Focusing on what’s important

Turnaround expert applies business lessons
to succeeding in life

As Published in The Marketplace magazine

For all his business adventures, Greg Brenneman thinks of personal relationships when asked about his biggest regret.

“In life, my biggest failure was probably not doubling down on my faith (earlier),” Brenneman told MEDA’s annual convention in Indianapolis.Greg Brenneman book signingGreg Brenneman signs copies of his best-selling book

Brenneman, executive chair of private equity firm CCMP Capital, is a leading business turnaround expert. He has served in senior roles at prominent US businesses, including Burger King, PWC Consulting and Continental Airlines.

A Hesston, Kan. native, he wrote the best-selling book, Right Away & All At Once: Five Steps to Transform Your Business and Enrich Your Life.

Asked to reflect on failure, Brenneman confessed that he wishes that his heart had been fully interested in Christian work 10-15 years earlier than when he committed to that purpose.

After leaving Burger King 12 years ago, he was feeling unfulfilled and wondered if success in writing one-page plans to turn around a company meant he could do the same for his personal life. When he wrote a one-page plan to turn around his life, he found that it worked.

“I actually got much closer to God, I became a better Dad, a better husband, and I thought: this could probably be useful to people.”

He now evaluates decisions according to how they fit into one of five categories: faith, family, friendship, fitness and finance. Sticking with that list will help people do well, he said.

His book grew out of an article for the Harvard Business Review about his most famous turnaround, Continental Airlines.

The carrier was a widely reviled, money-losing service when he arrived: worst ranked in on-time flights, baggage handling and customer complaints.

During his time at Continental, the carrier went from a $650 million loss to a $770 million profit in three years. It reached 18th on Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 places to work, became number one in on-time performance and won the JD Power award as best airline for many years.

After the Harvard Business Review article became a best seller, he received multiple requests to write a book. He eventually agreed, on condition that he could write about steps to turnaround a life in addition to his formula to turnaround a company.

Success in business or life includes following simple rules, including staying focused and reflecting on what is truly important, he said.

He encourages businesses to build a fortress balance sheet, have plenty of cash on hand, and match debt maturity to assets.

In life, people should choose freedom by figuring out how much they need to live and giving the rest away. “Money can either be a faithful servant or a relentless master.”

Business success comes from focusing on how to generate revenue, not cutting costs, he said. Many businesses that get into trouble take the latter approach, not realizing that “you can actually make an airline so crappy that nobody wants to fly it.”

Sometimes businesses need to make radical changes to their staffing to succeed, he said. At Continental Airlines, Brenneman inherited 60 officers, 51 of whom he had to dismiss. “It’s really hard to dig a company out of the ditch with the same people who put it in the ditch. It just rarely happens.”

It is important to treat the people you fire with dignity and respect, both for them and the people who watch them leave, he said.

People need to be aware of Eeyores — the melancholy donkey from the Winnie the Pooh stories — in their lives and minimize the time spent with them, he said. “You have to stay focused on people who can help you deliver on what God has called you to achieve and do.” ◆

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