Success After Setback

BY GREG THOMPSON
PHOTOS BY RICH SMITH, LANEWOOD STUDIO, & MED DEMENT

The ability to withstand the heat of a given situation, and become stronger because of that experience, is one of the truest tests of leadership. The business leaders featured here have faced trials that threatened to consume their finances, their passions, and even their own health, but in the midst of flames, they pressed on, refusing to retreat.


 

 

Blake Poole, Chattanooga Airport Authority

Photo by Rich Smith

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Like anyone who’s just landed a dream job, Blake Poole could not wait to begin his work as the Vice President of Economic Development for the Chattanooga Airport Authority. Prior to the appointment he had served with Delta Airlines for 29 years and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for seven years. The new position was the culmination of a long career of experience.

He started in November of 2015, eager to synthesize all he had learned into attracting new business interest to the airport. One of his key roles? Wooing United Airlines to be a new carrier.

Then, unexpectedly, his world fell apart on his very first week on the job. During a routine doctor’s appointment, he reported some swelling in his neck and his doctor ordered further testing. The results revealed an early stage squamous cell carcinoma at the base of his tongue (throat). All the excitement he felt about the next chapter in his career disappeared as his mind rushed to process this devastating news. “When something like that hits, you start thinking about the worst: Is it treatable? Do I have enough insurance? Is my family going to be ok? Have I done enough to provide?” Poole recalls.

Anxiety over his new work situation grew. “It was a dream job for me, but I couldn’t help but think that they might feel they hired some damaged goods.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Chattanooga Airport Authority President Terry Hart and his team refused to see anything other than an employee in need, and were quick to reassure Poole that he had one assignment:  to focus on his health and his recovery. “Terry was more concerned about me than the job,” Poole recalls. “I could feel the positive vibes coming from everyone here and that helped me persevere.”

Poole underwent seven weeks of radiation treatment and three rounds of chemotherapy. Determined to succeed, he made the decision to work as much as he could. Over the summer, he began returning to the office, working half days as he built up his strength. Part of his efforts during that time? Working with officials from United Airlines, who announced in April of this year that it would begin offering nonstop flights from Chattanooga to New York and Chicago.

Today, he is cancer-free and has returned to work full time. He was even strong enough to go on the first inaugural flight in July. Now he says his battle with cancer has renewed his energy for life and work at the airport. “I appreciate my family and my co-workers more.  It was a perfect storm for good results. It makes you want to give more and be the best employee you can.”

Debbie Ledford Melton, Don Ledford Automotive

Photo by Rich Smith

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In the spring of 2009, Debbie Ledford Melton received a letter from the corporate offices of General Motors: the company was restructuring in the wake of the Great Recession, and had identified dealerships throughout the country for closure. It was a death sentence for Don Ledford Automotive – the family dealership where she served as general manager.

Launched by her father, Don Ledford, in 1981, the dealership had become an institution in Cleveland, Tenn., as a seller of the Buick, Cadillac, and GMC brands. Mr. Ledford had devoted his life to growing the business, so for Melton and her family, the letter heralded far more than financial loss. “This was dad’s life and it was being taken away,” she recalls.

Melton knew she couldn’t stand by and watch her dad’s work go down the drain. So she did the only thing she could do: she refused to accept the corporate edict, and began wracking her brain for how to challenge GM’s decision. Soon after she found inspiration in another letter, one in which a woman thanked the dealership for providing her with a vehicle. “She wrote to tell us she was using the car to take her mother to cancer treatments in Nashville,” she recalls. “It really touched me. But more than that it inspired me to go public with our fight. We couldn’t let our customers down. We had to be more vocal. We needed to be able to come together as a community and have GM take notice.”

With assistance from community leaders in Cleveland, Melton and her staff organized a rally that brought out 2,000 people to lobby GM with letters, emails, and YouTube videos. Meanwhile, in a move unrelated to the public rally, Melton submitted a business plan to GM detailing why the dealership should stay afloat, and how they would go about meeting their goals.

Her hard work paid off. When the final decision was made, the Ledford dealership was chosen as one of the few franchises in the country allowed to keep all its brands. What’s more, the dealership earned the Chevrolet brand in 2012 – so it now sells all of GM’s products. “I look back at that time, and at the people God put in our lives, and I can truly say it was a miracle. We tore down mountains that had been put before us,” Melton says. “One of my talents is rallying people together, but this took a team – a whole community to make this happen.”

Sally & Susan Moses, 212 Market Restaurant

Photo by Lanewood Studio

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In 1991, while serving as a maître d’ at a prominent Chattanooga restaurant, Sally Moses overheard a conversation that sounded familiar. A patron was discussing the construction of a downtown restaurant, and questioning the wisdom of opening the venture in an underdeveloped part of town.

Of course, the patron had no idea that Sally, along with her mother, Maggie, were the pioneers behind what would become 212 Market. And the concern was nothing new. A total of eight banks had already been unwilling to finance the restaurant, viewing it as a high-risk venture with only a few months’ shelf life. “Everyone thought we were nuts,” recalls Sally, who now owns the restaurant with her sister, Susan, who serves as head chef. “The Aquarium hadn’t opened yet and there wasn’t much happening downtown. But my mom believed in me. She served as a dietician in the military during World War II, and she raised us to do the best you can. You don’t back down and you don’t give up.”

Determined, Sally had scheduled a meeting with a ninth bank, Sovereign Bank, to once again apply for a loan. That time she was successful, with banker Terry Todd sharing her enthusiasm for the restaurant. The plans moved forward. But when construction began, the team was confronted with more hurdles: the location had previously housed a car dealership, and both a fuel tank and asbestos would have to be removed before work could move forward.

212 Market opened on February 12, 1992, (2-12, in part as a tribute to its name) to glowing reviews and strong public acceptance. Sally’s initial projections called for 170 people to be served a night in the weeks prior to the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium. “Instead, we welcomed upwards of 300 per night,” she recalls, smiling.

Today, 212 is lauded as a cornerstone of Chattanooga’s renaissance and downtown revitalization. “The keys to our success have been consistency, hard work, local food sourcing, a great staff, and more hard work,” explains Sally, who led 212’s effort to become the first Certified Green Restaurant in the State of Tennessee in 2007. “This city is so beautiful, and it’s great to be a part of its creative liveliness. We’re so happy that people wanted to join us in celebrating the river and connecting the parts to make it all work.”

Roger & Cindy Pickett, MurMaid Mattress

Photo by Rich Smith

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When the economic collapse of 2008 caused a steep fall in mattress sales, Roger and Cindy Pickett knew it would require more than great products to provide a soft landing for their company. The owners of Cleveland-based MurMaid Mattress would have to make some smart business moves – and quickly, too, if they were going to keep high inventory levels and low demand from spelling job losses.

“In 2009, our sales were 60% of what they were in 2007, which had been a record year for us,” recalls Roger. “In 2008 and in 2009, we lost so much that, to this day, I still wonder how we’re still here.”

In the midst of their trial, the Picketts were certain of one thing: they were going to do everything they possibly could to protect their employees. Fortunately, the company had always operated debt-free – a legacy Roger inherited from his parents, who founded the company in 1988. Of its $1 million in inventory, 100% was paid for. “That gave us the ability to slow down our purchases and stay in business,” Roger recalls.

In the meantime, while the market recovered, they found some out-of-the-box-spring approaches to utilizing his factory workers. Why not use the economic downtown as an excuse for tackling overdue projects? “When you have as many stores as we did at the time, we had a lot of work available,” Roger says. “We were able to send our guys out to the stores to clean windows and lay new carpet. They painted the inside and outside of the stores. It was work that we had put off because we were busy. But, at that time, we had the luxury of time to do the odd jobs.”

The strategy paid off. MurMaid not only stayed in business, but rebounded with a staff that helped to lead them to another record year in 2011. Today, it is one of the most successful locally based factory-to-showroom mattress companies in the country.

“This was 100% a team effort. I’ve got a tremendous partner in my wife, a terrific plant manager, and great employees,” Roger says. “We’ve had to adapt, but we’re like a family here, especially the core group of employees who have stuck with us through it all.”

Skip & Jim Ireland, COS Business Products and Interiors, Inc.

Photo by Med Dement

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As third-generation owners of COS Business Products and Interiors, Inc. (COS), Skip and Jim Ireland understand just how rapidly an industry can change. The brothers took over the family office supply business in 1983, right as big box retailers like Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max were undergoing explosive growth.

Faced with a market tsunami that would eventually wipe out thousands of office supply companies nationwide, including eight firms locally, the brothers took a radical approach. They decided that it would be better to ride the waves of change than to stand their ground. “When we started out we knew the landscape was shifting, but we also believed there was still a place for us,” Skip says. “We identified that our number one asset was flexibility – the ability to say yes when our competitors wouldn’t or couldn’t. That has served us very well.”

Unlike many of their competitors, COS did not attempt to compete with the national chains. Instead, its leadership team began asking how the business could play to its strengths. What could COS provide that big box stores couldn’t? What would make customers value its service? That approach translated to suites of specialized solutions, which could be adapted based on the customer’s needs.

Today, COS enjoys a customer retention rate of more than 90%, due in large part to maintaining its focus on finding effective solutions. Embracing technology has also worked to the company’s advantage, as 75 to 85% of the orders placed to COS arrive via the company’s website.

Skip says part of their drive to succeed came from knowing the odds were against them.

Research shows less than one-third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership. Another 50% don’t survive the transition from second to third generation. “My brother and I made it our mantra that that wasn’t going to be us,” Skip says. “A willingness to change has become a critical component of our DNA, a differentiator for us. We developed a culture that said, ‘It doesn’t matter what we did yesterday. What is the right thing to do tomorrow?”

Peter Hurley, American Bicycle Group

Photo by Rich Smith

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In 2002, Peter Hurley was enjoying a successful career as an investment banker when he suffered a heart attack that nearly took his life. Following a quadruple bypass surgery, he knew it was time to place his life on a different track. He got serious about exercise and eventually developed a passion for cycling.

Fast-forward to 2006, when Hurley was contacted by a former merger-and-acquisition colleague. The colleague said he was seeking a buyer for the American Bicycle Group (ABG). Would Peter be interested in purchasing it?

Hurley was intrigued. ABG could be the vehicle for another life change – a chance to merge his passion for cycling with his business career. But there was just one problem. “Financially, the company was an absolute mess. It was hemorrhaging a lot of money. I was hesitant to invest because I knew my stress levels could go off the charts,” he recalls.

Unwilling to compromise his health and well-being, he prepared to decline the offer. Then, his fortune changed when a private equity group agreed to join him in the venture. “They were willing to put up a fair amount of money to go alongside of me, so that reduced my overall risk,” he recalls. “It was the only reason I did it.” He bought the company and moved from the Northeast to Chattanooga in 2007.

While the timing of his investment coincided perfectly with his growing involvement in triathlon, it didn’t come at a great time for the market. When the Great Recession arrived in 2008, Hurley’s private equity partners withdrew from the company. He was left with the ultimate business challenge, and once again, his stressful career threated to put his health at risk.

This time, though, he approached the challenge differently having learned life lessons through endurance sports. He moved forward in determination, drawing on his experience as a triathlete.  “Once you enter into the world of triathlon, you learn daily how you can achieve your goals and work through your fear of failure. When you find yourself in the middle of the Tennessee River, gasping for breath, you settle down and continue to stroke.”

In the years that followed, he confidently navigated the company through its financial difficulties, confronting each challenge like another hill to climb, or mile to swim. Today, profitability is up and the company, which manufactures high-end titanium and carbon fiber bikes, is an IRONMAN partner. The company even helped bring the IRONMAN series to Chattanooga, and it recently moved to a new production facility just off Amnicola Highway.

Meanwhile, Hurley himself has become a veteran triathlon competitor, and has now competed in 40 events across the world. “I would say that triathlons have made me a better businessperson, a better boss, and a better husband.”