Gordon Krater didn’t know where the bottom was. So he started focusing on the top.
Like just about every business leader, Krater had never seen anything like the recession that started in late 2008. The stock market started free-falling, the housing market crashed and two of the Big Three American automakers went to Washington looking for bailout money.
Not even the most educated and experienced of economic analysts knew where the slide would stop — or when. As the managing partner of financial and business advisory services firm Plante Moran PLLC, Krater faced a choice: Either brace for the eventual rock-bottom impact or focus his 1,700 associates on discovering present and future areas of opportunity despite the depths of the economic crisis.
“The most important thing was to not listen to all the noise,” Krater says. “Every day it seemed like there was bad news, but we couldn’t focus on just that. We needed to figure out what we thought was really going on. We needed to assess where we were and try to set a positive tone for the organization.”
Krater was elected managing partner in October 2008, on the front edge of the recession, and took over in July 2009, right in the middle of the economic free fall.
Thrust directly into the storm, he had to quickly figure out where Plante Moran could still generate positive momentum and rally his workforce around those areas — and he had to do it while his entire workforce was immersed in an environment riddled with stories of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies.
“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” Krater says. “So one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that people really need to hear what is going on, and they need to hear that you are still confident in the company’s future. People won’t follow pessimists. They’ll follow optimists who are also realists.”
Get the real story
During the recession, employees at companies around the country consumed daily media reports about the deepening crisis. By the time team members arrived at the office for work each morning, they had already scanned a newspaper, watched TV during breakfast or listened to the car radio on the ride to work. Krater was already facing an uphill battle against negativity before he stepped into his office each day.
Krater couldn’t stop the bad news, and he couldn’t stop his staff from consuming bad news. But he could show everyone at Plante Moran that there was another side to the story.
Yes, the economy was in dire straits, and yes, it was putting a strain on just about every business. However, that was the surface-level story. If Krater dug a little deeper and asked a few more questions, he believed he could find the toehold that would help give his people a more positive outlook on the future.
To get the answers to his questions, Krater utilized Plante Moran’s vast and powerful client base.
“We have a really solid base, so we are a great place to take the pulse of the economy,” Krater says. “We have thousands of clients that include influential companies and leaders in our region. So I went out and talked to them. I tried to get what was fact versus what was conjecture, the real reactions to the issues at hand versus the reactions to a state of paranoia.
“I wanted to get a real sense for where our clients thought things were going, and where things were headed in reality. I didn’t want to just read a bunch of things in the media and allow us to be influenced by that. We needed to talk to our clients to get a real sense of where things stood.”
Krater was able to take what he learned from the firm’s clients and use it to keep his staff more thoroughly informed. If Krater foresaw a drop in business related to a particular account, he shared as much as he could regarding the reasons behind the drop in business and the potential severity of the drop.
“Rather than simply saying, ‘Business is down,’ we tried to answer how far down,” he says. “There is a big difference between business being 40 percent down and 5 percent down. If we had someone worried about whether a contract would be renewed, like a major auto supplier, versus having a contract canceled outright, there is big difference between those two. A big part of what we had to do was differentiate what was really happening versus the fear of what might happen.”
Krater wanted to focus his people on the day-to-day work of running the firm, not the horror stories coming from the nation’s financial centers. The staff at Plante Moran couldn’t help what was happening in Washington and on Wall Street, but they could do something about positioning the firm to weather the storm by strengthening its client relationships.
“People were concerned about the possible collapse of the financial system,” he says. “It was this growing idea that business as usual was over, and there was a new normal, which was a difficult concept for a lot of people to accept, both here and elsewhere.
“Here in Detroit, we had a front-row seat to watch GM and Chrysler go into bankruptcy, and nobody knew if they were going to come out. So all of that was swirling around, and we couldn’t do much about a lot of it. So what we needed to do was focus on our clients. We needed to do what we could, which was to serve our clients in the best way possible to help them through those tough times.”
Taking control of a crisis means to take control of communication. Your people need to hear the truth about your company’s situation directly from you, which means you need to stay well informed, so that you can better share information with your people.
During the depths of the recession, Krater wanted to give his associates at Plante Moran a realistic view of the situation that the firm was facing. Often, people associate realism with pessimism. Nobody has ever associated a reality check with something positive. But Krater believes pessimism can run as rampant as optimism, if left unchecked.
“That’s why you can’t panic,” he says. “That is why you try to get to reality, to what is real versus what is being thrown around out there. You try to find your own answers as to what is going on out there with the economy, as opposed to taking what you read at face value. Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on about what was happening out there, but you verify what you read.
“You can be truthful and realistic and optimistic at the same time. I wanted our people to know that despite what was happening, we are still going to be here, we are going to emerge stronger than ever, and most importantly, here is how we’re going to do it. You need substance to your message.”
By taking control of communication, you are really taking control of your culture. When tales of woe are assaulting your people from all sides, morale starts to erode; the collective confidence of your people starts to wane, replaced by anxiety and paranoia, which produce a counterproductive work environment.
With frequent and comprehensive communication, you can combat the negative inertia of a crisis by reminding your people why your company can still be successful and by focusing everyone on those items. That approach reminds your people that they’re not helpless, they’re still capable of controlling the company’s destiny, and they have a means of pulling the company out of the crisis.
In short, you want to promote a message of empowerment.
“We tell a lot of stories around our firm, and we’ll talk about clients and their experiences with us,” Krater says. “Frank Moran was our founder, and his undergraduate college degree was in philosophy. One of the things he’d talk about was the idea that we were a people firm disguised as an accounting firm.
“So we have been focused on our culture, ideals and principles since the beginning. We’ll relay stories to each other about a staff member who helped a client, how it happened and so forth — not unlike how I hear Quicken Loans does it.
“If you ask a person who has been there for two years or more, they’ll be able to give you a number of examples of how to deal with a given situation, based on a story they heard from somebody.”
Properly managing communication, and by extension your culture, is a critical component of crisis management. If you let your culture wither in a time of crisis, you’ll find it is a long road back when you set about rebuilding it.
“Every company has a culture,” Krater says. “The question is, is it good or bad? If you let your culture go bad, one of the toughest things to do is rebuild it. It takes so much energy and time, and it’s just a very difficult task. It takes energy away from serving those who you have to serve outside the company in order to make your living. We have a great culture here, and one of the things we do is fiercely protect it. You can’t let anything get in the way of that.”
Invest in what you can
During a recession, or any time of crisis, you need to spend money.
It seems counterintuitive when business is down and revenue is drying up, but when you face choppy financial waters, your company needs you to invest in resources and talent more than ever.
At Plante Moran, Krater and his leadership team made a commitment to hiring new talent during the recession. With added talent, Plante Moran was able to explore new business avenues and set itself up for a period of growth as the recession has loosened its grip over the past two years.
Plante Moran frequently hires college graduates straight from campus, but during the recession, Krater and his team took a bit of a different approach.
“Other companies had to cut some really good people loose, and because of our strong culture and reputation, we were able to attract some really good people who had been cut from other companies,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of making your culture a priority. You can provide opportunities for people, and they know you are a great place to work.”
If your people know they can impact the future in a positive way, they’ll want to work for your company, regardless of the economic landscape. If they know their work will be appreciated by management, and make a difference in the long run, it will be much easier for your people to tune out the negativity around them and develop a goal-focused mindset on improving your company’s outlook.
“People want to feel like they’re in the know, and they want to feel like they are making a difference,” Krater says. “One of the problems you can run into as an organization gets larger is this attitude of, ‘If I don’t do this one little thing, it won’t matter.’ It can become harder to connect them to the impact they can have.
“Any business, any profession is a game of inches. The little things make the difference between real success and not doing as well. It’s having people who are empowered and believe in their ability to make an impact that makes the difference. That is where you find the real gold.” <<
How to reach: Plante Moran PLLC, (248) 352-2500 or
The Krater file
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Michigan
First job: It seems like I always worked growing up. I was always cutting grass or babysitting. The first time I got a W-2, however, I was a lifeguard at a municipal pool when I was 16.
Krater on making an impression on Michigan State University men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo: We have an annual firm conference where we close the firm down for a day, right around the end of our fiscal year on June 30. Every single person is invited, no matter what their role is. It’s a day when we talk about the firm, what we’ve done, what our goals are going forward, and we celebrate. We celebrate not only the successes of the firm, but of the individuals in the firm.
Oftentimes, we have a guest speaker, and one time we had Tom Izzo come in and speak to us. I was talking to him before the meeting, he had his notes on what he’s going to say, and he asked me ‘So, who is here today?’
I told him everybody in the firm is here. He says, ‘You closed the whole place down? Every single person is here? Not many people walk their talk like you guys do.’
On the spot, he changed what he was going to talk about. He talked about (his 2000 national championship team) that had a rough start to the year. And he actually called in the maintenance man, his administrative assistant and a lot of other people besides just the players. He told everyone, ‘You know what? We’re not doing a very good job. Everybody has to do better, because everybody contributes to the success of this organization.’
He talked about how when they won the national championship, and they got the championship rings that everybody covets so much, the first ring went to the janitor, because he is the guy who opened the gym so the players can practice.
That sends the message that everybody’s contribution is important. That is how we feel, and needless to say, he was a big hit speaking to 1,700 people about something that we really try to practice.