Do you remember the Y2K crisis? During the final years of the 1990s there was such concern over the “embedded computer software” switchover to year 2000 that people spent billions of dollars on capital goods to prepare for this transition. Surprise, there was no catastrophe. The vast majority of systems transitioned smoothly.

All that capital spent on technology and office support in the years leading up to 2000 led to an abrupt spending decline on office-related goods. A devastating 40% drop in revenues over an 18-month period revealed the house of card models of many upstart technology companies, leading to the very painful bursting of the tech bubble. This rapid fall-off in technology companies affected other sectors of the economy, like commercial real estate and office furniture. But unlike the current economic crisis, it did not affect the entire economy. Nevertheless, there are some important lessons to learn from that free fall experience.

Back in 2000 I found myself and the family company I was running, in the midst of this sudden and profound downturn. Many non-competitive family businesses started to compare notes. We were all reading the same business articles and management guru books. But we could not get from 40,000 feet to the grass roots level of what actions to take.

We knew we had to strengthen our balance sheet and improve cash flow, but we did not know what actions would work best. Thus, The List was born. It started out as an itemization of actions to trim costs, stay competitive, and still be prepared for the next uptick. Most of us brought our leadership teams together and worked the list for our specific situation. We would now all agree that it helped us weather that storm. Many of those same companies made record profits once the turn-around began.

Eight years later, the current storm has turned into a category five hurricane. As a result, the list has resurfaced. This time, with more social and business networks in place, we started to grow the list and categorize the actions. It is now referred to as 100 Action Thought Starters for Surviving a Severe Downturn.

It now has a life of its own, growing daily, as more people refine and add to it.

Sources for the list come mostly from family business leaders who run mid-size companies and are close to the operations. However, it also includes the more actionable concepts from management experts, like Tom Peters and Jack Welch.

 Here are a couple items from each category.


  • Continuously estimate the depth (degree of severity) and length (timeline projection) of the downturn in your specific markets.
  • Make your calendar one of your most strategic documents by not only scheduling meetings, but also scheduling time for working on key issues impacting your performance in the downturn.

Family Leadership

  • Tap into the wisdom and experience of senior generation leaders who have likely experienced two or three downturns in their career.
  • Accelerate the range of responsibility for the younger generation, keeping in mind that some young people will rise to the occasion when tested.


  • List every benefit provided and quantify amount company provides each employee (healthcare ins, vacation days, sick days, FICA, 401k match, etc.).
  • Lure your competitor’s best talent.


  • Strengthen banker relationships – Meet with banker(s) and discuss current arrangements/covenants, and other possible changes.
  • Improve order-to-cash cycle by sending out invoices as soon as possible, not waiting for end of week or other set time for batching.


  • Audit inventory and reduce slow moving, obsolete items with special sale, return to vendor or dispose.
  • Defer capital expenditures. Purchase essentials (repair & maintenance) and invest in selective developments for new services, products, channels.


  • Review Shingo Award assessment list ( for areas of improvement to world-class status.
  • Eliminate the 8 wastes of Lean: overproduction, motion, inventory, waiting, transportation, defects, underutilized people, extra processing.


  • Consolidate plants.
  • Increase use of energy efficient practices (e.g. replace expensive lighting).


  • Use the digital world more for promotions—e-mail blasts, website e-commerce.
  • Do not stop marketing and selling efforts, but adjust approach.


  • Visit all major customers—thank for business, seek input on outlook, discuss needs of your products, services and any opportunities.
  • Ask customers where your company can save their company money.


  • Increase pricing if in niche markets with limited competition.
  • Implement an environmental surcharge (for trash, recycling, hazardous waste handling, green material usage, etc.).

Business Development

  • Analyze sales and profitability of each product offering and prune non-strategic, low profit products.
  • Seek lower-priced, fire-sale acquisition opportunities, particularly those where the seller may provide the financing or take an earn-out.


  • Increase use of technology—move quicker to on-line ordering, tracking, and shipping.
  • Reduce the number of computer hardware and software license fees.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” says Warren Buffet. We can learn and apply many actions now that will get us through this storm and be much stronger when conditions improve. Now is a time for deep leadership thinking and quick execution. Clinical studies demonstrate that the best antidote for depression is action. So instead of overly lamenting about our dire condition, the healthiest thing to do is to act. Hopefully, The List helps trigger you and your team to meaningful action.

And as the sun is sure to rise in the morning, so too will the birds be singing when this storm subsides.