Growth, Decline & Stabilization Via Turnaround

Clearly, many of the signals of company decline are a result of the growth a company may have experienced. When the growth ends and the business enters a period of stability, management may find itself unable to cope with the lack of growth. The team may continue to manage as if the rate of growth will continue in the near future. However, the plans for an expanding business differ markedly from those of a stable or declining one. When plans are not modified to address the new situation, companies often court trouble. A plan that is carved in granite will become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Case Study: Be Tall Houses

be Tall Houses is an example of a company that has internal and external problems. Be Tall was building forty single-family homes in the $100,000-$150,000 price bracket annually. Sales stood at $4.5 million, and the company employed nine employees.  Internally, there were excessive layers of management, excess wages, material waste, cost overruns, employee morale problems, and information flow deficiencies. In short, the company had almost every signal of decline. Externally, new competition had entered the market. Since Be Tall had damaged its relationships with material suppliers, it could not receive the necessary materials to compete.

The company is now undergoing a turnaround. Part of the strategy is to reduce costs and payroll by a minimum of $250,000 per year. There is also a slump in Be Tall’s markets, so revenue has slipped. The internal elements were changed by laying off unnecessary supervisors, reducing wages, adding a profit-sharing plan, settling lawsuits with suppliers and resuming business on account, reducing costs, and adding computerized information systems to prevent selling homes below cost. External elements are being addressed by rebuilding relationships with suppliers and banks. Finally, Be Tall Houses’ image is being restored in the mind of new home buyers. For example:

  • low offers are being refused,
  • real estate agents are advised that the builder is doing fine, 
  • the builder’s presence in the local community has been heightened, and
  • the builder now meets personally with each buyer.

A building company–or any other company–that suffers from problems and decreased volume becomes a part of the industry and/or community “rumor mill.” Stakeholders–anyone who has an economic interest in the business–may begin to discuss the company’s demise before the business feels the impact of declining profitability. Customers may begin to complain about service. Small problems may take on monumental proportions.

Be hesitant to respond to rumors. Telling stakeholders optimistic stories only makes the situation worse when the stories never come true. A company in trouble needs to face its problems and seek advice on how to solve them. By managing the rumormongers part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, the top executive can begin to clear an effective path toward increased profitability.


Once the signals of a declining business are recognized, the hemorrhaging must be stopped. it is imperative that the company determine its future direction immediately. Faced with an enterprise that has suffered deteriorating value, direct and specific actions must be undertaken by the executive team to reverse the downward spiral. Clearly, changes need to be made; the question now becomes: how should this change be implemented?

The Turnaround: Three Methods

The methods employed in a turnaround vary from case to case but can generally be classified as strategic, operational, or financial (or some combination of the three): Strategic is a changing of markets and products. Operational is an emphasis on cost reductions, revenue generation, and asset reduction. Financial is a restructuring of the balance sheet and income statements to generate cash to fund business growth or reorganization.


(Internal) Early Warning Signals of Decline

As ominous as uncontrollable external elements may appear, they are not the major cause of business failure. Rather, controllable internal elements are most frequently the problem. The internal elements that affect businesses are finance, operations, and marketing and sales. These are the basic functions over which a company’s executive team exercises direct control. Any business function can be placed within these categories. 

Business management is the force that drives these functions; yet changes in internal elements are at the root of the majority of business failures. These failures do not occur overnight; rather, such business decline usually occurs in stages. Extensive research that the founder of our organization performed suggests that the basic reason companies fail to recognize the onset of decline is simple management myopia or ignorance.

When your team fails to recognize the internal signals of decline, rationalization often ensues, with blame attributed to uncontrollable external elements. This approach appears on the surface to absolve management of responsibility for the company’s problems. For example, a shortage of cash might be blamed on stricter banking standards or lack of demand for the product/service. This “problem” can then be attributed to the nation’s economy.

Management can then take smaller “leaps of logic” to shift the blame to increased competition, which has made the marketplace unpredictable. While a shortage of cash is a symptom of a problem and surely a major signal of decline, the shortage of cash itself is not the actual problem; the problem may be buried deep within the business’s management and accounting information systems. You may be making sales at a price that does not cover the fixed costs of operations, or accounting personnel may not have developed contribution margin, product cost, and direct cost of sales standards. If your “system” cannot measure the causes of unprofitability, how do you know what changes to make?

As with external elements, internal elements can also interact with one another. Finance, operations, and marketing and sale shave a natural interaction with each other and are, in fact, related to one another. any one of these internal elements may cause decline. As the problem persists, the other functions become involved. Operations techniques may become antiquated. Marketing and sales can be in the wrong market with the wrong product. Finance may be unaware of other departments’ changing financial requirements. Such a lack of information flow between departments also signals decline. Businesses cannot survive without information about both internal and external environments.

Coping With Internal Elements

It is unfortunate when managerial tools are not used for maximum benefit. Many companies fail to manage by cash projections; instead they rely on “looking backward” statements like balance sheets and P&L. Budgets comparing projections to performance are critical to effective management. When budgets are tasks rather than tools, your management is weak. Balance sheets can show working capital reserves even when a company is in decline. Changes in accounts is important to track–it can point you to root causes and symptoms of real problems.

Controlling Internal Elements

The internal elements are the factors that should be most familiar to executive teams, but they are often the most overlooked. The very nature of the internal elements is dynamic; they are continually evolving and require constant monitoring. Since managers may be unable to understand the dynamic nature of the internal elements, a decline may go unnoticed for a while. Management’s primary role is to use these elements to maximize profits. Controlling finance, marketing, and operations requires monitoring of all the functions to identify potential signals of decline.


Early Warning Signals (External) of Business Decline

Early warning signals companies should look for in the external environment include all legal, political, competitive, technological, economic, and social changes that affect them. Regular review of social media, trade periodicals, business publications, and newspapers will help to keep you current. A technological advance, for example, often affects buyer attitudes and expectations, thereby causing social changes that need to be addressed in product/service design and delivery/sales. If your organization is uninformed with regard to the changes–either that they occur or the extent to which they occur–company performance may lag behind competitors. 

Early Warning Signals – External

Management often tends to dismiss the external signals of decline as elements beyond their control. They believe that a downward trend will end when external elements (e.g. economic conditions) improve. Problematic external elements can include the following:

  • increased competition
  • rapidly changing technology
  • unpredictable economic fluctuations
  • cultural/social changes
  • legal/political swings

Within these external elements are market changes, customer preference changes, foreign competition, capital and commodity market movements, legal precedents, and unresponsive political solutions. While these elements cannot be controlled, they can be influenced. Also, since all businesses in an industry are similarly affected by external elements, management’s ability to survive these changes will determine future  viability. Some businesses weather external changes and emerge with increased market share and profitability; others fail.

Two major problems with these elements are their uncontrollable nature as well as their interaction with each other. Upon close scrutiny, it becomes apparent that factors affecting one of them can have a secondary effect upon another. For example, a cultural/social shift can result in a legal/political change. This change can affect the economic environment, which will interact with technological development. the rate of technological development consequently affects the status of competition. This process of action and reaction comes full circle when we realize that the status of competition then affects the economy and cultural/social change.

Businesses fail to realize that they can plan for external changes and safeguard their hard work. Their management teams have the ability to influence the external elements if they can predict their occurrence. Such foresight allows the executive team to influence the elements through the use of promotion, persuasion, buyer education, accelerated product development, process improvements or elimination, unit growth plans, new markets, and adjusted sales practices. 

Adaptation to the change is the result. For example, construction companies that build prefabricated residences have known for years about the external changes affecting the prefab sector of the home building industry. They have been affected by  cultural/social and legal/political changes for the last several decades. In response, they developed new products, such as modular multifamily housing, to offset their declining mobile home product sales. They invested in additional research to determine the number of potential single-family and multifamily buyers who preferred the cost savings that their construction process generates. They invested in new manufacturing capabilities, which would use material specifications offering a competitive advantage. These companies understood the early warning signals of the external elements and acted to offset them through:

  1. promotion and persuasion to keep their customers,
  2. additional market research about market size and buyer profiles,
  3. buyer education based on research findings,
  4. product improvements, and
  5. product elimination.

These tools allowed this segment  of the building industry to adapt to changes in the market. What are you doing in your business to a.) study the external environment, b.) adapt to the changes, and c.) position yourself in the eyes of prospects and existing customers to become more competitive? You can influence your own outcome!