By John Kenyon

CORRIDOR – University of Iowa Community Credit Union President and CEO Jeff Disterhoft summarizes nicely the reason why we have asked a number of area business leaders the same question.

Hoping to mirror the success of last spring’s first “Lessons Learned” issue, we sought to again tap into the wisdom of the Corridor’s best and brightest. Rather than simply ask about lessons learned, however, we decided to get more specific: What is the most important lesson you learned from the recession, and how will that affect you moving forward?

Mr. Disterhoft’s answer both responds to the question and explains our motivation in asking it: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” For Mr. Disterhoft, it suggests learning from and taking advantage of an adverse situation. For the Corridor Business Journal, it means using the dark time — and what we hope is our continuing emergence from it — to light the way forward with one last look over our shoulder.

For many in the business world, the lessons learned in this recession can be piled atop those learned in past downturns and recessions. Tim Terry, founder and partner with Terry, Lockridge and Dunn and WorldTrend Financial, cited a lesson from the recession in the early 1980s.

“After seeing interest rates get to 18 percent in the early ‘80s, I thought it could not get worse,” he said. “Then it did. John Hughes, the president of Hills Bank, was shot by a despondent borrower. That event helped me put into context not only the impact of the recession but also the importance of perspective. At the end of the day it is only money!”

While he said he was fortunate to recognize the warning signs of the latest recession early, he was involved in a number of projects that meant he would need to ride it out. Those included expansion of his firms, construction of a new office building and leading Iowa City’s Willowwind School board as the institution moved to a new, larger facility.

“Add a flood to the equation and you have a sense of why 2008 quickly eclipsed 1979-1982 in my mind,” he said. “Both experiences confirmed the importance of having a game plan in place and sticking to it. When everything going on around you is upside down: it is more important than ever for you to remain focused on the plan. And, at the end of the day remember: it is only money!”

We received several more responses to our query. Here are a few more of our favorites.

I have always liked this quote by John Maxwell: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”
— Steve Gray, chairman, ImOn Communications

The recession reinforced my belief that cash is king and that overleveraging investment real estate is perilous.
— Scott Byers, NAI Iowa Realty Commercial

A lesson that I learned is that one of the secrets to being effective is to understand the people that you are working with. It enables you to envision ways to create value for them and your business.
— Scott Fisher, McCrossen Consulting

Recessions reinforce the need for a business to stay close to its customers, and get positioned to take advantage of the recovery.
— Jon Dusek, president and CEO, Armstrong Development Co.

One of the lessons learned is the painfully slow process that the federal government has established to secure most of the assistance that was available. I am sure many businesses were forced to close their doors due to the bureaucratic processes that delayed the assistance.
— Duane Smith, president, TrueNorth Companies

For an entrepreneur, a recession can be a great time to expand your business and take market share from your competitors.  While other competitors are cutting costs and services offered to their customers, this becomes a prime opportunity to increase market share by taking advantage of this situation.
— Thomas Cardella, president, Thomas L. Cardella & Associates

I believe the most important rule of life is: avoid overconfidence — and the recession was another reminder of this rule.
— Tom Cilek, senior vice president, WestBank

I’ve learned a few things from this great recession, and one is that writing is changing and we should all use more bullets. I’ve also learned that:

• You can sell a good idea even in a serious economic down turn (iPads);
• Change is accelerated in a recession — it substantially broadens the early adopter pool (smart phones and apps)
• Value and true benefits should lead messaging (Walmart: Save Money, Live Better)
• Recessions are great times to reevaluate and relaunch brands. (Starbucks)
• Recessions are like floods. You never return to normal, just a new normal.

— Mark Mathis, partner and director of cool, ME&V Advertising + Consulting

Lessons learned or reminded of:
Importance of strong client relationships.
Significance of multi-year agreements
Importance of strong cash position
Attitude to planning ; don’t over-evaluate or you’ll miss the window of opportunity
— Al Ruffalo, chairman and CEO, RuffaloCODY

Sometimes the biggest opportunities lie in the smallest of places, so live with positive expectation for good in all things.
— Scott Sanborn, director, Tipton Community Development

To save in the good times and live within your means will give you a reserve when needed. Realize that many things in life are more important than money; focusing on them will bring you through the recession, and when it is over, you will be a better person.
— Verne Folkmann, Lepic-Kroeger Realtors. CBJ