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How Jeffrey S. Davis navigated Perficient through the recession Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
How Jeffrey S. Davis navigated Perficient through the recession

Jeffrey S. Davis and his team at Perficient Inc. were not ready for the bursting of the dot-com bubble back in 2001. Despite the warning signs, tough decisions were put off and fingers were crossed that the seemingly inevitable recession wouldn’t turn out as bad as everyone feared.

“We waited too long to really respond to it,” says Davis, who was COO at the IT consulting firm at the time. “We knew what we were going to have to do in terms of layoffs was going to be very unpleasant. So we had a lot of noise among the executives and senior managers in the company. Some people were saying, ‘That’s disaster. If we lay off anybody at all, everybody else will quit, and we won’t have a business left.’ Or people said, ‘That’s not what I’m here for. I refuse to lay anybody off.’”

Davis and his team were in denial.

“People didn’t want to believe it after things had gone so well, especially for the prior couple of years,” Davis says. “From 1999 to 2001, it had just been a phenomenal year for the tech industry. It was hard for people to accept that it was over and over really rather quickly. Denial is exactly the right word.”

Perficient took a pretty big hit like a lot of businesses, but eventually did what it had to do in order to survive and the lessons that Davis learned through that difficult time stuck with him. And those enduring lessons proved to be crucial when the economy began to plummet again in late 2007.

“It was amazing to me the kind of repeat that we had,” says Davis, currently the president and CEO at the 1,015-employee company. “We had the same type of people, salespeople, saying, ‘Oh, we just have to sell our way out of this.’ All the same things were playing over again.”

Fortunately for Perficient, which took in $215 million in 2010 revenue, Davis and his colleagues on the senior management team knew they couldn’t afford to wait around and hope for the best.

“We were able to tune that out and move the business along with what we needed to do,” Davis says.

Make a list

The first thing Davis did this time around, and the first thing you should do when you sense that trouble is ahead, is make a list.

“I would start making a list of every area where I can cut costs as quickly as I can,” Davis says. “It is fairly complicated, especially when you’re talking about taking people out of the business. Any kind of resource you have in the business, theoretically, you needed. Otherwise you shouldn’t have had it. And that happens too. When find yourself in these situations, you start to realize, ‘Gosh, why were we doing that anyway?’ So you start making that list with, ‘Here are the things we can impact immediately.’”

Davis suggests making your list in three tiers to account for the range of severity you might be about to experience.

“Here’s the not-so-bad recession list,” Davis says. “Here’s the pretty bad recession list, and here’s the Armageddon list. We were prepared in phases to go through each of those if we had to.”

This list can’t be something that you do yourself while locked alone in your office. You need to get your colleagues on the management team and your department heads involved from the beginning.

“I wanted to make sure people bought into it and as unpleasant as it is, this is where we are and this is what we have to do,” Davis says. “While none of us liked it, we all agree it’s the right thing for the company and ultimately, it’s the right thing for those folks who are left behind. So it was definitely a collaborative effort and not a mandate.”

Davis had each manager and department leader come up with percentages of cost reductions and dollar figures. It’s not your job to identify specific individuals to let go. Let your people who work with them on a regular basis and know their strengths and weaknesses make those decisions.

“They are closer to it than I am,” Davis says. “I hope they have the right answers because it’s going to be difficult for me to come up with given that I’m a couple steps removed. You’ve got to rely on your folks, hold them accountable but also rely on them to make the right decision.”

You can acknowledge that these are decisions that no one likes to make without falling into tired clichés.

“Just be upfront and honest,” Davis says. “This sucks, but here’s where we’re at. I’m not going to candy coat it for you. Here’s what we have to do. For the people I mentioned and I would even extend it to your 17 general managers, our executive team is about 21 people, I would treat everybody on the team like that. They wouldn’t be in those positions if I felt like a conversation like that was going to be send them into a tailspin.”

You can also offer your hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that the draconian cuts you’re talking about won’t have to be made. But if you don’t plan for the worst and the worst happens, your stress is going to be a whole lot worse. So you need to maintain a sense of urgency.

“I never had anybody that was that much of a holdout,” Davis says. “But if I did, I would say, ‘If you’re not going to do it, I’ll do it for you.’ Usually when you offer something like that, they tend to take it more seriously. Because the last thing they want is for you to be making the decisions for them.”

Help people grow

Unfortunately for Davis, he did have instances where people came back to him and hadn’t come up with enough to cut out of their part of the budget. The claim was that there were too many things they couldn’t afford to live without.

“It’s a process of education and less of a negotiation,” Davis says. “It’s not really a negotiation when we know who the winner is going to be and that’s me.”

If your people have a hard time even drawing up a list of possible cuts, try being a mentor to them rather than a tyrant.

“With those people, it’s more of a process of, ‘Let me walk through it with you.’ Make it more of a mentoring exercise. ‘Let’s go through it together. Here’s why this function is no longer going to be necessary or here’s why you’re not going to need this many of that particular title or function in the scenario we’re talking about.’”

You can also encourage people to look beyond just getting rid of employees to reduce costs.

“Those are some of the things that don’t immediately strike the person serving in the trenches wrestling with this,” Davis says. “To your point, maybe they are hung up on the people side of it. And they aren’t even thinking about the fact that, ‘Hey, we’ve got that extra conference area over here that some other tenant has been wanting for two years. Let’s get rid of it.’”

Whether it’s offering alternatives or just encouragement, you need to remove the fear your leaders may have about making important decisions. Show that you trust them to make big decisions in the best interest of the business.

“You’ve chosen this person for this job,” Davis says. “They are either your person or they are not. If they’re not, you should do them a favor and get rid of them. If they are, you should support them. People are motivated knowing they have a boss who believes in them. I can’t think of a better way to be motivated myself than knowing my board has confidence and believes in me and believes in where I’m taking the company.”

If people do make mistakes in the cutback process, try to remember that you’ve made plenty of mistakes yourself.

“At this level, if you’re still trying to manage people, there’s something wrong,” Davis says. “You’re not doing your job correctly or you’ve got the wrong people. But your business is not going to grow. You’re not going to reach your potential either if you’re still trying to do everybody else’s job for them.”

You’re not going to have a team of leaders that feels like it’s marching forward together if you become a micromanager. You need to buy in to them and they need to buy in to you and you need to trust each other.

“If you’ve got that buy-in, they’re going to work really hard,” Davis says. “They really believe in their heart of hearts this is what needs to happen not just because you told them so, but because they understand that it really does need to happen. They’re going to work very hard to make it happen.”

Move forward

Davis has been two through major recessions at Perficient and he has seen the cultural damage they can cause. So when cuts need to be made, he suggests you try to get it right the first time.

“Honestly, as cold as it sounds, the right thing to do for the business is to go down as deep as you can,” Davis says. “If that’s more than necessary, that’s unfortunate. But that’s better than having to make four cuts. That continual cut, cut, cut just kills morale. In the service business, those are your assets. That’s what you care about and that just kills it.”

Once the announcements have been made and those who are being let go have been notified, you need to move quickly to refocus everyone’s energy. Show people that this isn’t the first step toward going out of business.

“Try to give some concrete evidence that you’re taking action,” Davis says. “When the chips are down and they’re kind of down anyway, they want to know that you’re doing something. You’re not just sitting around waiting for the economy to get better.”

Davis took advantage of a declining market and made some investments that the company might not otherwise have made.

“We’re trying to gain share, so frankly, we did some experiments,” Davis says. “It allowed us to try some things that we might have been a little more reticent to try if we weren’t working so hard to turn things around.

“We invested and built organically a health care business unit that is focused on that industry. Before we did that, it was already part of our business, but in 2008, it was probably about 15 percent of our revenue. It’s 25 percent today. From 2009 to 2010, we added $12 million in revenue in the health care industry.”

You can’t promise people that you’ll never have to make cuts again. But you need to reassure them that the company is moving ahead.

“Let’s all get back to work,” Davis says. “It’s unfortunate, and we’ll miss our colleagues, but we’ve still got a job to do. For your own sake and the benefit of your family and yourself, we need to keep slugging it out every day. Let’s move on and keep moving it forward. That’s the speech I would give.”

Davis says it’s the need to work with his people and help them continue to grow that helped him weather the storm at Perficient a little bit better the second time around.

“I’m pleased to say we never got more than even halfway through the second list of cuts and never even had to get to third list,” Davis says of the three cutback scenarios that were considered.

He added that he continues to grow as a leader and learn the value of empowering others.

“I’m a better motivator of people that I was 10 years ago and I hope I get better every day,” Davis says. “That’s the most important thing as a leader is motivating. It’s making sure you have the right people around you, of course, but motivating them and not managing them.”

How to reach: Perficient Inc., (314) 529-3600 or www.perficient.com

The Davis File

Jeffrey S. Davis

President and CEO

Perficient Inc.

Born: Tulsa, Okla.

Education: Bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering, University of Missouri-Columbia; MBA, Washington University in St. Louis

What was your first job?

I ran a newspaper route when I was 10 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I collected my pay, and I got a checking account and for 1975, I was making pretty good money for a 10-year-old kid.

Who has been the biggest influence on you and why?

My dad, James. There are a number of things [he taught me], and they are all an offshoot of the same thing. He had an incredibly high level of integrity.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My mother used to always say, ‘Your sins will find you out.’ I think the best thing I ever learned in my life that I’ve tried to always apply is to do the right thing. I was like any other kid. I was probably about 15 when I finally figured out I can’t lie my way out of trouble. Some kids probably learn younger than that, but I was 15. That was a life lesson that stuck with me.

Who would you like to meet, and what would you want to ask that person?

President Ronald Reagan. How did he manage to muster up as much charisma as he did in the face of a bunch of crappy stuff and a bunch of naysayers? How did he always manage to hold his head up and do the right thing and convey that in an amazingly charismatic way? He connected with people at all levels and from all walks of life in this country. He did a better job of that than any president in my lifetime.