Archive for 2009

A New Way to Measure Profits?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

The article “Financial Performance Measurement for the 21st Century” by Lowell Bryan and Claudia Joyce of McKinsey Consulting puts some rational basis to my long held belief that People are the most important asset in any company – particularly growing ones. The authors ask and answer the question “What gives us the best Return on Investment (ROI) in this knowledge based economy – traditional, ‘tangible’ capital based assets or ‘intangibles’ such as knowledge, relationships and the reputations of talented people (which companies can turn into institutional knowledge and skill, brands, software, patents etc.)?”

Between 1995 and 2005, the market value of the 30 most successful companies in the world rose by almost 500%. This was driven by a similar increase – 500% – in average profits. (This makes sense – increase your profits and you increase the value of your company.) What caught my interest, however, was that during those 10 years, the companies’ average profit per employee grew by more than 200% even as the number of employees doubled, while the return on capital increased by only 33.3%.

So could maximising returns on people (maximum profit per employee x optimum number of employees) be a new way to measure performance? After all, total profit = profit per employee x the total number of employees. The authors argue that focusing on this formula offers several advantages over focusing on return on capital. Profit per employee is a good proxy for earnings on intangibles and total employees is easier to define than capital (which is subject to interpretation using accounting and finance definitions). And this formula focuses us on the fact that  talented people, not capital, are usually the scarce resource.

If profit per employee is part of an acceptable measure of performance then proactively managing it is an effective way of improving performance. Arguably there are more opportunities to increase profits relative to the number of people employed in this digital age than ever before. Other advantages are that profit per employee is easy to calculate; payroll is expensed rather than depreciated making it a conservative output-based measure of results and the calculation of net income is based on accounting rules, making for relatively objective comparisons between companies.

One way to increase profit per employee is to reduce the number of low profit employees (an incentive to move more quickly on poor performers). Which raises the question of how you know which employees are contributing and which aren’t. The answer is to link department goals to the company’s goals and then link individuals’ goals to those of the department.

The responsibility – and power – for changing financial results lies in the hands of frontline managers. So, if we treat each department as a contribution centre, rather than a profit centre, then department managers are responsible only for the costs they can control, not the portion of overhead that is “allocated” to profit centres. In this way, managers – and individual employees – can be focused on improving the activities of their department, and increasing their team’s motivation by producing results that are also good for the company.

But optimizing the number of employees doesn’t necessarily mean keeping their numbers low. The authors point out that Wal-Mart has relatively low profits per employee and a relatively large number of employees. Their business model is an example of how increasing the number of employees rather than the profits per employee can also increase the value of the business. Highly automated systems and processes in logistics and at the point of sale has allowed Wal-Mart to cut their supply chain and inventory costs and allows them to quickly respond to emerging sales trends. Those, combined with low labour costs, support the size of their staff.

The current standard used to determine how successful a company has been is its financial statements – Balance Sheet, P and L and cash flow. But these documents are prepared using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) which treats investments in intangibles as expenses. The danger there is that when we need to increase profits in the short term – and I’ll bet we’ve all had to do that at one time or another – expenses are the first area we cut. So, we achieve our short term goal – but actually shoot ourselves in the foot in the longer term.

So I’m all for any measure that puts human capital (people) where it belongs – front and centre in business owners’ minds – while promoting long term growth. So let’s change the metrics we use to measure successful performance so that they include returns on talented people as well as returns on capital investments.

By the way, any misinterpretation of what Lowell Bryan and Claudia Joyce are actually saying is entirely mine.

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Prices – 6 Reasons To Keep Them Up

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Some of the questions which I get when I finish a seminar, workshop or webinar inevitably involve price strategy. It’s a topic close to my heart (I am a Scotsman after all) and one that provokes strong emotion amongst most business owners. And that’s interesting really, because most buyers typically rank price around 4th in their list of buying criteria.

Price is important only when the product or service being sold is a commodity and very few products actually are true commodities (can you think of one right now)? Large consumer goods companies spend millions on advertising to convince us that some products which are commodities, really aren’t. (Does it really make a difference if you buy gas from PetroCanada or Shell?)

But it probably isn’t necessary for the average business owner to cut prices, offer discounts or to spend a lot of money on advertising to get customers to pay a price which enables them to make an acceptable profit. In fact here are 6 reasons why you shouldn’t be discounting or cutting prices.

Reason # 1. There is no business that doesn’t have the potential to command an acceptable price for its products or services if it is able to market those products or services in such a way that the customer perceives added value. If you don’t believe me just think about the difference in price between a Lexus and a Hyundai – they’re both just a means of transportation. Tip Top tailors and Harry Rosen both sell men’s clothes – but don’t wait for Harry to have a $199 sale before buying your next suit!

Reason # 2. As business owners it’s our job to create the perception that our products and services offer superior value and to back that up with superb service. How do we do that? One way to begin is to figure out who your best customers are (they buy regularly and never complain about price) and ask them why they buy from you rather than from someone else. But don’t ask them to rate the reasons you think they buy from you, ask them to tell you what they consider is important and then ask them to rate your performance on those. Then you can figure out what makes you unique in their eyes.

Reason # 3. Two easy ways to add value are to really understand what’s going on in your customers’ business and how your products impact their success; then pass this information on to your staff and train them to provide what your customer will see as great customer service. (Of course maintaining the quality of your products, and doing regular customer satisfaction surveys won’t hurt either.)

Reason # 4. Remember if your gross margin is 30% and you reduce price by 10%, sales volumes must increase by 50% to maintain your initial profit level. For some reason we’ve come to believe that offering price discounts is a good long term strategy. If you still believe that consider the problems that the North American car manufacturers have created for themselves with, for example, “Employee Pricing” campaigns. Or think about how hard it was for the Bay to get away from “Bay Days” or Sears to stop their “Scratch and Win” promotions. You’re right, despite saying they were going to stop them they’re both still doing them. Once you’ve dropped your prices it is very difficult to get them back up to previous levels.

Reason # 5. Price discounting works in only two situations – where you have a definite cost advantage over your competitors and/or your product or service is one where customers are genuinely, truly, price-sensitive. We’ve already dealt with the price sensitive case and if you have a cost advantage why would you pass the entire extra margin on to consumers rather than investing some of it maintaining your technological or other advantage? Let’s face it, you aren’t in business to simply match the price your competitors set, you are here to serve your customers well and make a profit.

Reason # 6. Remember, if your gross margin is 30% and you increase your prices by 10%, you can sustain a 25% reduction in sales volumes before your profit is reduced to the previous level. Research shows that roughly only 15% of customers think in terms of price. They are better left to your competitors because they will never be satisfied and will always be looking for a better ‘deal.’ Their loyalty is impossible to achieve and they’ll never recommend you to anyone else. Focusing resources on servicing this ‘low’ end of the market won’t sustain the future growth of your business through either your turnover or profitability. It’s far better to work with those people who are happy to pay for value.

If you don’t believe my math or that customer surveys don’t have don’t have to be expensive or if you just want to know the date and location of my next seminar drop me an email

Have You Ever Seen a Business Plan that Worked?

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Well have you? Personally, I’d say “Yes, but….” But what you may ask? Well, firstly the plan wasn’t written from the back forwards. In other words it wasn’t written as a result of a statement like “We need to get $X thousand/million from the bank/lenders.” Secondly, it wasn’t written because someone (I hope it wasn’t a consultant) said “A company of our size should have one”. Thirdly, once written it wasn’t put on the shelf and forgotten for the rest of the year. And, finally, no one expected things to happen exactly, and I mean exactly, the way the plan predicted.

A plan that starts with a look at what’s going to happen in the industry and then at how the competition are positioned, helps highlight opportunities and threats. Combine this with an honest assessment of the company’s own strengths and weaknesses and you’re on the way to developing a fairly logical strategy. Using that to develop three financial forecasts – a “best case”, a “worst case” and a “most likely case” helps keep people’s feet on the ground. It also helps if the assumptions made in each case are carefully recorded. Compare this approach to starting to write a plan knowing what the final financial numbers have to look like and you can figure out, fairly quickly, which of the two plans is most likely to “work”.

A good reason to write a plan is to figure out the answer to a question – like “What would we have to do to increase our profits in each of the next 3 years?” People will be more motivated to approach the process in a logical, thoughtful way than if we’re doing it because “we should have one”. Part of the answer is working out what the company will have to do – for example buy plant and equipment, add people, and change the way things are done. Those things would probably be written down somewhere anyway – with, once again, all of the assumptions made – so why not put them in a plan? If the money we’ll have to spend and the people we’ll have to hire are related to the increases in sales they’ll help to generate, it becomes easier to see them as investments instead of expenses.

Plans that work are dog eared. Why? Because they’re pulled out regularly and reviewed. During the planning sessions the “big” goals – increase sales by $500K – are broken down into smaller actions – introduce a new product, hire new sales people. Action plans – with SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time related) objectives – are developed and written right into the business plan. Someone is designated as the “champion” for each action. She/he is responsible for getting it done. It’s easy to check, for example once a quarter, whether well defined actions like these have been completed. At the same time actual developments in the economy, industry and marketplace are compared to the assumptions and the strategy updated. Financial results are compared with the forecasts and adjusted if necessary. These are “no blame” sessions – if there are performance problems with some individuals they’re dealt with separately – just an opportunity to update some projections with reality.

Why aren’t these guilt filled, finger pointing sessions? Because the people who did the planning know that they can’t predict what the weather will be tomorrow, what the stock market will do next week or how their favorite sports team will finish the season. They measure how well their plan has worked by how close their estimates came to reality. If any of us could exactly predict the future – well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

I tell myself that one of the advantages of getting older (there have to be some surely) is that you gain a lot of practical experience – both good and bad. A couple of the things I’ve noticed, along the way, are related to business plans. Firstly, the companies that I’ve been involved with which had good business plans always performed better than those which didn’t. Secondly, those companies hadn’t written their plans to meet some predetermined outcome; they’d written them to help answer key questions affecting the future of the business. Finally the owners had a realistic approach to forecasting the future and, most importantly, they made their plan come to life.

4 Tips to Make Sales Forecasting Easier……………

Monday, September 7th, 2009

If we could forecast the future accurately, most of us would spend our lives at a racetrack or casino rather than at work. But forecasting the future is something we all have to do as business owners – either to set internal goals, to obtain additional financing and for other reasons. Forecasting is, however, one of the most difficult and frustrating things that we have to do and few things cause as much anguish and soul searching as sales forecasts.

Tip # 1. Forget trying to predict the future and focus on using “informed judgment”. Many attempts at forecasting fail because those involved, from sales reps. to business owners, don’t have the detailed knowledge of their market, their competitors, their customers and potential customers that is essential for making good estimates. They are less than fully informed when they make their judgment of what will happen – and that’s a failure of work and effort, not of technique.

Tip # 2. Remember that we can only control some of the things that have an impact on our forecasts, for example, the number of dealers we approach, the effectiveness of our promotional tools and our price strategy. There are others factors which directly affect the odds of our success but which are beyond our control. Some are known and can be reflected in the assumptions on which are forecasts are based, for example the price of crude oil, low pay scales for offshore labour. But there are others to which we can only react, for example an unexpected outbreak of SARS.

Tip # 3. The most common mistakes, in my experience, are that we overestimate how much we can sell and how quickly we can sell it. Avoiding those mistakes is hard enough when estimating how much more our existing customers will buy of the products they currently use. Adding any “new” dimension just adds complexity.

Forecasting increased sales to current customers should be easy. We either increase the volume of existing products, start selling them products they don’t currently buy and/or increase prices. But if the account managers don’t have the skill – or don’t make the effort – to get as much information about, for example, what is happening in the customer’s own business and how that affects our offering to them, we will be trying to forecast with less than detailed knowledge. So, we can’t make informed judgments – fertile ground for overestimating what can be sold.

What happens if, for example, we’re going to start selling an existing product in a new geographic market? If our competitors already offer a product in that region/province/country, how much of our sales will come from the market share we’ll take away from them and how much will come from the continuing growth of the market? To begin, we must understand how our product quality, lead times and prices compare with our competitor’s and how much it will cost to get our message heard over their promotional “noise”. We can do some simple, inexpensive research to gain the detailed knowledge required to answer those questions.

When it comes to taking market share away from competitors, we have to make 2 sales. Firstly convince the customer to stop buying from our competitors and then convince them to buy our product – which is untested in this marketplace. But for most business owners, who are natural optimists and driven, type ‘A” personalities, it is not difficult to underestimate how long this will take!

Estimating the sales that will come just from market growth may seem easy by comparison. All we have to do is to convince the remaining distribution channels to sell our widget – make 1 sale instead of two (always assuming our competitors have left some distributors for us). But estimating how long our new distributors will need to ramp up requires information to help us assess how effective the distributors will be. We also want our share of the market to grow at least as quickly as the market itself. The future market growth rate can be forecast using the actual growth rate for the last 2 or 3 years (either as is, or adjusted upwards or downwards). The rate at which we grow depends on how good a Marketing plan we have. Developing an effective Marketing plan requires informed judgment. Anything less, combined with that optimistic approach of the entrepreneur, will, once again, result in overestimates.

Tip # 4. Even if you’ve worked hard and spent time gathering detailed knowledge which you used to make informed judgments, don’t stop when you develop a “final” set of numbers. Unless you’ve been unusually pragmatic in arriving at this first forecast, call it your best case. Now think of the things that are most likely to go wrong, assume that they will, change your spread sheets accordingly – and call that your worst case. Finally, it’s unlikely that everything will go against you but it’s equally unlikely that everything will go your way so take a third approach, which avoids either of the extremes, run the numbers again – and call that your most likely case.

Winning Business Ideas from “Kinky Boots”…….

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

I was indulging in one of my favorite Friday evening habits a couple of weeks ago, relaxing and watching a movie. On this particular Friday night my wife had decided (isn’t that how it works in your house?) that she wanted to see a movie that a number of people in her office had enjoyed. It’s called “Kinky Boots”.

It’s about a family run shoe manufacturer in the U.K. that has been producing a high quality product for four generations. (By the way the movie is based on a true story.) The hero inherits the business only to find that, while his father had led everyone to believe that the business was holding its own, it was, in fact, in very serious financial trouble. A visit to one of the firm’s largest customers revealed that its traditional market had been taken over by cheaper, lower quality, imported products (can anyone relate to that problem?).

The young owner has to begin immediately laying off long serving members of the workforce. While doing so, he gets a lecture from a young female employee who tells him that, instead of moping around asking “What can I do?” he should get out and find a new market niche (really, they actually use the word “niche” several times in the movie). She goes on to suggest that this was perhaps something they (management) should have done long before the firm got into trouble.

Without spoiling the plot for you – let’s just say there are alcohol and female impersonators involved – our hero does manage to find a new niche. It’s an easily identified group with a specific need which is not being met by the firm’s competitors. The group is large enough to generate sustainable profits and they want a quality product. The company uses its experience and knowledge base to develop a unique solution. It supplements that by attracting a designer with specialist knowledge of the niche’s thinking.

I couldn’t believe it. Right there in the middle of my Friday evening, was a movie about “Kinky Boots” giving pointers on leadership and an excellent example of how to develop a winning marketing strategy. And it was doing it in a far more entertaining way than many of the books and articles I’ve read or courses I’ve attended.

But there was more. The movie went on to deal with some of the other issues we face in this fast changing, demanding world in which we operate. For example, reaching quality standards which are different from those of the traditional business demands more of workers than has ever been done in the past. As an owner how do you communicate the absolute necessity of making the change? And make them understand that even if they are willing to do their traditional best it is no longer good enough? How do you push and how far do you push to maintain their enthusiasm while motivating them to do even more?

We know things never happen one at a time so while driving up quality our hero also has to meet a deadline for launching the product line. When the pressures mount on you how do you communicate a sense of urgency to a work force that already believes it is doing its best? And while you’re expecting them to change, is that enough, what about you, the owner? The movie’s example of the personal challenges owners face began at the beginning of the film when our hero decided to leave the firm. A simple sense of duty to his heritage and the employees after his father’s death pulled him back. But the changes required by the new strategy were so radical and the risks (including the personal, financial risks that all entrepreneurs take) of implementing it were so great that he had to develop enormous commitment to the success of the new direction.

Then there were the people issues which seem to dominate our lives. The company culture reflected the solid, traditional values and roles on which it was built. The potential solution, however, involved embracing customers with very different roles and values. And bringing the specialist designer into the firm raised all of the challenges associated with integrating minorities into the workplace.

Recognize any of this? Ever found yourself in a similar situation? Realistically most of us have had to deal with one or more of these issues one time or another. And it’s hardly unusual for several crises to erupt simultaneously (the perfect management storm).

I’m working with a couple of companies at the moment which missed opportunities to develop new niches when they were busy. I also see situations where owners ask “What can I do?” without knowing where to find the answer. (Alcohol and female impersonators are not universal “cure alls” and I certainly don’t recommend either or both.) Then there are companies that had a product for which they went to find a market, rather than starting with a market need first. Finally, some companies also pick niches that are too small or which require too much investment to ever yield a reasonable, sustainable profit.

But the challenges inherent in change, motivation and communication are ones which we all deal with on a day to day basis. And are ones with which we can all use some help.

Watch the movie and you’ll see how the characters made out. You’ll also see some examples of excellent strategies being put into practice – and the courage and persistence in the face of adversity that you know, as business owners, are required to implement them. You may even pick up a few tips – I know I did. And if you get nothing else out of it, you will be entertained.

 (In case you missed it…………..”Kinky Boots” is from the same team who created “Calendar Girls”).

6 Tips for Managing in Recessions

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Despite what the media suggest, the recession will not lay waste to every company and household in Canada. Some will be seriously affected and my sympathy lies with them. However, for most of us the impact will be bearable. We know from experience that there are things you can do to mitigate, even minimize, the impact of a recession and articles containing tips and suggestions are already becoming quite common. Here are 6 of what I consider to be the most valuable ideas from the articles I’ve read recently.

Tip # 1. The best time to look for money is before you need it, so make contingency plans now. Do a spreadsheet analysis of the impact of a 5 or 10% decline in sales on your cash flow. Go and talk to your Bank, they’re tightening their terms and restrictions already but they will work with you if you’re a good customer. It’s also a good idea to build a relationship with a second Bank, if you haven’t already done so.

Tip # 2. Look inside the company for cash, for example….can you renegotiate payment terms with your suppliers to avoid borrowing money to pay them? Or will they give you a discount for cash payments? Can you trade off extended lead times, less than 100% fill rates, variable (but not unacceptable) product or service quality against price reductions to improve your gross margins? Sell off unproductive assets, aggressively discount and sell slow moving (i.e. almost dead) inventory, don’t let your Accounts Receivable extend their payments.

Tip # 3. Don’t Lower Prices – Add Value. Avoid the temptation – and pressure – to cut your prices. It will be almost impossible to raise them again later. Either launch a de-featured version of your current product or service and attach a lower price point to that. Or talk to your customers and find out what they need to deal with their challenges and find other ways to “add value” to your current offerings without inflating the cost.

Tip # 4. Don’t make deep cuts to headcount. Letting good employees go can have serious long term effects. You immediately lose the investment you made in training and developing them and you lose an employee whose strengths – and weaknesses – you know. It’s also not uncommon to find that an employee you’ve laid off carried far more knowledge about the operation of the company in their memory than you had realized – and didn’t write it down before they left. There are always some employees who are not pulling their weight. If you have to let anyone go, release them.

Tip # 5. Don’t make deep cuts to promotional activities. Resist the temptation to reduce your promotional budget. If you’ve spent money to create awareness you’ll lose the benefits of that investment if you stop or dramatically reduce your expenditures on, for example, Trade Shows, Advertising and Sponsorships. Look critically at the response rates for your promotional activities and freshen the message or switch dollars from one tool to something more effective – but don’t make deep cuts to the total dollars.

Tip # 6. Help your employees cope. Watch for signs that your employees – particularly the key members of your team – are having problems coping with the recession personally. Everyone makes bad decisions occasionally and, given the easy access to credit of the last few years, many people have overextended themselves. Help them find the advice or counselling they need to deal with their temporary problems. Don’t solve their problems for them – but support them while they do it themselves.

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