How a World War II movie helped me turn around a software company, save jobs and make shareholders rich
When my father learned that I had been drafted by a board of directors to lead a failing software company through a financial turnaround, he reacted: “But, what do you know about running a business?” The words stung – but he was right: I knew nothing. I’d been an attorney for a wide variety of businesses for years – but had never been responsible for a bottom line, never done a budget, never managed people and had never created a strategic plan!
I began looking everywhere I could for advice. I devoured business and management books by the carload. Most often, I found good counsel in the talented people that surrounded me. They brought the experience and skills to the corporate table that I lacked. But, the single most unusual source of wisdom came one night when my CFO, Paul Byrne, and I drank a bottle of Thompson’s Bourbon Whiskey in the corporate house we shared in Wisconsin and watched the 1990 movie The Memphis Belle.
The namesake of the movie is an Army B-17 WWII bomber (“Flying Fortress”) whose crew had flown 24 missions into enemy territory. According to military policy, the crew would return home if they returned safely from their 25th mission. The movie tells the story of that final mission.
We were in the early days of our trench warfare trying to save the company, so it was natural that we felt a kinship with the pilot and crew of the Belle. As we drank and watched, we began to discover business rules and management lessons within the war-movie plot. By the time we were done, we had Ten Rules of Management From The Memphis Belle. Then, Paul came up with an 11th. I cussed and said “you can’t just have an odd number like 11” – so we replayed the movie in our heads and thought of 9 more.
And thus we discovered the 20 Lessons From The Memphis Belle. We had them printed up on little cards (reproduced on this page) and handed them out to employees. We gifted them to strategic partners and customers. We printed them on posters and hung them in our offices. When we ran into a hard issue in the business we would refer to the Rules: more often than not there was a rule that was right on point. Each time we’d be amazed, but then we’d say: “Ah! The Rules know all!”
I credit these rules with getting me through the very successful turn around of the software company. Even today, I see the continued applicability of these rules to the difficult times we face today.
I am putting the finishing touches on a book describing the Memphis Belle and explaining their applicability to real life situations. In the mean time, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you have about the Rules. I’d love to hear about any opportunities you have had to apply the rules.
A synchronistic postscript…
Following is an email I recently sent to Paul Byrne, Art Petty and Scott Harward., who were all on the turnaround crew with me:
We made friends with a couple we met at the Greenbank Grille here on Whidbey Island. Kathy and Gary Hammer had us over for dinner tonight. Gary had a poster on his wall of the woman that is painted on the side of the Memphis Belle. The poster is signed by Petty, the artist.
Trying to show my superior knowledge and extraordinary intelligence, i said, “That’s the picture on the Memphis Belle.”
June told them the story of the Memphis Belle rules. Gary said “come downstairs and I’ll show you something. We followed him downstairs to a room lined with more Petty posters and a scale model of the Belle and patches issued to the Belle crew and a pile of Belle memorabilia. He reached into a drawer and handed me a photo. “I want you to have this “.
That’s the photo at the top of this page. A black and white photo with the actual signatures of the crew. Holy cow, Batman!