"I'll see you back at the office."
We've all heard or uttered this phrase, when departing on a business trip. For Dan Shefland, vice president operations/engineering for McC Inc., it holds a distinctly different meaning. Those were the last words he ever spoke with McC Inc. project manager Dave Kammerer.
"They were sitting on the runway waiting to depart and we had just talked about our missing laptop and we decided to deal with it later when we were all back in the office," says Shefland. "As it turned out, there were a lot more important things to deal with when we returned home."
Shortly after Shefland hung up the phone with Kammerer, the single-engine Piper 46 aircraft carrying Kammerer, 41; Environmental Control Systems Inc., co-owner Waylon Karsten, 36; and founder/president of McC Inc., Dave McCormick 44; who was piloting the aircraft, disappeared from radar shortly after takeoff.
The trio had left the Fuel Ethanol Workshop meeting in St. Louis the morning of June 28, 2007 and left Shefland to man the McC Inc. booth. Around 9:30 a.m. Shefland received a call from a McC Inc. charter pilot, explaining that McCormick's plane was missing. Hours later, authorities confirmed the wreckage of a plane found 80 miles from St. Louis was indeed that of McCormick's plane.
What ensued was a chain of events that changed the lives of McC Inc.'s leadership team and its nearly 300-employee team forever. However, out of the tragedy of that day, McC Inc. learned many lessons. Some were hard. Some challenged their beliefs to the core, but in nearly every instance, these lessons reinforced the reasons why they got in the business in the first place.
First lesson: Set and Meet Short-term Goals
In the face of incredible shock, McC's leadership team was faced with two immediate short-term goals: Take care of our employees and reinforce customer confidence in the company.
"Being a family-oriented company, naturally it was a difficult time getting through the memorial services and funerals," recalls Jon Walters, president, McC Inc. "It was the week of the July 4th holiday, so what should have been a festive lead-in to a long holiday weekend was, in fact, something completely different."
Walters and other members of the management team — including Shefland, CFO Mark Schmid, and CEO Deb McCormick — made addressing employee concerns and fears an immediate priority.
Right away, the team met with groups of employees and arranged conference calls to the various job sites, to keep them apprised of the situation from the day of the accident, through the funerals and as the new management team assumed leadership.
In addition to keeping the lines of communication open between management and the employees, the next short-term goal was to ensure another key message was sent to both internal and external audiences: McC Inc. was not going away.
"We had a payroll due and we had payments to make to suppliers that week and as a group, we knew it would be critical for morale and for our customers that we make those payments," says Schmid. "Honestly, there were probably some folks that weren't sure what would happen to us, and hitting those key milestones turned out to be very important to us."
One scenario McC Inc. was lucky to avoid was the lack of a clearly defined leadership structure. Ironically, work had been done to map out a succession strategy, driven primarily by expected company growth. Little did anyone know the strategy — considered even in the most optimistic terms as a "work in progress" — would be tested so quickly.
Walters had been with McC Inc.from almost the beginning and his years of field experience and operational acumen, made him an ideal choice to assume the top spot.
Fortunately, McCormick had identified the need to add more breadth of experience to the management team, which was demonstrated in Walters' and Shefland's involvement in many aspects of McC operations.