News & Opinion

Excerpt from The Power of Adversity

May 07, 2008


The following excerpt is from The Power of Adversity: Tough Times Can Make You Stronger, Wiser, and Better by Al Weatherhead with Fred Feldman. Weatherhead says adversity is not a curse but a gift and that when we embrace our problems we temper and empower ourselves to achieve unimagined success. The Invention (from Chapter Two) In 1971, with heavy financing and a tiny amount of cash, I purchased a small, two-customer plastics company in Twinsburg, Ohio.

The following excerpt is from The Power of Adversity: Tough Times Can Make You Stronger, Wiser, and Better by Al Weatherhead with Fred Feldman. Weatherhead says adversity is not a curse but a gift and that when we embrace our problems we temper and empower ourselves to achieve unimagined success.
The Invention (from Chapter Two) In 1971, with heavy financing and a tiny amount of cash, I purchased a small, two-customer plastics company in Twinsburg, Ohio. A new start, a new company, a new name: Weatherchem Corporation. We were on a roll; sales had leaped by tenfold and employment had trebled. It was substantial incremental growth, but it was not the success I had been counting on and dreaming of my entire life. What was slowing Weatherchem down? My company lacked revenue-generating patents. Thomas Edison, the King of Invention, held more than eleven hundred patents. Growing up, I had made it my goal to have more patents than my father, who, through his company, acquired nearly seven hundred of them. (So far, I've not been able to surpass my father's record.) Yet, in 1983, it took just one patentable invention to launch my company into the stratosphere. We called it the Weatherchem Flapper®. In your kitchen you probably have a spice- or powder-filled container with a plastic top that has two tabs--one for pouring or spooning, and one for sprinkling. That top is most likely derived from the original Flapper my company invented in 1983. Today there's an entire line of Flapper products used by over 150 companies, including McCormick, ACH Foods/Tones and Durkee, Kraft, Procter and Gamble, and Pharmative/Nature's Made. The Flapper has, in fact, become so common that it's taken for granted. But it was not always that way. Although the idea for the Flapper was radically simple, its genesis was a complicated process. Like most patents, the Flapper came in response to a specific need. Durkee Spice Company came to Weatherchem asking if we might be able to develop a new plastic dispenser top with dual flaps. The idea was not a new one. Other companies had been working on similar concepts. But their caps leaked because the flaps popped open under the slightest pressure. Durkee's challenge, then, came to me cloaked in a mantle of adversity: how could Weatherchem solve what other companies had concluded was an insurmountable problem? Like most adversity, this problem was my opportunity to shine if my company could find the solution. I believed the invention of a new sprinkling and pouring cap held enormous potential for the growth and well-being of Weatherchem, because so many food companies might make use of such an innovative product. So how could we engineer a product that poured and sprinkled but didn't leak? We went down many dead-end roads and endured long months of frustration trying to figure that out. We could have given up, like so many who had tried before us. But we didn't give up, and finally mastered the adversity by devising a cap with flaps that didn't open and close on an inside hook like everyone else's caps did. Instead, our cap's flaps opened and closed on a ridged outside perimeter that kept it from popping open and leaking. We had our solution, but now we faced a second challenge. If we failed with our first Flapper mold we would be bankrupt. Remember, no one in the world was making such a product. While I was optimistic, I had no guarantee that, beyond Durkee, there would be interest in the device. To go forward with the Flapper, or not? I was gambling my fledging company's future on a roll of the dice. A consensus from my Weatherchem team was not long in emerging: "Hell, let's do it!" Later, after our initial success, we continued to spend vast sums to develop an entire family of Flapper products. The Flapper made Weatherchem a fortune. It truly changed my life. Problem Solving Is One of the Great Joys in Life (from Chapter Nine) 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.

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