Category Archives: Manufacturing & Operations

Where Do You Find Sources of Capital or Savings? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A CEO closely watches company cash flow so assure that it is enough to fund the company during both upswings and downturns. The company is doing well, but the CEO is concerned about a near-term potential downturn. Where so you find sources of capital or savings?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In anticipating future cash flow needs, planning to breakeven may not be enough. Anticipate contingencies and cut enough to be profitable. This is particularly true if a downturn is longer than anticipated.
  • Take a close look at operating capacity.
    • Estimate current capacity based on staff count and average billing rates.
    • Forecast best – worst case scenarios given market trends. Compare each against current capacity and evaluate the gaps. This will help set staffing levels to assure that the company is not overcommitted in case of a downturn.
  • Discount future cash flow for non-payables based on experience. This may indicate the need to cut expenses deeper to assure that the company survives an extended downturn.
    • In a recovery, pull back those who were let go.
  • If there is underutilized time from the team, pitch this to investors to obtain equity financing for new IP.
  • Consider selling a key customer on a royalty model. This can be a small royalty – maybe 1-2% of products sold based on the company’s contribution.  This is pure profit to the company, and provides an annuity revenue stream, even if small.
  • Look at banks which are aggressively expanding in the region. If they are hungry for new clients they will offer attractive rates.
  • Companies are better sources of funding than investors. A good client can become a strategic partner. Do some homework before first before making the call to a key contact.
    • Know the level of financing that is needed.
    • Know where it would be used and what kind of return the company can yield on the investment.

How Do You Choose Between Strategic Options? Four Points

Situation: The founding CEO of a technology company is considering options for the future. The company is doing well, with two options for future development either within or outside the company. How do you choose between strategic options?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Domain expertise is less important than business experience, P&L experience, and fund-raising success. A diversified background and successful experience as a CEO are as important as specialty industry experience.
    • Continue to pursue all options for the time being. See how the new opportunities mature before making final choices, and either split time between the options or assign good managers to oversee each.
    • Ownership agreements should be based on cash investment of the parties – not time and effort.
  • Option #1 – Focus on the primary company.
    • A challenge is that most of the Board members just see the numbers, not the dynamics of day-to-day operations. They don’t know the CEO’s contribution.
    • Assure that the Board understands the CEO’s contribution and is rewarding the CEO appropriately.
  • Option #2 – Focus on New Opportunity #1.
    • Is this option more like a product or a company?
    • Consider this option as a product incubator rather than a single product company – producing and spinning off a series of ideas for development.
    • This can be done either within the primary company or as an outside effort.
  • Option #3 – Focus on New Opportunity #2.
    • Software development can be self-funding. Compared with manufacturing, software is inexpensive to develop and requires little investment to scale and sell once the code is written.
    • The trick is to rigorously focus on market opportunity while minimizing cost.
    • Watch staffing commitments. Use scarce resources to lock up irreplaceable capabilities. Hire or offer equity only for significant contributions such as IP development. For labor, use consultants, independent contract arrangements, or look for what can be outsourced.
    • Like Option #2 this can be done either within the primary company or as an outside effort.

How Do You Manage a Business Transition? Five Thoughts

Situation: A company is moving from sole focus on servicing a market to a split focus including developing and marketing their own products. This is a significant transition for the team. What is the best way to organize this effort? How do you manage a business transition?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • While the company’s financials are great for their market, cashflow may be insufficient to fully fund a development company.
    • Internal development of new products can create conflicts if it creates competition for resources between internal and external projects.
    • To avoid this, create an independent company or entity – in a separate location. Seek outside funding whether bank, angel or partner financing. The independent entity can then buy resources from the primary entity at competitive rates.
  • Several years ago, another CEO utilized the strategy just described. The important lessons were:
    • Assure that venture is properly resourced.
    • Assure that there is a balance between proven structure and creative application development.
    • Utilize best resources available at same rates that key customers pay.
    • Offer free guidance but not free services – peer reviews are key.
  • A third CEO had an opportunity to open a new business using the spin-off model.
    • They allowed infrastructure sharing – with proper compensation and incentives (equity ownership).
    • Ultimately both entities were successful.
    • Lesson: Properly implemented, this model works.
  • There are four aspects to the challenge.
    • Product concept
    • Talent for execution
    • Financing
    • Distribution
    • The business plan for the new venture must address all four.
  • Building internally (vs. externally) creates natural conflict. Workers will tolerate change in direction from clients better than they do from insiders.

Should You Sell or Buy Another Company? Six Thoughts

Situation: A founder CEO is faced with two options – either selling his company or buying a complimentary company. The acquisition would fulfill his dream as CEO, but he is concerned both about the synergy between the two entities and his ability to manage the combined company. Should he sell, or buy the other company?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Given these concerns approach the purchase opportunity skeptically. Be more prepared to say no than yes.
  • In evaluating his ability to run a larger operation, the CEO should objectively assess his own abilities.
    • A good CEO is not a Superman. A good CEO creates a viable business model and vision and hires a good team to bring that model to reality.
    • Consider past accomplishments. In an industry where nobody makes money the CEO has created a business model that is sustainable, highly profitable, and technically superior. The only thing lacking is size in terms of revenue.
    • The new opportunity – on the right terms – can launch the company from dominance in a niche to dominance in a significantly larger industry.
  • Assess the new opportunity both as a technical and cultural match. If there is a good cultural match:
    • Fewer things must go right to add value.
    • The purchase provides a channel to a larger market.
    • The acquisition will rapidly speed company growth.
    • The biggest concern will be the time to manage both entities.
  • The most important factor will be the chemistry between the two company teams. If the chemistry is good, the combination offers reasonable assurance that the two teams will complement each other.
  • Look at the purchase as an opportunity to build a win-win with enduring value.
  • In considering outside investors to support the acquisition, be cautious about financial partners and the conditions behind each financing option.

How Do You Diversify Your Customer Base? Four Suggestions

Situation: A CEO is concerned that too much of her company’s business is focused on two few customers. The loss of a single large customer can potentially mean a significant hit to revenue and profitability. How do you diversify your customer base?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • If current cash flow is good, the company should consider purchasing diversity by buying a company.
    • Consider acquiring a supplier that is in good shape, but with lower margins. They will have the infrastructure to run their own operation, and the purchasing company will have the additional profitability to make the combined entity more interesting.
    • Given the company’s existing cash generation potential, there are creative ways to finance such an acquisition.
  • Why is this a good strategy?
    • Purchasing another company can instantly expand the customer base.
    • Diversifying the company opens additional options to build long-term sustainability.
    • A purchase strategy can bring in a ready-made and smoothly running infrastructure in the form of the purchased company.
    • Diversification can boost the value of the combined company on a more diversified business base. It might allow the company to combine low volume, high profit lines with high volume, lower profit lines. There are advantages to each of these business models.
  • Where can such a company be found?
    • Look both inside and outside of the current geographic base.
    • A candidate could be a higher volume but lower profit supplier of one of the company’s current customers that does not compete with the company’s current offering. Alternately, look at companies with more diversified customer bases in a related industry.
  • Look at the niches that the company’s current customers serve.
    • What similar niches exist? Are there acquisition candidates there?
    • Look at the functionality that the company’s products add for its clients. In what other industries would similar functionality be of value?
    • As these questions are asked, look for candidates that have complementary customer sets, customer bases, and geographical reach.

How Do You Merge with a Competitor? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company is in discussions with a competitor about a possible merger. The CEO seeks advice both about how to proceed with these discussions, and how to communicate the possible merger to staff. How do you merge with a competitor?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Until there is a signed binding legal contract everything must be business as usual.
  • Maintaining this attitude provides more leverage as the negotiation proceeds because the company is prepared for either situation.
  • If there is a differential in pricing between the company and the competitor, write short term contracts with customers that the company takes from the competitor. This creates the opportunity to revise the contracts and pricing if the merger is completed.
    • This issue begs the question – why do a deal now versus in 1-2 years? If current strategies are increasing the size of the company relative to the competitor, in another 1-2 years the company will be worth more compared to the competitor and will be in a position to complete a deal on more favorable terms.
  • At this point, most staff are unaware of the discussions. How is it best to proceed?
    • Consult an HR expert on when to start communicating, what to communicate and how to phrase the message.
    • The trigger to initiate top level staff communications will be the signing of a due diligence agreement.
    • The message to senior management: there is interest but no binding agreement, here’s the deal that’s being discussed. Then just listen to what they have to say.
    • Communications to staff create an important management challenge. Staff will be concerned about their futures and will want to have assurances that these are secure.

What is Your 3-Year Plan? Six Suggestions

Situation: A founding CEO wants to cut back to 1-2 days per week with someone else overseeing day-to-day operations. Her timeline to accomplish this is 3 years. Currently she splits her time between engineering and sales support, managing operations, overseeing the CFO and managing the company. How do you accomplish this transition? What is your 3-year plan?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Advertise for and hire a General Manager/engineer who can understand the company’s applications and develop unique solutions.
  • Advertise for and hire an understudy for the sales person. This could be someone in their 40s who is experienced, and who can act both as the sales person’s back-up and develop additional accounts to diversify the business.
  • As the company continues to grow it will take more time and effort to manage all the activities. Plan the company’s organization chart and infrastructure to account for this.
    • Be careful not create an infrastructure during good times that is unsustainable during down times.
  • As the new GM gains familiarity with the company, this individual will and should start to take control. This automatically means that the founding CEO will have to agree to release some of her control. Prepare for this.
  • Consider several alternatives for the GM:
    • Super President – $400K.
    • GM with engineering talent – perhaps a consulting or engineering sales background. Hire at $150-200K and develop into the President.
    • Given the 3-year lead time this individual could be a Technical Lead or Project Engineer. The objective will be to develop a very talented person into the GM or President. This alternative opens a larger pool of talent, at lower initial cost.
  • Where are these people found?
    • Trade association contacts.
    • A high-quality engineer that another CEO won’t be hiring over the coming months. Talk to friends and industry contacts.

Which Is More Important – Long or Short Term? Five Points

Situation: A CEO is concerned about long term trends versus short term volatility. While the business has done well over time, short term volatility has made it difficult to project both personnel needs and cost. As the company expands geographically these issues are becoming more critical. Which is more important – long or short term?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Does the company find that capabilities are not fully understood until they get into development? In this case, is the problem with variables of schedule, budget or capability more important?
    • Going forward, evaluate each of these variables to determine which is having the greatest effect, positive and negative, on project performance and profitability.
    • If the problem is time constraints in the project planning phase, assure that sufficient time for project iterations is allowed in both the schedule and budget. It may be that the clients are not sure of what they want until they see a model, and that several iterations are required to assure that clients’ needs are satisfied. Plan and bid for this.
  • If fixed costs impact margins during dips between active projects, assure that enough fixed cost coverage is built into project bids to cover dips.
  • For geographically remote offices is the company’s issue a question of volume or resource cost or is it a pricing issue?
    • If it’s a pricing issue to stay market competitive focus initial activity where this issue is minimized. As market presence expands, add additional capabilities in phases according to the ability to cover costs profitably.
    • If it’s a resource cost issue use the same solution, adding resources according ability to cover costs profitably.
  • Build the company’s sales and marketing structure in phases while expanding into new markets. If sales compensation is base plus commission, vary commissions paid according to resource rates negotiated. This will tie sales incentives to negotiated resource rates and will help to assure that costs are covered.
  • Dealing with short term issues effectively will improve long term planning and profitability.

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.