Managing with heart

 Shortly after his father, Bob, turned the family steel business over to Gene McNichols, he sat down with a calculator and banged out his first strategic plan.

“It wasn’t very sophisticated,” said McNichols, CEO of McNichols Co.’s 17 steel service centers across the country that will generate just under $150 million in revenue this year.

But the plan never included his father dying of cancer at age 59 — the same age McNichols is today. It forced him to sit down 25 years ago and reorganize the family business, and he has never forgotten what he learned.

“When you have something catastrophic happen, you take a lot of action steps to ensure if it happens in the future, you’ll be able to cope with it,” McNichols says.

Smart Business spoke with McNichols about how he’s developed an exit strategy and how to manage with heart and passion.

When you walk in, find the exit.
The most important thing we overlook in life is we take a job and we have no exit strategy. As a result, we get stuck in a job too long that you don’t want.

It happens in the business world, too. A lot of players in our field didn’t make a succession plan or make an exit strategy, so the only thing they can do is sell their organization. I started doing mine as an aftermath of my father leaving us at a young age. I started realizing that he didn’t plan that.

He didn’t want to be gone, and all of a sudden, he was. I realized that if this organization was going to be great, it wasn’t just about the family leadership. It was going to have to be a whole lot more.

Teach and get out of the way.
Early on, I made a goal that the organization had to be great and run great without me. That’s why I say it is successful in spite of me.

It was going to be important that everything didn’t run through me. It had to run very well without me. I think it still needs my leadership, it’s just nice not have to be involved in so many major decisions anymore.

It’s not about not working so much as it is about letting others do what you once did. Then the machine goes on.

Plan to react.
We do plenty of reacting. I won’t kid you about that.

Most executives who say they don’t are probably kidding you, but we do a lot of planning ahead of time to decide what the future is going to be about as much as possible. Today, the one wild card is the war on terror. That’s something you have an awful hard time plugging in to financial planning today.

That’s just the unknown that we didn’t have quite as much prior to 2001. We didn’t know about it, anyway.

Manage with heart.
You’ve got to understand your organization and execute your job and understand what that job is, understand your products and people and business partners and finances and all the rest of it, but in the end, you have to manage with your heart because it’s all about people. That’s never going to change.

That’s pretty hard to do if you’re coming in to downsize a company or worse. But you can still do it.

Learn and move on.
I’ve had a couple of disloyal people in my career. It’s very disheartening and disappointing and all the rest of those words that go with it. To overcome it, I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. Get over it, and learn from it and pray a lot.

I learned to look for better character, and I learned to follow my instincts early on. It doesn’t take you long usually to assess somebody and know if you’re going in the right direction.

Sometimes you ignore where you’re at and you keep on going. I’ve learned that’s a mistake.

Be aware. I don’t like the word beware. I would say be aware. It sounds different.

Be aware of your instincts.
Follow your instincts.

If you don’t feel good about a loyalty issue, you’re probably right. However, make decisions on the best facts you have.

Find your passion, and never let it go.
If an organization does not have passion, it will probably lose its edge. The airline industry is a good example of that.

You can see the lack of passion in the people that work for many of the companies now. Until they get that back, the model likely will never work.

These companies are bleeding and they’ve been bleeding. They haven’t been able to deliver good products for a long time.

Nobody is responsible for all the games and rates and gimmicks in the airline industry but the people in that industry. There are so many good people involved there, and it looks as if they’ve lost their focus and their passion.

Learn to type.
Today you need great technology skills. If you can’t type today, just something simple like that, if you can’t sit down and hammer out your e-mail very fast, you’re handicapped from the get-go.

That’s a small technology tool but a very important one. People that never took that seriously, never realized we’d be in this world. Without that skill, you’re in trouble.

Take successful steps.
You’re only as good as your last step. Success is about your own personal satisfaction with those things that are important to you.

Everybody is a leader in this organization. It’s just a matter of whether you’re leading today or not.

HOW TO REACH: McNichols Co., (813) 282-3828