Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 30, 2013

Harley Luplow: Avoid business ER with these steps

Harley Luplow
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — In 2012 I was invited to serve as a hired gun for the largest small business consulting firm in North America. As a Senior Business Consultant I was typically deployed with less than 24 hours notice to respond to businesses that were in distress. These companies needed an emergency room doctor’s approach as people’s jobs were at stake and it was my responsibility to save them.

Consulting to a firm in distress is a very different role than that of a traditional consultant. Prior to this I had practiced law and held CFO- and director-level positions in public and private companies. Five of my last six jobs were offered to me following long-term consulting projects, but none of these assignments required the intensity of effort necessary to turnaround a distressed company.

Over a seven-month period I was deployed to thirteen companies, with eight of the companies having enough life remaining in them to be resuscitated. Of the eight surviving patients, five were full turnaround efforts and three were specialty cases involving sales of businesses and inventory financing.

What is most interesting to me is the way in which these distressed companies were initially engaged as clients: a simple cold call to see if the business owner was interested in learning how their business compared to industry averages. Imagine business owners receiving a random call that turns their business around! Most clients believed it was fate or good luck that I was there to help them … not the best strategic plan.

Looking back at the impact I was able to have on these companies, I see that with a few good ideas and a willing client team some pretty dramatic results were achieved. For example, one of my early clients believed that he needed to lay off staff immediately and perhaps close the business within a few months. Two weeks later he added four full-time positions, had booked more business than ever experienced before, and we started to plan for an expansion of his facilities.

Emergency room care is expensive, and so are turnaround consultants. Billing north of three thousand dollars a day gets a client’s attention and required me to constantly provide value. Projects generally ran two to three weeks and I delivered more than three times ROI on my fees on an annual and ongoing basis.

I found it personally rewarding to be able to have such a profound effect on a business in such a short time, especially when jobs were saved and owner’s felt in control of their future.

It was a lot of fun for me to jump into the arena with the client team and help them find their way back to a sustainable profit. Although each client was in a different industry (food retailer, construction firm, auto repair shop, HVAC contractor, and a high-precision machining shop) the approach was the same: Address in a triage setting with the client team key issues in every business’s core elements -- sales, operations and finance; and the solution set will reveal itself. Then, prioritize efforts based on bottom line impact and available resources and it is really just project management after that point.

As much I enjoyed feeling like a superhero, I look back and find that the lesson learned for me as a turnaround consultant is that a business is much like a human being in that it needs to be examined periodically to understand the state of its health. All-in-all I would prefer to have a set of local client companies and be viewed as their family doctor looking out for the health of their businesses rather than be a do-or-die specialist flown in at the last minute to see if I can save the patient.

Like working with your family doctor, a trusted consultant can perform the right diagnostics and suggest small changes to keep a business on track and out of the ER – exciting as that may be for some.

Business consultant Harley Luplow of Harbor Springs earned a law degree from Indiana University and a master’s in business administration from Georgetown University. Luplow can be reached at (231) 709-9000 or