General BusinessLeadership & Careers

On the Brink: 5 CEOs Who Almost Pulled the Plug

Every successful business leader has likely wanted to throw in the towel more than once. However, this feeling of defeat can often come just before a triumph. The ones that persevere and know when to change their strategy will ultimately end up successful.

Below we explore how five leading business figures rolled up their sleeves and overcame tough times.

1. Craig Weatherup, PepsiCo

In 1993, Craig Weatherup was the CEO of PepsiCo when it found itself embroiled in a major scandal. Reports surfaced claiming that a syringe was found in a can of Diet Pepsi in Washington State. The following week, over 50 separate claims of product tampering were made and the company fell into a PR meltdown.

Because Weatherup and the company believed that the allegations were false, they sought to front the media and call out the hoax for what it was. With help from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), Weatherup appeared on national television. And, luckily, he managed to get hold of security footage of a woman putting a syringe into a can of diet Pepsi. However, his strong resolve and calm in the company’s time of need held them in good stead throughout the whole process.

2. David Neeleman, JetBlue

JetBlue pride themselves on their customer service. However, in 2007, the company was faced with an uncontrollable natural force in the form of a deadly ice storm. They were forced to cancel over 1,000 flights. The backlash was terrible and passengers were stuck in airports for nearly a week. Customers were particularly enraged as the company had a policy of never cancelling flights. And they took to the internet to voice their frustrations.

However, JetBlue’s CEO David Neeleman acted quickly and responsibly to quell the matter. Without blaming the weather for the mayhem, he wrote a public letter of apology to all those who had been affected which outlined the ways he was going to compensate passengers. He then appeared on television and YouTube to offer his apologies. Although the ice storm cost the company US $30 million, JetBlue soon recovered and is now ranked among the world’s top airlines.

3. James E. Burke, Johnson & Johnson

In 1982, seven people were killed after taking capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. The medication was available over-the-counter and this contributed to the widespread panic that ensued. CEO James E. Burke, however, acted quickly and saved a major disaster to the company.

Burke held a major news conference and announced that the capsules would no longer be available over-the-counter. He sincerely apologised and said that he was sorry that the company had not acted sooner. He also established triple-sealed packages to ensure that products couldn’t be tampered with. Burke has since been named among the greatest CEOs in history and is often cited as the best example of how to handle crisis management.

4. Peter Bijur, Texaco

In the age of corporate responsibility, allegations of racism are a sure-fire way to send a company into a PR meltdown. In 1994, a group of African-American employees sued the oil giant for racial discrimination, using secret recordings of conversations between Texaco executives as evidence. And this soon prompted the powerful Reverend Jesse Jackson to call for a public boycott of the company.

CEO Peter Bijur was in a difficult situation but he found a solution by listening to the right advice and adopting a good strategy. He immediately suspended the executives, awaiting further investigations. Then he spoke publically about his embarrassment and apologised for any wrongdoing and offence. The company launched an internal investigation and established a rigorous anti-discrimination procedure to ensure the problem didn’t happen again.

5. Kathryn Minshew, The Muse

At age 25, Kathryn Minshew co-founded The Muse, a networking site for young professionals. With over US $28.7 million in funding from 22 investors, along with 15 million professionals using the site, it was an instant success. But it wasn’t such an easy road.

A year earlier she co-founded Pretty Young Professionals, a career networking for young professional women. She woke up one morning to find she had been restricted from accessing her website due to a disagreement with the other co-founders.

She’d invested her life savings into the project and was distraught. However, instead of pursuing a lengthy litigation process, she chose to start anew. She was accepted into Y Combinator, an investment model for startups, and she set about creating The Muse, what she soon discovered to be a much more fruitful project.

Crises can strike any business. However, if you’re prepared to think calmly, listen to the advice of trusted advisors and do everything in your power to find a solution, your business will be in safe hands.


Talk To
Neil Parker
Subscribe to our newsletter

Get informed about our business all the time, whatever you are. Read whenever you want.