I’ve spent the last 30 years of my career in industry and the last 22 in heavy industry. I started with a company that owned a chain of convenience stores and a bulk oil and lube distribution division. I started at their headquarters in Denver, CO and eventually moved to Casper, WY where they consolidated operations. All along the way, you pick up lessons. Some of them are life lessons, some will impact your career, some will result in better business decisions. For instance, did you know that a convenience store doesn’t make a lot of margin on gasoline? The high-margin products are INSIDE the store. I wish I had paid more attention during those early years in the marketing design and setup of stores. EVERYTHING was intentional.
While I was with this company, they went through a bankruptcy. It was a chapter eleven, reorganization, vs. a chapter seven, liquidation and gave me an insider’s perspective of what it took to lead a company through a VERY challenging time, satisfying the bankruptcy trustee and courts, and making vendors / suppliers whole. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Donovan Quam who was the CFO for the company at the time. It really was his job to make the recovery happen.
When I left, I went to work for a company that owned several coal properties in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. As you can imagine, mining coal isn’t very popular, but 100% necessary given our current electric grid infrastructure. At the same time, I knew how much effort goes into environmental compliance and I was always very proud of the scientific evidence that could demonstrate disturbed land was more productive after mining and reclamation than before it was disturbed.
It was in this role where I discovered how important safety is in heavy industry. I can assure you of this: everyone takes it personally when someone gets hurt at work. It’s a serious matter and I can’t think of a single soul who dismisses injury or death with a flippant “it’s a cost of doing business.” I would say it’s just the opposite: it’s intolerable that in 2018, someone could still be killed at work.
During my time there, two different tragedies struck that are extremely vivid to me. First, on October 17, 1997, Carol and Matthew Wallace were killed in a car accident on the way to a basketball game. I can still recall the “punch in the gut” feeling knowing that Bill Wallace, Operations Manager at Jacobs Ranch Mine, where I worked at the time, had just lost his wife and oldest son. It tore the company up. This was family. It was an extremely difficult time.
The second tragedy occurred on June 29th of 2002. Dean Dvorak, who was the CEO for Kennecott Energy, was killed in an automobile accident in South Dakota. I can still remember my boss, Richard Legg, calling me and giving me the news. In this instance, I felt robbed. My memory of Dean was that he was the kind of leader people would want to be around: smart, hard-working, effective. What made him so compelling was that he genuinely cared for people. I wanted to learn from him but didn’t get to.
From there, I went to a company that mines copper in Utah. But more than just mining copper, they also produced several by-products: lead, selenium, sulfuric acid, and my personal favorite: molybdenum! I spent seven years as a sales manager for molybdenum and I love the people connected with steel production. You will have to trust me on this: it’s amazing.
While working here, there were two different incidents where people were killed on property in the course of their work. I’ll spare you the details but we wore the deaths of Albert Lozano and William Kay each and every day as reminders of what can happen when any of us lose focus.
The most massive disaster I’ve ever been around was the Manefay landslide that happened on April 10, 2013, at the Bingham Canyon Mine. It was the largest landslide in a mine in the history of open-pit mining. It would take way too long to describe the devastating affects of the landslide on the business. From lost equipment, to lost productivity, to loss of sales due to reduced production, it quite easily could have caused the end of Kennecott Utah Copper which has been in operation since 1903.
The general manager at that time was Kelly Sanders. And he hadn’t been in the role for very long when the landslide occurred. If events like these fascinate you, I highly recommend the book written by my friend, Brad Ross, called Rise to the Occasion. It’s a compelling story of the events pre- and post-landslide that gives you some insight into how Kennecott recovered. So here’s the thing. Kelly did a great job rallying employees around the recovery. No question that his leadership during this time was essential to the business not shutting down.
What we often miss is those less visible leaders who took on massive amounts of work and contributed to the recovery, toiling in obscurity. Don’t fall into the temptation to believe that only the CEO carries the burden in these moments; that’s hardly the case. Everyone must prepare for a crisis. Here are some of Brad’s key points for managing through a crisis:
- understanding, measuring, and acting on the greatest risks facing the organization
- creating a culture, based on communication, that inspires dedication, trust, and success
- putting on the “black hat” to challenge the thinking that can blind an organization
- setting “impossible” goals that will not only be met but exceeded
- breaking down silos to improve teamwork and solve problems
- reducing bureaucracy and empowering people to increase innovation and expedite solutions
- using independent experts to provide different points of view and audit the processes
You my friend, could be a hair’s breadth from having to make a significant contribution during one of these disastrous events.
My cousin, Greg Slemons, has a degree in chemical engineering and works for a company in Texas that produces all kinds of products that we all use every day: products like vinyls, olefins, and polyethylene. You might think I’m speaking a foreign language right now, but these petrochemical products are all building blocks for the things we use everyday, like bakery bags or plastic wrap for your food items, siding for your home, PVC pipe for your sprinkler system, the plastics for the interior of your car, etc… The point is that the process for producing these items that sustain life as we know it, the process itself can be very dangerous.
Unfortunately, while safety is a priority for most companies, for a number of reasons, preventable disasters still occur and people are killed at work. It should never happen and I know a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to making sure it doesn’t happen again. So when I saw the email that I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, I knew it was essential that I share the content. In that email was a picture of a printout of eight questions that Chevron uses after a disaster to direct effort and focus. I’m sharing them here with you in hopes that you will never have to use them, but also to give you something that you can refer to if the unthinkable ever happens to you while in your leadership role:
- Are the people okay?
- Is the facility safe, secure, and stable?
- Tell me what happened?
- What led up to this event?
- What worked well and what did not work?
- Where else could this happen?
- What else do I need to know about this event?
- What resources to you need from me?
I won’t belabor the point. If you will collect and practice resources like these, it will be much easier to respond when something you never imagine happens. It is better for you to consider your response in these situations rather than trying to “figure it out” once something like I’ve described happens. Plan and prepare – it’s your job as a leader.
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