Chuck McLane doesn’t mince words. Named CFO of Alcoa in early 2007 and then promoted to executive vice president by the end of the year, he found himself confronting a crisis in 2008. “Commodities are 80% of our business, and aluminum prices had fallen 60% between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2009,” he says, “and demand from our customers in almost every region but China was down 20% to 50%. It was a case of, if we don’t do something, we won’t be here in a few years.”

Alcoa, with $26 billion in 2008 sales, was “in a bad state” in terms of liquidity, McLane says. The global economic crisis caught the company just as it was finishing a major growth program, resulting in free cash flow of negative $1 billion in the first two months of 2009.

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