Crisis Management

AN OMINOUS BEGINNING TO A NEW ASSIGNMENT (Step 3 in My Career as a Crisis Manager)

After becoming plant manager and leading the turnaround of an all-but-dead gear manufacturing plant at home in Indiana, I was hired to manage a startup of a plastics plant in the same area. The results were outstanding (a blog for another time), and after a year I was asked to go to the company’s home plant and headquarters in Western Massachusetts.  That plant was losing money faster than w the Indiana plant could make it, and the company was struggling with the bank, customers, and suppliers.  My job was simply to fix it.

I had flown in the night before I was to start and arrived at the plant at 6:30 Monday morning.  The time was chosen deliberately to coincide with the start of first-shift.  At that time, the only door that was open was the factory entrance.  I wore jeans and a sweatshirt, which would become my regular attire on days that I didn’t meet with customers or bankers.

It had been announced that a hired gun from the Midwest was coming, but no one in the factory knew me.  Several were quick to notice that there was a stranger in their midst, but they had never seen a management person in that early.  Within five minutes, one of the Lubinsky brothers, Wojtek, approached me and asked if I was Doug Otto.  Wojtek and his brother Wladimir were rotocast machine operators.  Both were about 6-5 and 280.  They threw those big cases around as if they were softballs.  It turned out they were proud basketball season ticket holders at the nearby University of Massachusetts.  They wanted to take me to a Atlantic-Ten Conference basketball game against West Virginia on Thursday evening. Since I had grown up a Mountaineer, I had a particular interest in seeing this game.   West Virginia was a perpetual power and UMass fans were excited in the midst of the John Calipari era.  I told them that I would be honored.  I didn’t know if they wanted to make the new guy welcome or if they were just suck-ups, but I took the offer at face value.  Eventually, I found the former to be true.

The Lubinskys, who were both within a year or two of 40, were the first members of their family born in America.  They were life-long farmers, who still lived with their widowed mother.  They raised farmed their several-hundred acre family property.  They didn’t need the income they earned at the plant, but they worked for the benefits.

I asked them to point me to the maintenance supervisor, Tom Archer.  After tracking him down, we proceeded to set up my office in what had once been a store room in the center of the factory.  I wanted to be near the action and wanted no part of the executive area of the office building across the courtyard.

In the ensuing four days, I got around to meet everyone on all three shifts, observed processes in both the factory and offices, and held a few information gathering meetings.   Then it came time for me to accompany the Lubinskys to the basketball game.  It was an early game, so we planned to go to dinner afterwards.  Their season tickets were four seats in the front row of the small gym, across from the teams’ benches.  The gym, affectionately called “the cage” seated about 3800 which had been adequate until UMass began to experience remarkable success.  Now it packed for every game while a new arena was being constructed to open the next year.  I don’t know how big the Lubinsky’s check to the university athletic program was, but it had to be significant.  Our fourth was Carl Udo, the purchasing manager.  These seats were so close to the action that I felt as if someone might pass me the ball to drive in for a layup.

It was an exciting game, and at half-time the score was tied.  The action had been pretty rough, and the Lubinskys had not been shy about letting their feelings about the other team and the officiating be known in their bullhorn level voices.  Early in the second half, Wojtek was particularly offended by a call against the home team and was extremely vociferous in his protest.  The referee was Tim Higgins, who you can still see on ESPN officiating games six or seven nights a week during the season.  Higgins rushed toward us to the edge of the court.  That put him about eight feet from us.  He called a police officer over and would not let the game resume until we were gone.  The cops realized that Carl and I were innocent parties to the crime and allowed us to stay.  I think they had caught the Lubinsky boys’ act at previous games, but they had never been called upon to administer the equivalent of a fan’s death penalty.  When last seen, Wojtek was in handcuffs and Wladimir, who was not cuffed, was giving the finger to the television camera that was following the incident to its conclusion.  In today’s world, that would surely have been Sports Center Top-10 highlight as well as a You Tube favorite.  Fortunately, Carl had driven separately and was able to take me back to the hotel.  I never did get any dinner that evening.

When I arrived at work at 6:30 the next morning, Tom Archer was waiting for me at the factory entrance.  He was laughing his ass off.  “Have the Lubinskys offered to take you to all the games on their season tickets?”  It seemed that everyone in the shop had either seen the incident on television or heard about it.  The camera had taken the opportunity of the timeout to follow the procession to its end.  It gave me a great story to share with my friends over a beer when I got home.  I think my finding humor in that bizarre incident without seeking retribution helped with my acceptance by the work force.  You need to grasp those moments that help you to be accepted whenever they come up.

This anecdote was used as the basis for a section of my book, Machete Moments–A Turnaround Manager: Burned Out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 Years.  The book is available at






The following is an edited excerpt from my book, Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager–Burned out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 Years.  The book is a fictionalized account of my 34-year career as a turnaround and crisis manager in both manufacturing and nonprofit organizations. This tells of my first venture into such a situation.  The names of people, places, and organizations have been changed to protect the privacy of those who have been a part of my life, but the incidents are true. 

I had been at the plant I was to manage for eight years, including the seven spent in accounting. The plant had just come off a violent 5-month strike. During the strike, one of my responsibilities as manufacturing manager was to lead a skeleton crew to be on the inside when we knew there was going to be violence on the picket line. Our group became known among the non-striking employees as Joe’s G. I.’s. There were those among us who had a good enough relationship with a few of the less militant strikers that we were warned when those times were coming. At least, we could answer urgent calls from customers, protect the computer, document the picket line activities on video tape, and communicate with the police. On days when the picket line was less threatening, salaried and non-exempt employees were invited to come in and work in the factory to produce emergency orders.

As the strike grew longer, the inside crew had been shot at, replacement workers had been followed to their homes and beaten, and cars of non-union employees trying to get onto the property had been rolled over with the drivers inside. When the strike was over, everyone on both sides of labor and management was angry.

Joe’s G. I.’s spent much of our time in the front lobby of the office area. This was our war room. Here was where we made videotapes of the picket line activities. One of my most vivid memories occurred when the strike was about three months old. The front wall of the lobby was made up of three large glass windows from floor to ceiling. The G. I.’s were eating dinner one night shortly after dark. One of the more enthusiastic strikers climbed the chain link fence surrounding the property, performed a low crawl across fifty yards of lawn, and bashed out one of the windows out with a baseball bat. Glass flew through the lobby like shrapnel from a land mine. Two of our guys were cut—one needing emergency room treatment.

One of the concessions in the settlement was that the company would drop the charges against fourteen union members who had been arrested for violence during the strike. In addition, they would be reinstated as employees, and no disciplinary action would be imposed. I was furious at the decision by top management and didn’t much care who knew it. I and others had literally risked our lives to save the plant, and we felt betrayed with what we saw as a management cave-in. That was when I got my first lesson in the concept of the greater good. I got a call from the Kane CEO in Philadelphia. He told me that he understood my feelings and that he was personally very appreciative of what our team on site had done. He also let me know that if the strike had run two more weeks, top management had already decided that the plant would be closed. Even when the strike ended, the opinions of senior management had been split as to whether to close it or give it one more chance with a new guy as plant manager. The next day, I got word that I was promoted to that position.

I thought long and hard about “the greater good.” For decades, when left alone in the night with my thoughts, I have agonized over whether I had sold out in not only accepting management’s decision but also in gaining personally from it? Those of us who had been through the battles all wanted to see those fourteen men punished. They had committed criminal acts and had endangered our personal well-being and our jobs. However, had I sulked away, the plant probably would have been closed, and my job and 400 others would have been lost. The ripple effect would have been felt throughout the community because Vienna would have lost one of its largest employers. Vengeance can be a great motivator, but it rarely leads to productive decisions. Fortunately, I learned quickly to swallow that desire in favor of the greater good. Should I be ashamed of that rationalization? Late at night, I’m still not quite certain.

About two months into the new job, I was called to corporate headquarters in Philadelphia to meet with Kane’s executive vice-president/chief operating officer. He was a good old boy named Robert E Rutledge, who was so entrenched in southern living that he commuted every week from Savannah to Philadelphia. He proudly went by Robert E to all who knew him. Like Harry S Truman, E was his middle name. It was not an initial, and it stood for nothing.

I was ushered into Robert E’s huge office. It had all the trappings one might expect of the egomaniac he was reputed to be. It covered about 2,000 square feet and contained what I estimated to be upwards of $100,000 worth of furniture and carpet. There were shelves full of trophies. On the walls were framed diplomas, both earned and honorary, patents, and a half-dozen wild animal heads, which I suspected he had killed with his bare hands.

Robert E arrived after he was certain that I was seated so that I could get the full effect of the grandeur of his entrance. No handshake was offered. Instead, he slowly went to his desk chair, seated himself, and stared at me without blinking for what seemed like ten minutes. Actually, it was probably twenty seconds, but it was long enough to make me extremely uncomfortable as I tried to return his gaze without looking away. I was hopeful that if I could succeed in that effort, I might earn some modicum of respect.

Without ever calling me by name, Robert E, in his extreme southern drawl, opened with, “What are you gonna do about that fuckin’ mess out there in Indiana?” I started to answer that I was going to make some changes in the assembly line and shift some personnel. Robert E interrupted. “Yoou don’t understaand. Yoou’re tryin’ to op-err-ate with a scalpel, and I’m tellin’ you to use a Goddamn machete.” That was the end of the meeting. Again without a handshake, a good luck, a good bye, or a go to hell, Robert E left the room. After the shock had started to wear off, I went to the outer office and asked his secretary if she knew if the meeting was over. She answered matter-of-factly, “Oh yes. In fact, your meeting lasted longer than many of Robert E’s one-on-one meetings.”

To this day, I can’t stress strongly enough what a tremendous effect that meeting, especially Robert E’s machete metaphor, had on the rest of my career. In order to embrace his term as my mantra, I had to first give it a clear definition. What did it mean to me? I decided that a machete moment would be the successful implementation of an idea that those with less vision would see as too radical to consider—an action that I was convinced was the right path and would push forward in the face of opposition. I don’t mean that I would not listen to well thought out logical arguments, but the knee-jerk reactions of naysayers and the cowardice of fools would not destroy my resolve.

The rest of the book describes the success of our team in turning around this plant.  It goes on to recount turnarounds and startups in other manufacturing and nonprofit organizations and the leading of my community’s long term recovery from a 500-year flood and a $5million dollar fire.



The following  is an edited excerpt from my book, Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager–Burned Out at 54 and Turned On for the Next 18 years.  The book is available at and

Can We Mine Deeper When It Comes to Contributing Ideas?

For years, I have pondered about the value of quantifying brainpower. As a result, I have developed a theory that you are welcome to use as your own where you work.  Admittedly, you can find many bases on which to criticize it.  It is far from scientific as it is based on fifty years of observation rather than hard data.  It’s a concept, not a formula.  And it is simplistic.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bullshit.  I just ask you to read it with an open mind, and see if it is worthy of your consideration.

It’s an art for a leader to be able to encourage disagreement without spending an inordinate amount of time listening to whiners. I’m not saying that you should create a democracy in running a business. Consensus is overrated. It’s nice to reach it, but as the boss, the big decisions are yours to make. However, listening to, and even soliciting the opinions presented by others can be extremely valuable and should often be part of the process leading to a decision.

In that vein, I would like to expose you to the my Theory of Collective Brainpower.  We all know what an organization chart looks like. The boss is at the top, and there are levels of employees below her, each reporting to someone on the level above and always making less money than those at higher levels.  (Pro sports not withstanding.) Let’s pretend our company has four levels and that each level has three times as many people as the level immediately above. For purposes of this exercise, everyone at a given level possesses twice the Brainpower (BP) as those at the next level down. Our chart would look like this:


X                                (8 units BP; total 8 units)

         XXX                              (4 units BP each; total 12 units

XXX XXX XXX                       (2 units BP each; total 18 units)

XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX   (1 unit BP each; total 27 units)


In this example, there are 65 units of Brainpower in the company. The boss has only 12% of the total. He and his direct reports combined have only 31%. Not to find a way to take advantage of the Collective Brainpower of everyone in the organization is downright foolish.

If your ego won’t let you accept that you and your managers are only twice as smart as the people on the next level below, use the presumption that each level has four times the Brainpower of the next level down. (That makes the head guy sixteen times as smart as the workers on the factory floor or the case workers or the clerical staff—a premise I have a lot of trouble with.) Even then, the boss has only 13% of the total BP, and he and his lieutenants together have 41%. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what reasonable ratio you decide on among the top, the middle, and the bottom of the organization, the majority of the Brainpower is still down in the ranks. I can’t imagine how anyone would expect her employees to check their brains at the front door.

A bi-product of this approach is that the people in lesser positions feel more a part of the company. For an employee to feel valued leads to all kinds of positive results.

A Talent for Turnarounds: How to Overcome Personal, Professional Crisis and Come Out On Top

By Doug Otto

Article first appeared on PRWeb

In today’s fast-paced environment, executives and managers often find themselves in crises that require immediate and sometimes revolutionary action. The days of having time to allow situations to evolve to acceptable conditions are, in many cases, gone. It is necessary to turn those negatives into positives in a short time.

As a former manufacturing and nonprofit executive, I provide readers with insight in a world of uncertainty and change in my new book, “Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager: Burned Out at Fifty-Four—Turned On for the Next Eighteen Years”.

“Machete Moments” is a story about turnarounds – in business and non-profit management, and in life itself. For those facing the difficult professional and personal transitions in life (or those unsure as to whether embark on such a transition), this uplifting story based on Otto’s experiences will inspire a true sense of courage and conviction.

I wrote this book as a way to reach out to those facing ‘turnaround moments’ in their lives and careers. Machete Moments’ is all about seizing those critical situations and moving forward in the best way possible.