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: The CEO of a family-owned company has struggled to align family members with the business plan. When difficult decisions must be made, established personality patterns and family history hinder consensus on what should be done. The CEO seeks advice on whether the addition of one or more outside Board Members can help to build consensus. Can outside Board members help a struggling company?
Advice from the CEOs:
The CEO of another closely-held company brought in an outside Board member two years ago. This has added considerable focus to the Board discussions. The addition of a fresh and respected perspective has helped to clarify decisions and reduce conflicts among the founders.
First, have a conversation with the team. Give them the opportunity to straighten out things themselves. Present the addition of an outside Board member as an option. Get their support. This will make the addition of an outside Board member a company decision, rather than the CEO’s.
The experience of other companies is that compensation can range from free – a retiree who wants to help – to expensive. Arrangements and expense will depend on what the company leadership wants to achieve.
Investigate SCORE – a well-established source for outside board members for small and family businesses.
Situation: Revenue for a product and craft business has been slipping. At the same time, their competition has been disappearing. It is clear to the CEO that demand is and will continue to be present because of the market that the company serves. The question is how to maintain the profitability to survive long-term. How do you build in a declining market?
Advice from the CEOs:
The keys to recovery in a business like this will be in two areas: improving sales and increasing margins.
To increase sales the choices are more aggressive marketing and selling to existing customers or creating new markets like previous generations did when they started the business. Consider services that you could bundle with your products to augment the ways that customers use them. It will be the responsibility of your sales and marketing teams to demonstrate these product/service bundles to increase sales both to new and existing customers. This will help to solve the revenue slippage.
The other side is ongoing efforts to reduce cost which will, in turn, improve your margins. Costs can be reduced in creative ways that are not obvious. These include improvements in purchasing, reduction of waste, recycling of component materials, and inventory controls. It will be the responsibility of your production, purchasing and inventory management teams to develop these solutions. Assure that these teams are recognized and rewarded for their solutions.
Look at the segments of your product offering. Are they declining at the same rate or are there differences? This will help you to focus your efforts, as a company, to grow market share even if the overall market is declining.
Other suggestions for increasing sales:
Take advantage of the craft trends. Do this with NEW talent – not tired talent.
Consider partnerships and collaborations.
Set up contests and craft classes.
Look at how other industries promote to the craft industry and follow their lead.
Situation: A small company (fewer than 50 employees) is reviewing their employee benefit package and wants to get a sense of what others are currently covering in their benefit packages. Where does your company currently stand on employee benefits, and what does your company cover in its benefit package?
Advice from the CEOs:
A recent small (unscientific) poll of entrepreneurial Silicon Valley SMB Companies on benefits offered found:
401K: 100%, 401K Match: 33% (most companies eliminated the match to reduce costs)
Reduced benefits in the last 6 months: 67%
Employee complaints or recruiting challenges following cuts: 0%
One company commented that when a key customer cut their payments they had to cut benefits. They reduced the company payment from 100% to 50% of benefit cost. Their employees make choices among options available, with a company dollar payment cap. Management explained the situation when they made the cuts, and there were no objections.
Several companies have shifted to consumer directed health care options.
A comment of caution was offered by one CEO – employees are unlikely to object to their company needing to reduce benefits to get through a difficult market. However, as conditions improve, employees are likely to expect some level of return to prior benefit levels. If not, the company at risk of increased turnover. It is best to stay ahead of the curve to assure that your benefits packages are competitive.
A CEO is concerned about a possible downturn in the company’s market. They have survived the Great Recession and want to assure that they continue to survive future downturns. How do you succeed in turbulent markets?
Advice from the CEOs:
In turbulent markets, companies do everything that they can to reduce costs. This includes just-in-time ordering – regardless of lead times which they view as the supplier’s problem, delaying orders until they have confidence that they can sell what they order and produce, being miserly with cash, and demanding lower prices – even if supplier costs are rising. Dealing with each of these requires a steady head and creative solutions.
Spend as much time as possible meeting with important vendors and clients. Maintain the dialogue. They need you as much as you need them – without your products and services, their business is compromised, too. Spend time finding and cultivating the right relationships in client companies. Most of the time, this will NOT be the purchasing departments, but higher ups within the business units who are being pressed by their superiors to generate sales and revenue.
Pushing harder does not work in turbulent markets. Too many others are doing this.
Change your message – what used to work does not work now. Adjust your message to the times and adapt your message to your customer’s needs.
People want choice, and to do business with those whom they can trust to deliver.
Develop good case studies and testimonials – stories that your customer can share with others in their company.
Adjust your sales approach – look at SPIN Selling (Status, Pain, Implication, Needs-Payoff).
Don’t cut sales and marketing – focus it on the sectors that have cash and who are using the current market to grow. These people will continue to buy.
Look at what worked for you in the last five years – this situation is similar.
Look at your communications through the eChannels – if your competition is there, you should be too. For example, explore LinkedIn.
Special thanks to Jennifer Vessels of NextStep for her contribution to this discussion.
Situation: A small company wants to reduce costs by consolidating accounting and operational communications between remote divisions, with home office coordination. Can you more effectively reduce costs by consolidating services or is it better to set up parallel but complimentary accounting and operational communications in each division?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are a number of things that need to be considered, including:
Whether the existing legacy system is off the shelf with modifications or was custom designed for your operation.
Does the current system meet your needs, and do operators understand it? Is operational understanding diffuse or can only one or two people operate it?
How similar are the divisions in terms of product, customers and operations?
Do divisions serve distinct, non-overlapping customers with different product lines?
Are there important operational differences, for example are some divisions union, and others non-union?
On an ongoing basis, except for accounting, do divisions function as complimentary or distinctly separate businesses?
How complex are the product and pricing offerings? Could you consider a simple solution like QuickBooks or are there are complexities to your business model and accounting that the off-the shelf or web-based systems can’t address?
How much historical data from your current system is needed to support ongoing and future operations?
The simplest solution may be to run your current system off of a server, with multiple nodes connected to the system – a direct connection at your home office, and point-to-point lines connecting your remote offices. This will solve both your data transfer and communications needs.
Hire a computer consultant to set this up and assist you in establishing a link. It will cost some money, but will save you time and money in the long-run.
If you decide to change your accounting system, do so at the end of your current fiscal year. Trying to change accounting systems in the midst of a fiscal year creates an accounting nightmare for a small business.