Interim Managers: Value Creation Catalysts

There is a tendency among the leadership ranks of most organizations to espouse the virtues of disruption, but only when that disruption is focused on somebody else.  When incumbent leadership is unable or unwilling to drive necessary change, creditors and other stakeholders are showing an increasing willingness to press for interim managers to supplement the senior management team and drive the change necessary to save what is often a faltering organization.

Recent news regarding two troubled organizations highlights the value interim managers can bring, especially in periods of distress:

Holly Etlin - AlixPartners

Holly Etlin, Interim CFO of RadioShack

  • RadioShack.  The struggling electronics retailer announced recently that CFO John Feray would resign, after only seven months on the job.  Mr. Ferary will be replaced by Holly Etlin of Alixpartners, would will assume the CFO role on an interim basis.  According to Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities, Ms. Etlin’s appointment is a negative to shareholders, as she will “represent the creditors”.  Mr. Pachter’s comment is actually a strong endorsement: given the fiduciary duty of officers of a company operating in the zone of insolvency, Holly Etlin should be working for the benefit of creditors, not the shareholders who are almost certainly out of the money.

Kevyn Orr - Detroit Emergency Manager

Kevyn Orr, Emergency Manager of Detroit

  • Detroit.  In his nearly 18 months as emergency manager of Detroit, Kevyn Orr has presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history ($18 billion) and pushed that contentious process toward what looks to be a remarkably successful resolution.  The Michigan law which allows for emergency managers dictates a term of 18 months, but in light of his successes many in Detroit are arguing for Orr’s continued involvement, if only to provide continuity throughout the bankruptcy and immediate post-bankruptcy period.

Experienced interim managers, such as Ms. Etlin and Mr. Orr, are professional change agents, responsible for both catalyzing and driving the change necessary for organizations to raise their level of performance.  In periods of turmoil, these change agents can be the difference between success or failure for struggling organizations.

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is a partner with ACM Partners, a boutique financial advisory firm providing due diligence, performance improvement, restructuring and turnaround services.  He can be reached at 312-505-7238 or at


The Change Agents We Need

The leader of men in warfare can show himself to his followers only through a mask, a mask that he must make for himself, but a mask made in such form as will mark him to men of his time and place as the leader they want and need.

― John Keegan

The middle market has seen considerable change in recent years, and these changes have led to an evolving shift in how capital providers view distressed situations among their portfolio companies. Increasingly, capital providers (including banks, commercial finance companies, subordinated debt lenders, private equity firms and fundless sponsors) are seeking out versatile professionals able to serve as Chief Restructuring Officers in order to manage a distress situation from the inside, and steer a troubled company to an optimal outcome.  In many middle market companies a CRO will often find him/herself to be the lone advisor on-site, and as such these professionals must embrace the role of change agent.

The emerging generation of CROs will need to possess the following traits:

1) Focus on Substance over Form.  Too often distressed situations devolve as a result of an overly restrictive view of form success will take.  An experienced CRO will recognize that a sale of the company, refinancing, or balance sheet restructuring are all likely to generate superior value to a liquidation, and as a result will pursue a flexible strategy to position stakeholders for the highest value outcomes while not excluding the possibility of lower-value (but still viable) solutions.

2) Strong Communication Skills.  A distressed situation is always a tenuous balancing act, with multiple constituencies angling for position.  Skilled CROs understand the need for clear and consistent communication to all stakeholders, both within the company and without.  Inevitably certain constituencies will receive more or less information, but the messaging should be clear and the focus should be on executing toward an identified goal.

3) Comfort with both Strategy and Tactics.  In the middle market the day of the armchair CRO is coming to an end.  Small and midsize companies experiencing distress can no longer afford to have turnaround advisors dictate broad strategy while the company internally struggles with execution issues.  Today’s distressed situations call for advisors able and willing to first develop a viable strategy and then take a central tactical role (i.e. leading the charge) in executing that strategy.

The role of Chief Restructuring Officer is becoming increasingly central in driving distressed situations to a successful conclusion.  However, changes in the capital provider universe as well as an increase in the general tempo of distressed situations has given rise to a need for a more versatile, independent type of CRO than those who previously served the market.  Increasingly stakeholders must look not only for a CRO, but for a CRO with the right mix of skills, in order to steer a distressed company to a successful outcome.

Fisker Automotive: A Beautiful Mess

This article originally appeared in Business Insider

How can anybody learn anything from an artwork when the piece of art only reflects the vanity of the artist and not reality?

― Lou Reed

Fisker Automotive recently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced plans to sell itself to recently formed holding company Hybrid Technology, following that company’s purchase of a defaulted Fisker loan from the U.S. Energy Department.  Of the startup automakers granted loans by the Energy Department, Fisker Automotive was approved for the largest amount ($529 million).  Tesla Automotive has repaid the $465 million in loans it received.  Though it received approval for a $529 million loan, Fisker received only $192 million (the company repaid only $53 million of that total).

Co-founded by Ashton Martin designer Henrik Fisker, Fisker Automotive set out to create something beautiful and lucrative.  By all accounts the company was wildly successful at the former, and shockingly unsuccessful at the latter. Fisker Atlantic

The Fisker Atlantic

Privco Chief Executive Sam Hamadeh summed up the challenges of an aesthetically driven company with too much capital and too little discipline when he noted the Fisker was at one point spending $900,000 per vehicle produced, and then selling those vehicles for $70,000.

Hamadeh went on to note:

Fisker Automotive may well go down as the most tragic venture capital-backed debacle in recent history,” Hamadeh said in a statement. “The sheer scale of investment capital and government loan money — over $1.3 billion in all — was squandered so rapidly and with so little to show for it that the wreckage is breathtaking. Bankruptcy will be the end of Fisker, but for the taxpayers, venture capital firms, individual investors, and Fisker’s suppliers, it will all be too little too late.

The writing has been on the wall for some time regarding Fisker.  The company laid off 75% of its staff in April as it sought to preserve its dwindling cash and assess its options.  At the time of its announcement, Fisker, which had raised an estimated $1.3 billion from investors, had cash on hand of less than $30 million.

In the end, the company failed to produce the most beautiful of all outcomes for investors: a return.

Blockbuster Stores’ Stunning Reversal

This post originally appeared in Business Insider

Video rental chain Blockbuster, owned by Dish Network, announced yesterday that it will shutter its 300 remaining U.S. stores.  This closure puts an end to what must rank as one of the most precipitous falls from dominance to irrelevance that has been seen in some time.

In 2004, as it prepared for a spin-off from owner Viacom, Blockbuster was a juggernaut with 9,000 locations.  By 2010 competition from Netflix and others had forced it into bankruptcy (and an ugly, challenging bankruptcy at that).  Now, less than 10 years from the date of its spin-off, the company that defined the U.S. video rental market in the 90s will be gone, with the name living on in a few assorted Dish offerings only.

There are few better illustrations of just how fleeting strategic advantage truly is in a dynamic market.  Blockbuster’s day in the sun was long, but the company was blinded by its success and failed to see the ways in which Netflix and other competitors cut at the very heart of its value proposition.  By the time Blockbuster management recognized their error, it was too late.

And now a brand that rose to prominence by giving consumers more control over their viewing options has been put to rest, killed in part by a failure to see that the video rental store itself was at best an intermediate step toward our current on-demand offerings.  Blockbuster had the resources and the brand to make the leap, but not the vision.  There is a lesson in Blockbuster’s failing for us all.

Eike Batista

This article originally appeared in Business Insider

How flattering to the pride of man to think that the stars on their courses watch over him, and typify, by their movements and aspects, the joys or the sorrows that await him! He, in less proportion to the universe than the all-but invisible insects that feed in myriads on a summer’s leaf are to this great globe itself, fondly imagines that eternal worlds were chiefly created to prognosticate his fate.

–          Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Eike Battista is not having a good year.  In fact, it might be fair to say that the Brazilian entrepreneur is having perhaps one of the most horrendous years of wealth destruction on record.  In little more than a year Batista’s fortune has plummeted by over $30 billion, his support among Brazilian politicians has evaporated, and his creditors have gone from enthusiastically backing his endeavors to nervously eyeing their collateral.

For those unfamiliar with the new poster boy for emerging markets euphoria gone horribly wrong, look no further than the recent Bloomberg Businessweek article by authors Juan Pablo Spinetto, Peter Millard, and Ken Wells.  Their reporting details all the usual elements in these situations, with a few interesting wrinkles:

  • The Batista empire benefited from a compelling story that investors desperately wanted to believe.  With a network of companies focused on natural resources and based in Brazil, Batista had a need for capital at exactly the point in time when institutional investors were looking for investment opportunities emerging markets.
  • OGX, an energy exploration and production company founded by Batista in 2007, bid aggressively (in some cases offering bids double that of its competitors) for offshore oil leases.
  • Batitsa had the dangerous combination of being a famously hands-off manager who was nevertheless relentlessly optimistic about his ventures.  Over time his direct reports came to avoid bringing him bad news, which may have only speeded the decline of Batista’s empire.

The focus of Eike Batista these days is on preserving some value, as he struggles to restructure the debt of his various companies.  News that mining company MMX had reached an agreement to sell a controlling stake in a Brazilian iron-ore port sent the stock up 8 percent for the day, though investors have still suffered a 76 percent decline in 2013.  This marks only the latest in a series of transactions aimed at preserving something of the Batista empire, though the heavy debt burden of these companies suggests that preserving any equity value may be a lost cause (see articles here and here).

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is a partner with ACM Partners, a boutique financial advisory firm providing due diligence, performance improvement, restructuring and turnaround services.  He can be reached at 312-505-7238 or at

Challenges Facing Midsize Manufacturing Companies

This article originally appeared in Business Insider

As we review the landscape for small and midsize manufacturing companies, we see considerable challenges.  A review of some items in the February 2013 ISM Report on Business® is instructive (see report here).

Gross Margins

Gross Margins have been an issue that we have focused on extensively at ACM Partners.  The operating expenses of a company are certainly important, but in our experience understanding where gross margins might be headed and why is often a useful exercise in predicting pockets of distress in the broader economy.

The gross margin picture suggests that challenges lay ahead.  In February the index of prices paid by manufacturers increased by 5 percentage points.  As companies lose the ability to protect gross margins, management teams often panic and seek to address the problem by increasing sales.  The pursuit of higher sales at declining margins and with less discipline over the costs of servicing new clients is a long-established recipe for taking a company from mild under-performance to deep distress.

Inventories: Up at Producers, Down Among Customers

Among small and midsize industrial companies we anticipate demand shocks as customers, now comfortable with a historically low level of inventory, respond more quickly to changes in end-market demand.  The disconnect between customer inventories having been below 50 (the point at which they are considered too low) for nearly 4 years and producer inventories increasing suggests that producers are increasingly ill-equipped to address fluctuations in demand, and may be making the implicit choice to tie up cash in increased working capital rather than in capital expenditures.

These diverging trends in inventories present two serious challenges to small and midsize manufacturers:

1.      From a pricing standpoint the existence of slow-moving inventory will provide for some companies a temptation to sell at reduced prices, further eating into gross margins.

2.      From a financing standpoint this approach is a recipe for trouble, as asset based lenders will advance considerably less on inventory than on accounts receivable.  Additionally, for troubled small and midsize industrial companies there are fewer options to get any availability on inventory, further heightening the risk of this approach.  

Changing Power Dynamics

Power flows up and down the supply chain, depending on industry, quality of management, availability of financing and a multiplicity of other factors.  At the moment large national and multi-national customers control the fates of their suppliers, both the small and midsize manufacturers making the products, and the similarly sized distribution companies that store those products and handle order fulfillment.  As these dominant customers seek to maximize profitability and optimize their working capital, they are causing ripple effects throughout their supply chains.  The dominant strategy for the small and midsize industrial companies seeking to adjust is to become indispensable by occupying high value niches or gaining scale.  


Companies will continue to make and ship things, and so manufacturers and distributors will continue to have a role in the economy.  But there is no guarantee that their role will be a profitable one.

Big Data and Organizational Fluidity

This article also appeared in Business Insider

May 12, 2013

The term “Big Data” and the unfortunate hype surrounding it obscures a crucial development in the management of organizations, regardless of size. We have definitively moved into an era of copious data, and the challenge for all stakeholders in an organization is to find ways to analyze that data, discern actionable insights from the analysis, implement changes based on those insights and analyze new data in order to measure actual versus forecast results. The days of analysis being anything other than a core feature of the day-to-day operations of an organization are over; we have entered a period of continuous, iterative change.  Read more

Against Corporate “Hero Ball”

This article also appeared in Business Insider

May 26, 2013

Your plan should foresee and provide for a next step in case of success or failure, or partial success.  Your dispositions should be such as to allow this exploitation or adaption in the shortest possible time.

– B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy

My partner and I speak with the owners of dozens of small and mid-sized companies every year, and work very closely with some of them, often during the most challenging periods of their professional lives.  Read more

The Transience of Advantage

This article also appeared in Business Insider

June 17, 2013

Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away

– Percy Bysshe Shelly, “Ozymandias”

In recent weeks we have seen two developments that, to us, capture the shifting nature of all competitive advantages.

  • Microsoft (MSFT), which rode to tech dominance in the 1980s and 1990s on the back of its wildly successful Windows operating system and Office suite for productivity software, is working on a comprehensive restructuring to streamline the company.

Becoming a Data-Driven Organization

This article originally appeared in the Loftis Consulting Blog

November 30, 2011

The unrelenting pace of 21st century commerce has resulted in a flood of data that threatens to overwhelm small businesses.  Every company generates a vast quantity of data on sales, marketing, production, ordering, and every aspect of operations.  Most companies are doing nothing with this data, and the failure to make use of it is expanding what is for many small businesses their biggest competitive disadvantage.

Today it is essential for companies to know themselves better than they ever have before.  Management should identify a limited number of key performance indicators (KPIs) that capture the performance of the company, and focus on rigorously tracking those KPIs.  This data-driven approach can initially seem onerous, but the superior insight it provides makes it well worth any initial inconvenience.

Our clients have reaped significant benefits from efforts to shift their organizations to a data-driven mode.  Those benefits include:

  • Early Warning Capability: Poor financial performance is often not the first but the last sign of a problem.  Regular reporting of KPIs can highlight trouble before it impacts the bottom line.
  • Opportunities: Nothing bolsters the case for growth opportunities like data.  Website traffic and keyword search data is valuable market intelligence and analysis of that information has helped our clients identify unvoiced client needs and allowed them to reap the sales benefits of meeting those needs.
  • Profitability: Analysis of raw sales data has permitted Gross margin analyses by customer, region and salesperson in order to identify unattractive customers, unprofitable regions and under-performing salespeople.

We are in a new world, a world driven by data.  With every aspect of a company’s operations producing data, the insights that can be gleaned from capturing, analyzing and acting on that data are increasingly becoming a valuable asset.  Conversely, failure to make use of the data your company generates will hinder profitability, inhibit your ability to react to changes as quickly as competitors and increase the likelihood that growth opportunities will be missed.