Business founders likely to emerge from meltdown

He started PharmaCentra, a pharmaceutical marketing company in Atlanta. He made $5,000 his first year but now has 100 employees. "There will be many opportunities as the economy shifts," Berman says. "Go after those."

There are some signs that this recession is playing out as recessions have in the past. Matt Flocks spent 16 years with Forest City Ratner, a real estate developer that owns 11 million square feet of commercial property in New York. He was vice president when company stock plunged from $69 to $4 a share. He was laid off last October, along with more than half of all employees.

Flocks founded Orbis Associates, a nine-employee company designed to weather the recession by becoming an outsourcer to help other real estate developers survive. When the time is right, Orbis will be positioned to become a "full-fledged development company on the economic upside," Flocks said.

Flocks predicts others in many industries are using a similar strategy to "leverage the down economy and come out on the upswing."

"Never give in, especially to negative emotions," advises Scott Rosenberg, an industrial engineer by training, who founded Miro Consulting in 2000 after being laid off more than once. Miro, which provides software consulting services for 10 of the largest 100 companies, has 18 full-time employees and $25 million in annual revenue.

"Be positive and think creatively," Rosenberg says. "Have a tolerance for risk, and try something new. Seek to understand your strengths, not limitations."

Getting grounded

Holly Green, CEO of The Human Factor, says recessions can give competitive people time to breathe. She was twice laid off in 2002, first from a biotech start-up, then The Ken Blanchard Cos. She says she took a low-paying job for 18 months to "build back my emotional stamina," before launching the human resources consulting company. "In tough times, you may have to remain humble and be willing to take a few steps back," Green says.

Steve Carley has been laid off three times. Today he's CEO of El Pollo Loco, a 386-store chicken chain that employs 4,000 people, not including those working at 247 franchise restaurants.

"I wouldn't have this phenomenal opportunity without those layoffs, and would have missed out on one of the most gratifying leadership opportunities of my career," Carley says.

The Vistage survey for USA TODAY found that one-third of the CEOs have laid off employees in the last year, and one-third anticipate even fewer total employees by the end of 2009. Other CEOs interviewed by USA TODAY said that being themselves laid off in the past caused them to look at present layoffs with a different perspective.

"I am sensitive about making sure that any necessary layoff is handled properly in terms of timing, message and communication with those affected and the remaining staff," Bodley says. Still, he says, those at the top must do what's best for the company.

Four years ago, Berman says he laid off Clark Ridge, who has since returned as PharmaCentra's vice president of operations and is a superstar. The layoff proved to be good for Ridge's career, because he gained broader experience, Berman says.

"It's one of the most difficult things I have to do as a business owner," says Jeffrey Menaged, CEO of Chief Executive Air. "When you let someone go, it's a management failure, as well. Still, America is a country filled with freedom and opportunity. How can there be no room for people who want to work?"

READERS: What's the toughest obstacle that you have overcome in the workplace?

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