What I've Learned: Walter Aspatore

Walter Aspatore discusses what he's learned after a lifetime in business.

By Kim Hackett August 29, 2014

WALTER “BUD” ASPATORE spent a lifetime making deals and turning around failing companies, first in the executive suites of Warner and Swasey Co., TRW and Bendix, then in his own firm, Amherst Partners, one of the Midwest’s largest investment banking and turnaround firms. Now semi-retired in Lakewood Ranch, Aspatore, 71, consults and serves on numerous corporate boards, including Methode Electronics, Silbond and Mackinac Financial Corp.  Locally, he is a mentor for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s new BIG [Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast] initiative for budding entrepreneurs.

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“I have more experience with failure than most people. There are very few mistakes I haven’t made, thankfully nothing catastrophic. When I first took over Cross and Trecker Corp. [a Michigan machine-tool manufacturer] in the early ’80s, we were struggling with heavy debt. We had this division that used grinding machines to smooth metal, lenses and glass to a fine finish. I assumed the prior losses in the division indicated a business that couldn’t be saved. I pronounced myself an expert and said, ‘This business is a turkey,’ so we sold it. I later figured out that under our ownership, the leadership was not progressive. However, people who knew the grinding machine business knew there was something there. As CEO, you’re usually not as smart as you think you are. I learned not to jump so quickly.”

“I go to a company’s bulletin board and can tell pretty quickly if I’m in a well-oiled organization.  Is there a bowling league? Do they have a company picnic? That tells you a lot about the culture and if people take pride in where they work. Nobody wants to go to their office or plant and say, ‘I want to screw up today.’ People want to succeed. You have to figure out how to mobilize the troops. It’s about getting resources to people and letting them do their thing and getting the hell out of the way.”

“The tone at the top sets the mood for everything else. You can’t have executives who sit in the corner office and issue decrees. You need leaders who roll up their sleeves and walk the plant, who talk to everyone.

“If you want to know what’s wrong with an organization, go to the bottom rungs. People who sweep the floors will have a reasonable pulse.”

“The hardest part of a turnaround is the human element. Nobody wants to get rid of employees, especially those who have been there a long time, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet."

“When you are looking for solutions to a problem, people are going to embrace it more readily if it’s their own idea. That management style takes a bit more time than an autocratic style but it works. When you are in a turnaround situation, you have your own agenda and want to get on with it, but that’s not effective. Organizations are dependent on people and a well-motivated workforce is one of the best weapons you have.”

“Most entrepreneurs know where they want to go; they don’t necessarily know the sequence. When I’m mentoring, I tell them to know your subject matter, do your research in the marketplace and assemble the best team. Don’t expect anybody to hand you something.”

“My wife and I like the Sarasota-Bradenton area because of the arts and the beaches. It’s small yet cosmopolitan. We were looking for a place nine years ago and toured Florida. There’s good value here compared to Naples and other places.”

“Even though there are a lot of wealthy retired people here, there aren’t a lot of sophisticated sources of money for entrepreneurs. We have banks on top of the food chain and venture capital, but there is not a source of money where I could send entrepreneurs to get early startup or seed money.”

“The local economy is dominated by health care, tourism and a lot of what goes on at Mote and Ringling.  I grew up in a manufacturing economy and this is a different economy than what I’m used to. The question is how do you take those strengths and amplify them?”

“The most important grade I received in school is ‘works and plays well with others.’”

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