Do You Have an Innovative Strategy?

 

After a very long (10 days+) break from blogging, we are back on the job for the New Year today. The time away was refreshing and helped to restore focus. One of the reasons I began writing this blog last year was to develop a discipline for getting observations about small business management and strategy out of my head and into a “written” format. At some point in 2013, we will attempt to cull through last year’s blog posts, sort and organize them, and format all of the content into a cohesive story that should make a good book. It has been over 20 years since I published my last book and it will be fun to be in print again.

Back to the matters of management and strategy…I’d like to run through a few scenarios I’ve encountered with clients recently in an effort to highlight some of the ways business owners get “stuck” in their approach. One client is in the midst of a family business transition–none of which are what one would call a “piece of cake.” As with any business worth laboring over, this one has experienced enough success in its history that all parties think it has enduring value. All parties would be right–and wrong! 

Business valuations derive enhanced magnitude from observed plans for managing risk. The risk of the owner getting hit by a bus is, for instance, substantial. With no business continuity plan for such a horrible occurrence, the company that has taken years to build can be undone in a very short amount of time. Insurance is seen as a way to mitigate the impact of such an event on the financial performance of a business and its stakeholders. However, no amount of insurance can replace institutional knowledge. Most companies are operated based on lessons learned the hard way. When the person who remembers all the lessons is no longer around, others must climb the same painful learning curve and waste precious resources in the process. Taking the time to document what you have learned and how you apply that knowledge in daily management makes your company worth way more money–even if you never plan to sell it!

hourly billing agreementAnother client is a professional services firm that is struggling with the industry standard of billing fees on an hourly basis and all the timekeeping and dysfunction associated with this antiquated practice. In addition to the record keeping requirements, there are collection processes that are time consuming, result in write-downs, and become demoralizing. What we are implementing, then, is a change in the way business is done. We will begin to charge clients a retainer and a success fee. The retainer is some minor amount that basically allows this specialized practice to recoup some monies for overhead obligations while the team works on client issues. It is meant to encourage more calls from clients to discuss everyday items so that we become an extension of their management and leadership teams. The success fee is structured up front to be awarded to us for doing a better than average job. We work with clients when they are prospects to identify    how success will be measured before an engagement begins. we put the feedback responsibility in the hands of the client, and adjust our final payouts based on results.

These two examples illustrate how matters of strategy can be brought into the regular operations of any business. In every business we’ve encountered, there are things that are overlooked or left un-addressed because they are accepted rather than challenged. What are those things in your business that need to be tackled in 2013? How will you tackle them?

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Sell Your Business Even if Others Can’t

In reading about the issues facing small businesses in the United States since the recession began in late 2007, I have heard about many sectors that have fallen behind historical performance levels. One that I hadn’t considered very much until this week is what is called the “business-for-sale” sector, which has seen a huge drop-off in comparison to all metrics known prior to the recession. While many have spoken about the large amount of private equity not in circulation, many of the reasons it is being withheld translate to other types of business buyers.

Whether you are representing an equity firm or your own personal business interests, it is likely that you have been trying to figure out when the economy may turn around. In classic business theory, it would be ideal to buy at a deflated price right before the economy picked up so that your investment could piggyback onto the general trend of successful recovery. Such market timing could make your investment produce very high–perhaps unprecedented–returns.

Since the economy appears to have stabilized, though not surged forward in a demonstrable way, what are these people who would otherwise be buying small businesses thinking? Observers of the business-for-sale sector wonder when they will see a positive change. They are anxious to see more acquisition activity.Buy sell dice

Hindrances to Business Sales

Whether you listen to political pundits, talk show hosts, or economists, all would concur (at least publicly) that small business is key to the overall recovery. Yet, if small businesses are not churning ownership, it is hard for them to obtain the necessary working capital to fund growth and operations. BizBuySell.com conducted a survey of 260 business brokers from around the country to attempt to determine whether market conditions were improving. A whopping 70 percent indicated that financing for business acquisitions has not improved since 2011. These findings and percentages are consistent with survey results from last year, showing a trend of stagnation.

With commercial loans harder to come by (according to the survey), many buyers can’t get the financing they need to do deals.  Business brokers say that banks have made the loan process even more difficult in 2012, decreasing the chances thereby that buyers will begin investing in businesses for sale. Mike Handelsman, group general manager for BizBuySell.com and BizQuest.com, reports that borrowing is particularly difficult for new or young entrepreneurs. Since banks and similar entities have taken the position that a track record of success is one of the top determinants of future success, newcomers to the small business arena–either startups or acquirers–are handcuffed. 

Handelsman cited other factors of concern to business brokers from the survey. Concerns about the U.S. national debt,  political deadlock (re: the fiscal cliff), long-term unemployment and small business/personal tax rates (14%) also appear to diminish buyer confidence. However, he did offer some tips for sellers:

Seller financing is not necessarily the right strategy for all business succession scenarios. But under the right circumstances, a seller’s willingness to finance a portion of the sale can dramatically increase the number of potential buyers and create more advantageous sales terms (e.g. a higher sale price). Sellers also need to plan for the sale, and make their businesses as attractive as possible to buyers.

Here are a few ways to plan for the sale and make your business attractive–

  • Install an outside board of directors, with positions filled by non-competing entrepreneurs rather than the typical CPA, attorney, banker, and family friend.
  • Stop paying executive perks out of business accounts–clear separation will help show your commitment to professional management.
  • Document the tasks and procedures performed by the executive team. When it has been documented, the business is worth far more money because it is no longer dependent on the personalities.
  • Have a CPA review your financial statements–audit if you can afford it–especially if you have never had it done before.
  • Work with a transactions attorney to advise on deal structure and terms so that you can think through tax implications that may cause you to accept certain types of offers.

Chin up! If you follow these best practices, you will be one of the first ones to sell your business, regardless of whether many others sell theirs at the same time.

 

 

New Small Business: Economic Development Catalyst

Small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy. This is a statement that is tossed out for public consumption on a fairly regular basis. What data backs it up? What might it mean for job creation and other key indicators of economic health that matter to the general population? In the November 2012 Business Dynamics Statistics monthly report from the Census Bureau, it was noted that hiring and job creation in small businesses (19 employees or less) with two years or less of operations was stronger than in larger companies that had been around longer.

While older firms only hire 25-33% of new employees for newly created jobs, young firms average about two in five (40%)! A substantial fraction of the job creation for young firms is due to the job creation that occurs in the quarter of starting up. However, there is substantial subsequent job creation as well as job destruction in the succeeding quarters in the first two years. The overall net job creation (the difference between job creation and destruction) is much higher for young firms than for older firms.

Small Business strengthThe other area in which startups excel is in worker churning (hiring in excess of job creation and the separations in excess of job destruction.) Job creation measures the employment gains from the expansion of existing establishments and the creation of new establishments. Job destruction measures the employment losses from contracting and closing establishments. The Department of Labor maintains that churning helps the matching of workers to jobs. Hiring and separation rates at young firms are seen as being unusually high. There is also a trend of a marked improvement in hiring and job creation in young firms since 2008 in comparison to established firms. 

The report, entitled “Job Creation, Worker Churning, and Wages at Young Businesses,” draws its conclusions from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators, which use federal and state administrative data on employers and employees combined with core Census Bureau data. On a less rosy note for employees in small companies, the study also showed that their earnings per worker are lower than at more mature firms. Since the wage premium for workers who choose to work for large companies has persisted, earnings growth–even during the most recent recession–is largely attributable to wages paid by larger companies. Some of this decline is accounted for by changes in the industry  composition of startups over the last decade, but the overall trend is downward.

Just before the 2001 recession, workers at new firms earned about 85 percent as much as workers at mature firms. By 2011, this earnings ratio had dropped to 70 percent. The earnings premium associated with working for a large employer versus a smaller employer also grew during this time period: Average real monthly earnings in small firms fell from a high of 78 percent in 2001 to a low of 66 percent in 2011. 

Churning rates are said to be “procyclical,” dropping during recessions as firms become cautious about hiring, and employees, with fewer jobs available, stay where they are. In both the 2001 and, especially, 2007-2009 recessions, worker turnover rates declined, but failed to recover to their previous peak after the recession ended. Churn rates for the youngest businesses recovered modestly after the most recent recession, but dropped slightly after first quarter 2011, perhaps reflecting eroding worker and business confidence, the study said.

What does this all mean? Here are the key takeaways:

  • Small businesses create more new jobs than large businesses
  • Pay at small companies tends to be less than at larger ones
  • Turnover is higher at smaller firms than at larger ones
  • Small business bounces back faster than big business after a recession
  • Startups are paying less now than they were a decade ago

 

 

 

Smarter Family Business Via Communication

Having grown up in a family owned business, I have experienced a thing or two in common with many of my clients. Even when I was yet in middle school, I would be recruited to help out in the business, much to my own dismay at times when I would much rather be doing something (anything?) else. However, a little bit of pay went a long ways to making a young man very content. As I grew older, however, the conflict between what needed to be done in the business and what I wanted to do became greater. My goals, dreams, and ambitions had less and less to do with staying in town, working alongside my dad, and us building something together. As you can imagine, this difference of opinion caused a bit of a rift in our relationship. So it goes with many family businesses.

The mismatch between the expectations that a founder has in terms of the involvement of children in the business and their actual desire to be involved is one of the leading problems encountered in family businesses. The parent (substitute other type of founder, but effect is similar) wonders why the child doesn’t put forth the same effort, see the same vision, realize the potential, etc. I delivered a talk for Harley Davidson University on this subject a few years ago, “Why They Don’t Ride With You.” In my session, I spoke with dealers about their frustrations with family members who seemed disinterested in working in or taking over the business. My encouragement to them was to do three things:

  1. Hold the opportunity with an open hand. Instead of making up your mind that there is only one “right” scenario for family members to take part in your business, be flexible! Determine that, while you may have preferences, you will corral your opinions and keep them in check as you attempt to find a common ground.
  2. Communicate often, specifically, including listening. Far too often, a patriarch will squelch the input of a child, spouse, etc in the home–and at work–particularly if work and home blend as in the case of a family business. Rather than honing in on what the other person has to say, we can easily insist on getting our point across before seeking to understand the other person’s view. Ask open ended questions about what the family member enjoys doing, what role they see themselves in, and how those choices affect the business. Create an open dialogue-constantly.
  3. Distinguish between ownership and management. An heir may work in the business or out of it, but still function as an owner. Sometimes, it is best for all if it’s known to be a safe choice to be just an owner or just a manager, rather than both as the founder has been. Realizing that such options exist can diffuse tension, lead to productive conversations, and aid in succession planning. Quite often, outsiders are better successors to founders because they can be objective about the contribution family members make to the business.

There are many other issues that, seen operating in a family business, look and feel different than their counterparts in other types of businesses. Everything from performance measurement to compensation, perks to preferences, psychology to sociology, and very much in between can be seen at work and become a spark for emotions. By far, family businesses are more emotional than others. Whatever your situation, think about tools that help create objective conversations about business issues so that you can lessen the impact of emotions in decisions that are being made. Your business and your family will be better off for it!

 

Watch Your Asset – It May Not Be a Resource

First, the bad news: making operations, finances, and employees work to maximum value can mean having to eliminate some employees or operations at times. The good news, though, is that many businesses have been able to hold on to existing resources–even during a turnaround situation–by reassigning them to better purposes and uses where required. This is the heart of asset redeployment–the practice of reassigning people, things, and efforts to achieve optimal efficiency. By using capital wisely, your team can make it stretch a lot further. For example, coordinating employee and independent contractor work to produce the greatest amount of work with the fewest number of people working the least number of hours means greater return on efforts and dollars.

Eliminating Operations

Eliminating unprofitable operations–in whole or in part– is a wide-ranging task. Anything that may be termed “waste” in the company needs to be discarded or put to better use. One area that should be addressed is waste due to unnecessary multiple consumption of potentially shared resources. In plain terms, the individual use of items that could be shared is an extravagance that few small businesses can afford. Think of shared printers rather than a printer on each desk as an example. it is highly unlikely that every single person in the office will be printing at the same time. What’s more, high volume printer/copier combination machines use less expensive toner than ink cartridges in smaller units. This initiative may require more cooperation and patience than providing unique units for each employee, but such a move can reduce the amount of money the company must spend to get work done.

Avoiding Duplicate Efforts

A counter problem to the above is too many employees doing the exact same job, either knowingly or unknowingly. Such multiple effort, a clear waste of time, resources, and money, often occurs when someone is fearful of delegation or feels threatened by another’s talents and abilities. Therefore, management should make sure that several people are not doing the same job in differing formats and degrees. 

Non-linked software is a perfect example of this kind of waste; if the secretary maintains supplier addresses and phone numbers, and the accounting group keeps the same information in their files, someone is performing an unnecessary job. Instruct employees in ways to avoid duplication of effort. Look across your organization, document processes by task, and find ways to reduce overlap. This is not to say that your staff should not be cross-trained. It is, in fact, good succession planning and talent management to have people who could do someone else’s job in a pinch!

Managing Capital Resources

Capital resources include facilities, supplies, and work in process. Buying only what is needed when needed (“just in time”) is one way to wisely manage resources. Another way would be to try to have more finished goods inventory than unfinished, because finished goods can be sold quickly to raise cash. At times, you may consider renting or leasing an asset rather than purchasing it–especially if the term of the contract is less than the useful life. You may elect to “turn in” resources that you don’t need very often or convert them to less cash intensive resources through alternate financing. 

Coordinating Human Resources

This is an area often overlooked because it is seen as “just administrative.” When employees, however, have jobs that overlap in requirements, it is up to the executive team in the small business to correct the situation for optimization. When your people are performing jobs that are not their strong suit, they usually take more time and make more mistakes than a better qualified and motivated counterpart.

Develop a competent management team to help you steward resources more efficiently. There are multiple areas for gains in efficiency and profitability if you will commit to the process. Note: process rather than one-time task–follow-through and experience the fruit of your labors!