28 Jul July 28, 2020 – Wendell August Forge Will Knecht and Avoiding Burnout Manuel Astruc
There was no way we were going to fold the tent because
a tough circumstance happened.
Will Knecht is the Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer for Wendell August Forge; America’s oldest and largest forge, producing hand-wrought ornamental giftware in aluminum and other metals since 1923. In 2008, Will almost shut down his company as a result of the economic downturn, only to face an even greater challenge in early 2010, when his entire company burned to the ground two days after receiving its largest order ever. While Will credits divine intervention and supportive staff and community for his company’s revival, he said rising from the ashes challenged him to take Wendell August Forge higher than it had ever been before. Earnest and plainspoken, Will shares how setbacks and challenges can become the seeds of future success and greatness and how challenges can lead to surprising transformation. Will teaches Christian business owners these strategies, giving audiences actionable ways to live victoriously and recover quickly when they struggle.
Manuel Astruc – General Psychiatrist and Life Coach – Read interview highlights here
I realized that I was exhausted, I was cynical, I was not
feeling effective. I had all the class signs of burnout.
Manuel Astruc is a board-certified psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience and 50,000 hours serving clients face to face. Manuel works in the addictions field as the medical director of Saratoga County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. His own story of burnout inspired a better conversation about how to avoid or overcome the damaging effects of burnout. Manuel’s proprietary Burnout Recovery System called Your Next Act is designed to help business leaders overcome burnout and even avoid it in the first place. Manuel’s program is aimed at entrepreneurs that are suffering from self-inflicted sabotage to put an end to the cycle of never achieving the success they desire, and to balance their work, home, and personal life. As a featured speaker, Manuel coaches audiences of business leaders to experience more happiness, generate true success, and make a difference in their organizations and personal lives. His message was previously presented at M&T Bank and Rebuilding Together Saratoga.
So let me take you through the story of Wendell Auguste Forge. In 1978, my dad left a very cushy position at IBM to take a risk on the entrepreneurial dream, the dream of owning his own company. He left a very comfortable position at IBM and went out on his own. If you can believe it, he bought a company that was almost bankrupt and it was going nowhere fast, based in western Pennsylvania. Basically, my dad collected a lot of stuff: art, clocks, watches, and Wendell August Forge came available at the same time as he was looking. At Wendell August Forge, we handcraft metal giftware. So it was the classic entrepreneurial moment, where the right guy came along at the right time and made entrepreneurial magic. Again, that was 1978, and here we are 42 years later, still making magic and metal, still handmade. We do everything from Christmas ornaments, to serveware, to wedding gifts, and baby gifts in the B2C space. Then in B2B, we do award programs, we do commemorating significant events, and we do executive gifting. So that’s what we do.
It was really cool, when I came on board, my dad said, “Hey, if you want to give it a shot for a year, let’s test it out and see if you sense this is for you or not. If it’s not, we’ll sell the company. If it is, let’s, let’s take it to the next level.” So after a year, I just became enamored. I’m not artistic at all, but to be able to work with American artisans, who every day are making memories for families and for individuals and for companies created in metal, it’s such a great opportunity. I absolutely am honored to work with unbelievable craftsmen and people all over the company. We’re based in the north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is where our headquarters is. So we’re in the metal country up there with the Alcoa and US Steel and places like that, we’re right in the hub of all of that. Again, we’re still doing things essentially the way we’ve done it for almost 100 years: one at a time, by hand, and metal.
As you can imagine, it’s not easy to find a metal artisan today. We teach them all through an apprenticeship program, nobody comes to us knowing how to do what we do. So what we have found through some trial and error is, people who love to tinker with their cars, people who love to maybe mess around with wood or woodwork at home, those are the men and women who are best suited to become an artisan or craftsmen at Wendell August. Then once they do get involved with us and come on board, we take them through our training program. Again, because we’re artisinal and made by hand, there are employees who have been with us for 30 years and they’re still developing that craft and taking it to the next level. So it’s just a treat to work with such talented people, and I’m so proud that we make it in America as well.
Shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about the depression of 2008, the fire of 2010, the pandemic of 2020, and how Wendell August survived through them. I don’t know how you would characterize those three, but they have been seminal moments for Wendell August. Again, we had been around for so long and we have done well for so long. We’re not the biggest company, but what we do, we do with excellence, and that excellence has always translated to the financial performance of the company, up until 2008. In 2008, due to a myriad of experiences and things that we were implementing, right before Lehman Brothers goes under and the world falls apart, we had invested in a number of new initiatives that obviously, because of what happened after Lehman Brothers goes out in 2008, fell absolutely flat and sucked our cash down to almost zero.
As we had our annual retreat with our board of advisors, they looked at our balance sheet, they looked at what was happening, and they suggested to our family that we sell the assets, pay off our debts, take what’s left over, and move on. I’m a man of faith, so we as a family relied on the Lord and we didn’t take that advice first off and just say we agree. We took it to the Lord, we prayed, and we sensed that God wanted us to continue this work; we sensed the same just personally as well. We have grown up with our co-workers, our fellow employees; we had seen babies born, weddings, and little league games. So there was no way we were going to just pull the tent because a tough circumstance happened. How appropriate for startup entrepreneurs or smaller entrepreneurs, who every day are beating their head against the wall with a different circumstance which is difficult, to keep going, to keep plugging, to move forward, to take two steps forward and maybe a step back, but you’re still moving forward? That’s what we sensed in a way, that we had to keep going. We made the painful decisions in early 2009, we had to let a lot of people go; to be honest with you, about a third of our workforce. But just barely through 2009, we made it, we came out the other side, and we were still there on December 31st, 2009. In 2010, we’re still nothing great but just still making it barely.
Then in March of 2010, we get the largest order in our company history, and then two days later, our entire factory; our corporate headquarters and our flagship retail store, burn to the ground. The next day, I’m meeting with our insurance adjuster and he said, “Will, I’ve got bad news and I’ve got bad news. The first bad news is, 60% of small businesses that face such a dramatic negative event, fail. They go out of business, they never recover. Of the 40% who do, it takes them between six and nine months to get back operational.” Based on what I mentioned about how we were just barely getting by month to month after 2008, that was a non-starter for us. So this fire that absolutely devastated our physical plants, caused a lot of panic amongst our employees, as you can imagine. How am I going to pay my mortgage, how am I going to feed my family, this is the only job I’ve ever had; all understandable reactions.
While the fire was still raging Jim, we gathered as a group and there were about 25 employees at that time at the site. So we gathered as a group in a prayer circle and we said a very simple prayer, “God, we don’t know what’s happening, we know that you do. We trust you, show us what’s next. Amen!” It was as if a light bulb went off in that moment, and we got about the work of redefining and restructuring and recovering our business. Miraculously, we did! In five days, our workshop was back up and running; in two weeks, our corporate offices were fully functional; and in four weeks, we cut the ribbon on our new flagship store; all in rented facilities throughout our little community in western Pennsylvania. So what could have been an absolutely devastating event and put us out of business instead became a catalyst, and it was a catalyst for new thinking. We had to think differently, we no longer could just do business as usual because nothing was as usual.
So that adversity gave us the opportunity to think differently about our company. What was a local business or a regional business, thankfully, because of the providential hand of the Lord, has now become a more national player. We deal with some of the Fortune 500 on a daily basis, and what a blessing! We are shipping products all over the country and all over the world today. It’s because we were forced out of our comfort zone, but we didn’t quit; none of us quit. It is a testimony, again to a providential God, working through the amazing people that I work with. We not only survived 2008, but we survived and thrived through a devastating fire in 2010. By the way, that largest order in our history that we had gotten in early March, I was able to deliver 18,000 hand-crafted tickets to the Pittsburgh Penguins four weeks after the fire. So again, the resilience, the strength, and just the ability to get things done that was exhibited by my fellow employees is inspiring in such a way that the New York Times has written about us. USA Today, Fox News, the AP; all these places have picked up this story, the little company that could.
But again, for the entrepreneurs who are just pushing through, the startup men and women who are out there, you’re going to face adversity, you’re going to face difficult times. The enemy is going to attack your mind and tell you, “You should quit, you should roll it up, you should just give it up. Give up your dream, give up your hopes when adversity comes.” You’re going to be challenged to just sit in the fetal position and just curl up and cry. But I’m here to tell you, and Wendell August Forge is an example of that, that you can get through that by taking just the next step. You might not see the full picture of what’s before you and what 10 years down the road might look like, but if you just do the next right thing, things will work out. Again, as the Lord plans and as the Lord devises, things will work out. I just want to encourage you all that whatever adversity you’re experiencing now or you will be experiencing in the future, to keep going, lead that dream, lead those people who are involved in your dream, because they need your encouragement and your strength and your vision and your positive demeanor in those tough times. Now, I’m here to tell you that when I was in private with my family, there were times when I was in tears, when I just needed encouragement because I didn’t think I could go on. I got that from my family and was able to go back into the fray. But the folks I work with saw me hopefully, with strength and with the encouragement to take to the next right thing.
Wendell Auguste is more of a digital player today. So our web sales are about 40% of our business to business division. We sell through distributors throughout the country, that’s about 40% of our business. Then, our retail business is about 20% of our business. If you would rewind 10 years ago in the fire, our retail business was about 60% to 70% of our business, and then web and business to business were about 30%. So you see the dramatic change that we have made, but it has given us a global perspective on what we can accomplish. Again, through what could have been tragedy, it’s turned into opportunity. That’s how we looked at it, as an opportunity.
Problems and obstacles are actually opportunities for greatness, America needs to hear this today. Not only us as entrepreneurs, but America needs to hear this, that this time that we’re experiencing right now in 2020; with COVID, with the racial tension that we’re experiencing as a nation, these can be opportunities for America as a country to become the more perfect union that our founding fathers in our founding documents wrote about. But it is going to take us looking at this as an opportunity to be better as a nation, and to stop shooting each other, literally and figuratively, and looking for people to mess up. But instead, to say, I want to better understand you, I want to better understand your perspective, I want to work together to make America the best country it can be. I think adversity can be the best opportunity, and we as a nation, have an opportunity to go one way or another today. It’s my prayer that we as a nation rally together as we did after 9/11, and become that more perfect union.
Last year, we did about 20% of our sales through our retail stores, but this year, it’s been very difficult. Even after we were able to reopen, we’re just not seeing the foot traffic in our retail stores. So our website is picking up some of the slack and our B2B still seems to be moving forward strong, although we did lose some major orders as a result of the pandemic, especially. But again, we have the experience of conquering bigger foes than just what we’re experiencing today. So just the way we’ve responded to the issues that 2020 have presented to us, has been just immediately “Now, how do we become better through this? What do we need to change? What do we need to do differently? How can I as leader become better?” Those are the questions we’re asking, and we have made some great growth steps even in this time, because our minds were thinking about using adversity as opportunity.
One of the things that I do to deal with negative thoughts, it’s that biblical concept of taking every thought captive. The negative thoughts are real, it is real when we’re anxious or stressed when we’re wondering how we’re going to make payroll when we’re wondering why the launch of the new product didn’t do as well; those are real pressures and thoughts that we deal with in our minds. But instead of dwelling on the negative, what we need to do is take that thought captive, we need to recognize it as negative; not helping me, not helping my company. We need to throw it away, we need to get rid of it, but we get rid of it by replacing it with something that’s positive. So I happen to replace it with Scripture, I’ll read the Bible or listen to the Bible app to get my mind focused on the good. Or I will look at this negative situation and I will just change my question. Rather than woe is me, I’ll say, what out of this can we grab to move forward? So I’m just changing the question, but I’m just taking every thought captive.
Negative thoughts can paralyze the entrepreneur and paralyze the company, as well, because the speed of the leader is the speed of the game. We, as a leader, when we have these negative thoughts and we can’t take them out, we overburden our fellow employees with all this negativity that we’re sensing. When we’re small especially and don’t have a strong leadership group around us, we need to take that negative thought captive, get rid of it and replace it with positive: opportunity, scripture, writing a movie, writing a book, going for a run, clearing your mind, whatever it is. Taking every negative thought captive, getting rid of it, and replacing it is a key strategy. Our minds are such a battlefield, let’s recognize that the mind is truly a battlefield, but we can win, not only the battle but the war of our mind by controlling our minds better than we currently do.
You can find out more about me at WillKnecht.com. I have a little free gift for anybody who would like it on there, 7 Strategies to Control your Mind. So taking every thought captive is just one of them, there are six other strategies that I employ to make sure that my mind is set for success. I’d love to send it to any of you. Go to WillKnecht.com and just click on the link there, and I’ll email it to you. Secondly, the company’s website is WendellAugust.com, and you’ll see what our craftsmen and amazing artisans are able to create in metal; things of beauty, things that create memories.
Highlights from Manuel’s Interview
First of all, I want to talk about my own burnout. So I had been working nonstop since high school. I was smart in school and good at math and science, and people said you should be a doctor. I was like, “Sure, that sounds like a good idea. I’ll be a doctor, I gotta be something.” The primary criteria to be a doctor is you have to work hard. So I worked hard in high school to get good grades, I worked hard in college to get good grades, got into medical school, worked hard in medical school to be able to pass, and went to residency in psychiatry, where again, it’s all about working hard and spending a lot of hours doing what you’re doing to get good at it. About 12 years ago, after I graduated, my twin sister, Magdalena, had passed away from a brain tumor; she died in August 2008. The next month, I was sitting in a dark room and I was just absolutely miserable. I realized that I was exhausted, I was cynical, I wasn’t feeling effective; I had all the classic signs of burnout. I was looking at a picture of Magdalena across from me, and in that picture, you can’t even tell that she was going through chemo. I was very much in touch with how gracious she’d been the last years of her life, how she had handled adversity with such grace and dignity and love. I had everything going for me and I was absolutely miserable. That’s when I made a decision, I made a commitment. I drew a line in the sand that no matter what, going forward, I was going to figure out how I was going to enjoy the ride. That’s when I really started to make significant changes in my life.
Before talking about the changes that I started to make in my life, I want to mention a few of the classic signs of burnout. The actual diagnosis, it’s only very recently that it’s been recognized by the World Health Organization. For every diagnosis, what we want to be thinking of is that there’s a spectrum. Just like with height, if someone’s seven feet tall, we can say they’re really tall. But as you go from 5’9 to 6’2 to 6’4, there’s no clear cut off as far as when you go from being average to being tall. So with a diagnosis, there’s a spectrum. At some point, we draw a line and say, from this point here, you have this diagnosis, just under it, you don’t, but it’s pretty arbitrary. So there are three components to burnout that are used for the diagnosis: one is emotional and physical exhaustion, another is becoming very cynical or snarky in your attitudes, and the last is no longer feeling effective in your work or loss of efficacy in your work.
So with all of these symptoms, think of a scale of zero to 10. Let’s say on the energy and exhaustion, zero is you’re completely depleted, 10 is you’re full of energy; we can do the scale for all three of those. There’s no clear cut number on that scale where we say, this is the number where you now have burnout. But you can start to look at yourself, do some introspection to say, where am I on that scale for each of those? As you’re starting to notice more exhaustion, a worse attitude, and the sense of no longer being effective in your job, if you’re starting to move along that scale, there’s a couple of things to start to look at. The first is most people are feeling trapped in what they’re doing, they no longer have a future that looks different than their day to day grind. So looking for projects, aspects, things that are different than what you’re normally doing, that provide 10% of your day, more enjoyment, is critical. So making that feature bigger and doing things, even for a small part of the days that are enjoyable, have been found to be very helpful.
For me, what I started with was getting back to the basics, which was starting to exercise on a regular basis. I started with very low-key things, so it was more about building a consistent pattern rather than doing anything that was remarkable. I’d spend two or three minutes a day doing some push-ups, doing some crunches. My thought was basically if I can keep this up for a week or two weeks, I can add another five minutes of exercise down the road, but it was really about developing the practice and developing that habit. The second thing that I did was to completely revamp my nutritional plan, which was zero. I would stop at Dunkin Donuts for a bagel on the way into work, I would stop at a fast food place to grab lunch between patients. So I just became much more intentional with my nutrition. Then the third thing that I did was to optimize my sleep schedule. So it was much more scheduled saying, this is the time to go to bed, this is the time to wake up. Those were the three self-care things that I also included.
Having some element of balance is important. I think as entrepreneurs, we frequently find that the culture reinforces working hard. That’s a bragging thing, that’s a feather in our cap. Having time off on a regular basis is important to recharge the batteries. Not every entrepreneur is able to do that from the moment that they recognize they’re burnt out, but it’s certainly something that you want to start to put into planning; more time off and more time for things that rejuvenate and restore you.
I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer to whether taking two days off a week or taking two hours off every day is better, from my perspective. I think that how I work with people is to have them give what they’re able to do a try and let’s monitor the results of that. If it’s helpful, awesome. If it’s not, let’s change it up. But I don’t know that from my perspective there’s a right answer to that, everyone’s got to be different. I’ve committed to taking more time off during the week rather than during the day. So weekends have become a period of time that I’m working to disengage from work more regularly. That being said, I’ve had six kids and they’re just finishing up college, so time off is coming. I’ve been blessed, the kids are awesome to hang with, I couldn’t have a better time with them. The blessing with COVID for me has been that I’ve got two of my kids at home for the first time in forever, we have dinner together on a regular basis. That’s just been fantastic.
You can find me online at ManuelAstruc.com, the workshops that I do are on there. I also do morning musings on Facebook. Every morning before I start seeing patients, I’ll do three or four minutes of talking about leadership, happiness, success, mindsets, mental fitness. You can find all that on Facebook at Manuel Astruc Coaching.