Preparing to Implement a Turnaround Plan

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, recognizing that you have reached a point where a turnaround is necessary is critical to getting the most out of the effort to reposition the company. By holding out for a better day, the executive team simply prolongs the agony as the business continues to deteriorate. An inability to assess the situation accurately can render the team “unhelpable.” Lifeguards are instructed not to try to rescue a drowning man who is still flailing about in the water and attempting to save himself. Likewise, a savvy turnaround artist will not step into a company until he or she is assured that the executive team is convinced of the trouble and unable to get out of it without outside help. More importantly, the team must want to be helped and willing to accept help. Further, the business must be capable of being saved, and the team must have the ability to make the necessary changes.

Bringing in Help

Unfortunately, the warnings of bankers, attorneys, creditors and accountants are too often ignored. With bankruptcy lurking around the corner, however, the team may finally concede and call in a competent adviser–a strategic thinker with experience in assisting companies survive and prosper. In addition to possessing the right mindset and skills, the adviser can provide needed credibility so vital to stakeholders’ acceptance of the turnaround plan. 

Anyone brought into the company will need the full cooperation–and honesty–of management and key staff during the recovery. Efforts to paint too rosy a picture of the situation will undermine the adviser’s ability to turn the business around. For example, hoping that an industry networking event will suddenly generate enough new prospects to overcome a current cash crisis is another form of avoiding the real issues. Similarly, increasing the stream of revenues alone may make the company appear more profitable for a season, but only internal changes can prepare one to withstand business cycles. An effective turnaround adviser can help create and implement these changes.

Implementing the Turnaround Plan

While decline must be reversed quickly to create the positive cash flow needed to fund operations, turnarounds cannot be accomplished overnight; it took a while to get here, and will take a while to get out. Six months of intensive restructuring is usually necessary to return the business to positive cash flow. A complete turnaround can be accomplished within eighteen months if all goes according to plan.

Gathering Information

Having decided to begin the process of turning the business around, the executive team should be prepared to gather extensive information for analysis. After analysis, meaningful tactical and strategic plans will be developed for immediate implementation. Be careful not to confuse tactics and strategies. Tactics are methods employed in the short-term (six months or less) to reverse decline; they are specifically targeted at crisis-oriented problems. Strategies, on the other hand, are longer in time and scope. Strategies are aimed towards growth goals and objectives.

A turnaround plan is gleaned from information gathered in the financial, marketing, and operations fact-finding process. Like every good plan, it has four main purposes:

  • to provide a standard reference for organizational focus
  • to establish priorities for allocation of capital resources and management effort
  • to identify and quantify objectives (one to three year focus) to encourage and monitor performance
  • to set timetables and goals (three to five year horizon) for achieving objectives

There are two primary areas of information to be gathered for planning and analysis in a turnaround: the internal and the external environments.

Local Client-Focused Innovation Fertile For Consultants

When companies look to innovate, they have a choice of using internal or external resources. One of the chief sources of external assistance is the category of consulting firms (“consultancies”). A study by the Management Consultancies Association (Czerniawska 2006) suggested the top reason consultancies were recruited was because client staff did not possess the relevant skills (66 per cent). While original and creative work took second place (45 per cent), getting access to proprietary methods and tools prompted a response from only 17 per cent of respondents. What does this mean? That  consultancies themselves may need to become more innovative in the way they interact with clients.

Globalization and the ensuing stiff market competition suggests consultancies need to identify and respond to these factors, and then modify their responses to fit their clients’ changing needs and expectations. Improving thought leadership within the consulting industry is critical. Yet, formal innovation processes alone can hinder innovation itself and contribute to loss of market position. One-person shops as well as national firms will benefit from becoming “more innovative and adaptive in their proposals, methods and solutions, while traditional client/consultant boundaries need to be challenged, stretched and even broken. Consultancies may also need to be more open to partnership working with other agencies, such as academia or even competitors, if they are to respond effectively to the pressures of the current high-cost, low-resource business environment.” (Institute of Consulting, 2011)

Clients need to learn how to work with consultants in this new environment. We should be cautious, however, to say that consulting has ceased to be innovative; the creative processes have simply shifted. Rather than looking at the bellwethers of old, BPR or TQM programs, local, client-focused innovations are the new frontier. Such projects are driven by a more discerning client who is often wary of being sold a ‘one-size fits all’ product, and are frequently undertaken as joint initiatives between clients and consultancies. Such arrangements provide clients with more control and consultancies with reduced overheads.

 The Institute of Consulting Report recommends the following to improve innovation inside consulting firms so that the organizations they advise can, in turn, become more competitive: 

For Consultancies:

Think small: clients are more sophisticated and demanding, requiring ideas that are tailored for their local needs.

Share costs and expertise: there is little that can be done about diminishing margins or higher utilization rates, but universities, research institutes, clients and other consultancies will often jump at the chance to share resources on interesting innovative activity if the case is made well enough.

Explore new frontiers: innovation is to be found in bringing fresh ideas in and listening to them. Develop boundary-spanning roles, recruit graduates that are not from business schools, interview new recruits about what could be changed in your company, seek out different sources of research and knowledge and organize cross-silo spaces for discussion.

Enable talent: providing bright, motivated consultants with autonomy and the ear of senior management is more likely to generate useful innovations than trying to formalize the process through bureaucracy. Innovation involves risk so loosening controls is no bad thing.

Be proactive: innovative activity depends greatly upon clients and procurers leading the way in taking risks, having conversations and enabling creativity. This can be supported though communication, education and persuasion.

Develop your people: over half of all respondents reported that training, conference attendance and professional, accredited staff were important enablers of innovation. Continuous professional development, it seems, is crucial for developing innovation as a strategic capacity for consultancies.

For Client Organizations:

Work with consultants: research shows that companies which invest in innovation during a recession are more likely to come out of it faster than their competitors. Co-working with consultancies on management innovation generates a number of benefits: a closer match of solutions with your needs, more motivated and skilled employees, a potential sharing of intellectual property and association with ground-breaking ideas.

Take risks: examine and prioritize the areas of your business where new ideas could put you ahead of the competition. Put aside some of your budget to work with consultancies on new ideas, if possible using a risk-reward form of payment so that risks are shared with the supplier.

Improve procurement: sourcing consultants solely on the basis of cost is risky to both the delivery of the project and the innovation that it might bring. Good procurement practice will acknowledge this and purchasers should have both the expertise and the freedom to select the best consultant for the best price. An over-specified solution may mean you are not getting the best out of your consultants and minimal consultant interaction with the business owner during the tendering process can sometimes mean the project requirements get miscommunicated.

Enable expertise: your consultants will have witnessed the challenges you face dozens, if not hundreds of times, in similar companies. Making the most of this not only involves conversation with the consultancy when defining solutions but also ensuring as much of their skill and knowledge is passed on to your staff before they leave. Clients must enable consultant expertise as much as consultants enable that of clients.

Due Diligence Lip Service

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game. It is the game.”                          

 –   Lou Gerstner, former IBM chairman & CEO

Pritchett conducted a study of 135 executives from public and private companies and found that, on a 10 point scale, cultural due diligence rated a mean importance factor of  7.45. Privately held companies and private equity firms generally rated the importance higher than public companies. Yet, the same population rated their organizations’ success in blending cultures as only a 5.62. What does this mean? Have you ever heard the phrase “lip service?” It is one thing to acknowledge the importance, but something altogether difference to act in a way that supports that belief.

The study authors go on to note that, while culture is perceived as a key factor in merger success, there is not a consistent approach to measuring effectiveness, let alone the components that comprise it. Slightly less than half (49%) of organizations make an effort to measure. Privately held mid-cap companies and private equity companies set the pace in this arena. Non-profits and publicly-held large cap companies make far less effort to measure effectiveness post-merger or acquisition. 

Given, again, the relatively high value placed on the importance of culture to integrating two companies, it is dismaying that culture is not normally a part of the due diligence process. Of the executives surveyed, 4% say their teams ask specific questions about culture during vetting. Similarly, only 5% attempt to assess compatibility through some standardized means, with less than half of those administered by an objective outsider.  

It was observed that, when assessment is attempted, it tends towards subjective intuitions rather than a strategic metric. Furthermore, HR is excluded from the cultural discussion 94% of the time. On a high note, organizations that consider themselves savvy with regards to cultural due diligence perform assessments 70% of the time. 

While the results for pre-merger analysis and process are not good, those for post-merger are dismal by comparison. Only 21% of organizations surveyed have an established, repeatable process that is used consistently to facilitate seamless blending of organizations. 

The broad findings of the study were:

  1. Culture should be a more strategic consideration in the merger process. It deserves far more weight in the initial targeting of potential acquisitions or merger partners.
  2. Due diligence should scrutinize cultural aspects of the deal with the same discipline given to financial and legal issues. This simply cannot be done via a traditional culture gap analysis or compatibility survey. 
  3. Culture integration should be driven from the CEO/President level. This initiative cannot be delegated effectively. The architecture of culture strategy, plus the critical first steps of execution, belong to the leader.
  4. Organizations should be more astute in crafting their merger communications relating to cultural issues. Both the substance and timing of these messages are crucial. Management needs to be fine-tuned in managing people’s expectations, all the while shaping workforce behavior in the desired cultural direction.


Execute The Idea

Many businesses start these days by vetting a good idea in front of an audience. We present at conferences, competitions, and events like the IdeaSlam at Cary Innovation Center. For some, the whole process of deciding what idea to pursue can be daunting. (The director of a small business center at a local community college who has been asked to tell an inquirer what kind of business to start validates this fact.) Those who never start a business, but envy those who do, will say that they could have been rich if only they had thought of a concept first. Whichever category above fits you, know this: the initial idea is not the key to success–execution is!

Herein lies the “rub” — that many entrepreneurs expend enormous amounts of energy, financial capital, and (often) human capital in an effort to make an idea work that needs to be rethought. Frequently, we call in favors and have been know to burn bridges in the headlong pursuit of our personal holy grail. Emotionally, it is easy to become consumed with the idea to the point that we are blinded to any and every other thing around us–even important things! Along with the emotional “sunk cost,” we often lose our objectivity because of the amount of money invested in the initial idea.

Far more important is a rock-solid business model that creates value for a customer, especially relative to existing solutions. When the business model is battle tested through the incubation process, it becomes invincible. Very few businesses end up creating billions of dollars of value based on the initial idea – superstars such as Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft changed their business models many times before settling on a scalable solution.

-Karl Stark & Bill Stewart

Stark & Stewart go on to say that too many folks are afraid to share their idea with others for fear it will be stolen/copied. They are quick to point out that the true value lies “not in the idea, but in the execution.” Their approach is to share the idea broadly enough with others with different points of view, more experience, and who can offer healthy skepticism that will help you to re-work the idea. It is the supreme compliment to have your idea “stolen.” But, fear not–you still win the competition with superior execution. Three tips they offer for improving execution:

1. Stop perfecting the idea, and get out in front of customers.

The business you develop through a test and learn approach will be worth multiple times more than your original idea.

2. Don’t focus on things that don’t exist.

Instead, look at existing solutions and figure out ways to create more customer value than what those solutions offer.

3. Positively differentiate yourself from the competition.

Most products can’t be all things to all people. A differentiated product will attract a segment of customers that value different things. An innovative start-up is almost always advantaged when chipping away at a market leader if they can offer something different that appeals to a small group of customers.

What is needed, in the final analysis, is a process to create value. One process that I’ve observed to work is the Six Steps to Success program being used with mentees of EntreDot:

  • Ideation – Determine if the idea has any commercial merit
  • Conceptualization – Complete the concept development and determine market value
  • Creation – Perform R&D and establish proof of concept
  • Evaluation – Complete the business plan and determine business value
  • Preparation – Prepare the launch plan for the business
  • Commercialization –  Commence business operations

As the business owner goes through the steps, sustainable customer and shareholder value is created. When the process is “complete,” it is, in fact, just beginning as entrepreneurs are encouraged to go back to the drawing board with the next idea. The commitment to executing idea after idea creates a strong market position that is hard to duplicate.

American Restaurants Struggle to Stay Alive

Back in the late 1980s, the Turnaround Management Association was birthed out of a research project conducted at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As the lead researcher, I had the opportunity to personally pull together a bibliography of articles about businesses whose travails were significant enough to hit the national headlines in various business publications. From the research, we published a monograph and wrote articles about best practices that appeared in 46 national business periodicals in our first 18 months of existence as a trade association. As I and other involved with the Association moved on to other pursuits, TMA moved off campus, starting gaining momentum in chapter development, and now enjoys international members as well as domestic. One of the publications of TMA is the Journal of Corporate Renewal. The Journal‘s lead article for May discusses the struggle of restaurants in the United States to remain profitable.

Some interesting facts from the National Restaurant Association are cited:

  • Restaurants account for 4% of GDP
  • 10% of the U.S. workforce is employed in the restaurant industry
  • 50% of adults have worked in a restaurant
  • one-third of all workers had their first job in a restaurant
  • 48% of the average household’s food budget goes to restaurants (vs. 25% fifty years ago)

The bankruptcy filings of a number of restaurant chains since the recession began in 2008 is but one indicator of a model that is teetering on the brink of survival. The photo above is taken from a Food Network show entitled Restaurant Impossible, wherein Robert Irvine turns a restaurant around in 48 hours. The menu is revised, customer service issues are addressed, $10,000 of strategic remodeling is performed, the revenue and costs are examined for opportunity, and the restaurant owner is challenged to run the business at a profit going forward.

Macro trends in the recent few years towards buying more groceries or becoming value-conscious have definitely affected the top and bottom lines of many restaurant owners. Franchises, which account for about half of the restaurant revenues produced nationwide, have really taken it on the chin. Franchisees who own one or only a few stores have inadequate access to capital these days. Another big factor is the conflict of interest in most franchise agreements that are based on sales volume. The franchisor can implement discounting programs to increase traffic and sales volume, but the franchisee has less and less profit as a result of the agreements.

What can be done? Turnaround experts recommend a process of performing store-level profitability analysis, followed by benchmarking against peer stores. These analyses can highlight purchasing/inventory issues, training issues that are evidenced by waste, and theft/shrinkage that depletes the operator’s assets needed to produce a return.

There are many good consultants who can help a restaurant owner sort through the challenges and create a plan for growth and renewal.