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Posted: February 01, 2010

Tough Times Help Us Succeed in the Long Term: A Conversation with Keith McFarland

Association for Corporate Growth Special Section

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Keith McFarland

BY JENNIFER SHERMER

I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with New York Times bestselling author and business strategist Keith McFarland, one of three keynote speakers slated for ACG's March conference.

I wanted to tap into his deep insight and experience into surviving tough economic times and get his thoughts on how he has used those tough times to succeed in the long term. He shared his views on surviving the current economy, positioning our businesses to prosper as we emerge from this recession, and the lessons we can take away from it all. Below are highlights of our conversation.

On revamping a business after an economic catastrophe:
While serving as chairman and chief executive officer of telecommunications company Collectech Systems Inc., McFarland faced significant challenges after a major client closed its doors. Faced with the possibility that Collectech may not survive the loss, McFarland focused on "what really mattered," the core focus of the business. By concentrating on Collectech's core service offering, McFarland was able to solve a number of challenges for major telecom industry players and accelerate its technology development. As a result, Collectech's sales grew from $10 million to $150 million through new client contracts.
McFarland's latest book, "Bounce," showcases what he learned as he studied top-performing companies experiencing tremendous challenges that almost put them out of business. "What they learned during the tough times taught them how to be successful and build truly great companies," McFarland says.

On growing a company in an extraordinary manner:
McFarland's "The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers" has topped the bestseller lists for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The book analyzes the financial performance of 7,000 growth companies over a 24-year period and studies their growth and growth strategy.
"Nothing is more valuable than studying the success of others," McFarland says. By studying the core characteristics of businesses, we better understand the reasons some businesses break through and some don't.
McFarland credits his role model, Peter Drucker, as his inspiration for writing "The Breakthrough Company." McFarland did his doctoral coursework with Drucker and once commented to Drucker that "There are no books on how to run a growth company."
Drucker suggested McFarland write one. The result was "The Breakthrough Company," which Steve Forbes, president and CEO and editor-in-chief of Forbes, says "has the makings of a classic." McFarland successfully tackles the ever-present question for ambitious entrepreneurs: "Just how do you go from small to big - and prosper?"

On lessons learned during tough times:
The lessons McFarland has learned through analysis and experience of tough economic times will influence how he advises company leaders at the Rocky Mountain Corporate Growth conference and elsewhere.
McFarland acknowledges the economic situation seems scary now. He recalls the 1982 economic situation when the unemployment rate was high and things looked bleak. This recession is not different, just deeper, McFarland says, and there are three things to keep in mind:
• We will come out of this situation.
• Interesting things happen during a recession, such as a reshuffling of the top players in the economy. Be aware and ready.
• Competitors hunker down, and now is the time to take advantage of the current situation by acquiring plants and equipment, as well as key employees, at drastically reduced rates.

Jennifer Shermer is a freelance writer and marketing communications professional.

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