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Piece-fully Switching Gears: Greg Charleston

Piece-fully Switching Gears: Greg Charleston

Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround and restructuring work?

Charleston: Like most turnaround consultants and crisis managers, I stumbled into it by accident. After grad school, I had joined Ernst & Young in the financial consulting group. At the time, it was called the Special Services Group, which did some things that I thought were sexy, like business valuation, litigation support, and corporate finance.

But the group also did restructuring, mostly bankruptcy restructuring. I had no idea at the time what that even was and had no interest in it. But the first project I was on was a large bankruptcy. That got me started down the road to being a turnaround person.

The truth is, I hated it. I took another job as a VP of finance for a publishing company. About five years later, recruiters started calling me because the economy had turned for the worse, and recruiters were looking for people with turnaround experience. They found me and talked me into joining Conway MacKenzie, which is when I got into it for the long haul and grew to like it.

Q: They made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?

Charleston: I resisted it. Initially, I thought, “There’s no way I’m going back into that crazy life. It’s just out of control.” But the recruiter convinced me that I could do this work and still manage to have some sort of life. I managed to make it work, but it’s pretty demanding.

Q: Why did you hate restructuring initially, and how did you come to make a career out of it?

Charleston: It was probably because I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started. I felt like I was in over my head. A turnaround case can move at such a rapid pace, I felt like I couldn’t keep up. I felt like I was failing at it.

The second time around, I had more business experience and more confidence, and I started to get good at it. That made all the difference.

Q: What have been some of your favorite or most gratifying engagements along the way?

Charleston: My favorite was Dippin’ Dots. About 10 years ago, Dippin’ Dots had filed Chapter 11 and was in the process of marketing the company for sale. The bank required the company to hire a chief restructuring officer. This role was as much a CEO role as a CRO role. I was leading the company, both operationally and through the bankruptcy process.

The fun part of it was that it got my whole family interested in what I did. The kids were young then, and they immediately became very interested in what I did for a living. They now had a vested interest in this company surviving. They put a lot of pressure on me to make sure that they could still have Dippin’ Dots.

It was a fun company. There was a good group of people there, and we navigated through a very successful sale process. The outcome was a huge success, so that is by far my favorite engagement.

And I took 11 a.m. ice cream breaks every day. They had a freezer in the break room for the flavors of the day, so I tried every ice cream flavor Dippin’ Dots offers—that’s a lot.

They make a lot of movies in Atlanta, so occasionally I will sign up as an extra in a movie.

Q: Are you still a fan, or did you burn out on Dippin’ Dots?

Charleston: I’m still a fan. I still know some people there, and I still get free Dippin’ Dots when I ask, which I have done for events like the neighborhood pool party and somebody’s birthday. A lot of neighbors know me as the Dippin’ Dots guy.

Q: What key milestones in your career have made you the professional you are today?

Charleston: I started with Conway MacKenzie in the Detroit office, where most of the professionals were located. We were very Midwest-centric at the time. In 2007, we decided as a firm to expand around the country. The biggest milestone for me was volunteering to move to Atlanta to start the Southeast practice of the firm.

It was a big move for me because I had developed a business network around the Midwest. By moving to Atlanta, I essentially started with very little in terms of a network. I had to move to Atlanta and build a network and build a practice. TMA was a big part of that. Building a network of relationships and referral sources and building a practice over the course of a couple years was probably the biggest turning point in my career. I went from being a billable professional and semi-marketer to the guy responsible for bringing in revenue and building an office.

It was very stressful at first, but as I started gaining success, it was a huge confidence builder.

Q: You mentioned that TMA played a part in that. Can you talk a little about that and the role TMA has played in your career generally?

Charleston: I’ve always been involved in TMA, going back to the early ‘90s. TMA was kind of a new thing, and I joined as a young guy. When I moved to Atlanta, I didn’t necessarily have a strategy for how I would build my business network. I told myself, “Just go and make as many friends as you can in the turnaround world, and the business will come.” That was the crux of my entire business development strategy.

I started by getting involved in the TMA Atlanta Chapter and getting to know people. Within a year or two, because of my enthusiasm and commitment to the chapter, I became a member of the board, which led to my becoming president of the chapter. I developed my business network in many ways, but TMA was the central point of all of that.

Q: What advice would you have for someone new to the industry or thinking about getting into it?

Charleston: Every project I work on involves gathering information and facts. Sometimes, the information or the facts communicated are not accurate, so you can’t simply trust what a client tells you. It may not be an intentional distortion of the facts. It just may be that a client is mistaken about the facts.

So, the early part of any project is coming to an independent conclusion on the real facts and circumstances. I would encourage a new person to develop their own conclusions on the facts and circumstances of each project through thorough due diligence, interviewing, and corroboration of information.

Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?

Charleston: I’m an avid golfer. Now that I live in Atlanta, we can play year-round. I’m a bit of an introvert, so that leads me to activities like reading. I like crossword puzzles, and I do a lot of jigsaw puzzles, which is a fun hobby. I tend to turn on ‘80s music, get a glass of wine, and work on a jigsaw puzzle for an hour or so at the end of the day. It's a good hobby that helps me switch gears, which is hard for a lot of people in our profession.

Q: How did you pick up that hobby? Was it through your parents or grandparents?

Charleston: Jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles were my mom’s hobbies. I didn’t do them for a long time, but as I became an adult and a parent, I picked up those hobbies. My wife reminded me that my mom used to do jigsaw puzzles. If you ever are around a jigsaw puzzle, it’s kind of contagious. If somebody’s working on one, it’s almost impossible for anyone not to stop and want to place a couple of pieces.

Q: What kind of reading do you do?

Charleston: I read mostly novels, a variety of best-sellers. I get a kick of reading some older authors. I read a few F. Scott Fitzgerald books last year and a little bit of Hemingway. I used to read business nonfiction, though it seems like I’ve read fewer and fewer of those over time.

Q: I heard you’ve appeared as an extra in several movies. True?

Charleston: It’s an interesting hobby I picked up a few years ago. They make a lot of movies in Atlanta, so occasionally I will sign up as an extra in a movie. I enjoy being on a movie set, and I’m interested in how movies are made. So, I’ve done that when I have time. It usually requires a full day or two.

Q: How did that come about?

Charleston: When “The Walking Dead” came out, my kids and I started watching the show together. For my kids, I started looking into how to become an extra on the show. I learned that Atlanta has several companies that movie companies often use to outsource the extras casting. They all have Facebook sites, and they post when they have opportunities to be an extra. You submit your picture and
your information.

I never did get on “The Walking Dead,” but it introduced me to how to find out about these opportunities. So, I “liked” these casting companies’ Facebook pages, and when I saw something that interested me, I would submit my information. I tried it once, and it was fun. I’ve done it a handful of times since then.

Q: Can you name some of the movies in which you’ve appeared?

Charleston: Nothing too great, as it turns out. The first one was a movie called “Solace.” It was not a very good movie. I don’t think I’ve ever watched it all the way through, but I was in a scene with Anthony Hopkins and spent a few minutes talking to him, so that was fun.

Q: What was your character?

Charleston: I was an FBI agent.

The second one was an HBO movie called “Confirmation,” which was about the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. My role in that was a protestor against Anita Hill. We did about 20 takes, and every time, I would scream at the actress who played Anita Hill—Kerry Washington—“Why now, Anita?” I don’t think that made it into the movie, unfortunately.

The third one was “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Mark Felt is the guy we later learned was Deep Throat, the key source for Bob Woodward in the Watergate investigation. He was the associate director of the FBI, the second highest-ranking member of the agency, and Liam Neeson played him in the movie. I played an FBI agent going through the evidence at the Watergate. I was in the movie, but it was mainly my gloved hands that played a “prominent” role in the film.

Q: You’ve got that look. You could be a detective, a lawyer. Obviously, they keep casting you as an FBI agent.

Charleston: The interesting thing about extras is they want you to blend into the background. The more you blend in, the better you are.

In “Solace,” I was involved in shooting two separate scenes. In the first scene, I stood in the doorway of a room in the FBI building. Anthony Hopkins walks into this big open room with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Abbie Cornish, who play FBI agents. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is now on “The Walking Dead,” by the way. The three of them walk in, talking, and I’m standing in front of the room. Jeffrey Dean Morgan flashes his badge to me, and I nod to him and write something on the clipboard.

Then, I got called up to do another scene at the entrance to the building. I’m one of the guys running the metal detector. It’s the same thing—Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Abbie Cornish go through the metal detector. I hand somebody their bag.

I realized that they shot the scenes out of order. The second scene is chronologically first, so they’re walking into the building, they go up in the elevator, and then they walk into that big room. I’m thinking, “Wow, that would be weird if I got in both scenes.” Obviously, I’m supposed to be two different people. That would be cool if there was a discrepancy in the movie—hey, this guy was just downstairs at the metal detector. The scene at the metal detector got in, but the other one didn’t.

Q: What would people who only know you professionally be most surprised to learn about you?

Charleston: My wife and I are heavily involved on a national level in Families Anonymous, which provides support for families of loved ones who struggle with addiction. We have a family member who has an addiction problem, and that led us to get involved in this organization.

I think people often assume that people who face drug or alcohol addiction somehow come from troubled environments. But the truth is, I’ve met a lot of good parents and supportive family members who are faced with this issue. It’s always incredibly comforting for anyone who is a parent, spouse, or family member to finally realize, “I did not cause this.”

For the first couple of years, I was embarrassed about it, kept it to myself, and didn’t say a word. But as I started to talk to people, almost everybody has had experience with addiction issues or has had family members who have experience with addiction. It’s a big part of their life that is never spoken about unless it feels like a safe place to talk about it.

The only reason I mention this is in case somebody reads it and learns there’s a group out there that might be helpful. Many parents and family members have no idea that something like Families Anonymous exists, or even if they do, they think, “That’s not for me. That’s for other people.” Maybe if they read that I’m involved in it, at least people who know me a little, they'll think, “Maybe I’ll talk to Greg about that.” I would welcome that.

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