The importance of values in value chains

October 1, 2010

When it comes to looking for partnerships as part of a value chain, one area tends to be neglected. Usually, business people will develop their business plan properly, identify their market and their source of supplies, and make sure that the math is solid. Beyond the numbers, there is always the human factor that will play a role. Every company, therefore every partner in the chain has its own specific culture. This is important to realize, because when cultures, and values, do not match, the relationship will always bring some hardships at some point. This is not a simple problem to solve, and usually, only few potential partners share your values. It is also important to realize that the word “values” does not necessarily imply good ethics and honesty. After all, hyenas move in packs. Sometimes, the partner that can help grow your business the fastest might not be the right one for the long-term, but it might be the best choice for now. Depending on in which region of the world you do business, the sense of time, sometimes even of urgency, can vary a lot. For instance, North Americans tend to want to start business immediately, while the Japanese will take all the time they need to find out whom they do business with, and build enough of confidence in their potential partner before starting business. In the land of the rising sun, it can take several years before the first transaction takes place. What are the risks of a mismatch of values? It can have serious consequences, depending on how much of your business is engaged with the “wrong” partner. It can range from dissatisfaction about the profitability of your business, constant disagreements and tensions with your business partner, to your being ripped off. One thing is sure: there will never be complete trust and loyalty when values are not aligned. Several years ago, I developed a quantitative system to evaluate the value of a business partnership. It is rather simple in its design and very powerful in its implementation. It helps identify the strengths and the weakness of the business relationship, and it is an amazing to tool to use to address potentially damaging issues over time, and create clarity for future dealings. By realigning values, both business partners can develop a plan of action and look beyond the price negotiations alone.


The only true Mission Statement

May 12, 2009

Nowadays, about every company has a Mission Statement. It has become part of the business culture and it is included in every business plan.
In many offices, you can even see it framed near the reception desk.
And yet, those mission statements, for as sophisticated as they may be, do not matter that much. OK, I already hear some denial, and I probably am just nothing else than an iconoclast.
Just ask your staff to tell you what the official mission statement of your company is, and you very quickly will see my point. Most employees, and that includes senior executives, simply do not know it! The reasons for that are many. The employee joined the company recently, there is a poor communication from the top, there is lack of interest for it, and in most cases: the statement is too long and too complicated to memorize.
Here is another disappointment for those who worked hard at formulating those magic words: your customers do not know your Mission Statement, either. Why? Because they care about their business first. Moreover, they have seen your Mission Statement in many variations at your competitors’ places, too.
Too many mission statements just sound all too familiar. They are all about your company being the first choice supplier of top quality that cherishes the customers to whom they add value, etc, etc.
When companies differentiate themselves in the same way, they just go back to square one: making themselves commodities.
So what is the only true Mission Statement? The answer is “To make money”! It is true, it is simple to remember by your employees, and the way to do it is to do all the right things right.
Simple, isn’t it?

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Do you feel lucky, CEO?

April 5, 2009

Just a little bit of paraphrasing Dirty Harry to bring up an unusual topic of business management: Luck.

This is an almost taboo to discuss in business circles where everyone prefers to talk about plans of all sorts, about talents and skills, and about management, like luck would not exist. Well that is except for bad luck, which is still valuable as an excuse.

Unlike you might think by reading the first lines of this article, I am not a proponent of luck in business management. Actually, I am quite the type that will consider all sorts of scenarios and contingencies beforehand, but I also have to admit that luck, good or bad, does exist. So instead of arguing if luck is real or not, I have chosen to find ways of having some handle on it.


Luck exists

I would define luck by the occurrence of something that was not expected (or in many cases not anymore) to happen and which has positive impact on the performance of the business.

Every manager has experienced it. Sometimes the business environment is tough, you have tried everything you could to get the results you need and for a long time, nothing seems to work, most of the time as a result of adverse external reasons. You are not alone to experience it, your competitors struggle with the same challenges, and then when you are starting to wonder how to turn around the situation, it happens! You get what you wanted and business looks bright again. It has happened to all of us and yes then we all think the same: we have been lucky!


Luck is not a management tool

Although we all experience luck once in a while, this is not something that a manager can count on, just because of the unexpected character of luck.

Luck is not something that you can factor in, and yet it still is a factor in too many businesses. This is especially true in businesses that have been very successful or that have thrived in a very positive environment.

Just to give some examples, I would mention some hedge funds companies that instead of hedging were more interested in speculating. As long as the environment was positive, the speculation worked superbly, making some traders make personal fortunes and looking like finance wizards, until that day when things were just not as usual and the hedge fund goes bust. Actually, such traders were always doing the same, it mostly the environment that changed and they did not anticipate.

Another recent example I see of a business running too much on luck is the mortgage industry: just by making the assumption that a home is an investment that can only grow in value, some terrible mistakes have been made. Everything was going quite well until that day, when the interest rates had increased again and the mortgages had to be reset, getting home owners in trouble and also the lenders with all the ramifications that we still currently see.

A business runs on luck when people do not analyze what the company is doing so well. It is very human to be less concerned about when a business is doing well than when it struggles. At the first sign of a bad result, you see management starting to ask lots of questions to know why the results are under forecast. When the business does well, then management tends to think that they really had it all figured out and tend to minimize the impact of external factor in the good performance. They are lucky, they take it for granted and become complacent, thus setting the stage for future bad luck!


Attracting luck

Running on luck and being complacent is just bad management. But what good managers can do and will do is to create conditions to attract luck. This can be done very easily.

The best way to attract luck is to assume that you will not be lucky and that you as a manager must make it happen. Assume that nothing will go as you wish, plan a worst case scenario!

Too often, I have seen companies heading to a disaster, just because they took action too late. They reacted instead of anticipating.

Anticipation is indeed the key, and it starts with a critical attitude towards planning and forecasting. A simple rule of thumb is to consider that you will achieve only half of what you aim at, that it will cost twice as much and that it will twice as long to achieve. Once you have your operations and departments working on that worse case scenario, you are creating more opportunities because you are planning to achieve a lot more than what is in the actual business plan. Of course, it costs more energy and time, but in the end you create more conditions for “luck”.

And should be really lucky and achieve more than you can handle, like generating more sales than you can fill in, just realize that you only have a luxury problem. It might not easy to solve but it is luxury!

The conclusion of this story can be sum up by the saying “Fortune favors the audacious”.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Intelligent growth

April 4, 2009

Everybody in the business community will tell you: you must grow your business.
But what does this mean exactly? What do you grow? How do you grow?
For having seen the good, the bad and the ugly of growth, these questions are quite important.
My answer is: Grow your business intelligently! And of course, all business leaders do exactly this, don’t they?
So let’s get back to the basic questions first!

What to grow?
This is the tricky area.
The risk for a successful business is to think that growth will be linear. In other words, if you produce x units and make a profit of y, by growing to 2x you will make 2y profit. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
Good business people want to make money and what you should grow is your profit. There is no point of selling more if you do not make more profit, as that means that you do not make money on the extra sales. Then, why invest and hire and complicate your business if you do not have any marginal advantage in doing so? This sounds obvious and yet the number of companies that do exactly the wrong thing is amazing. Volume matters within certain limits but margin must come first.

How do you grow?
The first thing you need to know is how big is the market, who are your competitors, what do they plan to do and how do you compare with them. If they are stronger than you , maybe you should keep a low profile and not go into a frontal confrontation with them.
If you are the stronger player, as most CEO’s like to think of their companies, realize that this does not make you invincible.
The key is a sound and realistic business plan.
Start with the sales plan: how much more can you sell for a profit in the market? Then you have an idea about the required volume of your operations.
Then review all the costs implications that the new situation will create and look at the bottom line. Here the key is to not do any wishful thinking or to make the numbers match because your boss demanded some bold performance from you. A helpful rule of thumb is that you probably will sell only half of the extra volume for the profit you think you can make, and the extra costs will be double of what you expect. Enter these revised numbers in your P&L budget and see what comes out.
Base your assumptions on ambitious but realistic data, and while having a dream is nice, do not let you lead by vain objectives. It is nice to be the largest, only if it makes your company the richest, too. Market share is nice, but it is not an indicator of success, never forget that the force that will drive your ability to get the price you want is the law of offer and demand. Even if you had a market share of 90% but had grown the business beyond what the market can absorb, you will not be able to keep the prices high, and depending on the elasticity for your product, you can very well end up selling at a loss. Always be market-driven!
There is nothing wrong with being conservative. There is much wrong in having your organization taking too many risks.
Another key point in your growth plan is the phasing. You need a longer term view on where you want to be and set yearly goals for your growth plan. Be aware that you can go only one step at a time and that you cannot skip steps. Like with building a house, you start with the foundations, then build the floors one after another, and you do not build floor#2 before you have finished floor#1.
And finally, you have a choice of either growing organically or acquiring another company (see my previous article on M&A).

Remember that the most important for a business is to keep existing, and growth is only one of the ways to achieve this.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Making a business plan can be fun when you have a small business

April 4, 2009

(Article of mine published for the Vancouver Board of Trade’s Small Business Council in November 2003)
To many people, business plans have a bad reputation. Here are some common misconceptions about business plans.
Making a business plan is no fun. Actually, a business plan follows the same process as planning a vacation. The same questions need to be addressed: where to go, how to get there, how long it lasts, how much it costs, etc. No one seems to have a problem planning vacations.
You need a business plan to get a loan. A business plan is not a “marketing tool” to access funding, it is the very essence of your company.
Business plans are for big corporations, not for small businesses. All companies obey the exact same business, market and accounting rules. Small businesses are simply smaller.
A business plan is about financials. Surprisingly enough, it is not. The financials come at the very end, after all the elements of your business have been thoroughly described and analyzed.
A business plan does not need to be a complicated process. Here are some tips to you get started.
Define the vision and mission for your business.
Start with the sales plan because money flows in from revenue; make sure you have that right from the start.
Know the strengths and weaknesses of your company.
Review the opportunities and threats in your business environment.
Set your objectives and determine your strategies.
Go backwards in your supply chain to identify the cost items directly related to realize the sales, then review all the other cost items. This way, you set up your profit and loss statement.
Only then, quantify all your assumptions. These are the financials and provide possible scenarios for your business.
Do not forget to make a cash-flow statement.
Always be in charge of the plan. If you do not write it yourself, make sure the writer consults with you.
Do not hesitate to involve others and ask for feedback.
To sum up, think of your business plan as the best way to make sure you will still be able to plan vacations in the future.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.