When Billy Ladin felt that rapidly growing Computercraft Inc., the Houston-based chain of computer retail stores he had founded in 1977, had gotten too big for his seat-of-the-pants management style, he hired a seasoned executive, Paul Frison, to run it ("Who's In Charge Here?" June). The twist was that Ladin stayed with the company as chairman and vice-president for sales. So, on operating matters, Ladin reported to the man he hired, but on policy issues, the man he hired reported to him. Unusual, but it worked -- at least until times got bad.
Microcomputer sales went into a tailspin early this year. By April, with about twice as many stores as last year, Computercraft's volume had fallen by half since February. Profits turned to losses; the company went into technical default on its loan agreements; the stock price plummeted; and Ladin, finally, couldn't keep to his junior place in the operating organization. In August, he and Frison switched hats, putting Ladin back in charge and leaving Frison with little to do as chairman of a board controlled by the majority shareholder -- Ladin.
"We made the arrangement work in good times," says the now former chief executive officer, who may be looking for another job, "but in tough times it got to be a little too much of a stretch."
A company under fire can use a different kind of leader, says Ladin."The things that were wrong with me when things were going smoothly," he says, "are now strengths."
Maybe, but the real reason for the switch was more basic: "If his ship is going to go down," says Frison, "Billy wants to be the one at the helm."
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