What A Bankruptcy Taught Me About Perseverance

Christopher Miller, Rocking M Media

May 22, 2017

You’ll never get another job. It’ll show up on your resume. They’ll see it on your credit report. These were my fears as our company, Miller Broadcasting, headed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in 1996.

I was 33 at the time, and scared to be going through something I believed had such a stigma. And I was scared the stigma was deserved, because somehow this was my fault.

But now it’s over 20 years later, our business is doing well and I see that bankruptcy as a lesson. By going through the fire, I learned how to Persevere.

My family’s been in the media business since the 1880s. We have worked in most major forms of media, including newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and online. These days our company, Rocking M Media, is headquartered in Manhattan, Kansas, and we own 31 radio stations. I co-own Rocking M with my mom, Doris, and my dad, Monte.

Media’s not only in my blood — it’s been my career. I graduated from Kansas State University in 1986 with a BS in radio and television and immediately began working for my family’s media businesses. I started in the collections department at TeleGraphics, our newspaper business, and as vice president of sales for Miller Broadcasting, our television company. That was my job in 1996, when we faced our biggest crisis yet.

The main source of revenue for our Kansas City TV station was the Home Shopping Network. But that year, after HSN was sold to Barry Diller’s Silver King Broadcasting, the company reduced its payments to us by half. Silver King was looking to cut expenses as much as it could, and that meant cutting our budget.

We had taken out hefty loans to build the station, and with the reduced payments, the only way to restructure those loans was bankruptcy.

It was my responsibility to formulate and negotiate many aspects of the bankruptcy, though as a family business we were all involved. I had to develop and prepare all our spreadsheets and documents for the bankruptcy plan we would submit to our creditors. But at first, I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 11. And we couldn’t use our trusted corporate counsel, so we had to search for a good bankruptcy lawyer.

I suffered a spiritual crisis to go along with my financial crisis. The well-being of our employees and their families was resting on my shoulders. Explaining to them that Chapter 11 was our only option was incredibly difficult. It was hard not to feel like I had screwed up.

But I soon realized that Chapter 11 doesn’t mean the end of a company. First, some practical advice if you do find yourself in a bankruptcy: Hire the best bankruptcy attorney you can afford and try to get as much work done up front as you can.

The orderly nature of the bankruptcy process allowed me to work through some of my concerns. It gave us the chance to keep working, whether that meant filing a report or attending a court date, and moving forward one day at a time.

It also helped that I had the support of my parents, who were also my co-owners. We all kept reminding each other that family is more important than business, and that helped get us through.

The bankruptcy also deepened my faith. I come from a strong Catholic family and you can be sure we said an awful lot of rosaries during that time.

We came out of the bankruptcy a year later with our debt renegotiated, still holding onto ownership of the company and our TV station. And I am proud to say we repaid everyone in full, and no one had to take a write-down on their debt. We eventually sold KMCI to the E.W. Scripps Company in March 2000, for $18 million, turning a nice profit.

But that wasn’t the end of our difficulties. For years the media landscape has been rapidly changing. Over-the-air has given way to cable, which is now giving way to online programming. Each change made it harder to make money from media’s lifeblood: advertising. Even though my family started in the newspaper business, we sold our last paper in 1998. And when we sold KMCI, we officially exited the TV business. We realized the TV-station business model wasn’t made for mom-and-pop owners like us.

In 1998 we were again challenged by our tight relationship with HSN when they tried to block the sale of our Kansas City television station to the NBC affiliate. We ended up in a jury trial in United States federal court — something that would have panicked me earlier in my career. But thanks in part to the lessons I had learned during bankruptcy, I kept my cool and it paid off. The jury sided with us and we sold the channel.

I now feel these stressful situations taught me to be more centered, relaxed and thoughtful about business. I examine deals more thoroughly, and deal with crisis more calmly.

These moments that have taught me about Perseverance have also helped me become an Evergreen executive. In fact, I think being Evergreen is the definition of Perseverance. And to me that means never giving up on your company, even when you must go through something you don’t think you can do, like a bankruptcy or having to restructure. It means finding a way to somehow get through it, because you realize you owe it to your company, your team, your employees and your family. You’ve got to do it somehow. There’s no other option.

Christopher Miller is the president of Rocking M Media.

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