Command in a crisis
Bettina Whyte describes herself as a "crisis junkie.
"Far from making her a troublemaker, her attitude makes her just the opposite: Whyte, BS (IND ECON) '71, is a turnaround professional, someone who specializes in rescuing companies who've hit hard times. In her current position as a principal with Jay Alix & Associates, she has helped restructure companies such as Service Merchandise, a subsidiary of American General Corporation, and Regal Cinemas in Knoxville, Tenn., the largest operator of screens in the United States.
She chose her profession after working as a commercial lender for the Houston office of the Continental Bank of Chicago in the early '80s. Problems in the oil and gas industry were affecting many of the bank's major accounts, and Continental hit hard times. The bank called in a team of crisis management experts, and Whyte became interested in their activities. "It looked exciting and challenging," she says. "I thought I'd like doing it.
"Challenging" may be an understatement. When Whyte takes a turnaround team into a business, she focuses either on making the company attractive to a buyer, or enabling it to function profitably in its own right again. She's often unfamiliar with the industry. Sometimes, she has a few weeks to research and come up with a strategy; other times, she gets a call and has to be on a plane the same day to step into a completely unknown situation. And whatever the situation, she knows she's facing a crisis, where tension and hostility are high, and communication is often low.
"In one instance, I had been one of three people to interview for a job," she says. "The chairman called and asked me if I'd come into the office that afternoon. I though he was inviting me to lunch to discuss things further. Instead, he took me into the board room where the company's executive management were sitting around the conference table. They had no idea why they were there. He said. 'This is your new CEO. I've got a plane to catch.' And he left. I never saw him again, and there I was, with 16 faces staring at me in shock. They didn't even know their company had been in trouble.
"Such a situation didn't exactly lead to an open-armed welcome for Whyte. "The next day, there was extreme hostility," she recalls. But she'd been in these types of situations before, and she knew what to do.
"The first thing I always do is tell everyone the truth," she says. "In many cases, the management doesn't understand how bad the problem is. I tell them I'm the CEO, but that I need them to work with me as a team." She then privately interviews each individual, asking for his or her thoughts on what went wrong, how things could change, and whether the person is willing to be part of the team. "If they're not, they should be gone," she says.
"Most people, if they understand where the company needs to go and why, and if they want to devote the time and effort, become part of the team," Whyte says.
Along with the tense situations and hostility, Whyte encounters other negatives. Frequent, unpredictable travel and constant relocation play havoc with her schedule. She is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. "It's tough on your social life," she says. Being in unfamiliar cities with no support base of friends or family is also difficult. And working in hostile and sensitive environments sometimes puts Whyte in potentially dangerous situations.
"I was in a small private plane once during a job where I was appointed as an examiner by a bankruptcy court to testify about the status of a gas company in bankruptcy," she says. "The man who owned the company was under investigation by the FBI for alleged acts of brutality. Our plane made an unscheduled stop at an airport, and I decided to get off the plane temporarily. When I was in the airport, I received a phone call from a man asking me if I really wanted to testify; perhaps I had something better to do. Later that night, I had dinner in a restaurant and again got a similar call. The man had to be following me on another plane; there was no other way he would have known where I was.
"Four years later, the gas company owner was found dead on the side of the road with 32 bullet wounds," Whyte says.
In another situation, Whyte found things had been moved around in her apartment, or lights had been left on when she wasn't home. "Nothing was ever taken, though," she says. In addition, she found that the office phones and her apartment phone had been bugged.
Yet these negative aspects of her job don't faze Whyte. "It's a tough life, but turnaround professionals choose it because we like it," she says. "We love problem-solving, bringing everyone to resolution.
"The most rewarding aspect of her job, Whyte says, is building the bond with a management team to get a company back on its feet. The initially hostile situation where the chairman had left her with the company's panicked upper management ended with Whyte's earning the team's respect and trust as they worked together to restructure the company. "They were a group of very good individuals who forged ahead to do what they had to do," she says. "We made some very good friendships.
"It's also satisfying to meet seemingly impossible challenges. "At one aircraft manufacturing company, I had to lay 350 out of 400 people off on the second day because the company had no money to pay its payroll," Whyte says. Others warned her that temporarily shutting the plant down was a big mistake.
"They told me you can't go dark in a manufacturing company and bring it back to life," she recalls. "Seven months later, I left the company with 600 employees (many of whom they'd hired back after the layoff), having sold eight airplanes to a regional carrier, and having negotiated a 54-plane contract with the Air National Guard. We sold the company, and it's been profitable ever since."
Whyte's desire to create better situations for companies has been key to her success - and she knows it's also key to keeping her perspective when she has to get tough and focus on the bottom line. "Usually, the job includes major cost cuts, firings, and layoffs," she says. But even though the end result will be positive, letting people go is never easy. Whyte doesn't see that as a weakness. "The day laying people off stops bothering me is the day I need to get out of this business," she says.
Whyte has lectured at Krannert and also recently accepted an invitation to participate in the 2001 Old Masters program, which invites to campus leaders in their fields who exemplify honesty, personal integrity, and a good philosophy. In addition, Whyte is as a member of the Krannert Dean's Advisory Council.
"It's important to give something back," she says, explaining that her bachelor's degree from Krannert has given her a great advantage in the business world. Not only did it help her land her first job, with Harris Trust in commercial lending, it also helped her get into Northwestern's MBA program, from which she graduated in 1974.
"My Purdue education gave me a terrific foundation in finance and marketing that has stood me in good stead for the things I do today in my job," Whyte says. "I needed the MBA for credentials, but I got my real education at Purdue."
By Melanie A. Hahn, written for Krannert Magazine