The Business Roundtable Creates a Snit Attack

The Wall Street Journal (and I’m sure others) sure had a snit attack last week after the Business Roundtable came out with their latest report saying companies shouldn’t emphasize shareholder return over taking care of employees, customers, suppliers, and community. 

Taking care of people sounds like a good subject for Labor Day week. And what the Roundtable is suggesting sure sounds like the Costco model. Fair prices, good jobs at a fair wage with benefits, very community focused, and while I can’t comment directly on suppliers, I do have a friend who sells to Costco and loves doing business with them.

The above is also what my clients strive for. A client looking at a business to buy didn’t see an expense for benefits. He commented on how he’ll have to add in that cost (versus the common adding back of expenses) because he wasn’t going to be an owner not providing benefits.

I looked at a company recently whose owner seemed to be bragging about how little he could pay his employees. He didn’t connect that with the fact he had high absenteeism and constant turnover. 

With an extremely high employment rate it pays to take care of your people, especially in our robust economy.

As an economics major, I well remember Milton Friedman, who’s the person who stated a corporation’s primary obligation is to the shareholders (and which the Roundtable is now disagreeing with). I think he was wrong then and it’s a wrong philosophy now. Take care of your people (including customers and suppliers) and they’ll take care of you.

“Success is a great deodorant. It takes away all your past smells.” Elizabeth Taylor

Financial Shenanigans Versus Incompetence

The Wall Street Journal and others recently reported about an accounting expert who had predicted the Madoff Ponzi scheme and recently went after GE for what he said are their deceptive accounting practices (of course, GE responded this person didn’t know what he was talking about). But this is not about GE but rather about accounting irregularities in general.

We have a government with annual deficits of $1 trillion and with a lot more “off the books” because there are non-budget items. On August 26, 2019 the WSJ had an article about how CEO pay is often much higher than disclosed (due to stock appreciation and clauses that escalate compensation).

And then we get to my world of small business where it’s usually not malicious but is accounting incompetence. Too many owners think their accounting department is like Cinderella – the weak little stepsister who must be tolerated at as little cost as possible. Sometimes it’s because they’d sooner “play” with their product than worry about the numbers and often it’s because they’re doing so well it becomes “management by checkbook,” as in, there’s plenty of money so who cares about cash flow, metrics, etc.

I’m working on a potential deal where the owner (and his advisors) setup five companies, two operating, one management, one for real estate, and one for equipment. They are so intertwined it will take a good CFO or forensic accountant to figure out exactly what their earnings are. And, it’s management by checkbook when the owner says, “we bought too much equipment and too many vehicles last year, so we’ll have to sell some.”

Tip to owners – one of the top three things you can do is have solid financial systems, accurate statements, good management reports, know your KPIs, and other metrics. It makes your life easier, especially as it seems we’ll have an economic correction soon, and when it’s time to sell, increases your value and attracts better buyers.

“The simple truth is that truth is hard to come by, and that once fount it may easily be lost again.” Karl Popper

The Best Lessons are From Dogs

I recently read Dave Barry’s latest book, Lessons From Lucy; The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. It’s funny, as one would expect from Dave Barry, insightful, poignant, and not exactly what I expected from him.

I’m not going to “steal his thunder” and give away all his lessons. Read the book (it’s a fast read and extremely entertaining). I will share one lesson, because it’s one of the few mantras I have in my business.

Don’t stop having fun. (And if you have stopped, start having fun again.)

On page one of my book, Buying A Business That Makes You Rich, I state that in addition to all the reasons people have for wanting their own business, fun needs to be at the top of the list. The same goes for a job, yet too many people slog through their days, collecting a paycheck (sometimes a very good paycheck) but not building a career or a lot of happiness.

It’s even more important in our personal lives (to have fun). We can’t go through life like the Puritans, feeling we have to suffer on earth to have everlasting life. But considering most of us spend 25-35% of our adult lives “on the job,” it’s crucial to be doing something you like if not love.

And guess what, when you’re having fun it carries over to your co-workers, customers, family members, and others, and, increases productivity. There’s a lot of money spent on advisors helping employees, and owners, get to the point of enjoying what they do and doing their jobs better. It’s often called culture and it’s a lot easier to destroy a culture than build a great one, which is one reason for all the experts providing great advice.

“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Galileo Galilei 

Stereotypes Can Be Deadly

We were having a cup of coffee and some breakfast at a great little coffee shop-bakery-café in Bozeman, MT before going on a hike. Next to us were three ladies, also dressed for a day in the outdoors. and I couldn’t help but overhear one of them say:

“People from cities really don’t understand the environment. And getting off the ship on an Alaska cruise to spend two hours in shops looking at tchotchkes isn’t getting into the environment.”

A stereotype of city people and I’ll admit many city people aren’t all that knowledgeable about the outdoors. Our fishing guide, who we use every summer, loves to tell (everybody) about the lady from New York city who asked (when seeing a minnow put on a hook), “Do fish really eat other fish?” *Realize fishing guides love to tell the same stories and jokes no matter how many times you’ve heard them, so we just pretend they’re new.*

But knowledge and caring are two different things. Most people, city or rural, don’t want chemicals dumped in their water or on their land. Most want to breathe clean air. Very few if any want their local resources, whether a lake or river in the wilderness or the Hudson river in New York, to be like a man-made lake in Novosibirsk, Russia nicknamed the “Siberian Maldives” because of its turquoise color. Unfortunately, the color is a chemical reaction from ash runoff from a power plant’s industrial dump site.**

So what stereotypes do you have? Some I hear include:

  • You can’t buy this business because you don’t have direct industry experience. (False, very false and tied to the misnomer “Nobody else can run my business because it’s so special.”)
  • I’m starting an advisory business but don’t have any references or testimonials. (Sure you do. You just did the work for another company.)
  • My business can’t grow. (Yes it can, maybe it’s you.)
  • I have to do menial tasks like payroll, HR, reviewing every bid/proposal, etc. (No, owners don’t have to do those things way below their paygrade, you have to trust others and get over being a control freak.)

So, what stereotypes are holding you back from growing, starting a new business, buying one, selling yours and moving on to your next great adventure in life, or anything else?

“Knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Rosa Parks

Stereotypes Can Be Deadly** This lake has become an Instagram phenom and even though people are warned not to go in the water they do. One man who floated on the lake (on a floatie) said, “The next morning, my legs turned slightly red and itched for two days; the water tastes a bit sour, looks like chalk.”

When You’re In Over Your Head…

AB InBev, which makes one out of every four beers sold worldwide and owns hundreds of brands is selling assets in Australia, Asia, and Central America. Why? Because an acquisition spree got them to the size they are but also saddled them with massive amounts of debt And there’s a lesson here for small businesses and individuals.

Many things can derail a business’s value (customer concentration, owner dependency, etc.) and there’s nothing wrong with manageable debt. But the beer market is struggling, both in emerging and mature markets, and that threw AB InBev’s debt coverage out of whack, i.e. not enough profits to cover debt payments the way they wanted to.

Growth is great. We all want to grow. Business buyers especially want to grow. But growth for growth’s sake can throw things off kilter. It doesn’t matter if it’s beer, widgets, aerospace, or something else, manageable growth with attention paid to margins and cash flow is what you want.

The key is to understand what you do best and do more of it. When you want to expand your product or service offerings make sure there’s a market. Don’t be trying to sell beer when customers are moving to other beverages.

And, whether personal or business, manage your debt, your cash flow, and your growth so you don’t fall off the cliff.

“Insanity is a relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage.” Ray Bradbury

 

Are You Ready for a Storm Surge?

I was watching a fascinating video on the Weather Channel app about Tropical Storm/Hurricane Barry in Louisiana. The scene started with what looked like a grassy country road or trail, soon it looked wet, then a small creek about one foot wide was visible, and before you knew it, a torrent of water was flowing, filled with debris.

These surges come so quickly and it’s one reason people get trapped; they think they have time when they don’t. The same can happen in business. I’ve had a few times when it seemed I could do no wrong when it came to getting clients. New client here, new client there, new client everywhere. Then the work needed to be done all starts hitting at the same time.

For us it means putting in a little more time, doing less marketing, postponing admin work, etc. What about for businesses making or selling a product or labor-intensive service (fixing furnaces, installing systems, etc.) when they experience (usually short-term) hockey stick growth? Here are three traps to watch out for:

  1. Growth sucks cash and it’s why a couple huge orders can deplete the checking account. We just met with an owner who told us how they bought the rights to sell a new product line from a struggling competitor. First step, stock up on inventory because customers were frustrated about everything being “out of stock.” This means a lot of cash out the door. Then, there’s a royalty on sales, which is a great way to buy something but means less margin until it’s paid off.
  2. Who’s going to do the work? Simple story, over the last two years I’ve seen 8-10 electrical contracting businesses either on the market or I’ve talked to owners thinking of selling. Every one of them said they could do a lot more business (double in many cases) if only they had the people. Fast growth, big orders, and similar can create a short-term labor shortage, force overtime and its increased cost, or cause delivery delays. Watch out when large opportunities appear in your sales pipeline.
  3. A question I’ve asked numerous audiences is, “What’s worse, having the capacity to make one million widgets and only selling 250,000 (other than having the capacity for two million)?” The answer is, having the capacity to make 250,000 and selling one million. Your processes and systems will get strained. This assumes the business even has processes and systems, which most small business have in only a rudimentary form. What is really common is when the process is mostly in the owner’s head and there’s a bottleneck because there’s only so much one person can do.

The solutions aren’t easy but are doable. From lining up credit before it’s needed to instilling a culture that attracts good people to working on process improvement all will help if done in advance.

“There is never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” (Cartoonist) Bill Waterson

The Goal of Independence and Unexpected Consequences

July 4 is a holiday just about everybody celebrates. Political and other differences tend to get overlooked when enjoying friends, family, and fireworks. Our nation’s independence means something to most of us.

What the US has is a reason so many people want to get into this country. And factors we don’t think of influence this, including when life gets in the way. At this time we have a lot, and I mean a lot, of people wanting to immigrate from Guatemala. (This is a business memo not a political one.)

Why? One big reason is the dramatic drop in coffee prices. Yes, a drop in coffee prices (although not at Starbucks and other shops). Guatemala grows some of the best coffee in the world and there are thousands and thousands of small coffee farms. And they’re all hurting.

It seems Brazil has invested in equipment that makes the cost of harvesting coffee beans much lower. This has caused the price of coffee beans to drop and it’s no longer sustainable to have a small, labor intensive, coffee farm.

Every action has a reaction (Newton’s Third Law) and the solution (for many), is to get out. Go where there’s more opportunity, which sounds a lot like what happened centuries ago and lead to the Declaration of Independence.

A business decision and improvement in one country led to a recession in another country’s top industry, and finally to a border crisis. I am willing to bet nobody thought of, much less predicted, anything close to this when Brazil modernized their coffee production.

It’s hard enough to forecast and predict what will happen in our day-to-day businesses. Much less when you see the ramifications of something as “simple” as modernization.

“The United States is the only country with a known birthday.” – James G. Blaine

 “Independence Day: freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”  – Abraham Lincoln

Do You Listen?

The workers at Vale, the Brazilian iron-ore giant, predicted the dam holding mining waste would fail. It did.

Boeing workers complained there were shortcuts taken on the 737 Max. They were right.

Both sets of workers comments fell on deaf ears. It could have been their managers didn’t want to take bad news up the corporate ladder, or they feared they’d lose their bonus if deadlines or metrics weren’t met, or perhaps some other reason. But in the end, they didn’t pay attention to the warnings.

I’ve met quite a few business owners who started their company because their employer wouldn’t act on their idea. I’ve seen firms who’ve lost employees because the employees wanted career growth and the owner was content to keep the business at the same level.

This last point raises the question, do you listen to your people? Business buyers often find out more about the workings of the business from the staff than from the owner. They get more ideas regarding growth from the employees.

Do you listen to your customers? What about your vendors? I’m sure most people would say yes although I wonder if it’s true. One of my former clients has employees and customers encouraging (nagging) him to upgrade equipment and offer more modern services. But he can’t make a decision. He’s at an age where he sees the end of the line and is happy with the money he’s making and the amount of time he works.

So, the question is, who will he lose first – his customers or his employees? (Or will they leave at the same time.)

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” (Poet) Mary Oliver

Build a Stronger Business Foundation

I was talking with the founder of a private equity group, we got on the subject of management in the companies they’ve acquired, and he said the following to me:

We’ve never worked with a firm where the owner had built a strong enough management team to have that management team run the company after we’ve bought it.

He went on to say it’s rare, very rare, when the owner is capable enough to stay on in upper management and add value as they scale the business (keep in mind, their model is to grow and grow fast). In other words, they go in to every deal knowing they’ll be bringing in new management (and having the cost and disruption associated with the new team).

So what about smaller companies, not private equity targets? Let’s just say the private equity targets do a better job than smaller firms. Bottom line, the vast majority of privately held businesses don’t build an infrastructure of people. They may have great machines, dynamic marketing, and solid processes, but lack depth when it comes to upper level people. It’s so common I’m sure there are books about why this is.

It’s tough to let go, I know firsthand. But to grow you have to shed responsibilities. For owners wanting to exit and sell for maximum value, the less they do (day-to-day) the better.

“There is no situation so bad that it can’t get worse tomorrow.” (British lawmaker) Damian Green

 

A Variety of Vendors is a Must

Recently I wrote about customer concentration issues and about obstacles to growth. This memo is about something often forgotten and a perfect example of it is a situation Netflix is facing.

NBCUniversal, AT&T’s Warner Media, and Disney are entering the streaming video market. Netflix has 72% of its viewers watching “library programming,” i.e. shows produced by others and whose rights Netflix buys (for a limited amount of time). The above three contribute 55% of library programming viewership and it looks like all of that will go away in the next few years.

In other words, they have vendor concentration issues. No wonder they are putting so much money into producing their own shows and movies.

I have to say in the small to lower middle-market world this is not often an issue. But when it arises, it’s a concern. I remember talking to a seafood processor and packager who got almost all his product from one fishing fleet and an assembler and packager with 80% of his primary component from one source.

A past client was burned twice by this. His top supplier, over 60%, went to in-house distribution. I helped him fix the business and 10-12 years later he called to tell me it happened again. His larger, competitor’s supplier went in-house, his supplier went to his competitor, and he was the odd man out. He sure didn’t learn from experience and it killed him (killed his business anyway). When business is good, we lose track of pitfalls like this, until they sneak up and bite us.

Concentration kills. Whether it’s with customers, employees, vendors, and, especially, the owner.

“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.” John Hancock