Nothing is Certain Except Death

It is a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) world out there! I am constrained to add that on top of the uncertainty of business, the demise of a family business leader can cripple the enterprise overnight.

The sudden death of a colleague in 2015 was a stark reminder that life is fleeting.

A year earlier, we were exchanging notes and quite excited about our planned collaboration to “gain a beach head” by setting up businesses in emerging ASEAN member economies. Then suddenly, I received news that he became terminally ill and given a few months to live… six months to be exact. In a blink of an eye, his health deteriorated and went downhill. He was gone at 64. Death came so swiftly like a thief in the night. He left behind a wife, three children and a 2,700 plus workforce.

My friend passed away without preparing any leadership transition and as the family grieved, the children struggled to consolidate his estate comprising assets, liabilities including the three core businesses. And as if on cue, worried creditors swooped down like vultures, naturally demanding for answers on how loans will be repaid.

For the three children (all in their 30’s), they were obviously unprepared, untrained and used to the good life generously provided for by their visionary father. With the death of the patriarch, they were now fearful of an uncertain future and the “what’s next”. I realized that the family needed help so I volunteered any assistance but my offer was politely turned down.

When the youngest child was diagnosed with a certain form of mental disorder and had to be hospitalized, the other siblings continued to manage the business but their apparent lack of training and limited skills worsened the situation. Sensing a bleak future, employees started to leave the company.

The business suffered its biggest setback when their credit lines were discontinued. Clearly, everyone where at a loss due to the sudden void left by the demise of their leader.

Four months after, the children pleaded for help and requested my intervention.

The six months that followed was probably one of the most challenging times the family members experienced under my brand of governance… and a test of patience for me and my team as well. I almost gave up on a number of occasions. The family members were stubborn, indecisive, arrogant and distrustful of our turnaround initiatives. Worse, they were incredulous and hardly contributed to the efforts.

I felt helpless when they could not decide on critical issues and in my quiet moments I would lay the blame on their deceased father for overprotecting and raising entitled children. Their actions were extremely frustrating and a disservice to the values of hard work and tenacity that the father displayed when he was alive.

At the onset, the only way to appease troublesome creditors was to install a management committee primarily tasked to manage a tight cash flow.  We also brought in specialists to “hold the fort” until the situation normalized. My title was “caretaker CEO” but in reality I played a conductor role by making sure alignment of plans continued without disruption.

After 2 years of playing catch up, the firefighting became less frequent and the business showed signs of recovery.  When we finally saw steady growth, we knew a turnaround was in sight. We also saw creditors renewing their commitments after cash flow and new investments were already showing favorable results.

It was a close call and for year three (2018) to five, the enterprise is now geared for growth and expansion.

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