It was set to be a normal Friday 8 a.m. meeting. We were 30 days into the COVID-19 pandemic. Ninety percent of our employees were working from home safely, and we were keeping our clients' fleets on the road. Our mantra was "keep America moving."
Just two minutes later, nothing was normal. The meeting with our lead financial partner lasted less than 120 seconds, and the message was clear and to the point: "There is no money in the market for you, your clients, and your growth. Stay liquid and stop your funding. We are pens down--there is nothing we can do for you."
My team hung up their phones from different locations, and I sent out a Zoom video conference invite for an internal meeting at 8:05 a.m. During those few minutes, my mind raced. I thought through our options and quickly realized we only had one.
What happens after "no"
As the video feeds picked up the stunned looks on my team's faces, I informed them that we would stay the course, continue funding, and launch a campaign that we were open for business. There was money in the market. We would just need to work twice as hard to find it. We would not be following our lead financial partner's advice. After all, they were focused on all their clients who were struggling due to the pandemic.
Here's a little context. "Pandemic" was the word on everyone's lips, and companies in most industries--as well as investors--were holding on tight to whatever cash was on hand. From the bank's point of view, it was the epitome of a non-spending market. This was true in our sector, too. The fleet industry overall was seeing a dip in revenue of close to 40 percent, and many of our competitors had stopped funding.
At the time, some people didn't fully understand that our company was in the middle of a strong growth phase. Growth, like team momentum in sports, is the culmination of many factors, some of which are out of everyone's direct control. It's not just about having a good product or service. It's also about the market, the competition, the company culture, and the people around you.
In other words, if we had followed the advice we were given and hit the "off" switch in terms of funding existing clients and acquiring new ones, it's entirely possible that we never would've been able to turn it back on. I wasn't willing to take that chance. The bottom line was that we needed funding to support the growth, and the bank didn't think it was the right time. We thought they were wrong.
Doing the "impossible"
Over the next 12 months, we ended up raising a total of $370 million from other banks and investment firms. We grew the company, took great care of our clients, and secured some new ones in the process.
Ultimately, I think we achieved what we did because of one fundamental choice, and that was to focus on the big picture. Of course, focusing on the big picture can mean a lot of different things. It did for us, too. Here are some ways we did it and how they helped us beat the odds.
1. We were transparent and took care of our employees
Succeeding in any circumstances, especially difficult and unpredictable ones, is a lot easier when you foster an environment in which employees are willing and able to give their best to their jobs. One way to do this is with transparency--nobody likes to feel as if they don't know what's going on, so we made sure that our employees knew as much as possible about the challenges ahead and the strategy we had for overcoming them. We also gave employees opportunities to take on new roles that would give them more job security. We already had great people; we just needed to make sure we kept them and treated them right.
2. We took some short-term hits
The best example of this is the fact that 250 clients called us over the course of the year to apologetically explain that they didn't have the money to keep paying for our service. Our goal was to find money, not lose it, but we kept those clients on anyway and worked out terms by which they could stay in business. This was our way of staying focused on the big picture. This wasn't a six-month plan, after all. We wanted to sustain our growth for years. Already, that move has paid off.
3. We believed in ourselves
People believe in businesses that believe in themselves. Sometimes, when everyone around you is hitting the brakes, it's a good idea to step on the accelerator with both feet instead. (Hint: don't try it on the freeway.) For it to work, though, you need a solid strategy and the confidence to stick to it. We knew that the road would be bumpy, but we focused on the destination, fully believing that our company was up to the task.
While we shifted our focus away from the sectors of our business that were slowing due to the pandemic, like summer camp van rentals and hotel shuttles, we poured our efforts into supplying cargo vans to industries that were exploding, like e-commerce. We ran campaigns throughout 2020 to ensure our clients knew we were open for business and here for them and to let our employees know the same. It all paid off - as the industry shrunk by nearly 40 percent, we grew by 40 percent because we stayed the course and believed in ourselves
I don't mean to disrespect any business that didn't make it through the COVID storm. It was never a level playing field, and many companies had no chance to succeed under the circumstances. On the other hand, our success wasn't all luck, either. Our company had plenty of opportunities to fail, but we just never let that be a possibility.
It's not as simple as saying, "If you want to succeed, you will," but I firmly believe that keeping your eyes on the big picture is the best way to put fear and uncertainty in their place and to stack the deck in your favor. By focusing on our business plan and growth strategies for the long-term, staying positive, and then following up our optimistic attitudes with real action, we managed to do what we were told was impossible. And guess what? You can, too.