No time to mourn Featured

9:53am EDT July 22, 2002

The day after her husband’s funeral, Rhonda Slotta held a meeting with the management team at the company he’d owned.

There was no question that she, a more than 3-year employee of the company, would take over as president, but John’s unexpected death of a heart attack July 4, 1997, had left the company’s employees worried about the future of the business.

Slotta’s quick action to devise a plan — and share it with everyone — turned out to be a key factor in the continued success of TDCI, a 7-year-old North Columbus management consulting firm.

“Immediately there was a certain amount of concern — a high level of concern,” says Slotta, who was then director of technology services at the company. “Without him, if none of us thought that we could step up to the plate and fill his shoes, then you’re faced with folding the company.”

Because John Slotta had been such a mentor to his wife and his other employees, they felt a dedication to him in return.

“I would say, at that time, everybody in the company felt a certain sense of responsibility to make his dreams live on,” Slotta says. “That was the drive for all of us, and for me personally — losing someone that you love, your husband, your lover, your mentor, your employer. He was everything to me.”

Slotta and TDCI’s top managers sat down to discuss who would fill what roles. That meant promotions for some and extra responsibilities for others. Then they shared the plan at a full company meeting, allowing employees to ask questions.

The timing had to be quick, not only for the peace of mind of the employees, but also for clients. Waiting in the wings was one of the company’s biggest potential deals: Just before John’s death, Andersen Consulting was considering TDCI to take over the support for a new business management software product.

Once the company’s employees had agreed they wanted to reorganize to continue the business, they addressed that initiative, convincing Andersen that the company was ready and capable of continuing without John.

Andersen was convinced. The firm signed a deal that allowed TDCI to continue its focus on working with manufacturing companies — and tripled the company’s customer base and annual revenues.

Another key factor in the adjustments, Slotta says, was keeping the initial changes flexible. Managers took on new responsibilities, but those plans were not carved in stone. Over six months, adjustments were made to more permanent positions.

“Since that time, the management team now in place works together as a team to define our business strategies,” Slotta says, explaining that weekly operational meetings keep everyone informed.

She’s also committed to developing relationships with the company lawyer, accountant and banker, who helped her during the transition.

Slotta admits she’s learned a lesson: She’s becoming more prepared than her husband, who died with no will and no succession plan. Those are still in the development stages; she started them about a year after her husband’s death.

“When you go through something like that, they say you’d better [make a will] immediately. People say ‘I don’t need to do it; that won’t happen to me.’ Well, even though it did happen to me, it was still something that continued to slip because I was trying to deal with everything else first,” Slotta says.

TDCI, formerly called The Development Center Inc., continues to grow, having split into two companies, TDCI Software LLC and TDCI Consulting LLC. Both companies are planning to move into shared space in the Polaris area next year.

Slotta also is recovering personally from the loss of her husband of nearly five years and, in fact, is now engaged.

Looking back, she’d advise other business owners to take a proactive approach by looking out for their company and their family with a succession plan that is communicated to all those involved.

“When you go through those experiences firsthand,” Slotta says, “it’s difficult to walk away without learning something from it.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.