Even keel

Frederick Van Etten believes
every word of the old saying, “A rising tide floats all

“Anyone can manage in a
good time,” he says. “We saw
that in the 1980s [with] the dotcoms, before the bubble went
through. You could buy a stock,
and it would just go up. It didn’t
have to be a good company, it
didn’t have to be a company
with any revenue or any net
income; [it was] just because
the market was going up, and
so everybody looked like

Van Etten believes it takes a
crisis to determine whether a
manager can lead in good times
and bad. Van Etten faced that
test when he became the president of Popular Equipment
Finance Inc., the equipment
leasing arm of Banco Popular
North America, at a time when
the company just couldn’t win.
So he cleaned house and started over, helping to increase
sales volume from $140 million
in 2006 to $178 million in

Smart Business spoke with
Van Etten about how to make it
through the crucible and how to
find employees who are winners to help you succeed.

Bring in winners. As a leader, the
first thing when I took over this
company two-and-a-half years
ago was to replace all the
direct reports that came into
me and bring in people who I
felt truly shared the vision of
where we wanted to take it.

I played high school and college sports. Sometimes you’re
on a team that just can’t win.
For years, this company didn’t
win. It just could not win. It
had management problems, it
had credit problems, it had
vision problems, and it didn’t
have the right products.
Ultimately, it came down to
lack of management knowledge and vision.

When I replaced all those
people, each person I brought
in was brought in from a winning organization, and they
were used to winning.

When we brought in the new
management team, initially, the
people they managed were
questioning whether or not this
was just more of the same. But
when we began to win and we
began to change the policies
and procedures — even the
way we treated our customers
— then all of a sudden the
results started to go up.

You can take a bunch of people who have never won
before, and once they start winning, you can just see the
encouragement and the attitude change in the company.

All of a sudden we have the
most engaged number of people
I’ve ever worked with. We have
100 people here who would run
through walls for us. For years,
they were all afraid they’d get
terminated. They were afraid
this subsidiary might get shut
down, and then, all of a sudden,
when we started to win, then
they feel like they’re really part
of the reason for the success.