This is the story of Company A and its visionary/founder. Company A was a successful family business engaged in housing development for the last 30+ years. It started as a home builder that slowly morphed into a mass housing developer creating communities with thousands of homeowners. Despite the twin financial crises in 1998 and 2009, which dealt a heavy blow to many businesses and ultimately wrecked the global economy, Company A did not just survive but thrived, exceeding revenue targets yearly. Every major housing project it constructed was successfully sold, and they even started the paperwork for an initial public offering.
In short, Company A felt invincible, and banking on the remarkable skills of its founder, they pursued to take the business to the next level. The adult children were ‘partly’ involved in the business in the sense that the offspring were asked by their father to join after finishing university. At first, they became excited, but due to the lack of proper entry rules, appropriate training, and orientation, some ended up frustrated and confused. After a year or two of doing on-the-job training, three out of the four children dropped out and two even migrated to the US with their respective families.
Navigating Through the Black Swan
When the pandemic struck in Q1 of 2020, Company A was obviously unprepared, and throughout 2020 and 2021, their operations tanked. As the C-19 (COVID-19) infection raged without letup, the market dried, sales spiraled, buyers stopped paying their amortizations, construction stalled, suppliers and creditors panicked, pressures mounted, revenues nose-dived, and the company took a massive hit. Sensing the need for specialists to intervene, the shocked founder, together with major creditors, sought our services. It was a challenging intervention as our mode of communication was 100% virtual, but our frequent meetings made up for the zero physical engagements.
Founders can get away with a great deal when times are good, but an extraordinary event like the pandemic depicted as a major black swan turned many minor issues into major problems. As we always say in times of crisis, “good times can cover many sins, but during bad times, it can uncover many weaknesses.” The global health crisis created a down market where overall demand slackened, the unemployment rate peaked, a notice of foreclosures and evictions increased, and credit squeezes were happening everywhere. On top of the external crisis, we discovered several strategic and functional failures in Company A’s operations like poor operating controls such as cost management, asset valuation, cash flow forecasts and overexpansion that led to bad acquisitions and the accumulation of too much debt. Overall, a combination of external and internal blind spots compromised the business.
Major Findings: Founder Hubris and Lack of Governance
But our findings pointed to the real culprit, its founder. Take note: a company is only as good or bad as its leaders, so the real fault lies in those who run them. Clearly, the management team overlooked business fundamentals; either they were complacent, shortsighted, or both. It didn’t help that the board was actually run by one colorful founder dictating the campaign. Cowed executives and directors, mostly family members, were there to tell him what he wanted to hear. In short, he created a climate of fear among his subordinates. Any business failure is an extension of failed leadership and this company represented what was entirely wrong with family-owned enterprises. In the next article, I will share several internal reasons for the sudden decline, notably the visible symptoms of failed management leading to the founder’s spectacular downfall.