Situation: A CEO wants to fund future growth through better management of cash flow. Cash flow has been positive for several years, and the company uses a bank line to fund receivables. How to you manage cash flow to fund growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Since the company is cash flow positive, go to the bank with the assistance of a connected Board member and ask for better terms on your line. This will reduce financing expense.
What are the company’s Days Sales Outstanding (DSO = accounts receivable (AR) divided by average daily revenue)? Reducing this will have an immediate positive impact on cash flow.
Normal up-front payment is 20%. With 35% gross margins and 20% up-front, the company is funding profits through the bank line. The adjusted gross margin (GM) is the company’s Operating GM less the cost of the bank line.
Solutions: Reduce DSO by offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days and increase up front retainers from 20% to 50%. This takes time but is doable by working with customers.
Some customers have seen AR slip from 30 to 45 days. Offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days is an inexpensive way to decrease AR and increase cash flow.
What is the most immediate need?
The company has positive cash flow, marquee accounts and proof of concept.
What is needed is additional referenceability. Can reference accounts come from exiting marquee accounts? What would this take? Can the Board help to identify and develop additional reference accounts?
The company is resource limited in sales. At this point people are needed. How can this be done without extending current resources?
Shift resources from other departments to sales to boost sales efforts. Another CEO did this very successfully and generated a substantial pick-up in revenue growth.
Increase the incentive for service people to come up with new revenue opportunities. Consider teaming them with the salespeople to generate opportunities.
Consider independent rep firms. Ask key customers who they respect among the independent rep firms.
Develop a joint venture or strategic partnership to feed sales – a situation where this is a strong win-win for both parties.
Leverage the Board to create opportunities. Another CEO has a Board objective of 3 new accounts per year. This comes from 10 leads/connections per year (2 per Board member). Board members who can’t produce leads are turned over.
Situation: The CEO of a small company is concerned that the loss of a key individual could seriously impact operations. Alternatives include adding an assistant to the affected department or cross training another individual who could serve as a short-term back-up in case of an absence of 2 weeks or more. How do you mitigate temporary loss of personnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
In cases like the current pandemic, planning for multi-week personnel absences is essential. Though systems are documented, subtleties of key jobs may not be documented. This is where cross-training becomes an important alternative.
Train another employee as a backup for the person in question and refresh the training every 2-3 months. If the company runs into an emergency due to short or longer-term loss of an individual, hire a replacement for the individual and have the individual who is cross-trained train the replacement.
Have the key individual and the individual who is cross training refine the ISO 9000 documentation as the key employee trains the back-up individual. This will assure that ISO 9000 documentation is being updated regularly.
Establish a plan with appropriate procedures that all positions must have a back-up. Include this within the company’s personnel procedures.
Rewarding the key individual with a bonus for selecting and training his or her back-up is the wrong thing to do. It’s both the wrong incentive and the wrong reward. Training a back-up is an essential part of each key employee’s job, not a special task that deserves separate recognition or reward.
Situation: A CEO perceives that the company has a conflict between performance and planned timelines. Of concern is performance against key metrics like pipeline performance and closing new business. A sense of urgency isn’t present. How do you create and communicate urgency?
Advice from the CEOs:
Management knowledge of company financial status and performance against key metrics – particularly key drivers like pipeline performance – is critical to their being able to assist the company.
A company decision to focus on project profitability may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the lack of urgency. If revenue growth lags, the only option for managers who are tasked to hit a profitability target is to cut expenses. This delays projects and can negatively impact morale.
Accountability comes from meetings. Not 1-on-1 meetings but team meetings. Peer pressure is an important component of accountability. Nobody wants to be the individual who is consistently behind on projects or initiatives.
The challenge may be more external than internal. When business closes more slowly then everything else slows down: hiring, new development, investment and profits. All of these are driven by new business acquisition.
Another CEO has same issue with her contracts. All contracts include a timeline. If work or deliverables slip, the customer wants to slow down delivery and billings. Her solution is to include stop work and delivery delay fees in the contracts.
What actions would others take to address this?
Institute progress payments. For example, instead of charging 50% up front and 50% on contract completion, shift to, for example, 50/30/20 with the 30% due on completion of project framework. This way, only 20% can be delayed due of customer timing issues.
Built financing into total pricing. The customer is free to delay projects, or aspects of projects, but there is a charge calculated into delayed delivery which covers the cost of money and additional management.
Situation: The CEO of a company is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the passion that she had when the business was young. Day to day work feels like having a monkey on her back with too much time spent on sales and business minutiae. Too little time is spent on strategy and growth. How do you maintain the passion for your business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at what you like and don’t like – delegate what you don’t like.
Delegate activities which are inappropriate for a top executive – like answering the telephone when others are present to do this.
Get everybody in the same boat – get them rowing in unison.
Delegate more responsibility – with the understanding that others will make mistakes. When they do, they must understand their responsibility for repairing them.
Prioritize tasks as they are delegated to reduce conflict or confusion.
Strengthen relationships with key suppliers and customers. This is a strategic move to reduce future risk to the company.
How did you get the monkey off your back?
Ask managers and employees for their input – have them develop solutions. If they push back that they don’t know how or don’t have the resources, let them know that their job is to provide solutions, not just to identify problems.
This takes time and patience, but if the CEO is steadfast this can yield results in a surprisingly short period of time.
Reduce time spent on sales. Become the closer – the only person who can do that little something to close a sale.
Have the others do the heavy lifting our qualifying the customer, developing the solution, crafting the proposal and presenting this to the customer. Limit the CEO’s involvement to reviewing the proposal prior to presentation, and to acting as closer ONLY if sales can’t do the job themselves.
Learn to take time off – develop other interests. This is the first step in being able to take longer periods of time off.
Situation: The CEO of a service company continually finds the company short of cash. They have just hired a new accountant, but it will take time for this individual to understand the financial situation and to generate recommendations to improve cash flow. How do you keep a company afloat short-term?
Advice from the CEOs:
Point #1: This isn’t just a question of controlling costs; the company needs to build the infrastructure to succeed.
If there isn’t someone on the team in a position of authority, who the CEO can trust completely, hire this person. The CEO can’t control all risks.
While the company has shrunk over the last two years, it is still a substantial company and needs professional management. To grow effectively, professionals are required in key leadership positions. If necessary, hire experienced outside talent
Look for teachable moments as challenges arrive. The CEO, instead of solving a problem, should work with employees and mentor them through discovering and implementing solutions.
How to communicate this to current staff?
Put the story together. Be able to make a clear statement to them, including the current situation and future possibilities for which the company must prepare.
Generate charts and metrics to support key points.
Use senior staff as the mouthpieces to present the story to the rest of the organization. Once they are onboard, have them help craft the message. Don’t underestimate the CEO’s authority. This is business, not a popularity contest.
Let others make mistakes – it is part of the learning process – no matter how critical the situation.
Point #2 – Return to the company’s roots.
The faster everyone accepts that a focused approach is the only way to survive, the faster the company will turn around. Reestablishing company presence in key markets with a new model that speaks to their desires makes a lot of sense.
Be very clear as to what flat-rate service pricing covers. Include this in the signed customer agreement. Don’t allow costs to creep up or it will kill the profitability of flat rate jobs.
Create an infrastructure nimble enough to adapt as market conditions change. Identify what really works and focus on this.
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.