“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra.
If you told me 18 months ago that the fork in the road I would take would have me leading a company through a global pandemic and economic crisis, I would have asked you to help me find a different path. But with hindsight, I can honestly say that I would not have done anything differently.
In the spring of 2019, after a 35-year career in equipment finance, I found myself staring at a fork in the road. I chose a path that felt like the perfect match for me — the perfect capstone to my career — a 50-year-old, stable company with a great group of people, in a great business, owned by a great bank, that was looking for someone to take over the reins from the retiring founder.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to assume the role of president and CEO of Macrolease Corporation, an equipment finance company owned by Bank Rhode Island. What made this even more enticing is the company specialized in financing equipment to the fitness and wellness industry, in which I was an avid participant and a passionate believer.
Macrolease was founded in 1969 and its founder ran the company for 50 years. Joining an existing company and replacing the founder is never an easy thing to do. It’s even more difficult when that founder was revered and involved in every aspect of the business, which had a core group of employees who had worked there for decades, following an established culture, process, hierarchy and workflow. I was the new guy who had to replace the legend and win the respect and confidence of the team while learning and growing the business and building relationships with employees, customers, partners and vendors.
When I joined the company, the market for fitness and the Macrolease portfolio had been growing consistently for years. Even though my initial goal was to “do no harm,” some things needed to change. We had to employ new technology, vertically expand into new markets and establish new structures and organization.
It took me a few weeks to get acclimated, but soon I began carefully putting my leadership values, work ethic, company culture, organization structure and sales strategy into action. Not all of these changes were well received initially. But by continuing to work at it, carefully explaining what I was doing and why and listening to others and understanding that I didn’t always know best, I slowly started shaping the company toward my vision. More importantly, I was building trust with core employees. By the end of 2019, I felt that I was starting to put my stamp on Macrolease. We achieved our best year ever and ended it with tremendous energy and enthusiasm.
Preparing for the Worst
The first month and a half of 2020 was a continuation of the prior year in terms of my growth as CEO and the opportunities in the market. By the end February, however, the narrative quickly changed. COVID-19 was in the U.S. and we were learning how it might impact our health, our families’ health and our business. While we all hoped for the best, we needed to prepare for the worst. When February turned to March, we knew that we were facing a big problem as gyms around the country were starting to close, first out of an abundance of caution and then by state mandate.
While no one knew how long these lockdowns would last, I knew that my objectives had immediately changed. I was no longer the CEO of a growing and expanding company. I no longer had the luxury of learning the business and expanding our markets. My mission now was clear and singularly focused: preserve and protect by helping our customers through the crisis while mitigating damage to our portfolio and providing our bank parent with timely and accurate reporting. I had to decisively pivot and put an action plan in place that was equal to the task ahead.
We assembled a crisis management task force made up of some of the best and most hardworking people in the company to deal with the expected turmoil that our customers would be facing. We quickly got everyone in the company remote access, and on March 17, a little more than seven months into my term as CEO, we closed the office and sent everyone home to work remotely.
Then the tsunami hit. From mid-March through the end of April, the crisis management task force dealt with a constant and overwhelming barrage of loan and lease modification requests. It was non-stop for weeks, as the vast majority of our customer base was closed for business. At its height, more than 70% of our portfolio was on some form of modification. The task force members worked nights and weekends to accommodate all of the requests that came in. None of the initial requests for modification were turned down, as most customers were granted a 90-day payment deferral.
Finding Motivation & Inspiration
While all of this was going on, I still had to keep the company together. I had to make sure that we all remained motivated, engaged and inspired. This was particularly difficult with sales team members, who were seeing their opportunities to close new business reduced by the day. Everyone in the company was watching the news and knew how tragic and difficult the situation was becoming for our customers and the nation as a whole. I had to remain as upbeat as possible so this group that was still in the process of accepting me as their leader would remain together, would remain motivated and would continue to work toward our mutual goals.
With everyone working remotely, the feeling of “team” was difficult to maintain. We started having frequent Zoom meetings so that we could all see each other and feel connected. Every Monday morning, I provided details of our crisis management task force’s work, showing the number of customers on modification and how we were responding to the ongoing requests for help. It was important to me that everyone in the company felt connected to the challenge in front of us. I started a practice of ending every Zoom meeting with an inspirational quote and video clip to keep the motivation and spirit of the team up. In every case, the goal was to tie the clip or quote into our business and our lives and to end each meeting on an upbeat and inspiring note.
As spring turned to summer and the infection rates in New York declined, we reopened the office on a modified basis. Being together again, even on a reduced basis, was a great feeling and we slowly started to feel that some semblance of normalcy was returning. While businesses around the country were starting to reopen, on a state-by-state basis, many in the fitness industry remained closed.
Our crisis management task force was not able to slow down. First modifications turned into second modifications. Seconds turned into thirds. New business remained scarce. But some very hopeful signs started to emerge slowly. By late fall, the majority of our customers returned to full payment and by year end, we reduced the 70% modification number down to 10%. Our charge-offs have been negligible. It took an incredible effort by an amazing group of people to avoid what could have been catastrophic. But this crisis is far from over. The hard work and the challenges continue. We remain, for all intents and purposes, in crisis management mode.
It’s hard to imagine that I have spent most of my time as CEO of this company working through a crisis. Managing a crisis management task force and preventing losses is not nearly as much fun as growing a business. It can, however, be just as rewarding, if not more. Through adversity I learned more about the people in this company in a shorter amount of time than I ever would have otherwise. I learned more about myself and my ability to keep a team together and motivated than I could ever possibly imagine. And I learned more about the wisdom, patience and steadfast leadership of my parent banks, Bank Rhode Island and Brookline Bancorp, than I could have over a dozen years of working with them. I cannot overstate how important their support and calm leadership was in helping me lead through the year.
I have been frequently apologized to by senior executives of our parent banks who say, “I know this is not what you signed up for” and suggest that maybe I chose the wrong path. Maybe that fork in the road sent me in the wrong direction. Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, I signed up to grow a business. But I also signed up to motivate, inspire and lead a group of people; to make measured and thoughtful decisions; to protect the assets of the bank; and to help small businesses around the country. In that regard, this is exactly what I signed up for. With full hindsight, I clearly chose the right path, and I would do it all again.
Paul Vecker is president and CEO of Macrolease.
2 Replies to “2020 Hindsight: The Rewards of Crisis Management”
Great article, Paul. Talk about a trial under fire. I expect the experience helped build a stronger team. There are so many examples of this crisis causing permanent changes to the way we do business. It will have a lasting effect.
2020 challenged us all! You certainly chose the right fork! Way to go Paul!