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Leading the transformation

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In February 2008, Imperial Sugar Company experienced an explosion at its refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga. The accident, which killed 14 workers and injured dozens of others, shuttered the major refinery for more than a year and rocked stakeholders’ confidence in the company. Three years later, the company has transformed itself, largely due to the leadership of CEO John Sheptor.

EL: You’ve led your organization through an unprecedented transformation. You’ve not only ramped business back up, but you’ve expanded into new products and set new standards for safety within your industry. What leadership strategies made you and your leadership team successful?

Sheptor: For one thing, I made myself present within the workforce. A crisis is not a time to lead from the front office. My team and I were presenting a case for change and a vision. The best way for me to help employees align was to be in their midst, speaking to them and demonstrating my confidence that where we were going was going to be successful.

At times, I would go to the refinery at 5 a.m. to catch the night shift leaving, then stay until 9 p.m., so I could work with every shift. I did that often for weeks. I would be there all day, giving them moral support and encouragement, and talking to them on a practical level.

A big part of fear within an organization during a crisis is not knowing. So if the leader of the company is present, talking about facts versus rumors, you can quell a lot of distraction.

EL: Since the crisis, you’ve not only aligned your workforce, you’ve transformed your company from a commodity business to one with a growing portfolio of sweetener products. How did you make that shift?

Sheptor: We very in­tentionally took on the role of first movers. First movers don’t follow others into the change; they lead the change.

For example, we elected to assume leadership for safety standards within the industry, whether anyone else followed us or not.

Also, in January 2008, when the border with Mexico opened for free trade of sugar, we were the first to take an interest in a joint venture with a Mexican producer. Other companies have followed, but we were the first to step forward.

We also created a joint venture to develop a stevia-sugar blend, applying proprietary technology developed for another purpose to enhance the taste profile of stevia. We introduced organic blue agave syrup and organic fair trade honey to diversify our Wholesome Sweeteners portfolio, and we catalyzed a three-way venture to construct the first new sugar refinery in more than a decade. That’s going to prepare us to capitalize on the emerging consumer transition from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar.

That type of attitude and the willingness to assume the risks of being a first mover make all the difference in being successful.

EL: What advice would you give other leaders facing a crisis?

Sheptor: When your business faces crisis, it’s an opportunity to transform what you do. Organizationwide, you have the critical energy, focus and receptivity for change—if you act quickly. If you let the crisis linger, then you lose the focus, and the organization becomes distracted. So act quickly and inspire.

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