The year was 1981, and company comptroller Tom Buck figured it was the end of the road for Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault Inc. All of Buck's efforts to find more financing for the ailing Denver dealership had failed; even American Motors Corp. had turned him down. Now the bank that was providing the dealership's financing was ready to call in all its notes, including the loan on new vehicles, and had even attached a lien on the dealership's lease. In two days, Buck thought, the dealership would have to hold a going-out-of-business sale, and 45 employees would lose their jobs.
In one last effort to save the company, Buck called a man named Gilbert W. Acheson. Buck gone to high school with Acheson in Billings, Mont., and knew that Acheson had settled in the Denver area. He had also heard something of Acheson's success in business, both as an investor and as a consultant.
When Buck called, Acheson wasn't in. Resigned to the situation, Buck went for a haircut. When he returned, Acheson, who had never been to the dealership before, was there. He told Buck that he had shattered the side-view mirror of his Jeep Cherokee when he had slammed the door, and he figured it was time to go car shopping. The two men talked new cars for a while, then Buck shepherded Acheson into his office and explained the situation. Acheson indicated an interest, and suggested that Buck call the bank to say that a deal might be in the works. Buck's bankers were dubious: They hadn't heard of Acheson. But the chance of a bailout was better than a lot full of fire-sale cars, and the bankers gave the dealership a two-week extension.
Before committing himself, Acheson did some homework. He asked for the company's financial statements, operating methods, financial controls, and plans. Working into the early morning hours on his home computer, he analyzed national norms in operating expenses, estimated the effects of new financial controls and budgeting, and figured out appropriate financing. He created financial models and pro formas, establishing to his own satisfaction that the company could become profitable even if its sales remained as low as they had been.
Beating the bank's two-week deadline, Acheson personally guaranteed the dealership's debts and floor line to the tune of $2 million, and he infused another $250,000 in working capital. In return, he got 100% of the stock and the role of chairman and chief executive officer.He gave the dealership's previous owner 25% of the stock on a note, and agreed to sell him up to 15% more if the company attained certain goals. Buck got 10%, with the opportunity to earn 10% more.
Acheson then went to work. He installed departmental accounting, with managerial salaries based on profit performance in each department. He devised monthly plans for each department, with bonuses keyed to two profit levels; managers could reach the goals either through increased sales or through decreased expenses. "We assume management by objective and compensation on performance," explains Acheson. "I try to make every person in every department an entrepreneur."
Along with the new financial systems, Acheson began to remake the dealership's corporate culture. Less experienced workers were attached to seasoned managers through a "big brother" system. The company began to offer a 16-week video program designed to motivate employees and improve the quality of their lives, both at work and at home. Continuing education was encouraged.
Within five months of Acheson's involvement -- and in every quarter since then -- Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault placed within the top 10 AMC/Jeep Renault dealers in the United States. Last year, the dealership got a big silver trophy that marked its attainment of the national number one spot in sales volume. With its work force up to 115, the company sponsored a Christmas party in a rented mansion, featuring a sit-down dinner for more than 200 people.
Today, Acheson spends about one-third of his time with the dealership, plus occasional nights looking over its corporate goals. "Every month," he says, "I write a little love letter to my managers. It includes all the numbers, so everyone is aware of who made the goals and who didn't." He also sits down with Buck (now the company's chief operating officer) and Steve Casement, who is vice-president of sales and a new stockholder, to analyze information not included in the financial statements: employee turnover rate, returns from customers on faulty repair work, customers returning cars for parts not in stock. These trends are also measured, tracked, and analyzed. Acheson's predictions for Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault in 1985? Hedging, he says only, "This company should earn well into the seven digits, and it's returning its net worth and then some every year. That's a 100% return on investment."
Return on investment: Acheson's choice of words is deliberate. To most people, taking on responsibility for turning around a company like Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault would be a full-time job. To Acheson, it is simply an ideal investment. In fact, Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault is just one of 17 companies Acheson is involved with. He owns a majority interest in most of them.
"For an entrepreneur or a good solid businessman who understands cash flow, return on investment, inventory management, and people motivation, the automobile business is a flower to be picked," remarks Acheson, explaining his interest in the dealership. "But no one ever considers investing in a car store unless they grew up in the business.
"My most successful investments," he continues, "are those I'm involved with. The situation is always different, but after things are on course, I can sit back."
Acheson, who is hardly known for sitting back, didn't set out to be a businessman, let alone an investor in businesses. Tom Buck remembers him as the kid who spent his afternoons laboring on a Montana sharecropper's farm while all the other kids played. Unlike a lot of Horatio Alger-style characters, Acheson even lacked self-confidence. College, he figured, was out of the question, and the applied to an aircraft mechanics program at a California technical school only because his aunt encouraged him.
Then, in 1966, Acheson was accepted into the Army's helicopter flight-training course. Sent to Vietnam, he survived 685 combat missions as team leader of UH-1C and Cobra helicopter gunships. That, his close friends say, is where he got the self-conficence that he now exhibits in baundance. "So many people returned from Vietnam with problems," Buck reflects. "Gil pulled through. He was shot down seven times. One accident put him in the hospital for nine months, and he wasn't supposed to be able to walk again. There is no question that Gil learned teamwork from flying helicopter gunships eye-to-eye with the enemy in Vietnam."
Acheson, who is reticent on his war-time experiences, draws a parallel between someone returning from war and someone reentering society from prison. "In both situations," says Acheson, "the person has to grow stronger, simply to have survived the fear and introspection."
Acheson returned from Vietnam in 1968, determined to go to college. To pay the bill, he invested a whopping $287 from his military savings in a project that he thought might make him some money while it gave him time to calm down from the war. Renting barn space that he shared with a white donkey named Snowball, Acheson built his first company. The products: Mediterranean-style wooden picture frames that he made by hand, followed by furniture made in the same style. Acheson peddled his wares to local furniture stores; when he needed extra help, he at first hired only Vietnam veterans.
While he worked, Acheson went to school, earning a degree in aerospace science in two-and-a-half years. The worst grade he received -- a C -- was in small-business management.That was all right: In his final year of school, Acheson's 13-employee furniture company boasted sales of close to $400,000, with profits of almost $85,000. On weekends, he flew with the National Guard.
In 1973, Acheson sold the company to a furniture manufacturer that had been a competitor, and started a new glass-and-chrome-tubing modular furniture business. With a retail outlet in what was then the second-largest shopping center in the United States, this company set a sales-per-square-foot record for the center in its first six months of operation. In less than a year, Acheson opened another retail store. Before long, he had a nationwide network of partnerships, affiliations, and franchises. Studying nights and weekends, Acheson earned his MBA from Denver University in 1980, and in 1982 divested himself of the furniture company for an undisclosed sum.
Sometime during the high-inflation years of the mid-1970s, Acheson began a gradual transition from being a conventional businessman to what might be called a hands-on investor.
"Back then," Acheson remembers, "you could buy an airplane for a fixed price of $1 million with a $50,000 deposit and sell it in as little as 18 months for $1.5 million. High leverage. That's what it took to invest in airplanes and single-family rental dwellings." Acheson started investing in these rental homes in 1971. By 1979, through trading and refinancing, his real estate portfolio of roughly 20 homes was topping the $1-million mark. To help him manage it, he approached Mark Martino, a real estate broker whom Acheson knew to be honest and smart."I told Martino that anything he invested 20% in, I'd invest 80% in," Acheson says. "At the end of the year we split the profits. I don't think I've seen any of the properties he's bought for the past four or five years." Real estate is one of the few passive investments Acheson has maintained. Others include some limited partnerships in land, equipment leasing, and a warehouse. "I don't buy tax shelters," he says."I invest in property with good potential for capital gains."
While Acheson's passive investments bear only the ordinary trappings of success, his company portfolio bears the unmistakable mark of an entrepreneur. Western States Investment Corp., a holding company set up by Acheson in 1981, owns majority interest in Colorado AMC/Jeep Renault and in an affiliated body shop and carl-leasing company. It will also be the corporate umbrella for a company Acheson plans to set up that will offer accident, health, and life insurance for customers that buy new cars. Intervest Asset Management Corp., a company Acheson runs with a 29-year-old onetime truck driver named John Gunther, offers business-consulting and asset-management services, and publishes a market timing-based investment newsletter. Acheson is also a stockholder and board member of 14 other companies.
Where do deals come from? Acheson typically invests only through people he knows. "I'm shy with my own money," he says carefully. "I earned every dollar." Bankers are among his best sources, he says, because they know he is usually willing to get involved in management: "There is no one more ready to make a deal than a banker who is upside down."
One new networking group in Denver that has provided Acheson with a source of opportunities is the one-and-a-half-year-old Rockies Club. The club provides a forum for three groups: businesses soliciting funding; investors looking for deals; and accountants, attorneys, bankers, and consultants seeking new clients. The club is tied to a public venture capital fund called The Rockies Fund Inc., which provides second- or third-stage funding for emerging growth companies. By the Securities and Exchange Commission's requirement, Acheson, now on the fund's board, must give the fund first right of refusal on any investment presented through the club.
So far, that hasn't been a problem. "I am not interested in what the fund is interested in," Acheson says. "I like lowtech profits -- a company I can understand and can analyze to identify the problems. I like a company with a definable objective, a definable sales rate, with which I can make money slowly. I'll never see a 300-to-1 return; I'll never have a Genentech. But I've got a lot of little companies that are pretaxing well over seven digits."
As if to contradict that statement, Acheson reveals a little -- only a little -- about his current pet project, a start-up he and a few partners have funded. Based on remote-generated computer graphics technology, the company may be the closest Acheson will ever get to a Genentech. At the moment, the project is still under wraps, but Acheson says that a prototype system -- which will have such applications as financial printing, newsletter publication, and charts -- will be ready in several months. Acheson says only that, "This company could be very large, very fast. When it's ready to go, we'll be very vocal."
More in keeping with his past investments, Acheson has bought a majority interest in a turnaround situation involving a trade publishing company in financial straits. The owner, Acheson says, "had some backers, but now the money is gone and the company is upside down. I think he can turn the corner. If I can repair the balance sheet, help him with operational and budget problems, throw in some money, and take care of some of the other details that tend to bore entrepreneurs, I think the company can shoot around the other corner."
Acheson's friends nominated him to be Small Business Person of the Year for 1985, and he was one of two finalists from Colorado. "Gil never lets anything slip through the cracks," says Ralph Pucher, an attorney with the Denver firm of Calkins, Kramer, Grimshaw & Harring, who has helped Acheson structure many of his investments. "He's so efficient, and his insights so sound, that he's constrained only by his own limitations."
Acheson, for his part, claims that his main skill lies in identifying friends and associates to work with -- and to help make them rich in the process. "I've enjoyed success," he says, "because I always looked at people. The only way to keep track of a lot of companies is to rely on people who care as much as I do."
Gil Acheson says he doesn't have lofty goals for the future. At 39, he says he could have retired years ago without disturbing his lifestyle. But he has no plans for retirement, and, except for buying a new car when the side-view mirror breaks, he lives relatively simply. He enjoys fishing, spending time with his family and friends, and earning a living. "Some people sculpt. Others play the piano. I get a kick out of seeing companies become successful," he says with a smile. Then, with a sigh that exhibits a hint of self-doubt, he admits that he would like to be able to play the piano. He never thought he could. But he is trying to teach himself.