Lessons From the Front Lines

Legendary Chinese military general Sun Tzu once said, “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”  Never has that assertion been more important than in 2009, when the business environment was as unmerciful as anything the author of The Art of War may have seen on a battlefield.

The landscape is littered with the remnants of companies of all sizes and hues that failed to identify and capitalize on opportunities as a shrinking economy–combined with crises in banking, automotive, and housing markets–created a business climate that was more like a relentlessly hostile opponent that showed no signs of yielding. Many entrepreneurs, including some BE 100s CEOs, contended with the economic downturn with old tried-and-true strategies: cost-cutting and identifying new revenue streams. But to succeed today requires much more–it demands redefinition.

Just ask John F. Carter, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Carter Brothers L.L.C. (No. 55 on the BE industrial/service companies list with $71 million in revenues). While hardly immune to the ravages of the economy (revenues were down 11.3%), the environment forced the company to become more strategic. “Where in the past, we were looking at growth opportunities–organic and through acquisitions–this year we shifted focus to improving the delivery of our core capabilities,” he says.

As a result, Carter says he changed the way he looked at the company and business opportunities. “As we continue to plan three, five, seven years ahead, we redirected our focus on ensuring our current business model was running more efficiently in the current economic climate,” he says. “So for me, it really made me drill down in my company and say, ‘OK, How do we guide the corporation differently? How do we maximize our current talent? How do we lead and communicate with employees to assure them that we are moving the business in the right direction to survive and thrive in this economy?’” The bottom line: despite lower revenues, profits were up 22%.

Nobody could have predicted the banking and housing crises, the turmoil of the auto industry, and a myriad of other events that assaulted businesses and consumers alike. However, a number of entrepreneurs realized that what worked in the past is not guaranteed to succeed now. They are the ones who embraced innovation and reconsidered their battle plans, which not only positioned their companies to hold ground but capture new business. Here’s a look at some of the strategies they’re deploying:


Many of the nation’s top African American CEOs found themselves in the middle of a bloodbath in 2009. The U.S. economy shrank 2.4%, measured by real gross domestic product versus an increase of 0.4% in 2008.  It was the worst single-year performance

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