To hell and back Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002

Five years ago, Sam McBride was a different man.

He was a self-professed "falling-down drunk" whose company was in serious debt trouble. The IRS was after him for failing to pay employee withholding taxes. He was so depressed his doctor put him on Prozac, which he took in triple doses -- sometimes with booze.

"I had all these problems I didn't think I could ever fix or get rid of," explains the 57-year-old president of Corporate Cutting Dies Inc., clearly still haunted by the recollection of what almost came to pass. "I started drinking to ease the tension."

It was the worst decision he ever made.

Too much to handle

McBride says his troubles largely began in 1995 when he ran into cash flow problems after building a spacious, new facility for his then-thriving, nearly $900,000 business. He couldn't find a buyer for his old building so he was saddled with double mortgage payments.

"We were paying $6,400 a month on the new building and $1,800 a month on the old one," McBride says.

Then his company lost its largest customer -- a situation that cut between $250,000 and $400,000 a year off the top of Corporate Cutting Dies' balance sheet. Talk about a financial crunch. And the sense of helplessness that came with it was paralyzing for McBride.

"I used to sit in my office, stare at the walls, stare at the clock and when it was 5 o'clock, I'd open the office door, go out and go home," he says.

Although it was around that time that McBride hit rock bottom, others say the first signs of trouble surfaced long before then.

Tina Bevan, who was the company's corporate secretary for 10 years beginning in 1990, says she saw a marked change in McBride following the 1993 buyout of his business partner.

"He was withdrawn; he just wasn't into it anymore," she says. "He just was somewhere else and that's when he started doing his drinking."

It wasn't an intentional decision to seek solace in a bottle, McBride stresses.

"I went to a bar to have a couple drinks one day, then I went back the next," he says. "Before I knew it, I was a falling-down drunk."

Everybody in the company knew about McBride's drinking, Bevan says, "but they just left him alone. They probably felt intervening would be worthless."

Customers, however, were largely unaware of McBride's personal crisis since, during his drinking phase, he had very little contact with clients.

"And if he did," Bevan says, "it was by phone and prior to lunch."

As McBride's drinking progressed, his lunch hours grew longer.

"I would be gone all day, every day, from 11 or 11:30 [a.m.] until 4 or 5 o'clock," McBride says. "If I did get back to work, I was in no condition to do anything."

"It was his business, but it wasn't cool what he was doing," Bevan says. "He was very hard to deal with; he would ramble on and on and do things he normally wouldn't do."

Things like telling Bevan to stop paying the payroll taxes.

"We'd lost all this money and we had all this additional cost," McBride explains. "So I told Tina not to pay our withholding tax."

As the months passed, Corporate Cutting Dies began receiving letters from the Internal Revenue Service, but McBride chose to ignore them.

"I got all these notices and I didn't open them," he says. "My briefcase used to be filled with nothing but bills I hadn't paid for two or three months."

Bevan knew the unpaid bills spelled trouble, but like the rest of Corporate Cutting Dies' employees, she wanted to keep her nose out of McBride's troubles.

"I just figured it wasn't my problem," she says.

It quickly became her problem in early 1996 when McBride finally looked inside one of those IRS envelopes.

"I don't think I realized how much I owed them," he says. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. We owed 20-some-thousand dollars at that point. I went out to Tina and started yelling at her. We got in a big fight and I ended up firing her."

After a few days, McBride saw the injustice in what he'd done.

"I realized all she was doing was what I'd told her to do," he says.

He called to apologize and asked her to come back to work. Surprisingly, she agreed.

"I knew it wasn't him," Bevan explains. "I knew it was the alcohol, and he was going to go get help."

A deepening hole

Indeed, McBride's drinking days were drawing to a close -- but not before they caused more damage to himself and others.

McBride went to his doctor to discuss his deepening depression.

"I didn't tell the doctor I was drinking, so he thought I had a chemical imbalance," McBride says. "He put me on Prozac and I started abusing that ... I used to take a three-month supply of Prozac in one month, with booze and everything."

"It's a deadly combination," Bevan adds. "He did some really stupid things and he's lucky to be alive."

On the business front, McBride's lack of leadership -- or even interest in the company, for that matter -- was taking a toll on Corporate Cutting Dies and its employees. Financial losses hit $22,000 by the end of 1995 and were mounting almost daily. Some key people, like Bevan and former company vice president Doug Ackerman, were quick to step in to keep the company running as well as possible during McBride's self-termed "drunken phase," yet resentment and frustration began to grow within the ranks.

"Some top, key people left here," Bevan says, noting she and Doug toughed it out because they didn't want to see the company fail.

"Doug basically kept everything together," says Reg Martin, a consultant who was also instrumental in saving McBride's floundering company. "Doug did a fabulous job maintaining [customer] relationships.

"I have to pay tribute to the people in this business," McBride says. "They kept it going when I was trashin' it. They didn't give up."

Neither did McBride's wife, Sylvia.

Apparently she realized something was amiss with her husband at work and went to Bevan for some answers.

"His wife started calling me at home," Bevan says. "She was playing 20 Questions. So I told her the truth. She said, 'Thank you,' and hung up. After his wife knew what was going on, the crap hit the fan."

Sylvia McBride took her husband to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in January 1996 "because I was drunk in church," he says flatly. "I don't remember much about the meeting except I got this big book. For the next 13 days I didn't drink. Then I went to a bar for a beer and I ended up being in there from 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. -- and I was with one of my customers. That's when I realized I could not quit. I was an alcoholic."

On Jan. 26, 1996, McBride took himself to another AA meeting. He hasn't touched alcohol since. Still, his troubles were far from over.A second chance

McBride just couldn't get his mind back into the business at Corporate Cutting Dies. It was obvious to his staff and it created some animosity

"Doug couldn't stand me when I started to sober up," McBride says. "He'd had to run the business. I think he resented me [trying to step back in.]"

In the spring of 1996, McBride started a second business: SOL Enterprises -- initials that stand for "Servants of the Lord," he says -- which got him excited about being an entrepreneur again. The company used a specialized software application to produce personalized children's books. McBride sunk $14,000 into the start-up and leased equipment for $4,000 a month.

In addition, he and one of his employees decided to produce a TV commercial to help jump-start the business and wound up investing $11,000 in that project. It was a fateful mistake.

"We only sold about 10 books," McBride says. "By September of 1996, we were so far in debt we had to shut that business down. Then I had lawsuits."

As if dealing with the failure of one business wasn't enough, McBride soon learned the financial situation at Corporate Cutting Dies had reached a critical state, as well.

"The banker was ready to foreclose on us," McBride says.

The company's 1996 losses were pushing $86,000. In addition, the IRS was growing impatient with McBride's unpaid tax bills.

"I thought I drank because I couldn't handle the pressure I had," McBride says, "but when all this happened, I'd stopped drinking."

Instead, he found solace in talking to his priest, Father Rod DiPietro at St. Elizabeth Church, and attending AA meetings during his lunch hour.

"All I really have to do is go today without drinking," McBride says. "I don't complicate it like I used to."

After all, his life was complicated enough.

Finding a way out

Although McBride was getting help with his personal struggles, he didn't know where to turn for help with his business problems. Fortunately, his accountant did. He asked fellow Rotarian and highly regarded turnaround artist Reg Martin to pay McBride a visit.

Almost from the moment Martin passed through the doorway at Corporate Cutting Dies three years ago, he knew he could save McBride's company.

"It was no question," says Martin, who has orchestrated financial comebacks for many once-troubled companies, including Blocks Bagels Inc. and Cardinal Industries -- the predecessor to Cardinal Realty Services, which became Lexford Residential Trust before being acquired by Equity Residential Properties in Chicago. "It was not a situation where we had to turn the entire business around. They had a niche in the market; they had a couple nice-size customers. [The company] just needed a little fine tuning."

His top priority: taking care of McBride's lingering problems with the IRS.

When the IRS sent an agent to Corporate Cutting Dies, "she sat in my office with my accountant for three hours and didn't talk a whole lot," McBride recalls. "Then she really told the truth: That I didn't know what I was doing."

Although the agent explained the IRS could shut down McBride's company and force a sale to pay back the overdue taxes, she agreed to give McBride a little more time to come up with the$31,000 he now owed.

"They did get into our corporate bank account and chose to relieve us of $10,000 without telling us -- and it was the day before payday," McBride says. "Reg called the IRS and got them to put the $10,000 back if I signed a paper saying that if I didn't pay them back in 30 days, they were coming after me personally. I signed it."

That was the day the 'For Sale' sign went up on McBride's beautiful, new building. Corporate Cutting Dies had to find more affordable digs.

"The IRS got all their money at the closing of the sale on the SouthPark building," McBride says.

The bank was another matter. McBride traded in his car, put his house on the line and pulled out all his retirement money to help pay down the lingering $700,000 bank debt and stabilize his company's cash flow.

"My wife and I had saved up enough to live very comfortably. But here I was, 54 years old and with no retirement," McBride says.

"I even had $100 a week coming out of my own paycheck to pay off the debt," McBride says.

That little move was the brainchild of Norm Rothermel, a former debt recovery manager for Borden whom Martin brought in to help cut costs internally at Corporate Cutting Dies.

"Norm had my wages garnisheed. He was the burr in my saddle sometimes, but I needed a business consultant that wouldn't take any crap from me."

Rothermel also negotiated a couple deals to get McBride out of sticky situations with a leased van and some leased computer equipment, saving the company "at least $15,000," McBride says. He also assisted the company in getting a new loan package.

By the end of 1997, the company's debt had been cut considerably and Corporate Cutting Dies was showing a profit again.

"They were not that far away from break-even," Martin says. "Sam is no different than a dozen other people. He's gone through what a lot of small businesses do. He's had some personal difficulties but he's brought it back. He's been resilient."

Not in the clear yet

McBride's company recorded another profitable year in 1998, but backslid in 1999 when a particularly poor December -- coupled with hastily paid holiday bonuses, he says -- more than wiped out all the gains of the preceding 11 months. Corporate Cutting Dies ended the year about $22,000 in the hole.

This year, McBride has focused on cutting costs again and expects the company to show an 8 to 10 percent profit on sales of $756,000.

One cost-cutting measure came as a somewhat unpleasant surprise to McBride. Ackerman, whom McBride had intended to promote to president of the company this year, tendered his resignation in July. Still, McBride has found a way to put a positive spin even on that bit of bad news.

"Doug's working for one of my customers now ... so he's buying dies from me," McBride says. "We also have a lower overhead now because that cut payroll, too."

On the personal side, McBride still goes to AA meetings during his lunch hour and has joined another group called Business Owners Debtors Anonymous.

"They use the same 12-step program as AA, but the goal is not to take on any more unsecured debt," he says.

Corporate Cutting Dies still owes its bank close to $140,000 on six notes, which he'd like to consolidate into one to reduce the monthly payments. His goal is to be debt-free in two years.

"I don't put the blame of what happened to me on anybody," McBride says, as an overstuffed bookcase revealing titles such as "Live to Win," "Self Esteem" and "Searching for God in America" looms behind him. "It was just a build-up of things. Everything was just circumstances."

Bevan, who left the company in August for personal reasons, says McBride seems to have emerged from his crisis with only a few lingering scars.

"He still isn't as involved as he was when I first started here," she says. "He's still isolated. He needs to get back in the groove -- especially now that Doug's [gone]. But other than that, he's the same ol' Sam."

"Sam is very knowledgeable, but his focus sometimes tends to wander," agrees Martin. Nevertheless, Corporate Cutting Dies should continue to fare well.

"They need to go out and expand their sales," Martin says. "They should be running two shifts. But the firm will continue to stabilize. It'll continue to grow. I can't say anything negative about it."

"I think I've actually gone through more stuff in the last five years than I did in the first 13 in business," McBride says. "I was so close to losing my business and losing my family. I couldn't pay the debt ...

"I try not to let my ego, my pride get the best of me today. I think I learned a lesson in humility."

"I know he's learned," Bevan says. "He almost lost it all." Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.