How Do You Boost Employee Ownership of Job Safety? Four Ideas

Situation: A company is concerned because recent accidents on the job have boosted their Modification or MOD rate and increased company expenses. They have held workshops with employees and talked about increasing safety, but employees have been lax in complying with safety measures because these are time-consuming. How do you boost employee ownership of job safety?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Safety is key to the bottom line and future of the company. Enlist employees to monitor each other and point out when others are acting unsafely.
    • Allow / encourage employees to “harass” (in a playful sense) each other if they see someone not working safely.
    • Anyone caught in inappropriate unsafe behavior is penalized and required to pay $1 into a kitty which is spent on a company-wide benefit such as a pizza lunch.
    • Create a presentation, graphically showing the negative impact that a high MOD rate has on the company, and on employees’ incomes. Hold a company meeting, give this presentation and discuss with them how costly hazardous behavior is, and how jobs can ultimately be lost as a result.
    • If nothing else works, explore creating a shell corporation to employ the employees who are subject to potential injury and effectively “outsource” them like high tech does.  This may lower the MOD rate to 100 as a new business.
  • Look for other insurers who will lower the company’s MOD rate.
  • Create consequences for flagrant violations of safety guidelines.
  • Do thorough background checks before hiring new workers. Avoid new hires with a history of disability claims.

How Do You Replace Aging Talent? Four Options

Situation: A CEO is concerned that all her key personnel are over 50. This includes software engineers who are experts in languages which remain at the foundation of many customers’ databases, but which are no longer formally taught. How do you replace aging talent?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Look at which areas potentially limit the company’s growth. Is it technology and software expertise, or marketing and sales? Based on this assessment, rank the critical positions to be filled and start hiring staff who can grow into the most critical positions.
  • Take a cue from the Japanese. For years their aging workforce was predicted to limit the country’s growth. Instead, they chose to retain employees through their 70s and this has helped them to maintain both productivity and employment.
    • Many Baby Boomers are finding that they don’t have the savings to retire and are working well past the historic retirement age.
    • Other Baby Boomers retired but found themselves bored after a productive career and have returned to the labor pool.
    • These factors may delay the company’s need to replace aging talent.
  • The bigger question is what to do if a key player is lost. Focus on hiring back-ups to key personnel and allow several years for them to come up to full speed. Current employment trends suggest that numbers of experienced people are returning to the labor pool. Look for a few good people to add to the team.
  • What are the plans of the company’s key clients? Do they plan to stay with the company’s products and expertise, or to sunset these and replace them with new technology? Adjust operational objectives, as well as the exit strategy, to achieve desired growth given customers’ timeframes.

How Do You Create Predictable Costs and Profit? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company finds that it’s costs and profitability vary greatly by season and during economic fluctuations. Some of this is due to hourly rate fluctuation and payroll costs. They also have excess capacity during slow periods. However, new projects arise quickly, and the company must be prepared. How do you create predictable costs and profit?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Here’s the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and managing expenses.
    • To generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize contract negotiations.
  • Is it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There are options:
    • Application maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
    • Add a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue stream.
  • Investigate a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price subscription service.
  • What additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics? Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip in project demand.
  • Are sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating new business?  Most companies split these functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is hunting – few sales people excel at both.
  • If, in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of annuity revenue.
  • While it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in contracts.

How Do You Reprioritize Your Time? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company delivers specialized consulting services. The founder CEO is also a lead consultant. As the company has grown, the CEO has struggled to prioritize her time as she shifts from consultant to leader. How do you reprioritize your time?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Look at the skill sets required to run the company and compare this with the skills of current staff. While the company has excellent consultants, do some of these people also have experience in business development or management?
    • Prioritize the skill sets needed and focus hiring efforts on those that can’t be filled by current employees.
  • If the CEO is also the chief rainmaker, then a top priority is hiring a manager/leader. The next level of development within the company will require a level of management.
  • Accept that the company can’t get an A+ grade on every project or detail. Learn to accept a B when this is enough. It will do.
  • Recognize that as priorities shift, vacuums will develop. Identify what will be missing. For those vacancies:
    • Write job descriptions for the roles.
    • Replace the leader’s roles with flexible teams instead of individuals.
  • Reapply financial resources to fund the transition as incentives for individuals to take on new work and responsibilities.
    • Look at profit-sharing models. Use profit sharing to facilitate the shift in priorities by adjusting payout incentives.
  • Anticipate the risks within the plan. Think through these thoroughly and develop contingencies.
  • As CEO, you will not be able to do everything that you do now. In your new role you won’t want to do everything you do now. Your view and responsibilities will change.

How Do You Stay Focused When It’s Busy? Five Points

Situation: A CEO and his COO find it difficult to focus on core tasks when business is booming and everyone is busy. The company is small but has been very successful. However, the pressure of simultaneously attending to key customer relationships, training new people, and formulating plans is overwhelming. How do you stay focused when it’s busy?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • If the CEO and COO are doing a mix of corporate and project tasks, the first step is to delegate so that top staff focus on strategic areas rather than execution.
    • Over the next week, keep a record of what the CEO and COO are doing. At the end of the week sit down and determine which activities were corporate activities, and which should have been delegated to staff.
    • As an example, training of new personnel should be a key role of someone else. The CEO and COO will be involved, but only tangentially. The bulk of onboarding should be handled by staff.
    • Similarly,restrict sales activity of the CEO and COO to high level discussions and decisions.The rest should be handled by sales staff.
    • What must the CEO and COO be involved in?  Intellectual property development, high level decisions about new service offerings, high level decisions on business expansion opportunities, and occasional oversight of company operations.
  • It is important to focus. The first priority should be the company’s principle revenue stream.
  • The second priority should be new service offerings which are central to efficient delivery of the primary revenue stream.
  • Meet with top staff and develop a five-year vision. The order of priorities that are developed will determine where to focus.
  • In the process of developing priorities, ask the following questions:
    • What do you love and what do you need to love?
    • Analyze the comparative importance and urgency of each activity of the CEO and COO. Which require top level input, and how much? Which are better delegated to staff?

How Do You Market a Companion Application? Four Alternatives

Situation: A company is developing a companion application that simplifies the use a major company’s software. The CEO is considering how to show this application to the major company as well as at their user group conference. How do you market a companion application?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • This is an interesting situation. If the major company likes the companion application, the principal question is whether they will want to attach an additional license fee if the companion application is marketed through them. This presents three options:
    • Research other companies that have developed front end or access products for this company – what was their experience with the major company and did that company demand an additional license fee payment. If so, how did they handle this?
    • Be up-front with clients, and if an additional fee is required pass these through to the clients. It may be cheaper for clients to pay license fees through this route than to purchase and pay license fees for the major company product.
    • You may want to take a wait and see attitude while conducting your own research on the situation. See when and if the major company asks for a license fees, and if so, find out whether they are willing to negotiate.
  • Large companies are often focused on their own offering. Forget the idea that they will market another company’s companion application or front end. Instead focus on your own contacts within the industry and your client base and start talking to them about your application. Generate some experience and traction on your own.

What Is a Favorable Exit Strategy? Three Points

Situation: A CEO is contemplating retiring in the next two years. The company is profitable but is primarily dependent upon a single large client for whom the CEO is the primary contact. Compared to national averages the company’s profitability is very favorable. The CEO questions whether his valuation of the company is reasonable. What is a favorable exit strategy?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The principal question from the group is whether the anticipated valuation on exit will yield the financial rewards that the CEO requires.
    • The buyer will discount the value of the current business because the CEO is too important to the business, and because they will not assume that there is ongoing value to the current business beyond 2-3 years.
    • The best option is to sell to a buyer who wants entry into the key client. They will have reasons beyond the value of the company to pay a premium for this access.
    • For planning purposes put the value at 2-3 years of the cash that the CEO takes out of the company, discounted to present value plus some premium for the entry that the buyer seeks. Look at the dollars that this will yield and decide whether this sum is a satisfactory payment.
  • Concerning the company’s relationship with the key client:
    • The company’s reliance on the key client is two-fold – they are the key customer, and they drive the market which yields a premium price for the company’s products.
    • Purchasers do not like to be dependent on a single supplier. Their purchasing department will always be looking for alternative sources.
    • During the exit window it is critical to develop new customer relationships to sustain the company’s growth and reduce reliance on the single key customer.
  • If the key client is #1, who is developing technologies that will compete with the key client?
    • What are their markets?
    • Where are they going?
    • How are they trying to exploit the chinks in key client’s armor?
    • What can the company do to secure a vendor relationship with the companies who may replace the key client?

Can Outside Board Members Help a Struggling Company? Four Thoughts

Situation: The CEO of a family-owned company has struggled to align family members with the business plan. When difficult decisions must be made, established personality patterns and family history hinder consensus on what should be done. The CEO seeks advice on whether the addition of one or more outside Board Members can help to build consensus. Can outside Board members help a struggling company?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The CEO of another closely-held company brought in an outside Board member two years ago. This has added considerable focus to the Board discussions. The addition of a fresh and respected perspective has helped to clarify decisions and reduce conflicts among the founders.
  • First, have a conversation with the team. Give them the opportunity to straighten out things themselves. Present the addition of an outside Board member as an option. Get their support. This will make the addition of an outside Board member a company decision, rather than the CEO’s.
  • The experience of other companies is that compensation can range from free – a retiree who wants to help – to expensive. Arrangements and expense will depend on what the company leadership wants to achieve.
  • Investigate SCORE – a well-established source for outside board members for small and family businesses.

Do You Move or Negotiate a Lower Rent? Five Suggestions

Situation: A company has been looking at alternatives for expansion but would be willing to stay in their present site if the landlord is willing to lower their rent without requiring more time on the current lease. Another option would be to purchase a building and lease out extra space until they need to expand. The CEO seeks advice on how to move forward. Do you more or negotiate a lower rent?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Much has to do with the current real estate market. If the market is slack, there are more options whether the decision is to move or renegotiate the rent with the current landlord. However, if demand for space is high then landlords and sellers have the upper hand. This is a classic demand-supply situation.
  • Investigate lease buy-out options if the decision is to move. Better yet, if the decision is to move ask the new landlord to pay off the old lease.
  • For the money required to move an operation of substantial size, why not buy? In this case, the decision is balancing the size of the down payment with the company’s current cash position.
  • If the decision is to buy, consider creating an LLC to purchase the property and fund the purchase through a Small Business Administration loan.
  • The Devil’s Advocate Perspective while you make the decision: don’t worry about the least until it runs out. Instead focus on making as much money as possible and prepare for a move closer to the end of the lease. Renegotiating a lease and looking for a building at this time can consume a lot of time.

How Do You Identify Key Managers? Three Suggestions

Situation: A software service company wants to expand operations. Their business model is to build clone offices that operate like the home office in new markets, much like a franchise operation. The founder CEO is struggling to identify key managers who can manage remote offices. How do you identify key managers?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The key managers must be individuals who are business savvy, not talented engineers. The key managers must understand:
    • Management – with a proven management record;
    • Basic accounting;
    • Recruiting and hiring;
    • How to manage an office;
    • A bonus will be experience in a similar field, but this experience does not substitute for the above four critical requirements.
  • Looking at current employees, is there the bandwidth within the current team to help bootstrap new remote offices?
    • For example, is there a key senior manager who can become Director of Franchise Operations? In this role, the DFO will serve as a resource to the individuals opening new offices.
    • As this individual’s focus switches, an important question will be who replaces this individual in their current role?
  • It will be beneficial if the individuals who are chosen to lead new offices have at least some experience in sales. This will help to quickly build new customer bases for the remote sites. However, a new site manager must have balanced experience. While sales will be part of the responsibility these individuals must also be able to build and oversee the other critical functions necessary to build viable remote sites.