Situation: A CEO wants to create new markets outside the US. They have investigated options and locations and are starting to plan. One question is how long it will take to start seeing results, so that they budget accordingly. How do you build international sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
Decision timelines internationally are longer than they are in the US. For example, in Europe timelines are easily twice as long. This means that new entrants must budget for a sustained effort.
It took another company three years to develop traction in Europe. They have an office in Germany, but most new sales are coming from Eastern Europe. After three years their European operation is now break-even.
International markets, especially in Europe, can be very conservative. Job security and maintaining cash flow are the focus.
Labor laws encourage companies to do things themselves rather than outsource. The result is that a new entrant will face competition from internal departments of potential prospects.
In European the emphasis is not growth, but on conservative steady operation. Growth tends to come from acquisition.
Sales pitches should be tweaked for international audiences. For example, highlight reduced need for additional personnel to manage the systems, fewer breakdowns and glitches, and the ability to count on seasoned outside expertise to quickly address complications.
Relationship selling is very important internationally. Sales and tech support are best provided, and in some cases required to be provided in the local language.
In Europe, Italy can be an important lever to sales with the right partner. Italian companies can be excellent at marketing and can jump-start European sales. This will be a very personal relationship.
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 company has built a very successful specialty manufacturing business in the US. Their manufacturing operations are labor intensive, with manufacturing practices optimized using motion studies and sharing best practices developed on the production floor. The CEO is evaluating whether it makes more sense to expand production in the US or to explore international options. Do you produce domestically or internationally?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are trade-offs between domestic and international production. Quality labor is available internationally at lower costs than in the US. However, risks include potential loss of quality control and higher levels of waste.
While investigating international production options, focus first on less critical operations where savings from lower labor costs outweigh the potential cost of wasted material.
Do not try to move highly controlled operations. These will include critical operations which require both an elevated level of operator skill and close supervision.
Before evaluating international options, break down the steps of manufacturing or processing to identify specific subcomponents or subprocesses that could be outsourced at reasonable risk.
For example, look at high volume parts where quality and variation in tolerances is less critical. These will be the best candidates for production in a lower cost, potentially lower quality environment.
How critical are trade secrets or patented IP to production? In the US and Europe there are strong protections for IP. However, these protections are not as strong in all countries. If production is outsourced to countries with poor IP protection, this may enable IP theft and create future low-cost competition.
Situation: A technology company has grown rapidly over the last year. Two customers representing a significant share of business have temporarily reduced orders for one quarter, resulting in a cash crunch until these orders resume. How do you bridge a short-term cash crunch?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you feel relatively secure that once the quarter is over these orders will resume and your cash crunch will be resolved? If so, ask your bank to increase your cash line. Explain the situation, the companies involved, their order history and the expected timing until you get your next payments. A letter from each company saying that they plan to resume orders will help your case. Be aware that the bank may request a personal guarantee to substantially increase your credit line.
If you have to personally guarantee a line of credit extension, make sure that you see this as an acceptable risk, and that you can trust the customers to come through with their orders as promised.
If you produce products or subcomponents critical to these customers, ask whether they will extend a bridge loan or make a payment against future orders to assure their place in your production queue once their orders resume. You may have to escalate this request within the customer companies if you are currently dealing with purchasing personnel or lower level management.
Can you redeploy excess labor to other projects during the cash crunch? You will have to do this carefully so that you can rapidly redeploy these resources to priority projects once a large order comes in from one of these customers.
Situation: A company lost money last year, but turned the corner with a profitable final quarter. One of the company’s divisions continues to lose money, though the losses are small compared to the total picture. The CEO is considering cutting this business. What factors should the CEO consider in making this decision?
Advice from the CEOs:
What expense factors contributed to the loss?
The biggest factor was allocation of vehicle and space expense. This division has seasonal revenue but carries the allocated expenses for the full year.
Make sure that your allocated expenses are fair to the business. Do overhead allocations reflect utilization? Unless closing the business eliminates vehicles or space, if you terminate this business these expenses will be borne by the rest of the company.
Study your allocations by shifting the allocation made to this business to other businesses. What is the impact on their profitability?
If you find that the current allocation does not reflect utilization and adjust accordingly, does the business still lose money?
If this division covers its direct expenses along with most of its allocated expenses, a small loss in this division may be preferable to a reduction in profitability of other businesses from closing the division.
How strategic is this division to the overall business mix?
Is this business essential to your product/service mix or just a customer convenience? If you terminated the business will customers be upset?
Do competitors offer this service, and would you be disadvantaged by discontinuing it?
What are the alternatives?
Can you raise prices to increase profitability and refuse business that does not meet this pricing?
Can you restrict the offering to less price sensitive customers?
Can you refer customers to other vendors or sub out this business?
Can you reduce the scope of the offering while adjusting pricing to enhance profitability?
Can you source other labor alternatives to reduce cost?