When the Worst Thing Wasn’t the Worst Thing

It was going to be a rough day. And to be fair, I knew it was coming.

The day before, my boss had called from Houston (where he lived) to let me know the last ditch negotiations to sell our distribution network and inventory to a customer had failed. The bank was pulling the plug. The lawyers would be filing for bankruptcy.

I had taken the position as a VP of Sales several months earlier to hopefully steer the struggling company into a position to be acquired. The chances for success had been slim but I had taken the job for two reasons – to be with my fiancée who was living in Chicago and for the experience I’d gain going through a turnaround process. Either we would be successful in making something of out of nothing or I would learn about what makes a company fail, and hopefully, avoid it in my future endeavors.

I felt bad about what was going to happen but there were so many things leading to the company’s demise. For one, I was driving to an office situated just minutes from Lake Michigan in one of the most expensive communities on Chicago’s north shore. I’m sure the high end auto dealerships that surrounded our building easily had the margins (and clientele) to justify their rent. But our company did not. We made automobile and truck radiators and we sold to regional distribution centers, car parts stores and automobile repair shops.

Secondly, the industry had a crazy multi-tiered sales channel system that was quickly collapsing. Prices weren’t determined on value or supply – simply how many times it changed hands. At each pass through, a mark-up was added. Like much in the auto parts industry at the time, foreign competition had increased. As a last ditch effort the company had moved most of its manufacturing to a maquiladora outside of Texas but that had only slowed the bleeding. Lastly, I had heard stories of the previous executive management’s lavish spending and purchasing habits and a failed attempt to purchase a European competitor. In the end, as in most things, the blame was put on many external conditions but the reality was a slew of poor decisions by the previous management and the bankers supporting them.

I typically had a 90 minute commute. So driving to work that beautiful September day, I had plenty of time to think about the employees in our office who I knew – some who had been with the company for a long time – and what it meant to them. I had laid employees off before – just not in such dire circumstances.

Nearing the office, my thoughts were interrupted by the radio announcing that an errant airliner had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

By the time I arrived at the office, most of the employees were gathered in the conference room and had just watched another plane, Flight 175, crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.  And then we heard about the third and fourth planes at the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. It was obvious that nothing about what we were witnessing was an accident at all. It all occurred in just less than 80 minutes.

While the stories from that day are numerous and well-documented, this is some of what I remember.

Our Warehouse Manager was in a panic. His wife worked downtown in what was then called the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower – though I know almost no one who calls it that). Rumors were circulating that Chicago would be next and surely Sears Tower would be a target. All phone service was jumbled and after several hours, she called to let him know they had been evacuated as a precaution and she was on her way home. Almost everyone was trying to contact someone they knew who lived or was visiting in New York and it was beyond challenging. The internet was not as robust then and information was difficult to come by. I kept refreshing the static CNN web page for any new information. There was none.

Flights were grounded. We lived under O’Hare’s flight path and everything was eerily quiet. It was like the world had just stopped. But it didn’t. While we all watched with sadness and grief as rescue turned to a recovery that seemingly lasted forever with a grieving process that continues to this day.

For us, we started the task of disassembling the company. Selling off the assets and dismissing the employees. By Christmas, there was just one person left to answer the phones.  

Looking back, I started off that morning with the thought it was going to be a difficult day because of the company dissolution. I had ruminated and rehearsed for situations and events that never occurred. And in fact, there was nothing that I could have done to prepare myself for the shock, fear and sadness I experienced that day.

And now, so many years later, this is what I know.

We humans are designed to be resilient. But like a muscle, it takes experience and practice to grow it. The experience of feeling through the pain and disappointment, and the practice of making our way to the other side are what help to make us resilient. As difficult as this can be sometimes, there is no amount of preparation that can replace the actual experience of living through it.

Knowing we can do this again and again – regardless of the circumstances – is what gives us wisdom and the strength to keep trying.