WHEN TRAGEDY FORCES CHANGE John Zimmerman wasn't prepared to take over when his firm's leaders died. He succeeded by knitting his colleagues into a team.
By PATRICIA SELLERS

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Unseasoned as a manager, John Zimmerman never asked to be president of a company at 38, much less its savior. But so it happened when his elder partners died violently -- one a plane crash victim two years ago, the other a suicide ten months later. As Steiner/Bressler Advertising slid toward financial ruin, Zimmerman mobilized his colleagues into a team to completely redefine the firm's culture. His methods were unorthodox, even eccentric -- but they worked. Visiting the 30-person shop, on the south side of Birmingham, Alabama, is a little like stepping into one of those recovery centers for you-name-it addiction. Zimmerman kicked alcohol and cocaine habits four years ago, and Steiner/Bressler's rehabilitation echoes his own. ''I see this as a story of teamwork and mutual support and common goals,'' says the chatty, frank boss, adding: ''Even when bad things happen, I can see good in them. And I have faith in powers greater than myself.'' The first death, of account-services chief Mary Faust, was toughest emotionally. Deeply admired, she was the link to clients, including Bruno's supermarkets, which provided 70% of the firm's income. Always impeccably coifed, Faust died at 41, say friends, as she would have wanted -- ''with her heels on.'' The crash on Georgia's Lavender Mountain left six Bruno's executives dead too. Steiner/Bressler had hardly recovered when longtime President Cy Steiner, 59, shot himself. Despondent over the collapse of his marriage, Steiner by all accounts had become an angry, autocratic boss. ''Often in error, never in doubt,'' co-founder Harry Bressler would say of his partner. Bressler, 69, admits that he greeted Steiner's death with ''guilty relief.'' Since Bressler was easing toward retirement, Zimmerman became boss. He recalls, wincing, ''Rival agencies were telling our clients, 'Steiner/ Bressler's falling apart. Zimmerman doesn't know how to run a company.' '' They were largely right. Zimmerman had begun his career writing commercial jingles and joined the firm in 1988 as creative director. BUT HE DUG IN, first tackling the money mess. Cy Steiner had managed the books without listing even cost projections or basic profit breakdowns. Moreover, Steiner/Bressler would need to liquidate to pay a $1.6 million debt to Steiner's estate that his insurance didn't cover. Through an industry trade group, Zimmerman found a financial expert, Scott Smith, who helped him negotiate with the estate to reduce the sum by more than half. Mending morale and democratizing Steiner/Bressler were more daunting missions. Zimmerman asked himself, ''What did I always want as an employee? Openness, honesty, an ability to affect my future.'' Metamorphosis began three months after Steiner's death, one chilly weekend last January, when he took all his employees to rustic Eagle Lodge atop nearby Cheaha Mountain. An affable, eager man who regularly sings and strums guitar in a Birmingham bar, Zimmerman toted a boom box and lyrics to inspiring tunes like ''United We Stand'' and the Byrds' ''Turn, Turn, Turn.'' Standing in a circle, everybody sang. They even staged a wake for Cy Steiner's firm by tossing old stationery into a fire. ''It was psychobabble,'' says Bressler. ''But it helped us weld back together.'' < After the funereal fire, the employees separated into five groups to devise the ideal ad agency. The consensus: Serve however a client wishes. So Steiner/ Bressler became an ambidextrous agency. While Bruno's likes to work with account executives, department-store chain Parisian prefers to communicate directly with the admakers. Says Zimmerman: ''Many clients want direct access to people who do the work.'' Employees called for participation. And got it. Zimmerman is giving everyone at Steiner/Bressler financial reports each quarter and placing a minimum 40% of after-tax profits into a companywide bonus pool. Result, says Zimmerman: ''Our expenses dropped 25%. We went from one cost-control manager to 30.'' Monday morning meetings now include all staffers and sometimes poetry. Bressler recently recited John Donne's ''No Man Is an Island,'' explaining, ''If anybody fails here, we all will.'' Now Zimmerman is bringing in motivational speakers to rally the troops. TODAY Zimmerman is a hero. Amid catastrophe Steiner/Bressler didn't lose a client. New business has almost doubled billings, to $18 million, since Steiner's death. The company is profitable and has added seven employees. Says Patty Bystrom, marketing vice president at Parisian: ''I see an energy at the agency that wasn't there before.'' Zimmerman is beginning to feel adept at leadership. ''Change has become so natural to us that it isn't disruptive anymore,'' he says confidently. Trauma, he learned, can be productive. The changes forced by tragic events, he says, ''have convinced us that we're ahead of everyone else.''