Category Archives: Finance

Do You Have Control of the Numbers? Four Points

Situation: A company has a good accounting system, but the CEO is concerned that they are not making the best use of metrics to drive the business. He senses a lack of shared understanding of key metrics and goals. He senses the appearance of financial disarray, despite his clear grasp of the business. Do you have control of the numbers?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • A good accounting system may be in place, but if it is not being used to drive the business and monitor the achievement of milestones then the company is not gaining the best advantage from it.
  • If there is a sense of financial disarray, this suggests that the company lacks financial metrics. Employees and managers may be doing their jobs, but without financial metrics it is difficult to tell how well they are doing their jobs.
  • Start with basic metrics:
    • Where are sales coming from?
    • What is the profitability of sales by customer segment and product line?
    • What is the company’s profitability?
    • What are the profitability trends of the company and key segments of the business?
  • Once a company is tracking these metrics, it is easier to focus managers and employees on products, product development, operations, sales and marketing issues that are most essential to the company’s success.
  • The company needs the equivalent of a CFO. This means a financial person, not an accountant. An individual who knows how to look at the numbers. A CFO will help the company to
    • See the strategic trends in the business,
    • Uncover the best opportunities for growth, and
    • Understand the greatest potential threats to growth of the business.

How Do You Improve Quote to Collections Flow? Four Tactics

Situation: A company is losing billings because individual billings are getting lost in their process flow. Requests for enhancements come from clients to Project Managers. Project Managers take on development of the enhancements but are sometimes too busy to keep track and don’t report their work to the billing department. How do you improve quote to collections flow?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • It appears that two processes are missing:
    • A formal trigger mechanism to assure that a PO is in place BEFORE Project Managers undertake enhancement work, and
    • Managers are incentivized to assure that the client is billed and revenue collected for the work performed.
  • Formalize the process and do not allow Project Mangers to initiate any work until a work request is logged in the billing system and a PO is received from the customer to cover the expense.
    • Develop a process to track customer requests, estimate development and transmission to billing, forwarding of estimates by billing to the customer with a request for a PO, and upon receipt of PO authorization by billing to initiate work.
    • This can all be tracked and managed by most accounting software packages.
    • This process will:
      • Facilitate tracking of actual expense vs. estimate;
      • Tracking of requests for which no POs are received, for client follow-up; and
      • Tracking of enhancement requests to guide future product development.
  • Compensate Account Managers to track and manage the process.
    • If an Account Manager receives a commission for enhancement work they will have an incentive to keep track of all ongoing work, both for timely delivery and to assure that the customer invoiced for the work.
    • Commissions paid to the Account Mangers will be a small percent of the extra revenue collected.
    • To improve process management, schedule regular meetings to review all enhancement and other work being done for clients. Review and assure that all work has accompanying POs, that the work is being completed on a timely basis and in line with original estimates, and that the company is invoicing and being paid for the work. Empower Account Managers to organize and conduct these meetings. Their incentive will be the commissions they will collect on payment for the work.
  • Build upgrades and a certain number of enhancements into the product price.
    • This enables to company to increase prices and to collect prepayment for enhancements and upgrades that may or may not be requested.
    • Use the process outlined above to track enhancements which are credited against the prepaid accounts, and to assure that enhancements above the prepaid limit are invoiced.

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.

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?

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 Strengthen Internal Incentives and Ownership? Four Points

Situation: A technology company has established a leadership position in their niche. Nevertheless, they struggle with individual performance and buy-in to company performance. The CEO asks whether increasing ownership through stock incentives in a non-public company is an effective incentive for employees. How do you strengthen internal incentives and ownership?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In the past, employees voiced a strong predilection for share ownership as recompense for the personal risk and sweat that they have put into the company.
    • It may be advisable to revisit this, particularly given the increased risk that comes with share ownership as a result of regulatory changes of the last 10 years.
    • As a substitute for share ownership, they may be open to some proxy that will provide them with value and the opportunity to have their opinions heard in the case of a buy-out.
  • Another company looked at this closely at the time of formation. They decided that proper recognition for contribution did not equal ownership. Ownership also entails personal liability and risk, which many don’t realize and, once they understand the implications of owners’ liability, don’t want. As an alternative they adopted a liberal profit-sharing structure that has met with employee enthusiasm.
  • Think about this discussion in terms of incentives:
    • Short Term – Annual-type incentives
      • Make sure that incentives align with desired behaviors so that individuals’ contributions contribute to business plan objectives and the next step for the company.
    • Long Term – consider the trade-offs
      • Share Ownership
        • Broadly distributed share ownership not only complicates future flexibility but may also complicate a buy-out or merger opportunity. Consider the implications of a situation where most shares are in the hands of past rather than current employees.
        • Strategic Partners wishing to invest may be reticent to work with a company with broadly distributed ownership.
      • ESOPs, while frequently referenced, tend to eat their children. They have several complications:
        • They are governed by ERISA, so you cannot discriminate. All must be able to participate.
        • Ownership is prescribed – with a maximum of 10% per employee. Will a future CEO candidate be happy with 10% when the admin assistant gets 3%? In this way ESOPs can impair succession and recruitment plans.
        • Annual valuations can be expensive.
      • Phantom or Synthetic Equity Programs
        • A company can tailor these to meet changing objectives.
        • Valuations are cheap and valuation metrics are easy to monitor.
  • To work through the options, sit and talk with the employees, and listen. Ask what concerns them. Don’t try to come up with a solution until their concerns are understood. There is an array of options available.

What is Appropriate Compensation for a Founder CEO? Four Points

Situation: A founder CEO established her company with a significant personal loan, which is being repaid. To compensate herself for the original investment, she is considering several options including an employee stock option plan (ESOP) through which employees would be able to establish ownership of a certain percent of the company. What is appropriate compensation for a founder CEO?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The critical question is: what is the CEO’s goal? The next question is – what options best serve to achieve goal?
    • If the goal is long-term goal is maintaining or increasing current income combined with long-term security – like a Trust Fund – seek the counsel of a financial advisor who can help model how the options under consideration will satisfy the goal.
    • This individual can also evaluate the tax advantages associated with various options.
  • Is there a clear exit strategy in place?
    • Every company needs a written exit strategy, as well as a plan to put this strategy into action.
    • The simple existence of a strategy and a plan does not preclude adjusting either the strategy or the plan as conditions or opportunities change.
  • There are two important corollary points:
    • Having a strategy and plan is the only way to build a structure of accountability within the company; and
    • Recalling a lesson from Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, the successful companies selected a solid strategy and stuck with it; the less successful comparators continually changed strategy and never allowed momentum to build.
  • To assist establishing an exit strategy, seek the advice of one or two consultants. There are several highly qualified exit advisors that can be researched through current professional contacts or via the Internet.