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By most calculations, Toni Pergolin was completely nuts.
Why would she leave a secure - and lucrative - job as a chief financial officer at Pennsylvania Hospital to move to a storied nonprofit in Haddonfield that was barely afloat?
Then, in August 2004, when she got there, it was even worse.
More than 1,500 autistic, developmentally delayed, brain-injured clients, some of whom had lived in Bancroft Neurohealth group homes for most of their lives, were counting on her for a miracle.
Otherwise, some of them, in no shape to take care of themselves, might be homeless. So, high stakes.
"I knew within the first two weeks, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be the biggest challenge of my life,’ " she said.
These days, Bancroft is financially stable, with annual revenues of $97 million and a slight surplus each year. But it wasn’t that way nine years ago when Pergolin got a call from a former Penn colleague asking her to lunch at the Inn at Penn.
Leave Penn, he proposed, and join him at Bancroft - he was the CEO, she’d be the CFO. It would be a fresh challenge.
Then he showed her the financials.
"He said: ‘It’s bad. It’s really bad,’ " Pergolin, 50, recalled. "I showed my friends, and they said, ‘You know, this company might not make it.’ "
Most of the war stories we hear from the executive suite seem almost mythological - the executives on the white horses, riding to the rescue of a troubled enterprise, wielding mighty swords to slash costs and cut jobs.
Pergolin’s story is different. Hers is a tale of panic, distress, and acute self-doubt. It’s a portrait from the C-suite that’s rarely unveiled.
When Pergolin accepted the job, her husband, a banker, upped the family’s credit limits, hedging his bets on whether Bancroft and her paycheck would survive.
Bancroft had $8 million in credit lines, “all maxed out,” she said. “At Penn, when my entity wasn’t going well, we could just go to the mother ship. They wouldn’t like it, but they’d give you the money.
"We had no mother ship. Cash was absolutely the most precarious position it could be."
Bancroft relies on reimbursements from the state and other sources. “Some days,” she said, “$200,000 would come in and some days $50 would come in.”
In those days, money arrived by mail. Pergolin describes waiting for the mailman, rummaging frantically through the pile looking for checks.
"Payroll was $1.6 million every other Friday, and all I did for 10 days was figure out how I was going to get $1.6 million," she said.
"I would rest on the weekend and then I’d come on Monday and I had two weeks to get the next $1.6 million. So it was, Who can we not pay?"
Vendors telephoned, begging for money. The utility company called - it hadn’t been paid for four months - wanting to shut the lights.
A year later, with the institution still in crisis, Pergolin attended Bancroft Day, an autumn celebration for residents, their families, and employees. People thanked her for keeping the doors open. They’d say, ‘Where would our child be if there wasn’t a Bancroft?’ ” she said.
"And I was like: ‘Yes, where would they be? Because we might have to close.’ I was thinking this in my head.
"I would leave and cry all the way home, because I was the only one that [knew] how bad it is and I can’t tell anybody, because, what will they do? So it was very emotional."
Now home is in Penn Valley, but then, she commuted to King of Prussia - a long ride and plenty of time for tears. The tears didn’t end when she pulled into her driveway.
"My boys were 10 and 7. I’d go home - this is a kind of a funny story - I’d be in my suit and my high heels and making dinner because I got home late and I’m crying and crying as I’m making dinner and saying, ‘What was I thinking that I can do this?’
"My husband would be like: ‘Toni, you’ll figure it out. You always have. But right now, we’re starving.’ "
Even her sons picked up on her obsession with cash.
"My oldest one would say, ‘Mom, how was cash today?’ And it occurred to me that when cash was good, Mommy was happy, and when cash was bad, Mommy cried all night," Pergolin recalled.
A year into the job, September 2005, the CEO who recruited her left for health reasons, and Pergolin became the de facto leader.
It was that same month that Pergolin told Bancroft’s lawyers that the institution was 60 days away from closing. Bankruptcy, even total liquidation through Chapter 7, was a real option. Lawyers advised her that she would need to provide layoff notices to the staff.
"This is what really hit me," she said. "If we tell these amazing employees with the work they do that we won’t make payroll, they are going to leave."
She didn’t send the notices, resolving instead to hang on and work on a merger, giving up 120 years of autonomy just to keep the doors open.
"We were trying to clean ourselves up so someone would date us," she said.
A $3 million gift and $2.7 million no-interest loan from a board member kept Bancroft afloat, barely.
In the end, Pergolin, managed to pull Bancroft back from the brink.
To do it, she took everyone’s credit card. “All the spending had to come through my office,” she said.
Bancroft sold two facilities in distant states - they were too hard to manage from afar.
Pergolin brought in a consultant who examined billing procedures. Then Pergolin outsourced the billing department.
By March 2006, Bancroft had paid down some of its lines of credits and had nearly repaid the interest-free loan.
With some room to breathe, Pergolin called off the merger talks. Sponsor links:
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