Situation: A family-owned company has built a sustainable and modestly profitable business. They have built high quality, referenceable collaborations. The CEO is ambitious and wants to become a world-class company. They now seek limited partners as investors to grow the company. Which is more important – cash flow or value creation?
from the CEOs:
Both cash flow and value creation are important. There are several sub-questions to the question:
First, what is the fundamental business model?
Second, the CEO is the company’s charismatic leader. How best to follow his energy?
Finally, and most fundamentally, does the current business model make sense? Can it be simplified it to improve its scalability?
Currently there are three divisions, each with a different objective.
Operations – to be sustainable.
Services – low profit and low percentage of company revenue but also low overhead.
Investment – to achieve an acceptable rate of return.
How does the company get the best valuation?
Currently, the company is organized as a conglomerate.
Conglomerates are too diffuse and difficult to optimize to attract investors. Pure plays do better. Consider refocusing the company around its key strengths.
The family business model is fine. The question for the family – how does the CEO keep and attract the key staff like that makes this business work? Salary alone doesn’t do it. What are the future rewards for key personnel? Consider deal participation to incentivize key employees.
The investment and operations divisions are different companies – this is fine. Optimize both.
To attract the best LPs, the business model should evolve from a family to corporate model. This will make more sense to investors and improve their ability to participate in future growth and profits.
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?
from the CEOs:
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
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.
Baby Boomers are finding that they don’t have the savings to retire and are
working well past the historic retirement age.
Baby Boomers retired but found themselves bored after a productive career and have
returned to the labor pool.
factors may delay the company’s need to replace aging talent.
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.
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.
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?
Situation: A company faces three options to generate growth. The CEO wants to pursue a path that keeps employees happy and rewards them for their efforts on behalf of the company. What are the trade-offs between the options and the potential impact on employees? How do you generate growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are three options to generate growth – continuing organic growth, accelerating growth through a merger, or by being acquired. These options are not mutually exclusive. The company may pursue more than one.
Organic growth can be accelerated by hiring an individual who’s focus will be company growth. The offer may include a minor equity position that is non-dilutive to current employee-owners, with vesting two or more years out.
It is important that top staff and key employees are comfortable with the person before finalizing any offer.
The message to current owners: “This person will drive this business with X expectations for results. The ownership position is contingent on delivery of anticipated results. Is this works as we anticipate, it is a win for all owners.”
Have a buy-back agreement as part of the employment contract should the individual leave. This should guarantee the company the right to repurchase any shares at an agreed price in the case of a separation.
The CEO has been approached by another company interested in a merger.
Is the value of this option increased or decreased by hiring the person described above?
Should the merger option still make sense, calculate a merger split that makes sense to current owners and see whether the merger partner will accept this. If not, find an excuse to drop or defer the merger discussion.
The CEO has also been approached by a potential acquirer. This could expand the market position of the combined companies, provide additional opportunity for current employees, and a cash payoff for current owners.
Talk to the other owners. Does this option meet personal financial and professional targets? What about personal needs to stay involved in business?
Once these discussions are completed, tell the potential acquirer what you want and need from the deal. They may agree!
Situation: A technology-based company has a very successful product in a niche market. The team has been brainstorming about additional markets into which the product could be introduced. The only experience that the CEO and team members have is with the existing market. While other markets are appealing, they lack the experience and contacts to penetrate new market opportunities. How do you introduce a product into a new market?
Advice from the CEOs:
Hire someone, either an employee or a consultant, who intimately knows and can introduce you to the new market. If you have more than one good candidate consider hiring them both.
Start with clients that you already serve in your current market but who also serve the new market. This can provide quick wins and proof of concept. Overlap is important because you will have a shorter sales cycle with these clients.
Another company moved from on-site consulting to turn-key services. They found the purchase process to be completely different. Originally, they were unprepared for this, so the transition took longer than it might have.
Talk to existing customers and learn about their companies’ purchasing processes to organize your fact gathering and strategy.
Read case studies of other companies’ experience moving a single platform between markets.
Another company moved from niche photography – holiday photos – to photos for Fortune 500 companies. This was the same expertise, but the market and decision processes were different.
Key to the successful move was understanding the people in Fortune 500s who were making the buy decision and the structure of their decision process. The CEO of this company registered for conventions attended by client prospects. This provided a quick way to meet and learn about key people and their decision processes.
Situation: The CEO of a software company pays a high base and incentives for their key sales person. While this is in line with the company’s industry, the CEO wants the opinions of others as to the comp packages they offer and any controls that they put in place. What is an effective sales compensation plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
While the paid seems high, your industry may be different from other industries. Most see a 50/50 split between base and incentive as the norm.
Consider a draw system so that if the individual falls behind you have the option to reduce future draws.
Look at both the compensation formulas, and at the individuals’ predilections and the behaviors that you want to generate. Compensation should align with desired behavior and results.
Do you have bonus incentive plans in place for your sales support people? Consider these, and check whether the goals and objectives for your sales and support people complement each other. They should.
Consider a discretionary bonus pot that you can use to reward specific achievements at your discretion.
What will you do if your sales person performs significantly below target – for example, this person is only hitting 40% of the objective after 2-3 quarters?
Consequences for non-performance should be clearly understood by both you and the employee before you launch any new plan with the individual.
Whatever you decide for this person, you may well be setting a standard that you will have to live with as you hire additional sales personnel.
Situation: A company is faced with the imminent departure or retirement of several key sales personnel. This presents the opportunity to rethink and rebuild the sales team. What is the best way to take advantage of this opportunity? How do you revamp your sales team?
Advice from the CEOs:
The timing is good. Take advantage of this opportunity!
You’ve identified the next generation of sales leadership. Now determine their role building the future.
This is an opportunity to reset your vision for the next 3-5 years.
The task of the new sales leaders is to learn the products, customers, and processes. One of the best ways to do this is in the role of sales engineer.
Be the listener first – become the solutions person.
Use existing company personnel as resources to develop closer relationships with key people within the company.
Have existing staff can introduce them to current customers and point them toward new opportunities. Focus on impeccable customer service.
What are the immediate priorities for the new sales leaders?
Do what must be done.
Observe experts on the job.
Listen and learn.
Ask lots of questions.
It’s scary, but don’t worry – just do it!
Let others assist.
They will make mistakes – it’s called learning.
Be sure to build an approach and team that can support both your existing core business and build new opportunities.
You need to replace the capabilities of those who will be retiring, and at the same time bring in new opportunities for future growth. This includes sales hunters who are good at finding new customers and helping them define their unique needs.
What fears or concerns do you see in the new leaders?
Fear and concerns regarding short and long-term roles.
Focus on the near term. The President is focused on the long term. Focus now on visiting customers, being introduced to them, and learning about them.
Are you fully focused on marketing of your services?
What is your Sandbox? What is your Value Proposition? What is your Brand Promise?
Define these and let the definitions guide your development of the sales leadership as well as the search for additional personnel.
Situation: A company has two key managers who battle constantly. Recently these battles have escalated. Both people are valuable, but this has become a significant distraction. What’s the best way to handle this situation? How do you deal with management infighting?
Advice from the CEOs:
Talk to the two people individually. Acknowledge company awareness of the situation and ask what’s going on.
Listen – make sure you understand what’s going on.
After you listen, coach. The message: I need you to step up. The company counts on you.
Both parties must feel empowered by the conversation.
Focus on behavior only, not the person.
Make sure that each feels validated but with clear direction to change behavior.
Acknowledge each individual’s value. Point out the problem, but make it clear that nobody is indispensable.
At the same time, be firm as to what is expected of individual behavior as well as individual performance. Set the expectation: either you act in a way which does not harm the company environment, or I will take your notice in 30 days.
If either individual can’t agree to this, then that individual is the problem.
Revert to guiding principles and values of the company. Raise the conversation to a higher level.
Establish what the individual wants from the company. Are their needs currently being met? What can be changed to better meet their needs?
An important end point of the conversation – because both are key players – is for each of them to value the other.
If, after providing time for the two to resolve their difference, they still can’t make peace with each other, you may have to make a hard decision.
Be careful – it may be necessary to take a different approach with each individual.
It may turn out that one individual is the instigator and the other is simply reacting to the first’s provocation. In this case, get a 3rd party to coach each of them.
Another company recently had this same problem.
The CEO sat each person down – talked about impact, big picture and what this does to their image in company.
Situation: A Company has a key customer that wants to upgrade the Company’s status as an approved supplier. This comes with a catch – the customer demands that the Company reduce the amount of its total revenue represented by its business with the customer. The customer doesn’t want the Company to be overly dependent upon them or their business. One option that the Company may explore is purchasing another business. When does it make sense to buy a company?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Company may be working under a false premise.
If the Company is truly a critical supplier, the customer is not likely to go away just because they don’t like a single ratio on how the Company runs its business.
The risk that the Company takes on buying another business is that this distracts the Company and ends up jeopardizing current business both from thus customer and others.
It makes more sense to explore acquiring another company if the Company’s broader goal is to become more diversified, or if new business commitments are forthcoming from this or other current customers.
What about this strategy makes sense?
Provided that the purchase of another company makes strategic sense, it may be feasible to finance the purchase of that company through a leveraged buy-out.
Be sure to build an earn-out with incentives contingent upon the seller staying on and helping to maximize long-term value of business.
As an alternative to buying another business, it may be possible to build a new lower cost/price version of the Company’s current product or service and build a new customer base for the lower cost version. This is how automobile companies use the same or similar frames, engines and many of the same components to create different cars for different markets.
Situation: A company has a long-standing relationship with key partner which has become strained for the last 9 months due to a combination of conditions. The partner’s Board recently terminated their CEO and their management is now in flux. Is there an opportunity to reestablish the old relationship by approaching the partner’s Board and how would you go about reestablishing this key partner relationship?
Advice from the CEOs:
At this point, the Board of the partner is likely focused on selecting a successor to the CEO, and dealing with internal matters in the interim. It may not be timely to approach them now, as they may dismiss your entreaty as a distraction.
If this tactic is to work, you will need a champion within the partner to promote reestablishment of the relationship. Try to identify such a person and approach them individually instead of approaching the full Board. The champion may be a Board member or someone with whom the Board has a strong relationship. This carries less risk than approaching the full Board. If the champion is not receptive, your likelihood of success with the full Board is slim.
Is there a past President or senior executive of the partner company with whom you have very good relations? An individual like this can act as a quasi-third party to help you to reestablish relationships with the Board or key management of the partner company.
Because of the risk involved, it may be best to do this quietly through a party whom the potential champion will respect and listen to, and take the lead from the champion if this individual is supportive of your cause.