Opportunity Within a Tragedy

Ruthie Johnston exemplifies the type of leadership needed in times of unexpected change.


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2020 has officially become the year of unexpected change for businesses. In previous years, when business leaders need to make a change, it was often due to their choices or even their mistakes. Those changes were self-created, and required both the discipline and the ability to pivot out of the downward spiral created by their actions.

The changes imposed upon today’s world, from the COVID-19 pandemic, have been thrust down upon all businesses, regardless of industry or geography. For many entrepreneurs and CEOs this is the first time in their careers they are faced with an uncertain future. For Ruthie Johnston, CEO of Croix Gears in Hudson, Wisconsin, dealing with an uncertain business future is old hat for her.

In 2010, at the age of 57 years young, her husband Mark suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Ruthie, who had never worked a day in the family manufacturing business, was thrust into running a company “in a man’s world,” as she calls it, without any notice or experience. Less than two weeks after her husband was gone, she was at the plant, ill-prepared to handle the day-to-day operations as the new CEO of Marine Associates.

What Johnston had to deal with in 2010 closely mirrors today’s business climate, and there is a lot we can all learn from how Ruthie dealt with unexpected change and how she came out on top.

Due to her husband’s close-to-the-vest management style, Johnston didn’t have any idea what she needed to do grow the business, let alone keep it afloat. He left her without a business plan, as well as without a succession plan. She needed to start from a place of humble honesty. She was in over her head.

On her first day as the boss, she had to ask for help. “I walked in and said to the team, I am new at this and I need your help,” Johnson told me. “I had to approach the business with massive curiosity and ask a bunch of questions. I was getting a late start in the business and I needed all of them to teach me.”

And so began her journey as a CEO/entrepreneur. One of the first things she did was change the name of the business, which undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of some long-term employees. In 2011 she followed her gut and changed the company name from Marine Associates to Croix Gear, to more accurately reflect the products they make.

Soon after that, she realized there was a lot of business knowledge and best practices available to her outside of her organization. She realized that neither she nor her team was equipped with all the tools and skills needed to grow the business.

She sought out and located a business coach who had decades of experience to bring to her and her leadership team. Her coach helped Johnston implement the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), to help the entire company work from the same metrics, use one operating system, analyze staff with the same wording and understanding, and lay out quarterly and annual goals for the entire company.

One of the things that Johnston realized from using a coach, was that her business had some physical constraints. To address this problem, she expanded the headquarters by adding 23,000 square feet of space in 2016.

By 2019, things were humming along at Croix Gear, but Johnson knew they were vulnerable in one key area of the business — new sales opportunities. There weren’t any outside sales efforts being made and the company was existing on new orders from loyal clients and word-of-mouth.

This vulnerability made Johnston anxious, so she took swift action. She added an outside sales department for the first time in the company’s 50-plus years. No longer would her team simply just take orders, they would have sales activity metrics and sales goals. Her team, with the help of their coach, created a customer journey map.

When COVID-19 hit, her sales team put that customer journey map to good use and adopted her “connector mindset.” They called customers to be of service and helpful — not to sell them a new gear. “We asked the simple question, how do we help you accomplish your goals, in these difficult times?” Johnston said. “And we listened. By listening, we created deeper connections and discovered new opportunities.”

The type of leadership Johnston has exhibited was originally in direct response to outside circumstances of change that were dropped into her hands. First, the changes required self-acceptance of what she did not know and acceptance of an uncertain future. Then they required asking a lot of questions, seeking answers, getting internal and external help from others, creating strategies and executing them, and ultimately pivoting multiple times to create a sustainable, growing company in the face of outside tragedy.

Ruthie exemplifies what all of us can do. Ask for help within our companies, go outside our companies for additional help, think outside the box and be of invaluable service to our clients.

About the Author

Todd Palmer

Todd Palmer is the president of Diversified Industrial Staffing, a national skilled labor recruiting firm, based in Troy, Michigan. 
Contact tpalmer@diversifiedindustrialstaffing.com.