Confessions of a born-again CEO

By Cindy Minon

Cindy Minon learned to “let go and let God”—and let the employees of her father's auto-glass company in Phoenix use their God-given talents.

Soon after Minon took control of her father's business in 1991, the auto-glass industry underwent a major upheaval. Independent, family owned glass companies were driven out of business across the country. Under pressure, Minon hunkered down and guided JC's Glass through the turmoil. Those years of stress led to changes in her personal life—and a new vision of herself as a leader and manager of people. She tells the story in a new book excerpted here, The CEO Chronicles: Lessons from the Top About Inspiration and Leadership by Glenn Rifkin and Douglas Matthews.

My father founded JC's Glass in 1969. I joined the company in 1980 as a sales rep and worked my way up through the sales and marketing side. I became president in 1991, and my father retired the following year. Little did I know that the company and the industry would soon get swept up in a maelstrom of change that would turn the next three years into a living nightmare.

At that time, the U.S. glass industry consisted mainly of small, independent, family owned and operated companies. In the early '80s, one of the larger independents went to the insurance industry—which provided the bulk of our business—and asked, “If we could do one thing to make things easier for you, what would that be?” The insurance industry replied, “Give us one price and one phone number to call anywhere in the United States.” In 1991, that company instituted a one-price, one-phone-number program for its insurance customers and forever changed our industry.

Our largest insurance customer immediately stopped doing business with us, mandating that all their agents use our competitor, with no exceptions. Overnight, we lost $1 million in sales. Soon after, the other large insurance companies told all the independent glass companies, “If you don't want us to do the same thing, reduce your prices by 25 percent.” So even though our margins had already been squeezed to the breaking point, we had to drastically cut prices. Many good companies were knocked out of business by this one-two punch.

In early 1992, while still getting my feet wet in my new role, JC's Glass began taking on water faster than the Titanic. Instead of focusing on “big-picture” CEO-type issues, I had to direct all my energy and attention to bailing water, but no matter how quickly I bailed the water continued to rise. As a company, we worked so hard to stay afloat that we didn't have time to fix the holes in the boat. After a while, it seemed like we forgot how to fix them. We kept sinking.

I have to admit that much of the problem stemmed from my lack of experience as chief executive. Having lost our largest customer, I should have hit the streets trying to find new ones. Instead, I let myself get stuck dealing with operational problems, soothing upset customers, and struggling to maintain a positive cash flow.

To make matters worse, my father hadn't completely left the business. Whenever I made a decision, everyone would gather around him and ask, “What do you think, Joe?” He wasn't deliberately trying to undermine my authority, but because he'd been the company's leader for so many years, people naturally looked to him for direction first. So in addition to the industry turning upside down, we were also caught in the transition between my father's exit and my taking over, which didn't help matters at all.

Feeling more stressed than at any time in my life, I began to have second thoughts about what I had taken on. I remember feeling angry at and resentful of my father, even though I knew the situation wasn't his fault. I often wondered, “If you were going to give this business to me, why did you do it now?”

On top of that, I absolutely dreaded the idea of failure. My father had created a successful business and provided good jobs for a lot of people, and—thanks to my inexperience—it was going full-speed down the tubes. To add to the pressure, my parents had invested their full retirement in JC's Glass. If I failed, I not only lost the company, I lost their retirement as well. Many times, I fantasized about walking away and getting a job with another company. I had plenty of offers and could have easily earned six figures, but that wouldn't have been enough to support my parents and me in the lifestyle we desired. I also didn't think I could live with the failure.

You learn a lot about yourself in these kinds of high-pressure situations. I learned that I handle stress by becoming more authoritarian, which didn't score a lot of points with my employees. It also put further strain on my relationship with my father, but I wasn't going to let anyone or anything get in my way. Like the NASA chief in the movie “Apollo 13,” I adopted the motto, “Not on my watch.” That bull-headed determination kept me going when I wanted to throw in the towel, but it also made me dictatorial. I micromanaged everything, which totally destroyed company morale. I became nearly impossible to work with, and we lost a lot of good people. Out of 50 employees from that period, only three still work for JC's Glass.

I realize now that those people had every right to leave, because I was a poor manager and a lousy CEO. I failed to create any sense of vision or mission that might have rallied the troops and pulled us together as a team. Worse, I never told my employees the full truth about the situation. They eventually found out when I had to lay off nearly half my staff, and rest assured, that is not the preferred method of finding out the company has hit rock bottom. By putting my needs above theirs, I did them a terrible disservice.

By 1995, we finally began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I hired a wonderful general manager, the industry began to settle down, and we learned how to play the game and work around the glass networks. I brought in some highly motivated sales people who helped the company start moving forward again. Exhausted and burned out, I felt a strong need to bring more balance into my life, which I had put on hold for four long years.

In particular, I hungered for a renewed sense of spirit and personal purpose, so I started going back to church and became involved in its program for teens. There, I found a wonderful community and a purpose in life beyond the business. Most important, I learned to “let go and let God,” meaning I no longer took responsibility for everything that happened in the world.

Once I started letting go and letting God, I became a new person at the company. I still worked as hard as ever, but I began to work a lot smarter. I began to see God in every person, meaning I could finally recognize that everyone had unique talents and abilities. If I let people express those talents, they could take a lot of the load off my shoulders. I learned to focus more on my employees and less on the business itself. My new philosophy became, “I'm not a good CEO unless I'm helping you become a better person.” I let go of all the micromanaging and began to use my talents as a visionary and motivator. I felt like a “born-again CEO.”

In 1995 we showed a profit for the first time in three years. Employee morale zoomed back up, and I had great plans for 1996. But just as the old excitement began to come back, the cancerous morale of 1991 started to take hold again. I felt like I was doing all the right things, but my employees began turning on me once again. I discovered later that a few bad apples—people I had previously looked upon as leaders—were actually ruining morale. Consequently, my stress level soared, and I despaired of ever getting the company back to where I wanted it to be. I had fought and fought to turn the company around, and now I saw it slipping away once again.

After watching morale spin out of control during our busiest month of the year, I threw up my hands in surrender. I sought refuge in a tiny chapel on the outskirts of Phoenix and spent the afternoon praying, meditating, and asking God for guidance. In the end, I completely and absolutely surrendered. I said, “Okay, God. It's all yours: If you want me to file for bankruptcy, that's what I'll do. I will live with the pressure of failure, and I'll work things out with my parents. But I just can't do this anymore.”

When I left the chapel, I felt a deep sense of inner peace, like the weight of the world had been taken off my shoulders. I placed the outcome entirely in God's hand, but, more importantly, I knew that I could live with the outcome, whatever it might be. If I had to close down the company, so be it. But I would not let this cancer ruin my life again.

Two weeks later, on August 14, 1996, a freak storm with 125-m.p.h. winds ripped through the west side of town. To this day, meteorologists can't explain where the storm came from or why. The winds caused tremendous damage, hurling massive objects through windows. Amazingly, nobody was hurt or killed. You had to have seen the damage to fully realize the extent of that miracle.

No sooner had the winds died down than our phone began to ring off the hook. We immediately shifted into overdrive, working around the clock for weeks on end, but something had changed. Now we had a vision and a cause, and we all pulled together as a team to get things done. It was like God had said, “Okay, Cindy. I'm going to put you back on track and boost the morale.” I honestly believe that windstorm was His way of answering my prayers, because it started a momentum at JC's Glass that hasn't let up since. Morale has skyrocketed, and we have grown at 35 percent a year for the past three years. I finally feel as if we have the company back on track.

Aside from saving the business, the most important outcome of the crisis is my spiritual renewal as a person and a business leader. I now realize that the success of JC's Glass depends not on me but on how I manage my people and allow them to use their God-given talents. I still have my impatient, type-A personality, and I still suffer the occasional lapse where I want to micromanage everything, but fortunately those moments of weakness come fewer and farther between. When I catch myself in dictator mode, I remind myself of my commitment to be more visionary and less hands-on. My job today is to worry about what will happen with JC's Glass in 2005 or 2010, not what will happen next Tuesday.

I'm very proud of the fact that JC's Glass survived all the turmoil. I take even more pride in the fact that I realized that I can't run the company as a one-woman show. I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had kept trying to force things my way, I would have taken the company down and had to file for bankruptcy. I learned the hard way, but now I feel I have earned the titles of president and CEO.

Today, I actually have a life outside the company. I'm 40 years old, have no children, and have never been married, but who knows what the future holds? My involvement with the teen group at church is very fulfilling and enriching (it even led me to meeting the Pope in Rome), and I have a sense of inner peace that I never dreamed possible. All because I let go and let God.

 

Excerpted with permission from The CEO Chronicles: Lessons from the Top About Inspiration and Leadership by Glenn Rifkin and Douglas Matthews, in which Cindy Minon and several other family CEOs recount their experiences as leaders. Published by Knowledge Exchange. Copyright �(c) 1999 Knowledge Exchange.

 

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Winter 2000

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