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 

Are You Overly Enamored?

Some friends have a daughter in her early 30’s who has a decent but not high paying job, is attractive and outgoing, and still lives at home. When I stated the daughter needs a boyfriend the mom said, “Oh, I know, but she’s so fussy.” Maybe, and maybe mom’s rose-colored glasses are on. I would seem to me it’s hard to attract a good boyfriend when you’re still living at home.

We all get enamored with things we’re close to. (We think) our house is worth more than the market says it is, so is our car, and what about the following three business things?

  • Business owners often make the abovementioned mom seem realistic. They rarely see warts; they only see something special. The owner can’t take a vacation, it’s a sign of how important he is. One customer is 52% of sales, or three are 80% of sales, it’s a sign of how much they love us. Or the owners who saysomething like, “I know how businesses are valued but we’re not like other companies, so those rules don’t apply to us.” Sure.
  • What about service providers who get hung up on their methodology? Anybody familiar with Alan Weiss knows he tells advisors to forget their seven-step process for this or the eleven-step system for that. In other words, don’t fall in love with your methodology, figure out what your client’s problem is and fix it.
  • Finally, there are business buyers, who, for this discussion, fall into three groups. The first are those I wrote about a few weeks ago, who get buyer fever and can see no wrong in the company they’re in love with, i.e. they must have it, at any cost. Second, are those so captivated by their own (supposed) abilities they think they can fix any underperforming company (of course, this isn’t all that common). Finally, we have the buyers who throw away the rose-colored glasses and put on their darkest sunglasses, blacking out every business because it’s not sexy enough, perfect, can’t grow fast enough (without needing capital), intellectually stimulating, etc.

The above are why we have experts in various fields including real estate, auto sales, business buy-sell, business improvement, tax, insurance, legal, and other areas.

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” Douglas Adams

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

When the Fever Hits

The fever can hit anybody over just about anything. It’s called “Buyer Fever” when we want something so much we throw logic out the window. It could be a car, a house, a job, an employee to hire, a spouse, and in my day-to-day world, a business (or to get out of a business).

Recently we were referred to a business owner who had the fever and desperately wanted out. Why? Because a couple years prior he got buyer fever and desperately wanted in. He loved the company’s services so much he had to have the company.

Unfortunately, the fever got in the way of logic and due diligence. The business seller had the experience, and more importantly, the required licenses to operate the business. The buyer had to hire someone with those licenses (there goes $100,000 out the door the seller didn’t have to pay).

Let’s be realistic, you have to have the desire for what you’re buying and in the case of businesses there’s a huge difference between, “I can see myself going to work there every day, adding value, and enjoying it” and, “I must have this, at (just about) any price.”

More realism – business buyer fever doesn’t happen that often. Most buyers are overly fussy and skeptical. With my clients I can only think of a few over the last 20 plus years. But I know it’s out there because every year I meet multiple owners who got buyer fever and are digging themselves out of it. It’s usually a good business bought the wrong way (meaning they paid too much).

It will be a hard lesson for the above owner, hard as in money-losing. Given it’s a specialty, licensed service I referred him to an industry expert because it needs work. Maybe the owner should have asked “The Magic Question,” described in the video below.

“Beauty is always transient, which is why it is so interesting. Ugliness lasts longer.” Stephen Bayley

 

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

For the Right Price…

“You can’t afford to buy the business” dad said to his kids, who were running the business as he enjoyed retirement. Not to insult dad, but if it’s priced right it’s affordable. Dad obviously feels the business is the cutest puppy or most adorable baby there is – so of course his kids can’t afford it.

Well, sentimental feelings don’t count for much when valuing a business, a car, a house, and many other things. These things aren’t like a piece of art where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When there’s a raft of comparable sales and/or financing limits there are built-in pricing guidelines (with limited exceptions).

When we’re attached to something it’s hard to let go and especially hard to believe it’s worth less than we feel it is (the key word being feel, as in feelings or emotion versus logic or evidence). We can put an emotional component on a lot of things as in:

  • I’ll take a smaller salary to work here because I don’t have to commute, the culture is great, or I’m learning skills I can leverage in the future.
  • I’ll buy the red convertible because it makes me look cool, even though there’s no room for the car seats.
  • I’ll pay more for (fill in the blank) because I love it.

In other words, business buyers – be careful you don’t let emotion cause you to pay what “dad” wants for the business.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people exercise little or no influence on society.” Mark Twain

 

What’s Worse Than an Owner Dependency?

The company does $15-20 million in annual sales and the owner has taken a fancy to being “one of the guys.” He thinks it’s fun. And I’ll bet it is fun. The problem is a top customer commented to one of the management staff about this, as follows:

“We’ve never seen anything like him. We’ve never seen an owner making deliveries, stocking, or pushing a broom from a company big enough for a project like this.  If he’s doing that, who is running the company?  Based on that and other things I don’t know if we can recommend using your company again”

So let me repeat the headline, what’s worse than an owner dependency? Well, maybe an owner who doesn’t impress his customers (or his staff). An owner who should be seen as a leader, not a doer. An owner who should be keeping customer relationships tight, managing cash flow, motivating his people, etc.

When I and others say owners should reduce their dependency it means they should concentrate on growth, vision, and strategy not doing menial tasks.

“Self-righteousness feels good for a moment, but only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a moment.” (Author) Nadia Bolz-Weber

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

The Pitfalls of Absentee Ownership

Absentee ownership is a dream of many would be business owners. Imaginations run wild when thinking of having a business where all you have to do is check in every so often and have money transferred to your personal bank account.

After a recent meeting with the managing member of an absentee ownership group I realized there are (potential) pitfalls, both ongoing and when it’s time to sell. Here are three I noticed:

  1. If it’s not yours, you don’t take as good care of it compared to if you own it. In this case the employees went about their jobs but the building was filthy, the equipment area was a mess, and there wasn’t the pride of ownership. The offices needed a coat of paint, carpets replaced, bathrooms scoured*, and some general upkeep. Given the owners are thinking of selling the business one would think they would spiff it up to make a good first impression.
  2. The above is part of a larger issue and that’s the overall culture. The saying, when the cat’s away the mice will play, is very true. I’ve said for years small to lower middle-market companies need the adult supervision only an owner can provide. I’m not saying the employees won’t do a good job. I’m saying it’s often the little extra that’s the difference between profitable and very profitable, bonuses or no bonuses, career advancement or no advancement.
  3. Finally, unless the business is large enough to attract a strategic buyer the market is limited, at least at the price the owner(s) want (based on the company’s earnings). A financial buyer will have to figure out how to get a salary plus pay for the company. One of the worst things the buyer can do is come in and replace a loyal employee (in order to justify his or her salary).

As the saying goes, it’s always something. Planning and preparation can prevent many issues, like what this memo is about.

“Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.” (Author) Zadie Smith

* This reminds me of a deal many years ago. The closing was at the company’s office, the offices were well taken care of, especially for an industrial business, and the buyer’s wife proclaimed the first thing she would do would be to clean the bathrooms. It’s all a matter of perspective. Industrial office bathroom cleanliness is different than luxury hotel cleanliness.