, Unify has:
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Acquired three companies tripling the company in size.
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Added a "stellar suite" of software tools and solutions, broadening the customer base in the process.
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Been re-listed on the Nasdaq again, trading on that key tech exchange.
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Unify's customers are among "the world's most admired businesses".
Why I love this story: grit, determination, hard work, unfailing honesty inside and outside of a company, and sound decision making can inspire people when the chips are down. This again points to the most important aspects of any business: taking care of your employees and customers first with honest, continuous communication. Second, by truly listening to their needs and allowing them to vent while also seeking to deliver what they truly need.
This is what leadership is all about. This is what building trust is all about. I wonder how many companies might follow Todd Wille's example as a blueprint to pull their companies out of trouble these days. . .
Todd Wille was named 2008's best turnaround executive by the American Business Association.
Questions:
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Are you inspired by the Unify story and Todd Wille's leadership? Have you experienced a dramatic turn-around like this in your own professional life, or are you aware of a similar story?
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Besides the key decisions Todd Wille made, what else would you have done?
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Would you be willing to share this story with your colleagues who might be going through a rough patch in their companies?
I'd love to hear from you.

Continue reading "Getting Back to Leadership Wins Back the Trust" ... Read the full article

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (www.designforceinc.com), a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.