Interview with Eugene Rembor in the Turnaround Management Journal

Rembor & Partners was founded 1891 by Eugene Rembor, a farmer and retail merchant. Rembor wanted to offer his „colonial goods“ more competitively, so he advised merchant navy captains on how to negotiate better purchasing prices with their overseas suppliers. He became the first supply chain consultant when he suggested that, on their way back, merchant ships drop goods at certain ports, where they would be picked up by clients, rather than bringing the merchandise all the way back to the home country, where it would be taxed and then wholesaled and transported back to foreign export markets. Soon Rembor begun to advise his friends in the guild and became a respected counsel, renowned for his integrity, honesty, and knowledge—Prussian values that still sustain Rembor & Partners over 100 years later.

Eugene Rembor owned the business until his death in 1962. His son, Hugo Conrad, continued the family business and became wealthy by consulting food giant Jacobs, later known as Kraft-Jacobs-Suchard. Hugo‘s son, Eugene Rembor II, the subject of our interview, founded Rembor & Partners Ltd. In 1999 in London and internationalized the business.

What makes your company unique? What are your specialties?

I think what makes us unique is our vast cross-border and cross-cultural experience. When I say “us,” it’s not pluralis majestatis, but since I owe my experience and knowledge to all the people who taught, trained, and mentored me, the word “I” seems a bit ignorant of that fact. I have lived and worked in some 25 different countries, learned to speak six languages, and forgot four of them, but I accumulated a lot of experience that is priceless. Unlike many of my colleagues who worked in the corporate world for a good many years before they turned interim, I don’t know any other life. I have been an interim for over thirty years, and I have never done anything other than turnaround, so I think that, in all modesty, I may claim to be battle-hardened old fox.
Our specialty is turnaround management of private and public sector organizations and within that, we specialize in medium and large ones and, ideally, cross-border operations. Typically, we help a German organization in Anglo-Saxon countries and vice versa.

How did you get started in the industry?

Both my father and my grandfather were management consultants. Growing up in a household where everyday conversations evolve around business, you develop a natural interest quite early. I always wanted to have my own business; I wanted to have it in London, the city of my dreams; and I wanted to do “the big picture stuff.” I am not one for details - I get easily bored and need a big, hairy challenge - so I always picked the missions nobody else wanted to touch with a bargepole and developed a niche first and then a reputation for being the guy who does what others don’t take on.

What is it that you like about turnarounds?

I am a sportsperson. A victory to be enjoyed is a victory one worked for very hard. If it’s too easy, it’s not worth anything. Turnaround cases are really rewarding, and there is a feeling of achievement and satisfaction that compares to nothing else when you have pulled together a team, led it to greatness, and managed what seemed impossible. It makes you proud when you have saved jobs and the future of staff and their families, made shareholders happy, and reduced huge debts.

What makes an ideal turnaround manager in your eyes?

Whether someone is an ideal turnaround manager or not is always to be judged by one’s clients. If you work very hard, and have very high work ethics, common sense, and bags of experience, you have what it takes. But let us be clear about it: Nobody can do it all on their own. Without a supportive team, management, and your clients, you are nothing. We are not gods - we cannot walk over water - but we can work hard and smart, and we add a degree of humbleness. This, then, makes a truly great turnaround manager.

Tell us about one of your turnarounds.

Let me talk about the British NHS (National Health System). For those who read newspapers and watch the news, the British NHS is the largest employer in Europe with over 1,7 million employees and an annual budget of more than £100 billion. It is vastly in debt, inefficient, complacent, not competitive, not service-oriented every problem you have ever heard exists in the NHS exists big time.

The challenge is not only crisis management and, hence, undertaking drastic and rapid measures, but also a vast cultural change. You have to turn public clerk mentalities into shrewd business people. I think this job will keep us turnarounds busy for the next twenty years (laughing).

What were your first steps?

I think the first steps are as simple as they are uncommon. Tell people the truth. I cannot believe the number of times you walk into an organization that is in a big heap of you-know-what, and the management is still telling people that everything is okay. You must understand that you should not insult people’s intelligence because, in the information age, they will find out anyway, and only if staff knows what’s up can they plan the right moves. If you leave them in the dark, they have to make assumptions, and we all know how dangerous that is.

Secondly, give them a clear and simple goalno fancy mission and vision stuff - because if things don’t change fast, we are not going to be around long enough for long-term visions and missions. Break it down to achievable, manageable, and understandable chunks. “We need to save 6 million this year, which means we have to come up with cost saving ideas worth £500k every month” is much clearer than “in order to maintain an acceptable shareholder value, we need to right size and develop cost improvement strategies”. Excuse me, that’s bollocks, and the shop floor staff won’t have a clue as to what you expect from them.

Relentless and consistent communication is key, as is leadership by example and visibility.

How did you put the plan into action?

First ask those who know best. It never ceases to astonish me how frequently companies ignore suggestions that come from staff, but when the same suggestions come from expensive consultants, all of a sudden they seem to be attractive. Face it: the people who have worked in the organization for decades have forgotten more about the business than you will ever learn. Ask them; they are your intellectual assets.

This leads to the solution of the next challenge: buy-in. Most turnarounds fail, not because of a lack of ideas, but because of a lack of implementation. Organizations are losing staff commitment, confidence, or both. Break it down into digestible steps, make it happen, fast, and celebrate wins.

Most important: don’t just be paralyzed by costs. I can bring all your costs down to nil and still have not solved your problem. If you don’t develop rapid new sales at the same moment, you end up like a baker who saves money by not buying any more flour: you saved the money but you have no more business as you have nothing to sell.

What are major difficulties you encountered in turnaround situations? Which difficulties come up over and over again?

Ego and greed. In that order. I have seen a great many superb organizations go down the toilet because of ego and greed. In my family we have a saying: “Greed eats brain,” and it really, really does. I have seen it over and over again that, rather than being happy with 40 percent of something, people want 100 percent of nothing, meaning that they insist on the impossible or they cannot reduce their ego and desire for things such as status. The number of direct reports or the sheer size of business kills common sense. I have seen CEOs talk about taking a £100 million business to a £1 billion business within four years when they couldn’t even sort out the £100 million problems they had. They were ignoring them because they thought it made them look bad and would rather play make believe. But reality will catch up sooner or later, and they will be up for a hard landing.

Do you see a change or development in the industry?

It is thankfully becoming more professional and more recognized. In the days of my father and grandfather, consultants were often considered a sort of “corporate pimp” - you know, the sort who “tell you what to do, we get down and do the work, and they rake in the money” (laughs). Thank God these days are over and nowadays the corporate world appreciates what turnaround managers can do for them.

If there is something in the turnaround industry that you could change, what would it be?

If I could, I would change the mindsets of companies in trouble. Managers should no longer believe that recognizing that they need help makes them bad managers who are not able to do the job by themselves, which is how still many leaders think. They should think about turnarounds like doctors do: admitting that you have an illness and need a doctor to cure you doesn’t make you look bad; it makes you look responsible.

What is your secret to a successful turnaround?

If I only knew that answer, I would bottle it, sell it, and make gazillions. I can tell you my personal ingredients: Take lots of common sense, add some humbleness, mix it with a good attitude and high working morale, treat people they way you want to be treated - or, even better, the way THEY want to be treated - and hope for the best. Usually, if you are a straight person, the best will turn out.

How important do you see project manage¬ment and change management in turnaround situations? How do you incorporate them in your turnarounds?

They’re very important. I mean, is it not all a project, strictly speaking? A few years back I took a course in project management and became a PRINCE2 practitioner, which is the quintessential requirement in the UK if you are hired as a PM. It helps me a lot. And change management - well, can anyone live without it? Life changes all day, constantly, and if we can’t manage, we are lost.

In an economic downturn what should companies do?

Focus on your clients; that’s where the money is. Aim to provide the world’s best customer service, the world’s best quality, and go upmarket. It’s not Rolls Royce that went out of business during the last recession, it was Woolworth’s. Quality beats price every time. Take out ego and greed, be realistic yet ambitious, do what needs to be done, don’t shy away from unpopular decisions, be honest - brutally honest - apply discipline and lots of it, and pray.

How do you get important stakeholders to agree on contributing to the turnaround plan?

I show them the consequences of their decisions: what happens if they follow me, and what happens if they don’t. Eventually, the choice is theirs. People are remarkably intelligent and reasonable if you let them be. Unfortunately, often there is more talk about stakeholders than talk to them.

What really frustrates you?

I do not allow myself to be frustrated. Frustration kills enthusiasm. I am fascinated, but not frustrated.

What gives you the joy in working with troubled companies?

Happy clients (and I mean consumers, not the clients who hire me), staff, a company that still has a future, and a big, fat paycheck!

The interview took place 25th October 2010 in London, England.

Contact details:

Rembor & Partners - Turnaround Management, specialised in medium and large private and public sector cross boarder organisations.
+44 7899 952 872
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