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.
About the Author
David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition. Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies. David is also a recognized thought leader on the topics of business transformation, change management, interim leadership, restructuring, turnaround, and value creation. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.