Situation: The CEO of a family business faces his most difficult conversation. One brother, who makes more than anyone else, is not living up to his responsibilities. A long-term key employee currently handles most of this brother’s responsibilities at a modest salary. The CEO is intimidated by this task. How do you prepare for a difficult conversation?
Advice from the CEOs:
Call a meeting of the three brothers and the key employee. Propose putting all four into a pool. The key employee is treated like a brother. Ask: what is a fair way to split the pie and to build incentives so that each makes what their father, who built the company, made? Make it clear that all four members of the team want the same earning potential and that one team member is not more equal than the others.
Prepare and script this meeting ahead of time.
Don’t allow the under-performing brother to play the others off against each other.
Know what must be said if this brother says he will leave.
The CEO must stick with the message. If the underperformer doesn’t like the message, he is not indispensable. A replacement could be hired for far less than he is currently being paid.
What are the key points for the conversation?
Turn the question around – the brothers all joined a company model that no longer works – the three brothers, combined, make less than their father made.
Ask the underperformer – what are the proper incentives? What is fair? Is it fair that for years, he has made more than anyone else?
It’s time for each member of the team to work together to figure out how to make what their father made in this business.
The brothers have supported the underperforming brother for years. Any old debts that were owed have been paid.
Ask the underperforming brother for his voice in how to expand the company and make it more profitable.
This is a new game. If all members pull together everybody wins.
A company seeks to leverage the difference between information from traditional
media and the richer information available through social media. Their objective,
using publicly available information, is to identify individuals’ specific plans
or preferences to better target their clients’ marketing dollars. Can social
marketing leverage your competitive position?
from the CEOs:
principal value proposition is the ability to mine publicly available information
from consumers through social media and make it useful to advertisers who want
to reach those customers.
the company’s technology allows access to shared data which can be used by many
companies this is less expensive than clients’ trying to go it alone.
most important differentiation will be the timeliness of data. Many firms
collect data after the fact – for example after a key purchase is made. What
advertisers desire is the ability to anticipate purchases. An example is a
consumer’s plan to buy a house. This information is valuable to many companies.
If data is mineable, it is valuable.
essential question is how the client will make more money from data being
near-real time. If the client can use the company’s data to enhance their marketing
database, this adds value.
partnering with the agencies that B2B and B2C companies hire to advertise their
products. Even the largest consumer B2B and B2C companies work with outside ad
agencies because these companies have better access to targeted customer lists
than the companies.
a subscription model, offering access to unique, current data to many customers.
The differentiating value is the currency and timeliness of the data. A
subscription model generates an ongoing revenue stream.
A young company is in the process of hiring new employees. Good customer
service, including excellent communication skills and empathy are the most
important qualifications. Good follow-up skills are more important than
educational background. How do you train new employees?
from the CEOs:
Training new employees may be putting the cart before the horse. The first task is to solidify the company’s business model. The next task is to determine what roles and positions fill that model. Only then can the company determine how best to train employees.
Build an organizational chart for a $1 million company.
Who will the company serve?
What are the positions and roles?
This is future that the company will be building and determines how to select and train people to fill the positions.
Suggested Reading: The eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber – a guide to envisioning the future of the company and how to build it.
A word of caution. As CEO, you don’t want to be training people like yourself. This is both difficult and risky. You may be training future competition.
As an alternative, think of a series of distinct roles or functions that make up the business, then select and train different individuals to handle each role. It’s difficult to find people who can do it all. It’s much easier to find people who can bring in new clients, establish and nurture relationships with partners, network to develop a referral base, or counsel new clients on alternative solutions to fit their needs.
Organizing this way means training and creating experts in segments of the business, but nobody knows the full business the way that the CEO does.
Each position within the company will need individualized objectives and performance evaluation criteria. What are the key metrics for each position? This helps to build efficiency.
Think about both one-time and recurring income models. This may call for different employees or at least a different sales activity to build each business segment.
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 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?
from the CEOs:
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.
a close look at operating capacity.
current capacity based on staff count and average billing rates.
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.
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
a recovery, pull back those who were let go.
there is underutilized time from the team, pitch this to investors to obtain
equity financing for new IP.
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.
at banks which are aggressively expanding in the region. If they are hungry for
new clients they will offer attractive rates.
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.
the level of financing that is needed.
where it would be used and what kind of return the company can yield on the
Situation: A company is transitioning from a service model to a product model. A major challenge is meeting funding needs during the transition. Funding sources perceive the current service model as heavy on cost of sales vs. implementation and this hinders acquisition of funds. The CEO sees this as a short-term problem as the company will quickly start to generate more cash through the product model. How do you transition from service to product?
Advice from the CEOs:
In a competitive funding environment, it is important that the offering be credible. While others may be offering similar solutions, believability will prove to be a strong differentiator.
Where to focus over the short term?
Create a hybrid model as a transition between the current service offering and the planned product offering. Demonstrate that current customers have responded favorably to the product/hybrid opportunity.
Test this concept with an investor. The story is that the company needs funding to get to a saleable product model.
What is the message to investors?
Helping the company to achieve a short-term and very feasible objective gives the investor the following advantages: purchasing at a lower valuation, getting a larger share of the company for less, and at a low risk.
As the valuation of the company increases, the earliest investors will get the best deal!
During meetings with investors, ask them for advice on the current and following rounds and financing, and what they will find most appealing.
How do you mitigate the risk to the first investor?
Have a solid business plan and projections that have been vetted by others.
Have a list of referenceable clients.
Utilize the current service model and demonstrate the product/hybrid Package. Build a case on the advantages of the hybrid model including the financial case. The company is always there to provide back-up assistance to meet customer needs in the hybrid model.
Demonstrate flexibility – the customer can always choose the service model or convert to this if they wish.
A Key Point: You are selling yourself as the trustable resource, not the product or service.
Reference previous investment including founders’ investments. The founders did not invest to fail!
Situation: A company wants to expand to new sites. It’s business model relies on high levels of customer service, with high customer retention and efficiency. The challenge is that the model is low margin, because only a few employees are billable. How do you finance site expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
To evaluate profitability and start-up time create a low-cost prototype site to test the model and collect data.
Develop a template with a high likelihood of survival over the first 6-12 months when investment will outweigh income.
Consider a SWAT resource team to accelerate early success for new sites.
Key areas of focus:
Understand the value of the business. For example, is it:
Improving client operational efficiency?
Building the team?
Response time to client needs?
From experience define the most important variables for success:
What is front office, what is back office?
How important are the dynamics between key people? Is it better to hire key people as the number of sites expands or grow them internally.
Determine what is being sold, with a reasonable prospect of return – methodology or services?
Consider a franchise model. The model must show a reasonable return to the prospective owner, including the cost of franchise purchase and start-up costs.
As franchisor, it is important to know what this model looks like to a prospective franchisee; however, take care not to create a representation to which would be bind the franchisor as a promise.
A successful franchise should have a branded presence.
Offer potential franchisees a guarantee: if after one year the net costs to establish and maintain the site are below a certain level, the franchisor will credit the difference between their estimate and the actual net costs in Year 2.
MacDonald’s does not allow franchisees to choose store locations. Similarly, the franchisor can choose locations, determine the availability of key talent, select anchor clients, and develop a reasonable estimate of the value of a new franchise before selling it. This increase the value for the franchise sale and creates a more predictable ROI for new franchisees.
Situation: The President of a professional service company and his team are considering adjustments to their business model. The alternatives under consideration are a client-centered model and a service delivery model. What’s the right model for a service company?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the client-centered model, the emphasis is on maintenance of the customer relationship by the responsible manager, with support from the group to optimize service delivery.
Consider the service being provided and the client’s expectations. Does the client want to have a principal point of contact – a client manager – to address their needs?
This model centers on the key manager creating and maintaining an ongoing relationship with the customer, including rapid response to inquiries from the customer.
In the service delivery model, the emphasis is on a developing and maintaining a high standard of service delivery so that multiple individuals can deliver the service rapidly and reliably.
As in the client-centered model, consider the service being provided and the client’s expectations. Is the customer’s principle concern functionally rather than personally oriented – for example keeping a system up and running in the fastest time with a manageable expense? In this case, the individual technician is not as important as speed of response and assurance of a quality outcome.
The service delivery model centers on standardized and predictable delivery of a defined service, with high responsiveness to the client’s needs. Those who deliver the service are paid variably based on their skills and assigned to deliver service consistent with their abilities. A benefit of this model is that business maintenance is not as dependent on individual service providers as the client-centered model.
In choosing between these models, it is important to speak with your clients and to understand their needs and priorities. Is your model a direct business to customer relationship or a business to business relationship? Is your offering perceived by the customer as a service or a product with tangible results? Is your customer more interested in meeting short-term needs or developing a long-term relationship?
As an example, is the customer expecting a personal, customized service and desirous of maintaining a long-term relationship? For this, a Nordstrom-like model may make the most sense – a highly personalized level of service where the relationship managers on the sales floor keep detailed records of individual customer’s tastes and past purchases and will even have items pre-selected prior to the customer’s arrival at the store.
This model implies that the most important assets to client development and retention will be your account managers. A business development manager may bring in a new client and then hand off that client to “one of my best managers” who will develop the long-term client relationship. The account manager will become the principal point of contact for the client; however, they will bring in other expertise or assistance to handle specific client needs. When a customer calls in, depending on the immediate need, that customer may be triaged directly to their manager or to an individual who could, for example, perform a transaction for them. Responsiveness by the manager within a defined time frame will be an important metric to monitor.
Situation: A professional services company wants to grow while maintaining the small company atmosphere that has been the key to its success. There is a limit to how many clients a manager can manage, and with this the reality that if the firm is to grow they will have to bring on more client managers and support personnel. How do you maintain your culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
To maintain your boutique atmosphere, consider hiring to fit your needs rather than to maintain a culture. Use team meetings to direct team members while communicating and instilling the culture that you wish to maintain.
Don’t risk diluting the strength of your client relationships. A $250K client who is fully committed to your service may have more demands than a $1M client for whom you only represent 10% of their business.
Service companies with the highest profit ratios rotate customer contact among several qualified people. What matters is the level of service provided, not the individual providing the service.
Grow by adding locations. Instead of growing vertically in the same office, grow modularly by spawning additional offices.
Create an optimally sized model for the level of service that you wish to deliver.
Design the organizational structure for this model and identify the order in which slots will be filled as business grows through each office.
Develop a service and organizational template with standard operating procedures, metrics, technology, and reporting.
Once the model is created, spawn it.
Focus your business. Define a niche that you can serve better than your competitors. Focus on this niche and develop a sustainable advantage over your competition.
Assure that your service delivery is seamless to the client and make sure that it remains seamless.
Offer a menu of service options and price options by the level of service delivered. Some will want to buy a Mercedes, and some will be happy with a reliable lower priced sedan.
Situation: A company has built a very successful single site business, and wants to expand geographically. They are investigating where it makes sense to duplicate operations in new sites and where it makes sense to consolidate operations. The company’s secret sauce is in their system and procedures. How do you plan for business expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at the shared services piece and the cost/benefit tradeoffs. What services are best centralized, and what are the critical on-site services that you want duplicate in remote sites?
Other companies use remote offices for field personnel, but centralize all shared services. Centralized shared services include invoicing and collections, financial reporting, telemarketing, anything dealing with trade names and print or trade-marked collateral, and an array of other services which would be too expensive for individual sites to duplicate, or where leaving things to the individual sites might result in inconsistency of service and erosion of the brand.
How do you replicate key talent? Consider whether key talent can be retained in the shared services side of the business, not the cloneable service delivery sites. Typical franchise operations have people who are difficult to replace or replicate so most do not try to include these roles in the service delivery operations.
You will need to provide for a sales role in your remote offices as business development will be critical to early success of new sites.
In the transition from “successful small” to “successful large” most businesses find that the medium stage is the most difficult. Issues to consider include:
Does your direction match your expertise – do you have support of individuals knowledgeable about franchising?
What are the margin differentials within the business? Do you want to clone the high or low-margin areas of the business? Develop profitability models for your central and remote sites, and assure that the sites will have sufficient profitability to assure their short-term success. This will make it easier to proliferate the remote sites.