Panel Discussion - How to Address 4 Weaknesses as a Business Owner

In a couple of hours, I will be sitting on a panel at the 2018 Electronics Reuse Conference. Topic - How to Address Weaknesses as a Business Owner - was the first to tempt me for 5 years.

Good Point Recycling opened in April 2001.  I bought a used truck with a $15k bathroom improvement budget, and didn't hire the first full time employee for 3 years. The first 3 years, I was mostly doing consulting gigs between truck runs. If your weakness is "talking too much", charge by the hour.

I used to speak at conferences pretty often 20 years ago, 15, 10 years ago. But one of the weaknesses I found that we all have is this - speaking to your peers, to other businesspeople, to competitors, etc, sucks. We are all weak when our audience consists of people who know or think they know as much as we do. If they agree, then they sat in a session to hear the obvious. If they disagree, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."  Generally, don't do it. I generally try to refer invitations to WR3A to Tech Sector people from Mexico, Ghana, Malaysia, etc, who really can tell an American audience something they don't know.

This topic, however, is about weaknesses. About addressing my own weaknesses. So I accepted. It should be an opportunity to self-deprecate and tell some funny stories about near-death experiences.
I'll start by acknowledging my survival. We will have a moment of silence for some late, great, fates.  In alphabetical order, here is a list of companies which I'm pretty sure were at one point part of the 10 largest electronics recyclers in the world (or claimed to so be).

Allied - 2006
DMC - 2006
HMR - 2006
Creative - 2014
CRTR - 2015
Eco International - 2013
EWSI / 2TRG / CLRR - 2016
Intercon Solutions - 2013
MPC - 2015
WeRecycle - 2015

I should disclose that my company intends to take over the site of CRTR, famous for going out in flames. The FBI determined that the back warehouse, containing only CRT TVs, was deliberately set ablaze (accelerants in 5 places) in 2015.

There are other big names that sold or shrank or metamorphosed.... We could talk about Metech? Sims plant closures? But the list is important just because these companies were really big, nationally or internationally known, and obviously encountered a weakness.
See 2015 Blog "Fiddling with Product Stewardship (As Ewaste Burns)"

But we all have weaknesses. And while my company (opened 2001) has survived, we have had some very, very close calls.

I could have blamed closure on my purchase of a 50,000 s.f. warehouse - on October 22, 2008. Two weeks later, the great Recession crashed the stock market and the tenants went bankrupt. I had to occupy the entire facility, while scrap metal and plastic prices fell to pre-World War 1 woes. I had no choice but to tighten the belt and aggressively grow into the place.

I could have lost the company again in 2011, when my home state of Vermont passed a Product Stewardship Law, consolidating 100 of our longest standing clients into a single contract --- and then TELLING me to subcontract to my biggest competitor.  We didn't and won, but the following RFP the state told us it wouldn't matter that we bid $400k less, because they'd given that competitor $720 guarantee and would (this is in advance of the RFP) downscore our technical proposal by the points necessary to offset the low bid. I had to lay off 15 people in one week, and saw a lot of attrition, but sued in Vermont Superior Court and then settled to force a rebid. We won, but it was a drawn out 9 months of legal fees and a state agency who (according to my counsel) stated outright that they hated me and would screw my company any way they could.

You could argue that fighting City Hall is a weakness or you could argue the request for me to subcontract to a chosen company was bull***t that had to be fought.

But here's the weakness I will tell you to overcome.  As my great grandmother (Minnie Freeland) told me, on her 101 year old Ozarks deathbed, "be true to thine own self". Many people think "be true to yourself" actually means a form of stubborn denial, defiance worn with pride, the mantra of wannabe high schoolers moving to Hollywood to pursue a dream of stardom.

No, it means don't lie to yourself. Here are 3 ways we do that as business leaders. I survived these crises in these 3 ways.

1. Do Not Mistake Cash Flow For Profit
2. You Will Hire A Wrong Person For A Job. Admit It.
3. See People For What They CAN, Not What They Can't Do.
4. Don't Invest In Expensive Capital As An Early Adapter.

When we laid off 15 of 30 people for the long slog for the next Vermont contract, I kept the truck drivers any way I could. Those were the face and eyes and ears of our company, our interactions with clients were defined by Crystal, Ben, Pat and Pete (and myself, the original CDL for the company). I placed those people in other tasks, selling stuff online, wiping hard drives, etc., to keep the air force alive. I could not have done that without rigorous attention to the budgets, A/R, cash flows. Had I waited 2 more months to lay off the first 15 people, I would not have made it to the new contract award.

Don't blame the copper crash or the plastic crash. Both of those commodities are priced higher today than when 20 year old companies started. In 2002, I would have been thrilled to have TV D-boards or HPS plastic selling at today's rate.

Don't blame the competition in reuse markets. The USA and Europe were the "Saudi Arabia of Reuse" in 2001, but the increase in competition from easy entry was just as difficult as finding buyers today.

Lots of companies at this conference have survived these crises, like we did. We come out stronger.

If you want to read more, see the 10 Themes Blog. I have to get ready for my talk now.

And thanks to Mark Matza, here's how the Big Bang (Federal forced breakup of Ma Bell, ATT, under antitrust laws) set many of the original e-waste company parts in motion. Some business owners started with the sale of a single piece of abandoned telephone station switching gear (lost asset abandoned in the ATT breakup) for $1M to an emerging market. Easy come, easy go?

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