The best mistake I’ve ever made

In 1998, I was working for a division of Duchossois Industries as an engineer working on new product development. I was occasionally invited to be part of a team that evaluated acquisition opportunities (I was the token geek that spoke business or something); and so I was a part of the team that evaluated the spin off of several divisions of Nortek. One division–a small garage door opener company that they owned–was a no-brainer. We could buy it, shut it down, and by converting just 50% of their customers to our customers, we would more than make our money back.

worst business decisions

But there was another division–M&S Systems–that made “whole house audio” systems (think the kind of intercoms that were popular in the 70’s). It was a sleepy little company, in a category that I felt like was going to explode. If home audio went digital (MP3 players were just starting to be released) I felt like a company like this would be well positioned to take advantage of it.

So I pitched the idea of buying M&S systems to the Duchossois board. Surprisingly, they agreed, and then turned around and told me, “You’ve got such passion for this company Brad, why don’t you go run it?” Without thinking I blurted out, “Yes! I’ll do it.”

This was a phenomenal business mistake for lots of reasons.

1. I had never run a company before.

I was a 32 year old middling engineer. The only group I had ever led was a product development team of 8 engineers. I had taken an accounting class, but never been responsible for a P&L. In this new role I had to sell, I had to manage unions, cash flow, everything. I was in way over my head.

2. I didn’t have many of the skills and experiences that I’d need to be a success.

Did I mention I had never sold anything? I was now responsible for $20M in sales. $20 million! We had two manufacturing locations (one in Mexico). The management team was bickering and demoralized and the product needed a refresh. I was in way over my head.

3. I lived over 1000 miles away from the office.

M&S Systems was headquartered in Dallas. I lived in Chicago. I couldn’t move (for a lot of reasons) so I was going to try to do this by traveling down there 3 weeks each month. I was in way over my head.

When I got there, it turned out I was even further over my head than I thought. The seasoned management team–that (I’m guessing) my bosses were relying on to guide me through this shift–all quit! (5 of the top 8 leaders in the company left in the first two months). We had a wildcat strike in our Mexican factory (which I subsequently had to close). And our 3rd largest customer stopped paying their bills. It was anything but a smooth transition.

I was learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end.

I remember sitting at my desk in Dallas late one night (on my 13th hour of work that day), going over some sales forecasts & inventory listings to plan production. I looked up and thought, “This is crazy! What am I doing? I have no idea if what I’m doing is right, or even good!”

But I kept going. Not because I thought I was going to succeed. Not because I had some grand vision. Mostly because I couldn’t see any way out! I didn’t want to let the folks down who had given me this opportunity. There was no one else to do it. I had to keep going.

By the end of that year, our sales were up almost 25%. I had stabilized the management team with some key hires and some promotions from within. I was down to working 9 – 10 hour days and it felt good. I didn’t feel like I was in over my head anymore. I was leading a team, winning in the marketplace, and planning the next generation of products.

That huge mistake–pitching the acquisition of M&S–helped me to grow up. It gave me the skills and credibility to leap out of engineering into every job I’ve had since then. I knew that I had it in me to lead, to make solid business decisions, to form a strong team. It was the opening of a whole new chapter of my life.

It also taught me not to say “Yes!” quite so quickly…

What’s the greatest business mistake you’ve ever made?

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Photo credit: CapturedbyKC

Brad Farris

As principal advisor of Anchor Advisors, Brad Farris has experience leading businesses & business owners into new levels of growth and success. Through his work with over 100 Chicago area small businesses he has experience in guiding founders and business owners through the pitfalls and joys of growing their business. Prior to joining Anchor Advisors, Brad spent over 10 years managing business units for a family-owned conglomerate with sales of $2 million to $25 million.  When he's not working, Brad enjoys cycling, cooking and the NFL. He is married with 5 children and lives in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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