Saturday, March 19, 2011

Will Tyree partners be true to his word?

I read sadly Wednesday night of the passing of James Tyree, the financier who rose to lead Mesirow Financial for nearly 20 years and the force who rallied a group of investors to buy the bankrupt Sun-Times newspapers with the intent of inventing a new business model for the ailing publications.

Whether Tyree's efforts come to fruition remains to be seen. My heart goes out to his family for their loss. And my thoughts and prayers are also with my former colleagues at Sun-Times Media, many of whom I am sure are pondering how the death of the 53-year-old leader of the investment group that saved their jobs will affect them.

By many accounts, both published and word of mouth, Tyree was more than a successful businessman.

On one hand, he was known as a man who had fought a number of health issues over the years, ranging from diabetes to eye surgeries to a double transplant to the stomach cancer he was fighting when he died of an accidental air embolism linked to the removal of a dialysis catheter.

But Tyree also was known as the South Sider who drove a forklift and won scholarships to finance his education before heading to Mesirow, where he worked his way up through the ranks to lead the financial powerhouse.

He had a self-professed passion for newspapers. When he led the charge to buy the Sun-Times company, he told people he believed he could save 1,800 jobs, and he told WBBM radio leading up to the purchase that he thought he could turn the struggling company around but would have to hit the “reset” button.

Now in its second year of ownership, it's clear that he could not save all 1,800 jobs – by my count, the company axed in the neighborhood of 100 people last fall and winter, including me. There have been more cuts since the first of the year as well, including some recent one in the Chicago offices.

All the same, when Tyree emerged as the leader of the group seeking to buy the Sun-Times papers, very positive, encouraging anecdotes about the man began to surface – that he was a man of integrity who treated his employees fairly, and that if anyone was capable of righting the foundering Sun-Times, this savvy businessman could.

And yet within the Sun-Times company, at least among us everyday Joes who put the papers out and set the websites in order each day, there were many skeptics.

There had been too many years of leadership by incompetent boobs and little to no communication – or worse, outright lies – from upper-level executives who either thought no news from them was good news for us, or believed that their deceptions would prevent panic and were therefore justified. There had been micromanagers who refused to trust their subordinates to do the jobs they were trained to do well, which fostered further resentment and despair.

Ultimately, this kind of managing virtually destroyed what little employee morale remained in the post-Conrad Black era, and it taught the the rank-and-file to view many executives as little more than liars intent on screwing all the little people or complete incompetents who had risen up a la the Dilbert principle.

But some of us – I was one – found reason for optimism in Tyree's bid to buy the Sun-Times papers. I tried to share that optimism with those around me. At one point, I told the one executive I knew had come to trust that I'd shave my head in celebration on the day they closed the deal.

“Why would you do that?” he asked.

“Just to give people something to laugh about, to feel better,” I replied.

It worked. The day the deal closed, I awoke, checked the news to be certain, and did just as I'd said. And when I arrived at work, there were smiles, grins and even a couple of guffaws.

And later that afternoon, I saw that executive walking across the newsroom when he glanced my way, stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed, “You did it!” His smile of amused disbelief was gratifying. I nodded, adding, “I said I would.” And similarly, I trusted Tyree to try to do what he said he would do – try to save the Sun-Times papers.

For the sake of those who remain, many of whom I hold dear, I hope the investors Tyree led will be true to his plan and not make him out to be a liar.