All on the Line: An Interview with Sarah and Scott Buell

I met Sarah Buell when she and I were paired in a formal mentorship program two plus years ago. She was the finance leader for Buell Consulting. I think it was in our second meeting when I learned that her company was in real financial trouble and looking for options. Her husband, who had been with the company, had been laid off. The existing leadership team was not working together well. A president who had been brought in to turn things around was released. The company, once a leader in its field, was in a downward spiral.

One of the options that Sarah and Scott put on the table for company owners to consider was selling the company to them. Months later, that is exactly what happened. Scott and Sarah Buell became the owners. Scott today is CEO and Sarah is the CFO.

They are husband and wife – and they are a BOLD team. A few months ago, I asked Sarah what she’d learned, and she said (I’m paraphrasing), “People talk about transformation like it’s some big thing. But really, it’s just a series of smaller changes based on hard decisions and then following through on them.” It sounds so simple! But we all know it’s not and often, doesn’t happen.

I caught up with the two of them recently for an update about their experiences and lessons learned. Before we get to them, let me put these lessons in context. Stepping into this challenge, Scott and Sarah put everything on the line: Scott and Sarah are young and they have three small boys. If the company failed, they would lose everything. Talk about a burning platform. They literally had to make it work – as much as they wanted to make it work. Here are 10 lessons they shared from their rapid turnaround of Buell.

  1. Believe in the vision: They knew the challenge they were walking. They were eyes open considering the financial, customer, employee, and organizational challenges before them. But they could see beyond these challenges to a BOLD vision for the company. 

  2. Take action: When I asked them about being BOLD leaders, Scott said, “I’ve been thinking more in terms of making tough decisions and making as many of them as possible. Then taking the necessary actions to implement those decisions.” The rest of this list demonstrates some of those hard decisions and actions.  

  3. Set a BOLD agenda: They laid out a plan to be profitable and back on a growth path within quarters. They stabilized in months and have had some historical high quarters even as COVID rolled in.

  4. Enroll key personnel and eliminate non-performers as quickly as possible: This is always a tough one. So, who was key? Again, Scott: “We knew which individuals were managing active client work and were therefore critical. Our key personnel are client facing – that’s who we focused on retaining. The folks who were less visible to the clients was where there was redundancy. That also happened to be where there was a lot of the change resistance.” So in addition to some people changes, there were also a number of work realignment and restructuring changes. Sarah continued, “There was denial, too much comfort in certain roles, and I don’t think there was accountability [in the management team]. Which sounds strange, but prior to new ownership, there wasn’t accountability.”  (Actually, sadly, I wish that was weird, but far too often, true.)

  5. Be open and help employees understand what success looks like: Sarah said, “We have quarterly meetings. Our team knows what we’re doing. They know what’s down the road as far as new clients, business developments, and they also see where we’ve been. They see where we’re meeting and exceeding our goals. They see all the work and passion Scott and I put in the business. In the day-to-day, we’re in the trenches as much as everyone else.” Scott added, “The business is doing better than it has in a long time. Everyone feels that the company is here to stay and going places.”

  6. Instill brand passion: Scott and Sarah exude passion for their company and brand. They want to expand, grow, and enter into new markets. I asked for examples of how this brand passion shows up beyond the two of them. Sarah explained, “Our brand is our reputation with our clients. Before, we were a little bit of a dinosaur. We were stuck with old strategy despite the industry evolving, and we relied on outdated processes, practices, and ways of thinking. Now we have this more modern logo, but the most important thing we’ve done is focus on delivering much better service to our clients. We are also purposefully becoming more visible and known at industry-wide events.” Scott added, “Ten years ago, Buell was definitely the preferred vendor. The best. We wanted to bring that back. We don’t exist without our customers, and the people on our team are starting to get that. We also don’t exist without our employees, and we are grateful for the tough work they’ve done with us to turn things around.”

  7. Demonstrate commitment: Scott said they had to move, not by necessity, but because they needed a new environment for the new Buell. Investing in physical facility decisions are costly, especially in a turnaround situation. Moving to a newer, nicer office was one of those hard decisions they realized they had to make and execute for the greater good of the company, their team and culture. Sarah noted, “We invested in this space. We built it out. In part to show the employees that we’re here to stay, and because we are  invested in the business. We see the potential. We have skin in the game.”

  8. Follow your gut: They had information but noted that some decisions just require making a call using your gut instincts or judgement calls. As Scott described it, “We had made more room in our budget. The company had a healthy client base with active work – so we knew we could ultimately afford building out a new office space. And we had a good team, so we knew we could keep the work-in-hand moving.” Sarah (the finance person!) picked up, “We aren’t afraid to invest in anything that keeps us moving in the right direction. Those are easy decisions to make. We saw an opportunity to invest in more training for our team in our project management process. And created a couple different incentive programs, each centered around a specific goal, to further engage our team and to reward them for moving our company forward.”

  9. Build trust to be better: Asked why their leadership at Buell works so well, Scott said, “There’s a high level of trust, which is key in any leadership team. We trust each other to listen to each other’s feedback. We can challenge and question each other. We always have that communication and healthy debate. And at the same time, we’re always challenging each other to do more and do better – to a healthy degree.” Sarah observed that the trust they have between themselves and their team makes them efficient.

  10. Establish and live your core values: There is much more to this successful transformation story, but for this BOLD post, it seems fitting to end on Buell’s revamped core values. Defined for simplicity, to drive specific behaviors, and so that everyone can remember them, these values are not platitudes or, as you so often see, mere words on a poster. They are:

    • DO the right thing – (integrity)
      • It’s not just lip-service; integrity is a pay-to-play value for most companies, but it’s a central guidepost for how we behave
    • OWN your work – (accountability)
      • Set the next person up for success 
      • If you make a mistake, own it – don’t throw anyone else under the bus
    • SEEK a better way – (continuous improvement)
      • Challenge the status quo, always
    • ACHIEVE together – (we’re always a team)
      • Clients and vendors included

As we wrap, a final thought from Scott: “The hard decisions, especially… step into those. BE BOLD. Get it done and everything will be better. Then turn to the next decision.”

A couple questions for you:

  • What hard decisions have you been putting off? Why? 
  • If you’ve ever been involved in a turnaround, what lessons would you add to those you find here?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.