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The Power of Adversity

Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.

Harnessing with relentless passion the infinite power of adversity has led me to stunning revelations. Before adversity struck, I was preoccupied with false impressions of personal appearance and grandiosity. Adversity beat out of me self-delusion and stripped me of false vanities. And as I began to understand my own suffering, I began to view life with new eyes.

For example, I came to see that Weatherchem, my plastic cap and closure company, was alive. It is not merely a place built of concrete, steel, machinery, and motion, but a living, breathing entity pulsating with energy and in possession of a soul. When I am in my factory and listening closely, I can hear its heartbeat, and not just in the rhythms of its machinery but individually and collectively from the people who work within its walls.

I have also come to believe that successful management is more like taking a pulse than taking inventory. After decades of leadership experience, I can now walk onto any factory floor and intuit its health from the spark, rhythm, and air of its space.

Is there the buzz of dissonance or the hum of synchronicity?

Confusion or creativity?

Chaos or vision?

Conflict or unity?

In short, is the adversity that inevitably must run through a factory like electricity, a friction or a fuel? I can always find the answers to those questions in the faces of the employees, for beyond all the mechanics of the place there is one truth: a factory is a collective human endeavor. Indeed, much of what is wrong in a good deal of current business theory and practice is its failure to recognize that the heart of any factory beats to the rhythms of its employees.

The bottom line must not be profit, because profit can only come as a fruit of the health and dreams of the human endeavor the factory represents. Management’s responsibility, then, is to cultivate within the workplace an environment that lends itself to creativity, dreams, and a collective spirit larger than the sum of its paychecks and mechanical parts.

I have learned all this-as I’ve learned most everything else-through adversity’s hard knocks. As a child, dreaming in my father’s factory, I saw the camaraderie, respect, love, and energy shared by Weatherhead employees. I watched, too, as my parents poured their lives into the company. All this created the heartbeat of that factory.

Then, with the death of my father, the Weatherhead Company developed a diseased heart. Mismanagement crushed the human endeavor upon which the factory thrived, as you and I thrive on clean air, water, nourishing food, a healthy heart, and a happy soul.

Some would say the business simply failed. To me, the demise of my father’s company was a death in the family. This adversity left me reeling. It took a long time for me to realize that my failure to be the heir to my father’s company, prestige, and fortune was really a blessing, a gift from God to me. As adversity forced me to wrestle with ruined hopes and scorched self-images, I used the techniques I have shared with you in this book to transform as with an alchemist’s craft the dull lead of adversity into glittering success.

Adversity empowered me to realize that what was torn down, I could-and needed-to rebuild. And so I decided to start my own company. For several years I put out feelers and investigated different opportunities. False starts were the norm and numerous. Then, in May 1971, I heard about a little plastics company in Twinsburg, Ohio.

The Ankney Company had one patent, for a two piece plastic closure, and two customers, Clevepack and R. J. Reynolds. The owner, a mechanical wizard named Bob Ankney, was being pressured by his wife to sell the company he had started twenty-five years previously.

I went to see Ankney, and I was impressed by his factory.

Sure it was small, but I preferred to think of it as young-here was a toddler company that would be demanding, but was also slick as a whistle with vast potential.

I wanted to buy the place. Ankney, although hesitant, also said he was impressed with me. “You’re the only person in the world I would ever sell to,” he said. Curious, I asked him why. “You’re a nice man, and you’d take care of the people who are here.” Ankney ultimately decided not to sell. I completely understood. Once you have given birth to a company, disengaging is as difficult as letting go of a child.

A few months later Ankney passed away. I inquired about the fate of the company. It was for sale. And so, on December 10, 1971, I became the proud owner of a promising niche plastics company described by the business community as “just a nice, little, vest pocketsize company.”

But I was already calculating what it would take for my new baby-Weatherchem-to achieve the lofty heights of my father’s company.

On the factory floor, I saw opportunities everywhere. Adversity had unleashed me from all the false self-images of who I thought I was supposed to be- the princely heir to my father’s throne-and so I was free to roll up my sleeves and get dirty, imagining and creating. I licked stamps, cleaned toilets, lived without a salary, and pecked out memos, sales letters, and invoices on an old Underwood manual typewriter with a sticking R.

Adversity also taught me to look for simplicity. To ask questions: Why is it done this way? Is there a better way to do it?

One of my first moves was to switch to bulk plastics. Ankney had bought his plastic in hundred-pound bags, which took up more than half of the plant’s square footage. I bought two 75,000-pound silos, along with the piping to transfer the plastic to the six machines we had at the time. By loading the silos with bulk plastic, we saved pennies a pound-a huge savings.

We saved even more money by figuring out a way to color the plastic before it was molded by buying freeze dried colors and mixing them in the machines. In less than a year the silos and color-mixing apparatus were paid for, and we were in the black. We replaced the Underwood with an IBM Selectric and got a postage meter. I could share with you hundreds of similar stories. There were many triumphs and not a few failures. But as my leadership matured and my creativity blossomed, I came to see failure not as a defeat but as learning one more way that something is not done. Such learning can be daunting, but it is the only way a business can survive and thrive.

Mechanics are the easy part. Remember, always and in all ways, a factory is a living, breathing organism. Human elements are the challenge.

At one of our first staff meetings we discussed company benefits. As we knocked around ideas to promote productivity, commitment, and creativity, the plant controller asked, “Why bother? People are like cattle. You can herd them any way you want.” I fired him. Of the original employees, he was the only one who did not stay.

From that day forward, I made sure everyone at Weatherchem understood my lifelong fundamental conviction: everyone deserves to be loved, respected, and honored.

In all these ways, old machinery molted into new technology, and where others saw the drag of employee overhead, I imagined a profit-sharing plan.

The start of Weatherchem coincided with the beginning of my marriage to Celia. And I am ashamed to tell you that I could apply none of what I was learning about mastering adversity in a professional guise to the plane wreck of my personal life. I remember distinctly how Celia and I were still honeymooners in Florida when I let it slip that I’d had my-now our-house in Cleveland carpeted without consulting her. In retrospect, I understand why she was hurt and disappointed; this was to be our home, and she was looking forward to creating a warm and loving environment. At the time, however, I only felt challenged and dismissive of her pain. You see, as I was used to making decisions in my factory, I presumed to make them in my marriage as well.

I did not then know enough about conquering adversity to ask concerning my marriage the same questions I asked myself at work: Why am I doing things this way? Was there a better way?

I suppose I thought that such questions belonged in the vocabulary of entrepreneurs, but not a newlywed husband with steel wrapped around his heart. My life, then, was a paradox, although I could not see it at the time. On one hand, adversity had taught me how to rebuild my confidence and redefine success-both of which I was doing remarkably well via my new business. I patted myself on the back for not being a Scrooge to my employees. I convinced myself that I was a warm and compassionate individual because I was so concerned with their welfare, providing my workers with state-of-the-art benefits-from healthy lifestyle incentives to profit-sharing retirement plans.

Professionally, I truly was not driven by the idea that I needed to succeed, but that my factory-the breathing, living organism-had to. In these ways I felt safe that in my professional life I had begun to master adversity. But I now realize that in my personal life-as I started my new marriage-adversity had beaten me. My bitterness over my previous marriages had caused me to shut down emotionally. Adversity conned me into believing that in the inevitable give-and-take between spouses, I was better off taking with hardly any giving. Thus, adversity did to me what it always does to us if left uncontested: it bred fear, isolation, and emotional and physical paralysis. The attributes that I used as a successful businessperson-to accurately judge and take a risk, forthrightly communicate, and be willing to do the dirty work-I simply could not imagine applying in my marriage.

Instead, I tried to control every facet of our lives together once Celia and I came to Cleveland. I picked out her clothes and chose her car; I doled out an allowance for her to run the house. I suppose in a strange and twisted way, I was showing what I thought to be love. I realize now that I was unconsciously emulating my father’s behavior, which was to be controlling-as a substitute for loving-to keep Celia at bay. I didn’t understand then-and probably could not have understood-that controlling love, no matter its intentions, suffocates rather than nurtures. It may seem incredible to you that I viewed my factory as a living, breathing organism, but could only see my marriage as an opportunity for me to pull a stonecold powerplay.

It seems incredible to me, in retrospect . . . Positive change came slowly, largely through the transforming power of Celia’s persistent love. Patiently she knocked tiny chinks in my heart’s armor-never quite enough to break through, but fortunately for me, just enough for her to glimpse inside and wonder, what if?

As I’ve already shared with you, despite all of Celia’s valiant determination and a decade of our marriage, it took my crippling and humbling by rheumatoid arthritis to give me the slap I needed to shatter all my barricades and guide me to a true mastering of adversity in my personal life. And so for me, adversity has been a blessed enemy, indeed.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I believe that problem solving-moving from challenge to challenge, no matter how painful and difficult-is the greatest thrill in the world. However, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the false impression that I’m incapable of backsliding once in a while.

In the early 1970s, my hunger to make money and acquire the power I believed it automatically bestowed still tortured me on occasion. Blinded by frustration due to Weatherchem’s “sloth-like” growth, I stormed into the office of James Sheedy, a company director, to announce that I was selling the place, period. Sheedy listened patiently as I spouted off. When I ran out of steam he replied, “Al, you’re not going to sell your company. Weatherchem is the closest thing on this planet to being pure you.

With that single sentence my friend put me in my place and straightened me out by reminding me of the fathomless rewards my company offered me: an outlet for my creativity and a chance to build a successful business to my benefit and to the benefit of my employees and customers-and even to your benefit, if you’ve availed yourself of the convenience afforded by my company’s closures on just about any product you may use.

The lesson here: be especially appreciative of loved ones and friends who are ready, willing, and able to call your bluff and tell you that you’re full of crap when the occasion warrants.

Only I know best is a terrible mindset for confronting adversity. By discouraging communication it builds walls in the blink of an eye. Once you’ve locked yourself in, it’s like being in solitary confinement: you are as lonely as you are imprisoned within your own perceived limitations and prejudices. It’s far better to collaborate. Today I prefer to plant seeds in others’ minds while they plant seeds in mine. Some germinate and some don’t. But those that do tend to sprout and bloom in, for me, unimaginable and wonderful ways.

I remember as a young man riding my quarterhorse near my dad’s ranch in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona. In that part of the country there are towering peaks and deep canyons, with crevices in the rock walls. I enjoyed seeing how far I could squeeze through those narrow chinks in the rock before I could go no farther and I’d have to back carefully out. I thought at the time I was exploring new and wonderful things, but was I really?

Our own narrow-mindedness can confine us as much as those chasms did me as a young man. On your own, your path is constrained by towering, narrow canyons of your own creation. You think you’re going somewhere new, but in reality you’re going nowhere you haven’t been before.

View solving your own problems as a collaborative effort-and discover how the benefits of communication that such collaboration requires can make not just the positive outcome but the ongoing process of confronting adversity so deeply satisfying.

After all, your problems will always involve other people-unless you are a castaway on a Godforsaken island. So take advantage of others’ creativity. Let the lessons adversity has to teach you about collaboration through communication help you revitalize your personal and professional life, and in the process, redefine for you-as it has for me-the true meaning of success. As I write this, I have recently returned from a visit to my factory, where I had a hug for everyone and everyone had a hug for me.

I ran into Victor, a new employee who came to us after being laid off by Ford.

“I like this place,” Victor told me. “People are happy.”

“I know,” I said, and hugged him one more time. “I want to be here for another twenty-five years.” “You’ll be here, Al,” Victor grinned. “One way or another. You’ll be here.”

I will always believe that problem solving-moving from mystery to mystery and challenge to challenge-is the greatest thrill in the world. And I will always believe that the stimulation and engagement of the mind is our true calling as human beings. You already know that your true question in life should be “Why not me?” From there, it’s just a short leap to “For what reason am I here on Earth?”

I believe that last question will bring you around to embracing your adversity . . . pointing the way to your greater purpose . . . and connecting you with a grander, and yes, even divine, plan.

I’m here to help you along the way.

One way or another, I’ll be here . .

Al Weatherhead is the founder and CEO of  Weatherchem Corp.(www.weatherchem.com), a $50 million Cleveland, OH based maker  plastic dispensing closures. His book, “The Power of Adversity,” was recently published.

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