Ian MacKechnie

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 It was 1998, and Ian MacKechnie was in hot water. The chairman, CEO and president of Amscot Financial, a financial services firm, had been indicted by a grand jury after a subsidiary selling insurance was busted in a sting operation by the Florida insurance commissioner. The charges against MacKechnie were eventually dropped, but the legal fees nearly bankrupted the company. However, MacKechnie rallied Amscot back from the edge, and last year, the company hit revenue of nearly $85 million. Smart Business spoke with MacKechnie about how he learns from failures, creates a corporate culture and communicates with employees.

Stick to the fundamentals of business.
You have to have the right strategy. You have to execute well. You have to develop a good culture, and you have to create a good structure.

These four things are the fundamentals of business. You have to attract talent and have good leadership. How can I possibly be leading in units that are 150 miles away?

You need a structure of leadership, and then make sure you walk the talk. One (mistaken word) and you’ve blown it all because they won’t trust you. If you are going to run an organization with a lot of people, they have to know where they stand with you. The truth comes out very quickly in life.

Develop a culture comfortable with change.
People understand we have to change, and, if we don’t change, the downsides are much greater. We all accept and understand it, and it is done in a positive manner.

It’s not easy because none of us like change. If you are focused on your business and industry, you will hopefully be making these changes in small incremental steps that no one will feel too wrenching.

But when they look back in two years, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we’ve really changed a lot.’ But as they go through it, they aren’t feeling it too much. That’s why it’s important.

If we leave it too long, then there will be some major changes because we will have to catch up. We have to make some big cutback or whatever, which should have never happened if we had been managing our business correctly and if we had been staying close to the fundamentals of the business.

Look at failure as feedback.
There is no failure; there’s just feedback. You have to handle it as feedback. What it’s telling you is that you got it wrong this time, now go do something else. Your timing was wrong, and it just didn’t quite work.

That is what is great about the free market system. We are here to meet the needs of the consumer. You really do learn from your failures and not from your successes.

I learned a long time ago that problems are opportunities. You tend to get going when you have these problems. It focuses the mind, because most entrepreneurs have a lot of money invested themselves.

This is not some corporation taking the hit. This is you taking the hit. We’re going to make mistakes, and we try to make sure our people know that. Things are going to happen, but we just make sure we don’t repeat that mistake. Things happen, and don’t be frozen by them.

Communicate throughout the organization.
We are continually talking to our people. We are spread throughout 14 Florida counties at almost 140 separate office locations. We are able to stay in communication by e-mail and continually, numbers are coming across my desk and everyone else’s.

We are continually giving feedback. We are trying to get the numbers back quickly. I am watching the e-mails going back between district leaders and their branches so we can get a flavor of the pulse. We also do it by having anonymous e-mail systems. They can come in and send an idea that is anonymous because of the numbers.

A lot of it is one-on-one talking with the folks we are working with directly, through meetings and a continual dialogue of telephone calls where we are talking about where we want to be.

Foster a trusting culture.
The four things we remind people we look for are integrity, a degree of intelligence, energy or work ethic, and the ability to make it happen. You can have people that have the first three but can never make it happen.

But we also say if you don’t have the first, then the next three are going to kill you. It’s a culture of trusting, which is a two-way street. Folks have to trust us, and we have to trust them.

Continue to look ahead. You are trying to anticipate. You are saying, ‘Where are we going to be in five to 10 years?’ and then we are working into that. We are trying to see the trends.

We try to focus on a group of customers and then say, ‘How can we better meet their needs and how are these needs going to change?’ Things are happening a lot faster in the past, but you have to stay focused. Many businesses lose their focus, and it’s a big temptation for businesses to drift into other areas really they shouldn’t be in.

HOW TO REACH: Amscot Financial, (800) 801-4444 or www.amscotfinancial.com