Don Van Winkle

All CEOs Recall a Night They’ll Never Forget

April 20, 2017

The nurse said, ”Your blood pressure is too high and won’t qualify you for the life insurance policy.”

I easily empathize with the ups and downs, trials, and the Dark Night of the Soul experienced by most owner operators and CEOs. As CEO of our family supermarket chain, I remember waking up at 3 a.m. in the fall of 1998, the sheets drenched from feverish dreaming. Ten different pinball issues were bouncing back and forth as bells rang in my head:

  • Same store sales were down from a year before
  • Margins were suffering
  • Super Walmart was slated to enter the three geographic markets we served
  • Our bank was casting a wary eye in light of the pending competition; the new union head in New Mexico announced that we were squarely in the union’s cross hairs for organizing

My wife had smiled supportively yet reluctantly earlier that afternoon as she added our personal guarantees to north of $5 million on various financings. Oh, and I had just discovered that the CFO I inherited had fabricated his resume, and our primary supplier was selling product cheaper to a large volume competitor.

Sure, I probably had one too many cups of coffee in the supplier negotiations that afternoon, but I did not expect to have the nurse taking my blood pressure for the key man life insurance policy required by the bank tell me, ”Your blood pressure is too high and won’t qualify you for the life insurance policy. Go lie down for a while and see if you can calm down.”

Fortunately, I did calm down. But facing my own mortality and possibly compromising my health only heightened my roiling mid-night pinball issues.

The next morning I arrived at work early knowing what I had to do. I walked into the CFO’s office and fired him. Then I sat at his side as he cleared his desk and drove him to the car rental office to arrange for a one-week transition vehicle. I didn’t want him driving the company truck any longer. I did this all in a sleep-deprived fog. It was a painful time, but necessary action, that resulted in thick, and ultimately beneficial, scar tissue.

It is that CEO scar tissue, overlaid with my other professional experience as a banker, CFO and investment banker that enables me to understand at a gut level that if you fall to the ground you are not a failure. Rather, it’s when you don’t get back up that you fail, not the falling.

As it turns out, that night I’ll never forget was the foundation for why I do what I do—which is support those who have mud on their face and doubt in their heart but refuse to ignore their call.