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 Amazon.com.  http://www.amazon.com/Machete-Moments-Turnaround-Fifty-Four-Eighteen/dp/1475996306/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401755818&sr=1-1&keywords=machete+moments