Owner as Entrepreneur vs Manager: Jekyll and Hyde

At the center of every small business management team is the owner, whose primary long-term responsibility is to manage the company effectively. While some companies have several people who function in this capacity, this discussion will assume that an on-site entrepreneur/owner runs the business. Traditionally, this individual oversees the entire operation and personally looks over most company work, both in the office and in the field/plant. Furthermore, the owner is commonly a jack-of-all-trades, wearing the hats of many different employee roles.

The “Jekyll & Hyde” Theory

It is often asserted that the individual who single-handedly runs a company has a certain, identifiable “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. In demeanor and approach to problem-solving, the typical owner ranges from brilliant to tyrannical. An effective strategic plan must therefor encourage brilliance while keeping the owner away from problems that transform him or her into an ineffective manager. The same qualities that have enabled the owner to gain insight into many facets of the business operations are the exact ones that force him or her to be involved in every decision, major or minor. Such overt  care and concern for the company is to be anticipated and applauded. When it results in ineffective management, however, a remedy must be devised.

Entrepreneur or Manager?

Efficient businesses require in-house management. Unfortunately, the skills that make an owner a successful entrepreneur can be at odds with those that make one an effective manager. Excellent entrepreneurs have great sensitivity to market changes. However, when they leave the daily operations to become managers, two things happen: 1) they stop using their innate skills, and 2) they manage ineffectively.

Though the owner may experience periods of fear or apprehension, as a group owners are generally optimistic and opportunistic. Good owners emanate confidence, motivating those around them. For example, by spotting a mismatch between market demand and supply, a good one can inspire employees to work towards meeting that demand. Uniquely able among executive team members  to downplay the importance of minor setbacks, savvy owners emphasize the company’s forward movement in a vision casting mode.

Finally, first-hand knowledge of company history sets the owner apart. Having founded the company, the owner as entrepreneur is an indispensable part of the management team. When questions arise concerning company history or past performance, as they frequently do during times of tension, who better to turn to than the individual who has owned or managed the company all the while?

The Owner’s Vision

In providing vision for the company, the owner is expected to identify opportunities to pioneer new markets and expand the company’s presence in existing markets. Thorough identification of precise product offerings and internal procedures to make the products is a large part of every owner’s job description. The interaction between market research (including trends, buying patterns, and demand) and company vision is a relationship that the effective entrepreneur manages on a regular basis.

The entrepreneur can help the management team by maintaining personal relationships  with key parties such as sales people and lenders. If links have been formed based on good rapport with these parties, it is only fitting that these relationships continue  when they cannot be successfully turned over to another manager. This scenario rings particularly true with regard to negotiations with suppliers. The owner’s involvement in handling these parties is essential to reinforcing profitability.

 

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Stop the Rhetoric About SmallBiz, Politicians!

We small business owners watched the political conventions over the last month and were listening to what the pols had to say about watching out for our interests. Numerous speakers took the podium to address an economic challenge not seen in this generation. We of the post-Baby Boom era are wondering whether our way of life will bounce back, rather than when. So many people have lost jobs, big companies have lost revenues they had taken years to build, and small business owners have lost both jobs and revenues as well as their livelihoods. We are, to say the least, keenly interested in whether we are being heard by Washington and our state capitals. We are certain that social security and probably Medicare will not be there for us when we reach retirement age. We truly do not care what happens to those programs–tell us what is going to be done to help us with issues we face!

Saying that small business is the backbone of the economy is not enough–both presidential candidates kowtowed to the convention audiences and said what they had to, but it wasn’t convincing. Part of the reason the comments seemed disingenuous is that “small business” is a catch-all phrase that does not distinguish between differing types of enterprises. As  others have pointed out, a restaurant is a very different type of company than a small manufacturing concern.  Dan Danner, the CEO of  the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) says, “There is always a tendency for lawmakers to think that small businesses are just smaller versions of General Motors, and they’re not.” Main Street businesses have very different perspectives on policies that are developed by government. Policies  covering health care, trade, taxation, and ecology often reflect the lobbying power of big business over small business. Chris Holman, chair of the National Small Business Association, says that politicians often “go and vote against small business.”

Data from the Small Business Administration shows that small business has been hit harder than big business by our recent recession. One of the statistics–share of nonfarm GDP from private companies–fell from 48+% in 2002 to <44% in 2010. With home building and related trades suffering from the aftermath of the mortgage crisis, there has been a very slow return to stability –let alone growth–in many small business sectors. Uncertainty over potential changes in the tax code and Obamacare has many small business owners anxious as to what to plan for and how to develop strategies  focused on more than just a few months down the road.

Bloomberg Businessweek writer Peter S. Green profiled several small business owners in the September 17-23 issue who spoke to the issues above. Tom Campbell, who owns the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC, spoke out against the unfair advantage online retailers like Amazon have due to sales tax exemptions. He’d like to see the exemptions lifted to create a more competitive playing field. The 20 employees under his supervision have concerns about the future of small bookstores who have to compete in an environment where their customers pay an additional 7+% due to the imbalance in tax liability.

Tom Secor, who owns Durable Corp. in Norwalk, OH, feels that the tax system favors larger businesses. Preferential loopholes in the tax code seem to favor those who have the klout to petition government to listen to them, he says. “Big business is getting the better end of this because they have the money to spend.” Secor’s comments are similar to those voiced by Richard Eidlin, director of public policy at the American Sustainable Business Council. Eidlin decries subsidies offered to big business–whether broadband spectrum or ethanol price guarantees. He says, “If there’s going to be corporate welfare, you could throw some of that at the small corporations.”

In summary, small businesses want someone who understands their needs, can develop programs for sectors of the small business economy, and won’t bog them down in paperwork and red tape. While few actually believe that a president can personally be attuned to these issues, we hope against hope that they will make it a part of their platform and governance!

The Turnaround Adviser’s Responsibility

The ability to turn the company around quickly without getting it bogged down in the minor setbacks is a hallmark of a good turnaround adviser. Emphasizing a solution-oriented approach, the adviser can rise above circumstances and fight another day;  such determination distinguishes the true turnaround expert from the would-be practitioners of company revitalization. Rather than dwelling on problems and making too much of an ultimately inconsequential event, effective advisers confront each challenge ready to overcome the odds stacked against them.

For example, a company may become delinquent with creditors and be unable to pay them in full in the near future. Under those circumstances, a partial payment plan can be worked out, but only if all creditors agree. Non-compliant creditors should then be segregated and handled separately. Whether they are paid at all during the turnaround is an issue; it may be better to let them file liens, since the liens can be repaid according to a schedule that is devised later at the magistrate’s office or in a court of law.

Primary Responsibilities

It is the turnaround artist’s primary duty to critically assess the executive team’s vision for the company and create a recommended course of action for realization of a mutually agreeable vision. In light of this duty, the adviser has three primary responsibilities:

  1. analyzing problems,
  2. drafting a turnaround plan for marketing, operations, and finance, and
  3. implementing the plan.

Therefore, the adviser should not be confused with consultants who merely offer advice. he must necessarily preside over plan implementation and be prepared to modify it as changing conditions demand.

Analytical Responsibilties

The analytical role includes the gathering and analyzing of marketing, operations, and financial information. Both internally produced reports and externally researched intelligence should be scrutinized in creating the turnaround plan. Any errors and omissions in the compiled plan must be noted for further investigation. From this analysis, the adviser develops the road map–a basic critical path of action.

Critical Path of Action

First, crucial points of action within the critical path are prioritized, such as completing a project for billing or getting to a key milestone on another before a window of opportunity is missed on behalf of the client. Personnel are then assigned responsibilities based on the established priorities, which are time sensitive. The turnaround adviser conducts regular debriefing meetings to update all affected parties on turnaround progress and the focal areas for the upcoming time period. As problems surface, the managers responsible for prioritized critical points, rather than the top executive, conduct troubleshooting sessions. If the sessions require negotiations with third parties, the turnaround adviser initiates these negotiations. For example, if lenders turn up the heat, the turnaround adviser must assuage their fears. Clearly, it is the  adviser’s general job requirement to put out all fires or make sure that someone else does.

Education

The turnaround adviser’s final responsibility is to educate the top executive, her team and other managers in the principles of sound business judgment and practice. If the group can observe the adviser’s actions during the renewal process, its members will learn a great deal about management techniques and strategies. When the adviser leaves, he or she should feel that the existing team is capable of steering the company through any weather.

Qualifications of a Turnaround Adviser

An effective turnaround adviser must be uniquely qualified to deal with crises and prepared to assume responsibility for the company’s success. The three most important background credentials for an adviser are as follows:

  • an identification with the needs of declining companies
  • specific industry expertise in your industry or a related one, and
  • a track record of overcoming adversity and making the most of poor situations

General Requirements

When evaluating possible advisers, teams should look for someone with both practical, hands-on capabilities and an educational or research-based knowledge of the issues at hand. Make sure you do not have a novice attempting on-the-job training at your expense. It would be wise to find someone who has performed at least a dozen turnarounds individually and who has access to other personnel with the same or greater levels of experience. Furthermore, familiarity with research and educational publications within your industry that highlight concepts of turnaround practice gives an adviser a more objective view of workable solutions to difficult problems.

Industry Expertise

A background in your industry prepares an adviser to face the peculiar, industry-specific dilemmas that invariably arise. Previous work with companies of various sizes and in various markets furnishes the adviser with extensive–and beneficial–exposure to your industry. A proven ability to learn new markets overnight and employ existing operating resources effectively will result in quicker turnarounds. Examine the methods the adviser used with prior clients and determine whether similar programs would make a comfortable fit for your business. “Sanitized” copies of turnaround plans produced for other clients may even be requested.

Success Rate

A turnaround adviser’s success rate with previous clients is an important statistic. Much as a baseball team manager would hesitate to hire a pinch hitter who batted below .200, the executive team must exercise caution in selecting someone to captain the turnaround team. Most advisers who have been in business for more than five years can claim a one out of two (50 percent) or greater rate of success. To reduce risk, the team should look for an adviser who can claim–and substantiate–an 80 percent or better success rate. Once a successful adviser has been located, the team shout contact references and ask what made the effort a success.

Crisis Management

Effective turnaround advisers must possess certain qualities and characteristics that uniquely prepare them to deal with crises. The first such quality is “multilevel simultaneous thinking”–the ability to solve problems on several different levels at the same time. This is a skill gained over time through both education and experience. The ability to interact with numerous employees to resolve multiple dilemmas and relate to each in an appropriate manner is also essential.

Negotiating with Opponents

A turnaround adviser’s ability to search for all the important details, address issues with a penchant for opportunism, and follow through on commitments will also further the turnaround process. Note that “opponents” emerge in turnarounds virtually overnight; they tend to be former allies such as lenders and vendors. Being able to decipher an opponent’s true bottom line and make an offer that more than covers his or her threshold yet preserves the company’s position will save the company precious time during the turnaround. Indeed, many of these opponents in negotiations will return once again as allies when the business emerges from its decline. In completing a cycle of commitments to stakeholders, the turnaround adviser should ensure that every promise made can be carried out to the letter. Such consistency in following through on promises will enhance the builder’s credibility and image in the community.

Often employing little more than intuition, a crisis-oriented adviser can anticipate pitfalls and plan around them before trouble occurs. Being able to foresee a turn of events is a rare quality to begin with, but is especially valuable when coupled with the creativity that allows the adviser to adapt the flexible strategic plan to the changing demands of the situation. This ability to adapt to change is a necessary elastic band in the adviser’s armor, without which all other tactical weapons would be useless.

 

Finances, Debt & Analysis in the Turnaround

A company’s financial picture at any given time is vitally important to all stakeholders, and never more so than during a turnaround. Financial results are the yardstick by which the business is measured. Outside lenders, creditors, and buyers continually desire affirmation that the company is viable and will be able to continue to meet all of its obligations, including non-financial commitments. Additionally, management relies on this financial information to plan the strategies for the turnaround and future business growth.

Most financial information available has historically been of a reporting nature–it reports prior performance by means of accounting information. The assembly of reliable predictive information on a regular basis is an important step toward profitability; reports such as accounts receivable, accounts payable, cash flow projections, vendor analyses, equities, return on cash, and profits from sales must be generated.

The company’s cash position can be summed up as follows: the money in the bank plus anticipated revenues from sales and financing activities minus any expected payments for direct costs, indirect costs, and general and administrative expenses. The accounts payable portion of the cash position measures the company’s ability to pay current vendors and repay creditors for goods and services delivered. The accounts receivable position is a tabulation of expected sales and fees to be received during a given period. The difference between the two types of accounts is a quick, short-term indicator of the current financial condition of the company.

Complete listings of all bills owed and obligations accrued must be made prior to the release of monies from sales and financing activities. These bills are prioritized for payment–especially payroll, taxes, utilities, and subcontract labor. Secondary obligations are suppliers (unless sole sources), interest due lenders, retirement plan funding, leases, and equipment payments. Cash is only to be disbursed according to priority payment schedules; failure to abide by this rule, regardless of circumstances, will cause problems in restoring positive (or enhanced) cash flow and reduce the likelihood of successful implementation of the turnaround plan.

Debt Structure

A business’s debt structure dictates the profit necessary to amortize it. Accumulated debts to suppliers, lenders, and financing sources need to be determined and paid form the gross profit streams. Paying past-due accounts from loans leads to business failures. For this reason, the gross profit must be managed with extreme care. First, management must estimate the amount of money to:

  • repay creditors over a reasonable time (reasonable = 7 years for structured debt, biweekly for contract labor, monthly for suppliers, and quarterly for taxes),
  • pay creditors for the current portion (<45 days), and
  • pay past-due creditors while remaining current to maintain credibility.

Suppliers, 1099s, direct costs, and indirect costs should be paid from operating funds–not loans. General and administrative expenses should be paid from gross profits.

Creditors should be made a part of the turnaround plan. Analyze and prioritize all debts, contact them, and discuss the projected payment plan for the debt owed. Amortization schedules for their accounts need to be explained and agreed to. Input from other creditors can then be used to draft a scheduling document to complement the accounts payable plan. Taken as a whole, the schedule will aid management in disbursing funds.

Management Analysis

Accumulating data can be a time waste if not turned into timely, useful information. As marketing, operational, and financial numbers are compiled, it should form the basis of the management information system. The resulting analysis will test and challenge beliefs about the company’s competitive position. Critical assessment of trends, patterns, and tendencies can generate ideas to further one’s mission, goals, and objectives. 

Analysis and action should commence hand in hand as the return-to-growth process unfolds. Merely stabilizing is not a permanent solution, but rather a step in the process toward profitable growth. As analysis is performed, opportunities are generated by involving key personnel in problem-solving meetings on a regular basis–the team management concept. For example, a change in product quality to match buyer demand–such as reducing product size while adding features–may be an opportunity discussed in problem-solving meetings.