Whyte describes herself as a "crisis junkie."
from making her a troublemaker, her attitude makes
her just the opposite: Whyte, BS (IND ECON) '71, is
a turnaround professional, someone who specializes
in rescuing companies who've hit hard times. In her
current position as a principal with Jay Alix & Associates,
she has helped restructure companies such as Service
Merchandise, a subsidiary of American General Corporation,
and Regal Cinemas in Knoxville, Tenn., the largest
operator of screens in the United States.
chose her profession after working as a commercial
lender for the Houston office of the Continental Bank
of Chicago in the early '80s. Problems in the oil and
gas industry were affecting many of the bank's major
accounts, and Continental hit hard times. The bank
called in a team of crisis management experts, and
Whyte became interested in their activities. "It looked
exciting and challenging," she says. "I thought I'd
like doing it."
be an understatement. When Whyte takes a turnaround
team into a business, she focuses either on making
the company attractive to a buyer, or enabling it to
function profitably in its own right again. She's often
unfamiliar with the industry. Sometimes, she has a
few weeks to research and come up with a strategy;
other times, she gets a call and has to be on a plane
the same day to step into a completely unknown situation.
And whatever the situation, she knows she's facing
a crisis, where tension and hostility are high, and
communication is often low.
one instance, I had been one of three people to interview
for a job," she says. "The chairman called and asked
me if I'd come into the office that afternoon. I though
he was inviting me to lunch to discuss things further.
Instead, he took me into the board room where the company's
executive management were sitting around the conference
table. They had no idea why they were there. He said.
'This is your new CEO. I've got a plane to catch.'
And he left. I never saw him again, and there I was,
with 16 faces staring at me in shock. They didn't even
know their company had been in trouble.
a situation didn't exactly lead to an open-armed welcome
for Whyte. "The next day, there was extreme hostility," she
recalls. But she'd been in these types of situations
before, and she knew what to do.
first thing I always do is tell everyone the truth," she
says. "In many cases, the management doesn't understand
how bad the problem is. I tell them I'm the CEO, but
that I need them to work with me as a team." She then
privately interviews each individual, asking for his
or her thoughts on what went wrong, how things could
change, and whether the person is willing to be part
of the team. "If they're not, they should be gone," she
people, if they understand where the company needs
to go and why, and if they want to devote the time
and effort, become part of the team," Whyte says.
with the tense situations and hostility, Whyte encounters
other negatives. Frequent, unpredictable travel and
constant relocation play havoc with her schedule. She
is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days
a year. "It's tough on your social life," she says.
Being in unfamiliar cities with no support base of
friends or family is also difficult. And working in
hostile and sensitive environments sometimes puts Whyte
in potentially dangerous situations.
was in a small private plane once during a job where
I was appointed as an examiner by a bankruptcy court
to testify about the status of a gas company in bankruptcy," she
says. "The man who owned the company was under investigation
by the FBI for alleged acts of brutality. Our plane
made an unscheduled stop at an airport, and I decided
to get off the plane temporarily. When I was in the
airport, I received a phone call from a man asking
me if I really wanted to testify; perhaps I had something
better to do. Later that night, I had dinner in a restaurant
and again got a similar call. The man had to be following
me on another plane; there was no other way he would
have known where I was.
years later, the gas company owner was found dead on
the side of the road with 32 bullet wounds," Whyte
another situation, Whyte found things had been moved
around in her apartment, or lights had been left on
when she wasn't home. "Nothing was ever taken, though," she
says. In addition, she found that the office phones
and her apartment phone had been bugged.
these negative aspects of her job don't faze Whyte. "It's
a tough life, but turnaround professionals choose it
because we like it," she says. "We love problem-solving,
bringing everyone to resolution.
most rewarding aspect of her job, Whyte says, is building
the bond with a management team to get a company back
on its feet. The initially hostile situation where
the chairman had left her with the company's panicked
upper management ended with Whyte's earning the team's
respect and trust as they worked together to restructure
the company. "They were a group of very good individuals
who forged ahead to do what they had to do," she says. "We
made some very good friendships.
also satisfying to meet seemingly impossible challenges. "At
one aircraft manufacturing company, I had to lay 350
out of 400 people off on the second day because the
company had no money to pay its payroll," Whyte says.
Others warned her that temporarily shutting the plant
down was a big mistake.
told me you can't go dark in a manufacturing company
and bring it back to life," she recalls. "Seven months
later, I left the company with 600 employees (many
of whom they'd hired back after the layoff), having
sold eight airplanes to a regional carrier, and having
negotiated a 54-plane contract with the Air National
Guard. We sold the company, and it's been profitable
desire to create better situations for companies has
been key to her success - and she knows it's also key
to keeping her perspective when she has to get tough
and focus on the bottom line. "Usually, the job includes
major cost cuts, firings, and layoffs," she says. But
even though the end result will be positive, letting
people go is never easy. Whyte doesn't see that as
a weakness. "The day laying people off stops bothering
me is the day I need to get out of this business," she
has lectured at Krannert and also recently accepted
an invitation to participate in the 2001 Old Masters
program, which invites to campus leaders in their fields
who exemplify honesty, personal integrity, and a good
philosophy. In addition, Whyte is as a member of the
Krannert Dean's Advisory Council.
important to give something back," she says, explaining
that her bachelor's degree from Krannert has given
her a great advantage in the business world. Not only
did it help her land her first job, with Harris Trust
in commercial lending, it also helped her get into
Northwestern's MBA program, from which she graduated
Purdue education gave me a terrific foundation in finance
and marketing that has stood me in good stead for the
things I do today in my job," Whyte says. "I needed
the MBA for credentials, but I got my real education