Ask Greg Brenneman—a respected CEO who has run Burger King, Quiznos and PwC Consulting (PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting and tech services unit)—to identify his toughest moment as a leader, and his voice turns grim.
“The low point for me was Thanksgiving 1994,” Brenneman recalls. At the time, he was the new president of Continental Airlines. “We were going to run out of cash on January 17, 1995.”
Brenneman told his boss, Gordon Bethune, about the firm’s dwindling cash flow. They weighed two options: declaring bankruptcy or working with their eight largest creditors to set new terms to help the company survive.
The pair decided to present their “go forward plan” to the creditors. As he explained how the plan would fix Continental over the long term, Brenneman says, the creditors “all started yelling at me.”
Instead of yelling back, Brenneman waited for them to settle down. Then he calmly said, “I’m going home to watch TV,” and left the room.
“The key to problem-solving is the question, ‘Who’s got the problem?’,” he says. “The creditors were in hock for $10 billion when the entire equity of Continental was about $175 million. It was clearly their problem.”
After Brenneman left, the creditors realized they needed to stop screaming at him and listen to his plan to recover their money. So 20 minutes later, they pleaded for him to return. He did—and outlined his plan.
“Fourteen months later, they were all paid back 100 cents on the dollar,” Brenneman says.