Monday, July 27, 2009

Bob Lear: Something He Never Forgot

Here we go again, unfortunately — a tribute to another distinguished Directors & Boards author who has passed on. Robert Lear, a former chairman and CEO of the F&M Schaefer Co., died on July 9.

When I first published Bob in 1984 he had retired from the big beer brewer and was an active director at such companies as Church & Dwight Co., Clevepak Corp., St. Regis Corp., and Turner Construction Co., among others. He was an early thinker on how boards should be "value added."

We reconnected in 1996 on another article, this one on how to be a successful leader of a highly leveraged company. Almost 80 years old then, he was still keeping his hand in as executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School and a board member of Welsh Carson Anderson & Stowe, a private equity firm.

Perhaps even more pertinent now as when he made them in our pages 13 years ago, here are three of Bob's pointers on necessary elements for succeeding at a turnaround:

On who to hire to lead the turnaround: "You want somebody who has had experience with trouble. Some companies really haven't had a lot of trouble. Someone who might have gone through life working for IBM in the old days didn't have any trouble. They had access to a lot of money, research departments, marketing departments. What you need in the [leveraged] environment is somebody who's had a record of making his own way, overcoming problems, and meeting formidable challenges."

On what to look for in a turnaround leader: "On measure that is hard to anticipate in hiring someone is the amount of courage that person has. You can look back at his track record and that is helpful. But you can't really know whether someone is going to have the courage and the conviction to make the hard decisions, to make the big cuts, to seal the deals that have to be sealed, to take the chances that have to be taken to avoid catastrophe. You just don't know until he's done it."

On the role of the board: "In your darkest hours running a turnaround situation, you need the support of the board. You need someone to talk to, someone to back you up and give you support when you need it. When I was recruited to run F.M. Schaefer in a turnaround, the board was a weak board. They were friends of the Schaefer family and were all beholden to the company. I had no one to talk to. I had to change the board to get the support that I needed. I've never forgotten that."

We won't forget Bob Lear here at Directors & Boards, and I know that over his long career he touched so many lives and passed on so much wisdom in his corporate and academic commitments. His name will endure at Columbia, where he has a classroom named in his honor along with an endowed professorship. His wisdom will endure here in the Directors & Boards archives.