Situation: The CEO of a company is wrestling with issues concerning change orders and high labor and materials cost. To get back into good financial shape, they are considering options including reduction in estimator time and selling equipment; however, either of these could gut the business. How do you manage through a difficult period?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is critical to get on top of change orders. This is potentially a big profit-loss swing for the business.
Does everyone understand what’s happening?
If the answer is yes, teach them more about the business nuts and bolts so that they can help develop solutions? Share a portion of the savings in the form of spot bonuses for those who develop solutions.
Take a lesson from The Great Game of Business. Let employees know about the challenges and challenge them to help develop solutions.
As an example, look at change orders and the percent of change orders that are not correctly completed, approved and invoiced as a critical number. Let’s say that 50% of change orders are not completed, approved and/or invoiced correctly. The objective for the year is to reduce this to 25%. Calculate the value of lost billings from the past year. If this can be reduced by half, the value will be $X. If the company can meet this objective, consider making half of $X available for distribution as gifts or prizes.
To support this, allow each new project to design its own minigame to reduce the number of incomplete and uninvoiced change orders.
The idea is to have the project and inside teams design the minigames and come up with ways to reduce incomplete and uninvoiced change orders. They will learn new ways of being more efficient from this process. This is the long-term benefit to the company.
If it is necessary to reduce staff, cut early instead of later. This is painful but laid-off employees can be hired back on a contract basis as necessary.
A common solution during a difficult period is to cut back to core, reducing overhead as a survival strategy, and focus on winning as may bids as possible to rebuild the business.
Look at all departments and the gross margin that each produces minus the overhead that each requires. Focus cutbacks on those that are not positive.
Increase annuity contracts – contracts with major companies that are growing and frequently require the company’s services.
Transfer equipment to a separate corporation. Lease it back as business requires. This increases cash flow flexibility – for example, don’t make lease payments when cash is tight.
Situation: A CEO is struggling to manage conflicting demands from a key foreign client. The client frequently changes targets and priorities; however, the performance contract with the client does not allow variations from plan. In addition, the CEO and client have different expectations concerning ROI. How do you manage conflicting demands from a client?
from the CEOs:
or access expertise from an individual who knows both cultures to coach you on
intercultural communications. This will help you to avoid inadvertent miscommunications
where your well-intended queries are negatively interpreted by the other party.
interpretation is an increasingly important factor for multi-national business
there elements of the client’s structure and the agreement with the client that
offer significant benefit, but which are underappreciated by company staff?
to funding or allowance on expenditures that allow the company to increase
staff to meet company demands?
that staff are aware of these benefits and how critical these can be to the
company’s, and their future growth and income.
with the client’s leadership to outline the conflicts that the company faces
meeting the client’s needs and demands. Explain to them how these conflicts are
compromising the company’s ability to meet their needs. Once the conflicts in
priorities are clearly expressed this may help the client to understand and
resolve the conflicting demands.
may involve a considerable personal risk and cost to the CEO. However, if the
effort is successful it will, in the long-term, benefit both companies.
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?
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.
Situation: A component company is struggling to set financial goals. Its sales are dependent upon purchases by large customers whose orders are influenced by the economy and demand for their products. How do you set goals in a volatile economy?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the principal drivers that define the market? Have they changed? If so, how? Focusing on principal drivers creates more clarity in a volatile economy.
Rather than looking at the company as a producer of components, focus on the critical value add that the company’s products provide to customers. By focusing beyond the product, strive to become a key partner to customers. This can allow you to develop retainer contracts with key customers rather than working solely on a project basis.
The Holy Grail is predictable recurring revenue, for example on a service contract basis. The establishment of retainer contracts can help the company move in this direction.
The company’s customers have increasingly placed rush orders because they have been hesitant to commit to steady production. This, in turn, increases the costs to the company because they are being asked to alter their production schedule to accommodate rush orders. It’s fair to publicize and charge expedite fees for rush orders, just as delivery companies increase their charges for expedited delivery. Expedite fees will cover the cost of altering production schedules and can also add cushion to company profits.
A portion of the company’s business is supplying consumable parts that the OEM marks up and distributes to end users for their equipment.
As an alternative look at parts manufacturing/sourcing, storage and distribution direct to the customer as a separate business opportunity and take this over from the OEM – it may be a nit to the OEM that they would be willing to give up for a reliable service alternative.
Situation: A company has strong technology and good top customers. However, the CEO is concerned that the company is too dependent on a few large clients. She wants to increase business among mid-tier clients. How do you expand the sales funnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get very crisp in identifying who your core customer is and focus on them near term. Look at what you offer that your competition can’t match and create appealing offers for new clients.
Simplify and clearly define your market position.
Here’s an example: First to market with the best, smallest, fastest solution.
This clearly defines who you are. Focus the company on delivering this.
In each high potential market find one company to whom you can offer a significant advantage.
Their current market position might be number 2, 3 or 4. Offer them a solution to gain an advantage on #1 and shift the playing field. This is a win-win for both you and them.
Horizontal business expansion could be the best near-term strategy. This lets each vertical market solve their own problems of technology direction, logistics, etc. Seek customers who have the resources to manage this in their respective market places.
Tailor contract minimums and pricing according to customer order commitments. Be willing to sacrifice price and some margin for committed purchases that match your timelines and resources.
Buyers often overstate their anticipated needs because they don’t want to be caught with short supply.
You can meet and promise lower prices for higher volumes because they rarely order them. However, combine this commitment with higher prices for the lower volumes that they are more likely to order.
Look across markets and focus on promising targets.
Use a call center to queue up prospecting telephone calls.
Have sales people conduct scripted qualification calls with prospects by telephone.
Only send sales people out to talk to qualified prospects. This saves travel expense and increases the productivity of in-person sales calls.
Situation: A CEO notes that the national debt has nearly doubled over the last 8 years and the Fed is talking about raising interest rates. It’s not clear what impact the debt, or rising interest rates will have. Has this impacted your business and how are you coping? What impact will rising interest rates have on business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Impact on business and customers.
The prospect of either rising interest rates or taxes increases uncertainty – customers are taking longer to make purchase, expansion and other decisions.
Companies are not spending the cash that they have out of concern over possible future expenses or the possibility of a downturn. Large companies have trillions of dollars of cash on hand. Some of this is held off-shore because of the tax consequences of repatriating the funds.
Lack of consumer demand holds back investment in production expansion.
Feeling of loss of control.
More concentration of wealth in fewer hands.
More people, old and young, are opting out of the business economy.
What are you doing to cope?
More involved in collections to keep this under control.
Delayed payments from big customers are part of the problem – conservative financial management.
Manage liquidity and cash – cash is king!
Adjust lifestyle and delay purchases – for example buy smaller cars.
Scrutinize contract terms – especially AR.
Scrutinize our business model. For example look at subscription models or Great Game of Business models.
Utilize those who are normally unemployable but trainable for repetitive task jobs. They work hard and produce good work.
Situation: A company has an opportunity to build an office in China. Their principal objective is to reduce their cost of providing services. A partner company has offered them space in its existing office in China. What is your experience working with Chinese culture? How do you set up an office in China?
Advice from the CEOs:
Hire someone in your US office with an engineering background who is fluent both in Mandarin and in the subtleties of Chinese language and culture. Fluency in Chinese language and culture is particularly critical when you are dealing with difficult process issues.
Investigate local organizations such as the Silicon Valley Chinese Engineers Association. Through these organizations you may find candidates for this role who are also excellent engineers and additions to your team.
Employee loyalty issues in China will be more challenging than in the US. Chinese employees want to build their resumes as quickly as possible and perceive that job-hopping will facilitate this, just as was the case during the dot.com boom in Silicon Valley.
Offer a significant carrot to Chinese employees – after X years of work for us in China, you get Y months of work, at our expense, in our US office. This is a much sought-after experience for Chinese employees.
Be prepared to deal with departure soon after return to China, or employees declining to return to China at the end of their US stint.
Build a stronger process documentation system than you need in the US to assure both that work is done to your standards, and so that you can easily replace talent lost to turnover.
Have a recruiting program based in China to fill your personnel needs.
You will experience a culture clash when it comes to the value placed on equity and in understanding the meaning of a contract. For China in its current state of development, neither term is well-established by US standards.
Time tracking is not clean cut in China and vacation time needs differ. An example is the month of February for Chinese New Year.
Situation: A company negotiated a contract with a customer giving them a significant price break in exchange for a large committed order with extended delivery. The customer has now come back and requests additional time for delivery and payment on the order. The company has already procured extra material to produce the large order. How do you respond to requests for delivery delays?
Advice from the CEOs:
Response will depend on the company’s history with customer. In the case of a long term customer who pays bills it is best to work with them. Explore solutions to meet them half-way.
Ask for a new commitment to take delivery by a date certain. Request consideration in return. For example, request partial payment up-front to help cover the cost of managing the delivery delay.
Keep the conversation going. Don’t get to point where you alienate a good customer.
If the customer is newer with less history but good potential for future growth, also respond flexibly but ask for additional consideration in good faith to cover your additional costs. As in the case above, request partial upfront payment to cover carrying costs – maybe a larger payment than for an established customer.
If the customer has been difficult in the past, or has been late with payments then the situation is different. There is no assurance that the customer isn’t just gaming the situation. Because the company has already committed resources to deliver the large order, demand an adjustment on price and terms in exchange for the delivery delay.
Whatever the history and situation, it is important to emphasize that you want to work with the customer.
Situation: A company has a business relationship with another firm. The relationship involves co-development of technology as well as marketing and other support. Portions of the relationship have worked, however, the other firm has not kept its part of the bargain in terms of marketing and support promised. What is the best way to approach the other firm to resolve this situation? Is it time to change horses?
Advice from the CEOs:
Have you have clearly communicated to the firm both what you are pleased with about the relationship as well as your level of dissatisfaction regarding lack of marketing and other support promise? To whom has this been communicated? Are you sure that your message has gone all of the way to the top?
Do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis on the current arrangement and alternatives available to you to support your trade-off analysis before taking action.
Present a marketing option that will address the situation and ask whether the firm will support it as previously agreed.
If they say yes, have a contract ready for them to sign.
Negotiate other key items at same time.
Be sure to involve all parties on your side in the preparation, including the individual(s) who made the introductions that led to the relationship. Additional heads can bring more insight into the options that the firm and relationship offers. Bring the key parties involved to the negotiation, and be sure to prep them in advance.
Business relationships should be based on clearly stated deliverables and timelines. If deliverables are missed then it is time to make a business decision – either repair the situation or part ways.
Situation: A company wants to improve the efficiency of its supply chain. The company produces a custom product, for which there are few qualified materials suppliers. From the CEO’s standpoint, this presents challenges, particularly when there are delays in materials and parts supply. How do you optimize your supply chain?
Advice from the CEOs:
In supplier negotiations, know your BATNA – Best Alternative To No Agreement. Put this in dollars and cents so that you know your negotiating limits.
A recessionary or slow growth environment is the perfect time to negotiate! This gives you the opportunity to work with an outstanding order on terms that either your supplier or customer needs. For example, if you are experiencing delays in shipments from your supplier, offer a purchase commitment of “x” terms for “y” years at “z” price in exchange for higher priority on their production schedule. You can work the same way with your customers.
If you supply a custom product, especially on a sole-source basis, tie yourself to the hip of the engineering organizations of both your supplier and your customer. This gives you leverage when either the purchasing department or a contract manufacturer intermediary tries to push you on price and terms.
Be a squeaky wheel on shipments or payments due – but not in an irritating way with too much pressure.
Europe Union RoHS and REACH regulations make it imperative that manufacturers and service companies be aware of hazardous substances in products that they design and manufacture. The list of hazardous substances being monitored and/or restricted is expected to grow to 3,000 in coming years.
Contracts serve two purposes: a legal tool, and a way to drive behavior. They are an opportunity to assure that both parties are on the same page and under the best circumstances serve as process documents.
Special thanks to Bijan Dastmalchi of Symphony Consulting for his contribution to this discussion.