Monday, December 29, 2003

Troubles? He has answers

Daily Grind

If you ever saw James R. Sargeant slide his 1989 silver Olds Toronado with the hide-away headlights into a slot in your company's parking lot back in the early 1990s, that was probably was not such a good thing.

Sargeant, a former Batavia resident and Kroger Co. executive, was - and remains - a turn-around specialist for troubled companies.

So if he was striding through the front doors, it could only mean executives were worried, confused, desperate, paralyzed or, perhaps, two or more or all of the above.

"There are fundamental problems with companies that are in trouble, and you've got to solve those problems first," says Sargeant, now a resident of Venice, Fla., and author of Last Rites or Turnaround? (Arges Publishing: $19.95).

"When a company doesn't have the money to pay suppliers, taxes, the bank and everyone else, 43 years of experience taught me that at least one of the 10 fundamental questions has to be solved."

The 68-year-old Sargeant is a Clyde, Ohio, native who studied at Ohio State and began his career as an industrial engineer, then plant manager and finally trouble-shooter for Westinghouse; General Dynamics Corp.; TWA; Bendix Engineering; and Kroger Co.

He left Kroger for Arthur Young and Co. before heading out on his own into the world of consulting, assisting more than 100 companies in ensuing years.

While there are not many common themes between troubled companies - whether large or small - Sargeant says there a few.

"A lot of well-run companies at some time in their evolvement will run into a problem they have never run into before," he says. "Maybe it's a bad recession in their sector.

"Management may be very skilled in marketing, finance and day-to-day operations but they've never faced a real recession. The problem is they freeze up. They don't know what to do. At that point, they need objective expertise."

He has condensed his decades of trouble-shooting into 10 chapters, among them: Where are the leaders; dueling partners; managing by committee; can't see the strengths for the weaknesses; companies as personal piggybanks and no gas for growth.

What is the most important division? Sales because nothing happens without sales? Leadership because a ship without a leader goes in circles? Or cash because cash is king?

Sargeant paused, then made his pick: accounting.

"You have to know about your numbers," he says. "It's that simple. Numbers are a way of measuring your results. You might be making money, but if you don't know what the numbers are, you have no way of knowing."

Despite the ominous title of the book, Sargeant claims it's an optimistic look.

"The book is about turnarounds, start-ups and expansions," he said. "Is the business still viable? That is really the first question everybody has to ask."


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