Overcoming Business Failures With Mentoring


According to Bill Warner, co-founder of EntreDot, approximately 26,000 new companies are formed each year in North Carolina and, in that same year, over 23,000 companies fail due to poor management and operational mistakes. Warner further states that, “The statistics are worse in rural and minority populations. This means that good ideas go to waste along with the grant and investor funds that helped get these companies started. As a result, the potential growth of revenue and new jobs is lost also.” These comments are very similar sentiments to what Dun and Bradstreet found in some surveys conducted during the period of 2007 – 2010. D&B found that the rate of business failure went up by an average of 40% during the recession years.

D&B SMB Lowest Failure Rate by State 2010


Many of the states with lower failure rate increases are less heavily populated states. In fact, of all the states that have seen a decline in the rate of small to medium sized business failure, only North Carolina makes the list of 10 most populous states in the country. Of states (below) with large increases in failure rates, only California is heavily populated.  

D&B SMB Failure Rate by State 2010




From 2007 through 2010, Western states in the West had the highest increase in failure rates. Reasons D&B provided for the uptick in failures include continued instability in the residential housing market and drop-off in the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors. Interestingly, Tennessee has been home to the highest small business failure rates for four years in a row.  

D&B Largest SMB Industries 2010


These trends have been occurring at a time when the number of retail establishments and corresponding retail employment have both dropped by 15-20%. On the other hand, the number of SMBs in the Business Services category more than doubled and these businesses experienced a 30% increase in the number of people they employ. The fastest growing industries for SMBs are summarized below:

D&B Fastest Growing Industries 2010


As you can plainly see, nothing else comes close to the growth of  the Business Services category. Bear in mind that many software as a service companies are part of this category and have been launched in only recent years. The macrotrends that become evident are that retail is on the wane, highly populated states are more stable in terms of business failure statistics, and the business services category’s growth will be a key cog in the engine of our economy.

Warner points to the following issues of significance to these small businesses:

  • Business strategy and planning to make sure their business is focused on a viable market with a winning product and/or service that has a competitive edge
  • Forecasting and financing ensuring that sales forecasts are realistic and that revenue, cost, expense and cash are well managed
  • Operational discipline and judgment to increase the chances of success by making fewer mistakes
  • Industry connections that can help accelerate the business and its operations
  • Start-up company experience that can instill the wisdom of what it takes to really start and manage an emerging business


He feels that these companies need the dual combination of basic business know-how and mentoring. The situation in North Carolina, where Warner and I live, is that our state has a comprehensive array of entrepreneurship education programs throughout the community college and university systems including various other private and public organizations. The problem is that we have little help for entrepreneurs once they have completed these programs and actually try to start a business. We recommend assistance for entrepreneurs who are struggling to create successful businesses, the failures should decline considerably. Entrepreneurs should be seeking out business mentors that can help them through the early years of their business.


Find Ways to Improve Manufacturing Company Profits

In trying to understand business issues, case studies can serve as a useful tool to show us what we may not see at first glance in our own businesses. When I was doing the research that led to the founding of the Turnaround Management Association a number of years ago, I had the “opportunity” to compile, read, and review over 900 case studies on attempted turnarounds. As I read about companies from a variety of industries, geographies, and backgrounds, I was able to decipher certain trends and best practices. While I obviously don’t have the space (or your attention span) to delve into that level of detail in a blog post, I wanted to recount a case study and point out some lessons to be learned.

better resultsA $100+ million company lost 25% of its revenue during the period 2005 – 2010. Simultaneously, EBIT declined by 91%, dropping to 0.9% of  2010 sales numbers. A turnaround firm was retained to restore revenues and achieve at least 10% EBIT by the end of 2012. The results of the project were that 2011 revenue improved by 20.20% over 2010 and 2011 EBIT was 5.5% of 2011 revenue, an increase of 470% over that of 2010.

How the Results Were Achieved

Strategic Alignment

By analyzing the markets served, rates of growth, and trends, the turnaround firm was able to highlight the very best opportunities for high growth. Historical analysis yielded insights into top customers and products, with breakout information by plant location. As insights were gleaned from the data, brainstorming sessions were held with the executive team to modify strategic and tactical plans.

Product Pricing

As with many companies who suffered a decline in fortunes, this company had begun to compete on price rather than more strategic competitive advantages. As their products and services became commoditized, considerable price variability had snuck into the company based on local market conditions. With considerable (40%+) market share in its primary markets, the company in crisis had very few price comparables available from competitive intelligence by which new pricing could be developed. The consultants helped the company do the following:

  1. Make product groups by cost and technical specs,
  2. (For each product group) establish minimum, mean, and max prices,
  3. Determine products that were priced outside of guideline rages, and
  4. Identify customers who were not profitable to serve.

Margins were terrible, so the company implemented the following procedures recommended by the turnaround firm: 

  • Pricing for non-strategic customers was immediately increased,
  • Held meetings with strategic customers to explain the fair price increases, and
  • Future price increases were planned in unison with strategic customers.

Product Costing & Standardization

The old product costing model was jettisoned in favor of a more accurate, easier to maintain one. Product Standardization was accomplished by analyzing SKUs across key product groupings. A small list of products were designated as standard offerings. Everything else was labeled “custom,” with appropriate cost and pricing decisions.

Operations Improvement

Process improvements were instituted after plant visits. Highlighted items included:

  • Supply chain improvements through TQM and JIT were achieved
  • Minimum order quantity guidelines streamlined production runs and enhanced scheduling efficiency
  • Setup and preventive maintenance routines were sharpened
  • Paperwork and scrap reduction and recycling were instituted

The culmination of 2011 efforts was that higher contribution margin at the plant level. Production scheduling and materials requirement procedures were highlighted as areas for additional improvement. 

When an outside team is brought in to focus on profitability and the executive team cooperates fully, great things can happen in a turnaround. Clear communications, improved decision-making, unified focus all lead to enhanced morale and the profitability becomes an outgrowth of good management.


Urgency in Turnarounds

When a team has tried everything in their power to solve a dilemma and is unsuccessful, the turnaround manager must step in. The buck stops with him; if a third party cannot reach resolution with company staff, someone with more clout must reestablish credibility. Use of a consistent complain resolution process can prove quite effective. It frees the team up to not have to stress relationships with those with whom they have either had long term relationships or with whom they must transact business once the turnaround is complete. Even managers should appeal to the business owner or turnaround executive if a third party will not accept their efforts to resolve issues.

Doing the Job Effectively

Encouraging employees to perform their jobs thoroughly, to the point they exceed performance standards, is most easily done by providing responsibility and reward. Treat employees as peers, recognizing that they too have responsibilities and commitments. Offering them the opportunity to wield more authority is rarely rejected. Promote a diligent working atmosphere wherein employees want to go the extra mile.

Ask all employees to document any problems with suppliers, customers, or service providers. Often, taking it a step further and documenting issues with sales teams, distributors and governmental agencies (where appropriate) can provide a paper trail to  help the executive team and turnaround artist in their work to remove roadblocks. When relevant facts are understood, appropriate actions can be taken.

Dealing With a Lack of Resources

When a company is in the middle of a turnaround, certain items that would make work easier are not going to be available due to a lack of funds. Using skills and abilities creatively to overcome this lack of resources or other unpredicted occurrence as an example for employees to follow. In tough situations, executives should look for a way to overcome the situation rather than dwelling on the inconvenience caused.

Successful turnarounds are a tribute to employees who strive to overcome limitations and exceed performance standards rather than merely meet them. To bring work projects in early and under budget, everyone must strive to do much better than is required, constantly searching out ways to improve efficiency. No time can be wasted–every minute and every dollar that exceeds schedule or budget extends the distance between a struggling company and its ultimate goal of renewed profitability.

Following the Turnaround Plan

All employees need to be reminded that a plan has been developed to promote optimal recovery and that all actions taken are done so in accordance with the dictates of the plan. United by common objectives, the work force can and will help to implement the turnaround plan. Three essential principles apply:

  • Some short-term gains will be sacrificed for ling-term profitability.
  • Some long-term successes will have to be postponed for short-term cash flow.
  • The means of implementation is always open to suggestion and never open to argument.

Creating a Sense of Urgency

Certain goals, particularly dates and milestones, need to be met without fail. To accomplish these goals, a sense of urgency must prevail. Departures from the schedule can cause the company to lose out on windows of opportunity. The interest carrying cost of financing operations longer than anticipated is an example; if work projects are completed on time, lines of credit can be paid down sooner. Even one foot-dragging employee can impede the progress of the group, and the resulting missed deadlines can mean substantial financial losses.

Meet With Employees

Sit down with your staff and clearly and frankly describe the situation. Inform them that the company is experiencing some short-term problems in meeting its objectives and that actions are being undertaken to minimize long-term  impact. Explain and reiterate throughout the turnaround that company health can be restored through combined best efforts. Explain the turnaround plan, with an emphasis on the valuable role of each and every employee in reaching plan goals.

Meet With Management

Regular meetings with managers will be needed to discuss progress in detail. Begin with twice weekly meetings and progress to biweekly as the situation improves. Update reports should be given on activities since the prior meeting, with input required from managers from each department. Discuss problems and develop plans to resolve them within the meeting. Take advantage of a quorum of opinions to move the company forward in rapid-fire fashion.


Implementing Your Turnaround Plan

A turnaround plan presupposes that someone will be around to implement it. A lack of execution or inappropriate one (timing or lack of adaptation) will quickly undermine all earlier efforts that went into drafting the plan. Control over operations is therefore a must–no single part of the business should monopolize the company’s attention and efforts.

Controlling Operations


The motivational skills of a “take charge” leader can enhance job performance in many ways. Many employees complain they are not being used effectively because they don’t have enough to do or their efforts are being applied inappropriately. Management that makes the most of employee work efforts has a knack for spotting actions that, if performed immediately, will have a tremendous, positive impact on company success.


To ensure that operations are monitored and controlled correctly, the individual who reviews system reports must make decisions based on indicators of company efficiency. For example, if variance reports show (project or product) costs exceeding budget, action must be taken immediately to prevent further overruns. Similarly, if non-payment has a vendor worried, the top financial manager must find a way to keep the vendor on board so a return to profitability can occur.

Sound management is exhibited when field operations or internal reports require responses to abnormalities. For example, a business owner in the midst of a turnaround had a new hire (< 2 months) supervisor request on Thursday to take Monday and Tuesday off to pursue some personal matters. The business owner was not in a production crunch and was short on cash, so he approved the time off–particularly since the supervisor was not using vacation (paid) time to take leave. When the supervisor strode onto the job Monday late morning, the owner was surprised. When he requested to work the balance of Monday and all of Tuesday, the owner declined the request, citing that she had to make other arrangements that inconvenienced others and that last-minute notice would not be accommodate in this or future instances.

In this instance, the owner did what was necessary to maintain control over operations. Though it may have ruffled the supervisor’s feathers for a few days, it demonstrated the importance of setting policies and commitments–and living by them. It was also to the owner’s advantage not to have to pay the supervisor for work that had been reassigned to someone else. Proper planning was used to make sure that someone would be able to supervise the work. Additional follow-up was necessary to make sure no problems were slowing down production for those two days. Had the owner failed to exercise sound management, proper planning, or follow-up, she would have lost time, money and credibility with others due to one employee’s circumstances.

Focusing on Common Objectives

Getting employees to focus on common objectives is a difficult task. Executives an managers who are able to motivate their workers to avoid distractions, do their jobs effectively, and remember to follow the turnaround plan do so with tremendous skills/abilities.

Employee Problem Solving

Employees can best avoid distractions and aid in the turnaround process by quickly resolving issues in which they have innate skills and referring all other issues to appropriate personnel. Additionally, employees should report any persisting problems or confrontations to the executive team.

Problem-solving should be a relatively painless process, requiring only that he or she utilize skills learned on the job and “do what seems best” based on prior experience. If an employee has little or no experience in the problem area , she should not hesitate to find someone who is experienced. It is far better to admit a need for help than to take a chance on behalf of the company.

Employees should be reassured that involving others is not “shirking” or “dumping” work into another’s lap. Rather, this process is a way of relieving employees of the likelihood of error in making an uninformed decision. However, employees are not absolved from making sure the problem is resolved. Make it a habit of celebrating when employees help one another out to build camaraderie.


How to Handle Lenders

In dealing with lenders, it is important for executive teams to understand the background of those with whom they transact business. Bankers, for instance, are often conservative by nature, have little experience running their own business, and can be a part of a corporate system that is bureaucratic and slow moving. Realizing from the outset that the word “risk” is a four-letter word to these professionals can prepare you to have better conversations. Furthermore, you must accept that most front-line bankers are not empowered to question the standards they must enforce on behalf of their employer or the banking system as a whole. All of this is especially true after the recent mortgage industry troubles of the 2008 recession genre. By keeping in mind who is on the other side of the desk when a loan request is submitted, you as a management team member can position your request in a way that gives the banker the best ammunition to give you an affirmative response.

How Lenders Think

Understanding how lenders think helps the entrepreneur better understand why lending policies are pragmatic rather than opportunity-driven, standard rather than adaptable, and monitoring rather than recommending. While market opportunities drive the entrepreneur, lenders approach the very same data with caution. The same unpredicted cash shortage that merely surprises a business owner may send a lender into a panic. Lenders are not in the business of selling advice–in fact, they can be held liable if found to be doing so and the business goes under. They are in the business of making money on loans. Therefore, their loyalty is to company profits and a return on their monies borrowed–and noting else! Anyone who wishes to test the strength of this premise should try missing a few note payments.

Consistency is the hallmark of the lender, due in large part to the constraints of a corporate directive of standardization. The seemingly two-sided face that the entrepreneur sees the lender wear is real; the lending officer truly wants to help and has empathy, but is governed by institutional guidelines. Overidentification with the needs of the borrower can cause a lender to lose her job. 

Consequently, the face the business owner sees is not reality but rather a front depicting what the lending institution would like to see happen. Rarely does a borrower learn the true acceptable level of performance that a lender would be willing to accept. Since lenders control the purse strings to the resources that keep the borrower in business, these lenders are impossible to control. Knowing a lender’s true bottom line enables the borrower to influence lending policies that permit operation under the best possible conditions.

How Lenders Act

During tough economic times, lenders are expected to:

  • serve as a flexible yet profitable source of capital,
  • monitor the performance of borrowers in their book of business, and 
  • provide sound references to inquirers on behalf of their clients.

Lenders must be allowed to continue to make money on the loans they have extended, but the borrower may request modifications of the terms of repayment based on business financial performance. Principal payment deferrals, interest accruals, and other methods can be used to create cash within the business operation, but one is ill advised to single-handedly embark on such practices without securing the commitment of the lending institution in advance.

To the extent they are able, lenders should be encouraged to visit the places of business of their borrowers and check things out. Outside assessment of company execution of its plans by this important stakeholder group can prove valuable to the management of the company. Hopefully, an open dialogue creates an environment where the lender reference in credit applications is always a positive one and facilitates smooth operations in your company!