How A Family Shared A Burden

Last week I wrote about the evolution of our cultural vision statement, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people” and how it has become the moral compass that guides us in our decision making. (The Value of Identifying Values, April 17, 2012)

This was never more apparent than during the economic downturn of 2008.

When the crisis hit our nation’s economy in September of that year, we took stock of our business units  and had the sense that we would be okay.

Why not have everyone endure a little pain so that no one had to endure a lot of pain? Click To TweetFive months later, we faced a 40% drop in new equipment orders.  I was poised to react as I always had–-by laying off team members in the affected areas to ‘right size’ in response to the decreased orders.  After all, we had a responsibility to preserve the financial health of the business. With several large new orders being canceled, shouldn’t we simply lay off some of our manufacturing associates?

But things were different now.

Our Guiding Principles of Leadership offered a new view of what success looked like, and it wasn’t simply about preserving the financial performance of the business.  When called to consider the appropriate reaction to this dramatic drop in revenue in light of how it touches lives, our Guiding Principles offered the guidance to think, feel and respond as our vision called us to.

My heightened awareness of stewardship to those under my care gave me a clear sense of purpose and clarity through which to view the situation.  I thought to myself: We’re a family at Barry-Wehmiller so we need to act like one. What would a responsible family do in this crisis?

A loving family would share the burden.

Rather than watching a few of our colleagues face devastation, we decided that our reaction would be one of shared sacrifice.  Why not have everyone endure a little pain so that no one had to endure a lot of pain? We created a furlough program whereby every person in the organization took four weeks of unpaid time off.  We also suspended our 401K match.  We ramped up our internal communication efforts, regularly sharing the state of the business, why we were doing what we were doing, and reassuring team members that our future was secure.

The reaction was extraordinary.  Some team members offered to take double furloughs, stepping up to “take the time” for their co-workers who could not afford the loss of pay.  Many associates welcomed the time off, scheduling it so they could spend the summer home with children or participate in special volunteer projects.

Our business emerged from the downturn well ahead of the curve and, once orders picked back up, our performance increased faster than ever before. Why? Because our actions during a time of great distress didn’t damage the cultural fabric of the company–like layoffs so often do–but rather strengthened it. Our decision to use furloughs to save jobs made our associates proud and profoundly touched by the realization that they worked for a company that truly cared about them. Even though they had lost out on one-twelfth of their income, they embraced the furlough program because it meant saving someone else’s job.

A shared sacrifice that, in the end, didn’t seem like such a sacrifice.

Since the furloughs, we have experienced three successive record years.  In recognition of all that our team members gave up, we reinstated the 401K match and then “paid them back” what they would have received had we not suspended the match during the downturn.

The best reward of all, however, was what we received from our team members as a result of our response to the economic downturn. Because we walked our talk, they rewarded us with something truly priceless: their trust.

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • Lucas Clemente says:

    What a terrific example of having the right principles work.

  • Yahya Hattab says:

    Bob Chapman is a real human being and a genius. Thank you

  • Bob Graves says:

    The message I read is exactly what you discuss; familial commitment. It’s wonderful to see a company who actually lives up to the principles which set it apart from others. In so many other situations which we have all seen in the recent past, too often the management of a company is concerned with the bottom line without consideration of responsibility for the lives their business decisions impact. The employee/employer relationship is that of trusting that the other will do what is in the best interest of the company, but the rare few will think outside of the norm and have a creative solution such as yours.

    You really set the bar high for other employers, and I applaud the value you have for your family of employees!

  • Steven Trask says:

    When I tell people about where I work, I often tell them about how Barry-Wehmiller handled a major economic downturn. Everyone is amazed that a company would share the burden of furloughs equally from top to bottom.

    My sister, with 27 years of service, and many of her colleagues, were recently laid off. This large company is also facing a similar economic downturn, but their response to it is far more typical.

    I am proud to work for a company that lets me tell others about the positive side of management.

  • Dan Aude says:

    Great post Bob! I remember that period of time well, and have been on the receiving end of past layoffs resulting from a downturn in the economy. The shared sacrifice of furloughs placed action into the words “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people” with shared sacrifice we all grew and are in a stronger positions to day. Prior to the acquisition by BW, we were like a ship without a rudder adrift on the sea of the global economy. We now have not only direction, but also a destination.
    Dan Aude

  • Arnie Nobles says:

    …….and we walked it together with that trust.

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