The times were tough for Roeslein & Associates in 2001. Sales had grown from just more than $1 million in 1990 to some $20 million in 2000. Now the volume of work was practically nonexistent.
“When you go without work for almost a two-year period and you use up every bit of retained earnings that you had, it starts to challenge your own beliefs,” says Rudi Roeslein, founder and CEO for a company that engineers, fabricates and constructs unitized modular industrial systems. “We were faced with this real identity crisis of was it all smoke and mirrors? Was I just delusional?”
Indeed, Roeslein and his company were in pretty dire straits. He let two members of his management team go and the six who remained each took a 30 percent pay cut. Roeslein and his partner, who only owned 25 percent of the 250-employee business, did not take any pay for 18 months.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to force you to do it,’” Roeslein says. “He had a family and both of us had kids at the time. We had the same bills that everybody else has. We just had to live on whatever we took out of the business previously in earnings. We tried to keep as many people as possible.”
As hard as he was working to keep the business going, Roeslein also had to fight the perception that it wasn’t ever going to get better. He had complete confidence that he would make it work, but it wasn’t shared by everyone.
“When people see that, how do you keep them enthused?” Roeslein says. “You start letting people go, and (others) want to bail out. They want to leave.”
As it turns out, Roeslein was right and his company did survive the business drought and emerge on the other side, growing to a $100 million organization today.
But Roeslein emerged a new man and a new leader. He was willing to look at himself in the mirror and ask the question that few brash, successful entrepreneurs ever want to ask of themselves.
“The big soul-searching that I did was, ‘OK, once I get out of this, even if we get the business, what am I going to do differently so I don’t get into this predicament again?’” Roeslein says. “That’s where you have to identify what are the necks in the hourglass? Am I the neck in the hourglass? I came to the conclusion that I was because of how I managed my business.”
The transformation began in 2002 with a realization that Roeslein needed to get his people more involved in guiding the business.
Empower your people
As Roeslein looked at his role in leading his company, he began to understand the problem.
“I wanted all customers to discuss their opportunities with me,” Roeslein says.
He had a CFO who handled the day-to-day personnel issues and Roeslein managed the engineering, business development and product management. But he also did selling and implementing and wanted in on every sales discussion.
He realized that had to change.
“You have to get over your own ego and really accept that maybe you’re the problem and not the solution,” Roeslein says. “Maybe the solution is right in front of you because you have all these brilliant employees and you’re just not releasing their talent.”
So as things began to pick up, Roeslein appointed the six managers who had been department managers and made them directors.
“I assigned specific customers and accounts on a regional and global basis, regardless of whether they were technical or nontechnical,” Roeslein says. “I divided it among them.”
The key to making this work was that Roeslein didn’t just call them into his office, tell them about the change and then expect them to figure out how to do it on their own.
“I said, ‘I will mentor you for a period of a couple of years,’” Roeslein says. “‘I will go with you to these customers, but ultimately, I’m turning these customers over to you. I’m turning these projects over to you. Then you guys figure out how to complement each other. Figure out who is best at construction, engineering and business development. One of you is going to become the president of the company.’”
It was a bold move, but Roeslein quickly knew it was exactly what his business needed.
“We quickly became a $100 million company, which under my leadership and style, probably never would have happened,” Roeslein says. “We would have been stuck at $20 million to $25 million because that’s what I could manage and that’s what I could keep my thumb on and have enough daytime hours to manage.”
If you feel like your company is stuck, it could be that you’re unwilling to let the people you’ve brought in to work with you and for you stretch their legs and use their talent. You’re only one person and if you keep all the important work to yourself, your company is severely limited in how much it can grow.
“You have to take the risk,” Roeslein says. “Put those people out there. Put them on the front line, put them in difficult situations and see how they respond. From that, you can start to formulate a plan as to who your leadership is and who your next generation is. That’s what I’ve challenged my six managers to do.
“Give guys an opportunity. Challenge them and push them beyond what you believe they can do and see what they can do. If you just keep them on the bench, they’re never going to be able to demonstrate their capabilities and you’re never going to know.”
Back up your words
If Roeslein had talked to his people about having a bigger role in the business or being empowered but continued to make the same decisions he had always made and lead the way he had always led, his company would not have grown.
“There are signals and indicators that employees read,” Roeslein says. “You say certain things. But it’s eventually what you do. What we did was we engaged them in a concept that signaled that we believed there was a future.”
That engagement was made with his six directors but also with every employee who had concerns about the company’s future during those dark days.
“Why would I have them working on all these improvements, cost reductions and things that work toward the future?” Roeslein says. “What I really focused on was let’s build and work toward the future. The future is confident, as far as I’m concerned. Why would I risk every penny that I have and everything I’ve worked for if I didn’t believe in it?
“That resonated with my employees and certainly with six out of eight managers.”
It resonated even more with those six directors when Roeslein rewarded their hard work and effort in getting the company turned around.
“These guys are going to sacrifice a tremendous amount of their lives to this company,” Roeslein says. “I told them a portion of their bonus each year could be applied toward ownership of the business. You’ve already made a huge sacrifice taking a 30 percent pay cut for two years to keep our business alive. Here’s your reward.”
The directors took advantage of the offer, buying out Roeslein’s partner and eventually reducing Roeslein’s share of the business from 75 percent to 51 percent.
“I don’t want to sell this business to outsiders,” Roeslein says.
Build for the future
Just as Roeslein mentored his six directors, he expected them to do the same for another group of leaders.
“If we want to grow the business to the next level, each of you needs to mentor six people,” Roeslein says of his message to his six directors. “That is the next step in the evolution of this company. You mentor six people, and you get the same level of confidence in them that I have in you.”
You’ve got to approach your business as though it were a team and you all make contributions to that team or you’re going to run into problems.
“It’s easy to be a really good guy and smile when things are great,” Roeslein says. “But when things are really bad, that’s when you find out your own character and your own ethos.”
So when failure occurs, approach it with the perspective of how the team can improve instead of focusing on the person who screwed up.
“Every leader needs to put their employees in a situation where they can succeed,” Roeslein says. “When they fail, they need to recognize they are part of the failure. You can’t have your people be so concerned about, ‘What are we going to do if we fail?’”
Roeslein says running a business is a lot like the whitewater rafting he used to do in Colorado and Utah.
“You’re just slowly going down the river and the sun is shining and you relax and your mind wanders,” Roeslein says. “Then, all of a sudden, you hit those rapids and those giant holes, and it scares the hell out of you. You wonder if you’re even going to make it through. It’s how you perform and how you treat everyone during those periods that really forms your character.”
How to reach: Roeslein & Associates Inc.,
(314) 729-0055 or www.roeslein.com
The Roeslein File
founder and CEO
Roeslein & Associates Inc.
Born: Salzburg, Austria. I was born in 1948 and came to the United States in 1956. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty. One of my most lasting impressions was the train ride to St. Louis with my face plastered against the window looking out at the countryside. I didn’t speak a word of English.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Saint Louis University.
How did your childhood shape you? All of us had this work ethic where we believed no one was going to take care of us. We had to take care of ourselves. Kids can be cruel. Me and two of my German friends, instead of the three Amigos, we were the three little Nazis. So we went through some tough periods.
But I think the great equalizer for me was always sports. I started playing soccer at an early age and when you’re very good at something, kids accept that you’re good at that and a lot of that other stuff goes away.
Did the tough times then help you deal with them better now? I didn’t look at it as leaving long scars. Did it toughen me up and make me more able to take ups and downs in life? I think so. But I’ve never looked back and said, ‘Gee, those kids that held me down and tried to carve a swastika in my forehead were bad kids.’ It was just a sign of the times. Things were going on and you just fought your way through it and just keep on going.
Who has been the most influential person on who you are? My father. He’s the example of a completely selfless person. His whole life was focused around us.
Let people put use their talents.
Mentor leaders through growing pains.
Reward employees who help you meet goals.