Oh Dear! Are You a Micromanager?

If you own and manage a one person business, you are, de facto, a micromanager. You have no choice; you make every decision and you manage every process. If, on the other hand, you are CEO of a FTSE100 Company, you can’t be a micromanager because you can’t possibly make every decision and can only manage a very small number of processes, albeit they are likely to be major ones.

In the case of the one person business, if you don’t micromanage, your business won’t function; so it won’t survive. In the case of the CEO of the FTSE100 Company, any attempt to micromanage will cause chaos and undermine your corporate structure. So in one set of circumstances, micromanagement is very positive and very necessary, whilst in the other it is very negative and seriously damaging.

So, at what point does the positive turn negative?

Before answering that question let’s just look at what we mean by micromanagement. You can no doubt find many different definitions but essentially it means: –

• Allocating tasks, monitoring them in minute detail, intervening with the processes and making all the associated decisions. As opposed to
• Delegating responsibilities, within defined parameters, to subordinates, who make their own decisions and are accountable for the outcomes.

As soon as a business involves more than one person, tasks start to be shared. If the people involved are of equal status – directors, partners etc. – agreement is reached about the sharing of both tasks and responsibilities. However, if staff are employed, they tend to be engaged to undertake tasks under close supervision. They are probably given very little responsibility and are unlikely to make many decisions without reference to the boss.

Initially this may work ok. However, as the business grows and the number of employees increases, the boss inevitably spends more and more time making decisions for his/her employees and monitoring their activities. That means spending less and less time driving the business forward. As a consequence, the momentum of the business starts to slow down and the boss becomes increasingly stressed, as he/she becomes the main constraint on progress.

To address this problem, most businesses start to develop some form of organisation structure, with departmental demarcations and key staff taking supervisory/managerial roles. To start with, this invariably relieves the pressure. However, the extent to which this continues to happen depends on whether the boss is still just delegating tasks or whether he/she starts to delegate real responsibilities in a meaningful way. When the boss is able to delegate responsibilities enabling him/her to focus on the more important aspects of the business, the business itself has a much better chance of developing, growing and building its net worth. But where the boss still wants to micromanage, the business is much more likely to struggle and stagnate.

There can’t be a precise answer to my earlier question of, “At what point does the positive become negative?” because no two businesses are exactly the same. However, most people’s ability to micromanage everything that goes on, within a business, and still perform their own essential duties is quite limited; and once the business employs more than a handful of people, micromanagement invariably becomes negative.

Despite this, many owners and directors of SMEs don’t delegate responsibilities effectively and become increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress that their businesses make, often blaming everyone except themselves for that lack of progress. So why can’t they delegate and why do they continue to be micromanagers?

The four favourite answers seem to be: –

• I can’t get the calibre of staff I need
• My staff can’t do things the way I do them
• My staff can’t do things as well as I do them
• I can’t trust my staff

So let me deal with each of these objections in turn.

I can’t get the calibre of staff I need. If that’s true, then it’s likely that you’re not paying enough to attract the right quality staff. But in my experience, that’s not usually the problem. More often than not, the key people, within the business, are more than capable of taking on much more responsibility and are eager to do so. With very few exceptions, where I’ve been able to persuade the boss to stand back and empower his key people, the positive effect on the business has been substantial. However, when key members of staff are not empowered there is a tendency for them to become demotivated and cynical; and once this happens you really do have a problem.

My staff can’t do things the way I do them. Frankly that tends to be good not bad. A business needs a diversity of ideas. If the key staff are all clones of the boss, the business will go nowhere. The boss may be the key driver but he/she doesn’t have a monopoly on ideas, doesn’t know all the answers, doesn’t always have the best approach to problem solving and is often wrong. If key employees are empowered, bosses are much better able to develop their own strengths, whilst ensuring that their weaknesses are offset by the skills and experience of their key people. Running a successful business is about teamwork; it’s not a solo act.

My staff can’t do things as well as I do. In some cases this may be right. The boss will have skills that his/her key staff don’t have. But there will be areas where key members of staff have more skill and experience or perhaps greater aptitude or perseverance than the boss. It’s important to recognise this and exploit it. Again, it’s back to the principle of diversity of skills and ideas being the basis of a successful team. Where there are shortcomings in skill sets, you need to develop them through structured training programmes.

I can’t trust my staff. In many respects this is the real objection. The other three are often excuses for what is, in reality, lack of trust. And to be fair, all too frequently I hear stories of small businesses that have been ripped off by a rogue employee or damaged in some other way, by an incompetent one. But this opens up the much bigger question of how you actually manage and control your business.

The trust issue may be about not trusting people to complete tasks properly or take decisions appropriately; equally, it may be about the honesty and integrity of employees. In practice, most people are reasonably honest; but, unfortunately, a small minority is not. However, regardless of honesty and integrity, it’s important that no one, within the team, behaves as a lone wolf, acts outside their jurisdiction, covers up mistakes, works within a self-constructed silo or behaves dishonestly in any way. So how do you reconcile all of this with delegating responsibilities and losing detailed control of what your staff do and how they spend their time?

The answer is that you manage your business in a completely different way. And to do this, you need good management information that tells you, on a regular basis, how each significant element of your business is performing. In conjunction with that, you need to set targets, so you can see how each part of the business is performing against expectations. The type and level of information will differ depending on the type of business, its size and complexity and the markets served; but it’s likely to include data about sales, production and/or service output, productivity, costs, inventories, cash and all other key activities within the business. Some of this data will come through the production of monthly management accounts, some will require your IT systems to be set up to produce it. Some information will be most useful on a monthly basis, some weekly and some daily. When you have this data, you can identify areas of over and under performance, trends in both the right and wrong directions and aberrations that don’t, on the face of it, make sense. Whenever you identify anything that appears to be going in the wrong direction or otherwise out of the ordinary, you dig deeper until you have answers. If necessary you then take remedial action; but its remedial action based on facts not on gut feel or guesswork. You’ll soon find that you’re learning far more about what’s going on in your business than you ever did before.

This management information shouldn’t be treated as just yours and available to no one else. Headline data needs to be available to all your key players and each key player should have more detailed information about their own individual areas of responsibility. You can then meet regularly with your key players, both on a one to one and as a group, to set new objectives, report back on current issues, agree solutions to problems and establish strategies to exploit opportunities. This ensures that everyone is clear about strategies and objectives in general; and clear about their individual responsibilities and how these interface with the responsibilities of their colleagues.

As a result of this, you’ll start to build a real team that co-ordinates effectively, buys in to the core values and direction of the business and works with much greater enthusiasm and commitment. Under performance and lack of integrity then become a much smaller issues; but also much easier to identify because they’re much more difficult to hide.

Small businesses that make this leap are much more likely to grow and prosper than those that don’t. Sadly, many small businesses fail to reach their potential for no other reason than the boss remains a frustrated and stressed micro-manager. Some owners of small businesses do find it incredibly difficult to let go. If you’re one of these and you want to try and change, don’t try and do it on your own. In most industries, there are specialist business consultants, business coaches and mentors that understand this problem only too well and will be able to take you through a difficult learning curve far more quickly and effectively than you would otherwise achieve.

If you’d like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, in more detail, please feel free to contact me.

The Importance of Having Good Management Accounts

In this day and age, most small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) use computerised accounting systems; and suppliers of accounting software, such as Sage, have made the bookkeeping process very straightforward, irrespective of whether your annual sales are £100k or £50m. As a result most SMEs now maintain a reasonable quality of bookkeeping that accurately records their financial transactions. However, many limit the regular use of their accounts systems to the processing and control of sales and purchase invoices, debtors & creditors, wages & salaries, the bank, VAT etc. And this means that they are missing out on one of the most important tools that is available to help them manage their businesses more effectively and more profitably. I’m talking about the production of monthly management accounts.

From the work that I do with SMEs, there seem to be two distinct issues. The first is businesses that don’t produce monthly management accounts at all. The second is businesses that do produce monthly management accounts but structure them in such a way that, at best, they are not particularly helpful and, at worst, are seriously misleading.

Let’s look, firstly, at those businesses that don’t produce monthly management accounts at all. Generally these are at the smaller end of the SME scale. They often don’t see management accounts as a priority; perhaps have some difficulty understanding and interpreting them; and may struggle to produce them. Realistically, if yours is a one person business with no employees and a very small number of transactions, monthly management accounts are probably not going to add much value because they won’t really tell you anything, you don’t already know or can’t work out in five minutes with a calculator or spreadsheet.

However, the business doesn’t have to grow too much, before the number of transactions increases to the point, where you lose track of them. At this point, many businesses then keep a close eye on the bank account and assume that, if there’s cash in it, they’re OK. And that’s the first big mistake because cash is not profit. A business can be making losses, whilst still having a healthy cash flow. It can also be making healthy profits, whilst having a cash flow problem (I’ve written another article about this, which you can access at Cash v Profit). You need a profit and loss account at the end of each month to tell you whether you’re making money or not and you need a balance sheet to show you whether you’re solvent and whether you have a liquidity problem or not.

Your management accounts should give you an accurate picture of where all your costs are and whether your margins are where they need to be. You can monitor where all your cash is tied up (stock, debtors etc.) and whether there is enough in the business to pay your wages and creditors. As the months go by, you begin to identify trends that may be developing; rising or falling costs; deteriorating or improving margins; increases or decreases in stocks, debtors and creditors; improving or deteriorating cash position etc. So you start to identify problems at an early stage and are able to take remedial action before those problems become acute. Similarly, you can see where you’re having increasing success; so you can then start developing strategies to build on that success. Finally, where you have a business plan with a detailed financial budget, you can compare your performance against the budget and take actions to get things back on track, when you’re falling behind plan; or build on your success, when you’re pulling ahead of plan.

Unless you have some form of accounting/bookkeeping experience, you may struggle to produce monthly management accounts yourself. Apart from ensuring that everything has been posted to the correct nominal account, a number of procedures such as stock adjustments, work in progress adjustments, dealing with prepayments and accruals are required. So you’re probably going to need someone to make all of these adjustments and to then produce the profit and loss account, balance sheet and any other reports that you may require. Obviously, some SMEs are big enough to employ a full time or part time bookkeeper and if so, the bookkeeper should be able to undertake all of these tasks. Some larger businesses will have accounts departments with a number of dedicated staff. These are likely to be producing monthly management accounts as a matter of routine. However, if your business is not producing management accounts each month, you’ll need to consider whether it’s possible to produce them, using existing resources or whether you need additional support. If you do need additional support, you may be able to employ a bookkeeper on a part time basis for a few hours a week; or there are many self-employed people and small companies offering bookkeeping services. Either way this doesn’t need to be a hugely expensive commitment and the benefits to your business are likely to be substantial.

The fact that you personally may struggle with accounts and may not have a very good understanding of them, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have management accounts as part of your business processes. They’re just too important to ignore. In these circumstances, just be honest with yourself and your bookkeeper or prospective bookkeeper; admit it’s not your thing and ask your bookkeeper to go through the figures with you, line by line, explaining what each line is and what it’s telling you. You’ll need to invest some time in this; but, if you do, you’ll soon learn; and you’ll quickly discover it’s not rocket science.

I now want to move on to the second problem, I see all too frequently, and that is management accounts that are not appropriately structured and, as a result, don’t provide information that is helpful for the business.

Generally speaking, this problem comes about because the business owner/CEO doesn’t tell the person, responsible for producing the management accounts, what information is actually required. It’s just left to the accountant/bookkeeper, who may well understand the numbers but who, invariably, doesn’t understand the business.

The two most common problems are: –

1. A lack of sufficient breakdown between key business activities and/or product groups.
2. Classifying as overheads, entries that should be shown as direct costs.

Let’s look firstly at the breakdown between business activities or product groups.

If your business has more than one business activity, you need to understand the performance of each one. For example, let’s say you fabricate PVCu windows and doors; but you have two different market channels. The first is selling an installed service to homeowners; and the second is selling, on a supply only basis, to the trade.

Your production costs are likely to be more or less the same irrespective of the channel. However, the cost structures of the two channels are likely to be considerably different, as are the selling prices. Selling an installed service to homeowners is likely to involve sales commissions, advertising, survey costs, sub-contract installation costs, installation material costs and finance/credit card charges. Selling to a trade customer, is likely to involve different sales and advertising costs and may involve delivery or possibly trade counter costs; but it’s unlikely to involve survey and installation costs. Your management accounts need to pick all this up and provide a margin analysis for both market channels. If everything is lumped together, you just don’t know where you’re making money and where you’re not. So how do you know what strategies to apply to each channel? The answer is, “you don’t”!

A similar issue arises between different product groups. Let’s now say that you’re still a PVCu fabricator but all of your sales are based on selling an installed service to homeowners. However, this time you also sell conservatories. Your sales and advertising costs may be similar for both products; but conservatories require a roof, and also involve a significant amount of building works. So the cost structure of supplying and installing a conservatory is entirely different from that of windows and doors. Once again, if you lump these two product groups together, how do you know where you’re making money and where you’re not? And once again, you don’t.

Your accounts must be structured to provide a margin breakdown for all your key product groups and market channels so you have an accurate understanding of the true margin made by each one.

Moat accounting software can handle this type of analysis as a matter of routine; but it does have to be set up correctly to do so; and that’s where the main problem lies.

I’ll now move on to the second problem I encounter, which is all about whether costs are classified as direct costs or as overheads. Direct costs refer to materials, labour and expenses, related to the production or supply of a product or service. Other costs, such as depreciation or administrative expenses, are more difficult to assign to a specific product or service, and are, therefore, considered as overheads.

Many SMEs classify materials and direct labour as direct costs but almost everything else as overheads. And this can be very misleading. Let’s go back to the business selling windows and conservatories on a supply and install basis to the homeowner. Not only does this business have materials and direct labour as direct costs, but it has installation labour and materials, disposal of site debris, survey costs, sales commissions, lead generation/advertising, finance/credit card costs, warranty/guarantee insurance. All of these are directly related to the sale, production and supply of the product and its installation. So all should be classified as direct costs.

If you decide to classify only some of these costs as direct, you’ll end up exaggerating your gross profit, which is normally calculated by deducting your direct costs from your sales revenue. You’ll also overstate your overheads because some of your direct costs will be absorbed as overheads. The consequences of this could be quite profound.

Let’s say that the business is barely profitable and that you have to take action to improve profitability. One way of doing this would be to increase sales; you, therefore, put a sales plan together. You think you’re making some good margins so you decide to offer some additional discounts. You also need to spend some more money on advertising and, of course, extra sales mean extra commissions installation costs etc. Everything seems to hang together and off you go. You’re initially pleased with the increase in sales, but when you run your management accounts, the effect on the bottom line is shown to be marginal. You’ve added some volume but for little or no extra profit. So what’s happened?

The problem is that your accounts have mislead you about your margin. Because you’ve only included materials and direct labour as direct costs, you’ve been duped into believing that you’ve been making healthy margins. However, if you’d included all of the other direct costs as direct costs, you’d have found that your margins were in fact very poor; and, once you’d accounted for the additional discounts you offered, it would have been clear that there wasn’t much left.

If you’d known this at the outset, it would have been very apparent that additional volume wasn’t going to provide a solution. The only effective options open to you were (a) drive down your direct costs as a proportion of your sales, (b) increase your selling prices, or (c) a combination of both.

Let’s now look at another problem that can occur as a result of confusing direct costs and fixed costs. Many businesses seeking to improve their profitability, embark on a cost cutting exercise; but they cut the wrong costs.

If many of your direct costs are treated as overheads and you need to make cuts, staffing, process costs, administration, maintenance & renewals etc. are often the soft options that you go for rather than address the more challenging issue of high costs in sales and marketing, installation etc. However, the outcome of this can be catastrophic because, in reality, you still have a margin problem but you’ve cut the basic infrastructure that would have enabled you to address that margin problem by driving down your direct costs.

In the home improvement sector, which is where I focus most of my time, one of the most common problems I see is SMEs that under resource their processes, controls and administration and, as a result, suffer from direct costs that are out of control. Genuine overheads are relatively easy to control because you can make definitive decisions as to whether you proceed with something and spend the money or whether you don’t. Direct costs are much more difficult because they depend on operational efficiency, effective processes, quality control etc. In many SMEs, total direct costs are much higher than total overheads. So controlling direct costs provides far greater potential to improve the bottom line than controlling overheads. In fact, quite often, an increase in overheads is needed in order to provide the resources that are required to bring direct costs under effective control. In this situation, the bottom line may get worse, for a short time, before it starts to recover to the levels, at which it should be.

Once you have your accounts structured to give you really good information about your direct costs and overheads, you can start making these sorts of decisions with confidence.
Many owners and directors of SMEs find interpreting their management accounts quite challenging; so, if that describes you, don’t think that you’re on your own because you’re not. It’s, therefore, very important to have good accounting and bookkeeping support, the scale and structure of which will depend on the size and complexity of your business. It could range from a part-time bookkeeper or bookkeeping service to a significant sized accounts department. But wherever your business is on that scale, what you can’t do, is just let them get on with it, as they see fit, because they won’t understand your business as well as you do. You need to work with them to get the structure of your management accounts right and to ensure that it provides you with the right information in the right way at the right time. If you invest some time and effort in this, it will repay you handsomely.

If you’d like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, in more detail, please feel free to contact me.

Why You Need a Business Plan & How to Prepare It

Virtually all businesses, within a corporate structure and the majority of larger private businesses, have well-developed business plans that incorporate clearly defined strategic objectives, detailed plans about how those objectives will be achieved and financial projections, including forecasts for sales, profit & loss account, balance sheet and cash flow. None of this guarantees success but it provides a road map, with a clear destination and a properly defined route for the business to follow. These types of businesses usually put considerable time and effort into the preparation of their business plans because they know it significantly improves the likelihood of building and/or maintaining successful market positions, strong balance sheets and sustainable competitive advantage.

By contrast, many small and medium-sized businesses spend very little time thinking through and preparing business plans and, in some cases, they spend none at all. As a result they tend to drift. The business is managed from day-to-day and goes from one year to the next, sometimes moving forward and sometimes going backwards but, in reality, making little or no progress.

Initially, many start-ups can show considerable progress, as they establish their market position but, more often than not, without a business plan as a blue print, they generally reach an early plateau, from which they find it difficult to progress. To be fair, this suits some business owners but, for many, it creates enormous stress, as they are continually living with a very uncertain future and less personal income than they require. And yet, preparing a worthwhile and effective business plan doesn’t have to be a massive project that distracts the business owner away from the action for too long; and actually, standing back for a short time to work on a business plan, almost always proves highly beneficial for the business and can be very therapeutic for the business owner.

So why don’t business owners stand back more? In my experience, the usual reason is that they think “no one else can do what they do” or no one else can do what they do as well as they do it”. So they micromanage everything and get increasingly bogged down and stressed out. In reality, many of the day-to-day activities can be done quicker and more effectively by their staff, if only the business owner would just let go. I’ve developed this theme in another article but, for the time being, let’s assume that the business owner has let go and is now about to work on a new business plan. How does she or he go about it?

The first thing is to look outside the business and see what’s going on in the market. For most small and medium-sized businesses, this doesn’t require a lot of detailed market research, it’s more about using suppliers, customers, competitors, trade organisations, trade publications and, of course, your own staff, who interface with customers. Using all these sources and any others that may also be helpful, try to establish what’s actually happening. Which market sectors and product groups are growing and which are declining? What’s happening with prices across those market sectors and product groups? What are your competitors doing? What quality standards and service levels are the norm? What technological developments are occurring? What legislative and regulatory factors are likely to affect you? In practice you’ll know much of this anyway; so it’s as much about standing back and putting everything into context and creating a balanced and objective picture, as it is about searching for new market data and intelligence.

The next step is to look at your own business and make an honest and objective assessment of how well it interfaces with the market. Are you capitalising on the sectors and products that are in a growth phase? Are you exposed to market sectors and products that are in decline? Are you under-pricing and giving away margin unnecessarily? Are you over-pricing and uncompetitive? How do you shape up against your key competitors? Where do you have competitive advantages over them? And where do they have competitive advantages over you? Are your quality standards and service levels meeting market expectations? Are you investing in appropriate technologies? Are you complying with all appropriate legislative and regulatory requirements? And are you running ahead of your competitors or lagging behind them?

You can now compare your business with the market by undertaking a simple SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). You’ll very quickly see where your business’s strengths and weaknesses lie and you’ll clarify where the threats and opportunities, presented by the market, are likely to be.

Once your SWOT analysis has been completed, you can start to develop your strategy. Generally, you’ll want to build on areas, where you’re already strong. The more difficult decisions are likely to be around strategies for areas of weakness. How are you going to deal with these? Alongside this you’ll need to consider the threats to the business, from wherever they may come and decide how you are going to meet them. Then lastly, you’ll need to look at the opportunities the market is presenting and decide whether you should exploit any of them.

At this stage, you’ll probably have a lot of potential ideas, which collectively will be unaffordable and which, if you tried to implement them all immediately, would simply overwhelm the business. So you need to start establishing priorities and time frames; and as you do that, you’ll create the framework for your business plan, which would probably be built over a three-year period.

With the framework complete, it’s time to run some numbers, which would normally include projections for sales, profit & loss account, balance sheet and cash flow. The first year of the plan, which is your next full financial year, is likely to become the budget for that year. The second and third years will be increasingly aspirational. So this process needs to be undertaken on an annual basis, which means you’re always working with a business plan on a rolling three year basis.

It is highly likely that the first time you run your numbers, the projections will look completely unrealistic; unachievable, unaffordable etc. So you’ll need to adjust and refine; correcting errors; improving the accuracy of some of your assumptions; scaling some things down; scaling other things up; adjusting time frames etc. until you have a realistic and achievable plan. At this stage you’ll have your road map, with a clear destination and a properly defined route for the business to follow. As I stated at the beginning of this article, it won’t guarantee you success, but it will make success a considerably easier and more likely outcome.

If you haven’t been through this type of process before, you’ll probably need some help. If your business is big enough to employ its own management accountant, he/she should be able to run the numbers; if not, you may need to engage your external accountants. But, in a sense the numbers are the easy part. It’s the development of the strategy that leads up to the point where you can run the numbers that is important to get right. And to do that, you need to debate all the ideas, challenge all the assumptions and make sure that the strategic framework is realistic, robust and achievable. For many small and medium-sized businesses this isn’t always easy because it can be difficult for employees to challenge the boss’s ideas and there is no one else to do so. That’s where you need help from an experienced independent industry expert. Some small and medium-sized businesses have a non-executive director; and this is an area where he/she can play a very important role. If you don’t have a non-exec, there are invariably a number of independent business consultants who could be brought in. However, if this is something you are considering, do ensure that the person you select has had senior management experience within your industry and has a good understanding of your type of business and the market, in which it operates.

Once you have your business plan, it should become a key reference point for you and your management team. It should be the yardstick by which you measure performance and there should be regular monthly reviews to see how the business is performing against the plan. In areas where the business is under performing against plan you’ll need to consider what remedial action is required. Where the business is over performing, you’ll need to consider whether and how this can be further exploited.

Once you’ve started to use your business plan in this way, you’ll wonder how you ever managed before. It will provide focus for many of your management decisions; it will provide direction for your managers and staff; and it will help you to build a much more profitable and sustainable business.

If you’d like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, in more detail, please feel free to contact me.

The UK Window Industry: Balance Sheets & Quicksand

Whilst there are some very successful businesses within the UK window industry, unfortunately, too many are seriously challenged due to their weak balance sheets. This may not have mattered so much during the long years of growth and comparative prosperity but, in today’s saturated market, it’s a crippling disease that the industry ignores at it peril.

Let me support this statement with some facts.

The Plimsoll Report analyses the financial performance of the 1,000 largest businesses in the industry. The table below shows some interesting data from their latest report, published in April 2014.Figure 1

Only 368 of the 1,000 largest companies saw their net worth increase during the previous year and 160 saw theirs remain static. So less than 50% actually increased their net worth. The report also shows that the average net profit for this group of businesses, during the last year was 2.3% of sales, which is a very low average indeed and suggests that there are a significant number of serious loss makers, balancing out a few star performers.

The pie chart below shows Plimsoll’s categorisation of these 1,000 businesses in terms of their strength and sustainability. 227 are classified as being “in danger” and another 90 categorised as “caution”.Figure 2

So, although 578 are either strong or good, a very large proportion of these businesses are relatively weak and, as we see from the above table, are either stagnant or declining.

The report also points to increasing polarisation between some highly successful businesses, building on their success and, at the other extreme, a very significant number of businesses in decline, to the extent that, without some form of intervention, they are at an increasing risk of failure.

Remember, we’re talking about the top 1,000 businesses in the industry, which according to Insight Data has around 14,000 businesses active within it. So, if this is the picture painted of the top 1,000, it’s fair to assume that the collective position of the smaller businesses is even worse.

To test this hypothesis, I undertook a small experiment.

From the GGF website I selected 10 businesses that were GGF members. I disregarded the larger names that would have been part of Plimsoll’s top 1,000 and I also disregarded all smaller businesses, of which I had any prior knowledge. So all ten that I selected were completely unknown to me; but to try and provide some regional balance, I ensured that my selection was distributed around the country. Having made my selection – and it’s important to note that I selected the companies, without any prior knowledge of their financial status – I then obtained their latest accounts from Companies House. For all but one company, the accounts were abbreviated, in line with small company rules.

The table below shows, in an anonymised format, some key balance sheet figures for all ten companies.Figure 3

Of the ten, there are two really good businesses (Company A & Company B) with strong or fairly strong fixed asset bases, good liquidity, represented by high net current assets, and significant shareholders’ funds (net assets). What isn’t shown, in the table, is the fact that Company A substantially increased its net worth over the previous year. So here we see two businesses in comparatively strong positions.

By contrast, Company J is balance sheet insolvent, having net liabilities of circa £20k. It’s difficult to tell from abbreviated accounts how the business is able to continue trading. It has net current liabilities of £30k, indicating a significant liquidity problem; and it has minimal fixed assets of £12k. So it’s either hanging on by the skin of its teeth, lurching form crisis to crisis, or it’s being supported by a kindly creditor or shareholder. Realistically, this business needs to embark on a major transformation strategy, which, in the absence of any significant cash, may be very difficult. But without this, the prognosis is unlikely to be very good.

The remaining seven businesses are all solvent, from a balance sheet perspective; but their nets assets (shareholders’ funds) range from virtually nothing to not a great deal; so none of them is in a strong financial position and two of them, Companies G and I, have net current liabilities, suggesting a very tight liquidity issue. Of the seven, only Company G has significant fixed assets; but that’s offset by its net current liabilities.

Based on this analysis, I’ve classified 20% as stars or stronger performers, 40% as chugging along but quite vulnerable, 30% as more seriously challenged and 10% as insolvent. This is a significantly worse position than that shown by Plimsoll for the top 1,000 companies. But if the systems companies and some of the large trade fabricators were to analyse the balance sheets of the companies, making up their customer networks, I have little doubt that they would find a very similar pattern. And this is the nub of the industry’s problem. We have a comparatively small number of larger capital intensive players, at the core, dependent on supply chains that are built on quicksand.

Roughly, 80% of the industry’s output to the final customer is via these small businesses, 80% of which range between vulnerable or insolvent; and that isn’t a foundation for a successful long term future.

So what can we do about it?

In my view we need to consider this very serious challenge on two distinct levels, namely strategic and cultural.

At the strategic level we need to move away from the current laissez-faire supplier-customer relationships, with each level of the supply chain and each business, within the supply chain, doing its own thing, in its own way, and often not very well. And we need to move towards strategic alliances that enable entire supply chains to act in a co-ordinated way, based on common standards, systems and processes and under the umbrella of a single brand.

A homeowner in Newcastle upon Tyne, buying from a fabricator/installer of Systems Company X should receive the same product, quality and service levels as a homeowner in Truro, buying from the Systems Company X fabricator/installer in Cornwall. The processes and systems deployed should be identical throughout; and the total brand experience should be exactly the same, just as it would be if these two customers were buying from a large national brand such as Everest or Anglian.

I’ve waxed lyrical, in previous articles, about the issue of small businesses in our industry having no brand, on which to base their business/marketing strategies. The systems companies and large trade fabricators have commoditised the product to an unprecedented extent; and to an extent that does not exist in other building product or home improvement markets. Other than the 20%, or so, held by the large national brands, most of the market is price driven, with an unrealistic belief that good selling can deliver premium prices in the absence of a brand. Good sales reps can undoubtedly achieve higher prices than poorer sales reps; but there aren’t enough of them; training is a never ending journey because of the high turnover rate, within sales forces; and, in any case, the higher rates that the good reps do achieve are relative to the levels of their own sales forces not to the levels of a premium brand.

It’s no wonder that we have so many unprofitable or marginally profitable small businesses within the industry. On their own, they’re not big enough to develop strong brand positions. They rely on local reputation, which is very difficult when, at best, their product is only purchased, by the end user, a few times in a lifetime. Some do break through to become significant local or regional brands; but these are a small minority and, even then, their own perceptions of their brand strength can sometimes be considerably greater than an independent brand recognition survey would assess them to be. Many of these small businesses are left, by the systems companies and large fabricators, to fend for themselves, often without the management and business skills that they need to run a successful, profitable business.

There can be several different ways of creating more cohesive networks under a single brand; and the precise structure is not the key issue. However, there are four important requirements.

The first is that there is a core organisation, at the heart of the network, that implements and monitors performance standards over the product range, productivity, operational efficiency, quality, systems, process and service levels. This could be a systems company, a large fabricator or some other third party; but all businesses, within the network, must be contractually bound to adhere to those standards.

The second is that each business, within the network, must have real and meaningful business support available to it. This doesn’t just mean marketing support of one sort or another. It means that they need support that will enable them to manage their businesses better, achieve high levels of operational performance, make good profits and build strong balance sheets. Everything from HR to PR; from production to installation; from financial control to administration; from IT to process and systems; from management to organisation structure. Support in all of these areas needs to be available to help the businesses, within the network, build on their strengths and really get to grips with their weaknesses.

The third is that the whole organisation must go to market under a single brand, with co-ordinated advertising, PR and lead generation strategies; albeit tailored to suit local circumstances. This could mean a franchise type arrangement, where the franchisees only use the core brand e.g. McDonalds or Body Shop; or it could be a dual brand with an identifiable independent business selling a branded product range – System X from ABC Windows. Either way, there should be a single, state of the art website, enabling the brand to be properly managed, developed and controlled, rather than many small, often not very good, websites with a wide range of uncoordinated brand messages, giving rise to hopelessly confused brand values.

The fourth is that all this has to be paid for; and each level of the supply chain – systems company, trade fabricator and retailer/installer – must accept their share of the cost. Again, there are many different ways of achieving this; but one thing is for sure, neither the systems companies nor the large trade fabricators can fund it on their own; so it must be a cost to the entire network, but proportional to each layer of the supply chain and to each business within it.

Developing a network with a good, well managed product range, supplied through a group of disciplined businesses, all optimising their operational performance and service levels, will bring significant financial rewards at all levels of the supply chain. And if this happens under a strong brand, the network, as a whole, can determine where it wants to position itself in the market and the price levels appropriate to that position.

This last point is incredibly important. Not every network can be a premium brand, going to market with a premium price. Some will need to be value brands and some will need to be budget brands. The cost structures, within the networks, will need to differ accordingly, as will the brand values that are developed and promoted.

That’s enough about the strategic level. So let’s now consider the cultural challenge.

To achieve the change, from where we are to where we need to be, a significant cultural shift is required.

I’ve talked to many senior people, from within the industry, about the need for the sort of changes that I’ve described. And there seems to be an acknowledgement that the products have been commoditised and that this has given rise to some serious difficulties. There’s also an acknowledgement that, if the industry is going to thrive once again, substantial change is required. But when it comes to the specifics of what that change should be, the barriers often go up and the reasons why things can’t be changed seem to overwhelm the reasons why things can and must be changed. The result, not surprisingly, is inertia and a retreat to comfort levels, which is likely to lead to continued decline.

Somehow, the bigger players must start thinking outside their traditional boxes. So much of our thinking is still influenced by the sales driven philosophies of the 1980s and 90s; but those days are over and the industry needs to move on. The face of retail and direct sales has changed beyond recognition, due to the on-line revolution; and we need to look closely at what happens in other more progressive markets and at the cutting edge of both B2C and B2B developments. There’s so much to learn and we’ve been so slow to learn it. Perhaps we need to bring in more people from more dynamic retail environments; not just to teach us but to lead us and to give us the confidence we seem to lack. One way or another the major players must initiate the changes that the industry needs because it can’t continue to exist on a foundation of quicksand.

But a different culture is not just needed amongst the larger players, it’s needed within many smaller businesses as well. Many of them really must raise their games; and this is something, with which some will struggle to come to terms. But they need to manage their businesses better so they can generate more profit, strengthen their balance sheets and create greater long term sustainability. But without help and support, of the type I’ve described, this is often very difficult for them to achieve; and sometimes impossible. So whilst I’m urging the systems companies and larger fabricators to develop more controlled networks, with far more support for the businesses in their supply chains, the smaller players need to accept that they may need some help and that they will lose some independence, as the price they pay for support from the network, of which they become part. At the moment the supplier/customer relationships, within the various supply chains, are a free for all that are, in practice, damaging many more businesses than they are helping. The network approach is that each business, within the supply chain, is part of and contributing to a larger team. But the strength of the larger team, within the market, is greater than the sum of the strengths of the individual businesses.

If we can start to address these cultural issues, the changes that are needed will start to flow.

On a final note, there are actually some encouraging signs that movements in the right direction are beginning to happen, albeit very slowly.

The US building products giant Masco is now well established in the UK window industry; and, whilst it’s still a bit of a sleeping giant, it’s hard to believe that it won’t want to develop a more dominant position over here. When it does, it will start to put some real pressure on the indigenous industry to change.

Similarly, Internorm, the leading European window brand, seems to be showing some increased interest in the UK market and this may also add to the potential pressure from Masco.

On the home front, Epwin’s recent news that it’s floating on the AIM market and appointing a new Chairman is very interesting. Peter Mottershead was a previous CEO of Anglian and brings some serious retail experience to Epwin. So we could see some interesting developments and perhaps a much greater emphasis on the Swish brand, which although a household brand name, remains only a small part of Epwin’s business. Perhaps it’s another sleeping giant that is starting to stir.

Network Veka is currently by far the most advanced network in the UK window market and has created a very successful organisation focused on first class service levels and operational performance. It’s associate Veka UK, now owns the Halo brand, which was originally designed as, and intended to be, a consumer brand (As the first CEO of Bowater Halo, I wrote the original business plan!). It’s not hard to imagine a “Halo” branded product supplied through Network Veka; that could be very powerful, so who knows.

The Conservatory Outlet is almost the opposite of Network Veka. It’s a fast developing network of independent businesses, all going to market under a single brand, based on a modern, on-line marketing strategy, using a single website. It seems to have some strong legs and, whilst still comparatively small, may be showing the way to some of its larger rivals.

Imagine combining the operational disciplines of a Network Veka type organisation with the brand management and marketing strategy of a Conservatory Outlet type organisation. Eureka! We’re getting there slowly; and someone is going to join the dots up before very long. And when it happens that organisation will be catapulted into a commanding position, within the market, with others being forced to play catch-up.

It will be interesting to see who gets there first. Epwin with Swish? Veka/Network Veka with Halo? The Conservatory Outlet by extending its business model? Or perhaps a current outsider? Polyframe, the Halifax based trade fabricator, has been taking market share very successfully, resulting in controlled and profitable growth. This has involved a number of strategic alliances with other fabricators/retailers; so perhaps its next move could be to extend its business model to incorporate a Conservatory Outlet type brand and marketing strategy. Who knows?

The changes that I’m advocating are starting to happen, albeit in a small way and perhaps without all the dots being joined up yet. But to return to my starting point about weak balance sheets and foundations of quicksand, things need to speed up. At the moment there is still too much resistance to change, a lack of vision, too little mould breaking strategic thinking and not enough energy and resources being applied to shaping the future. If we’re going to create a firm foundation for the future and address this debilitating balance sheet problem, this must change; not tomorrow or sometime/never; but today.

Better Times Ahead

Most economic indicators are now pointing to a recovery.

• The economy is growing
• Manufacturing and services are up
• Unemployment is continuing to fall
• Inflation is below 2%
• Living standards are beginning to recover, albeit slowly

Under these circumstances, business confidence is on the increase. However, over the last few years, small and medium sized businesses have had a tough time.

• Profits have been low
• Balance sheets have weakened
• Cash has been under pressure
• Investment in plant, equipment and infrastructure has been supressed.

So, it’s inevitable that many businesses remain very cautious. Nevertheless, as markets continue to recover, businesses do need to gear up; and being over cautious is likely to lead to lost opportunities and being left behind by your competitors.

So Think About Your Business

• Is your business model working effectively and still relevant to current and future market conditions; or does it need to adapt?
• Is your marketing strategy working; or have you been left behind by the fast moving on-line revolution?
• Are your products/services state of the art; or are they getting tired?
• Are your processes and systems as efficient as they need to be; or are they becoming cumbersome?
• Is your productivity as good as it should be; or are your direct costs too high?
• Are your quality standards under effective control; or are you getting too many complaints?
• Is your organisation structure fit for purpose; or has it become dysfunctional?
• Are you supporting your employees effectively; or are too many underperforming?
• Are your customers happy; or are they drifting to your competitors?

In all honesty, very few businesses can tick all of these boxes. Sadly, some can tick very few, whilst the majority fall somewhere between these two extremes and, therefore, have the opportunity to raise their game.

How Can You Raise Your Game?

As an owner, director or senior manager of a small or medium sized business, the first thing you need to do, is to be honest with yourself about the state of your business; good or bad. Then remember that you don’t necessarily have all the skills and experience needed to address the weaknesses your business might have, or exploit the opportunities that the market might present. Recognising that you aren’t superman or superwoman is a strength in itself.

Next, think about how you can spend more time working “on the business” and less time working “in the business”. That probably means more delegation of responsibilities; and remember that a failure to delegate is often more about your own inclination to micromanage, rather than the lack of competency of the people, to whom you should be delegating.

At this point, you can start to take a more considered view about the strengths and weaknesses that your business has, and you can be more objective about the opportunities and threats that exist. So you can now start to plan. Look at where you want to take the business and assess the resources you’ll need. Compare these with the resources you have. Then consider how, and over what time frame, you can acquire the resources you need but don’t have, as well as offload the resources you have but don’t need. This is all about developing a properly focussed strategy; and, once you have this, you can start to work on a more detailed business plan.

Now back to the point about your own skills and experience. For many owners, directors and senior managers of small and medium sized businesses, strategic planning and change management isn’t familiar territory; and if that is true for you, you have three options.

The first is do nothing, carry on as before and chance that everything will turn out alright in the end. It’s high risk but it might just work.

The second is to go it alone and to try and find your way through. If you do that, you may get there eventually, but the chances are you’ll take some wrong turns, get lost, have to retrace your tracks and end up taking much longer to reach your destination, whilst incurring substantially higher costs on the way.

The third is to hire a guide; a business advisor, familiar with the territory, who can steer you to your destination via the shortest and least costly route. Business advisors cost money; but the right business advisor will cost you a fraction of what it would otherwise cost, by the time you’ve taken several wrong turns en-route.

The changing economic climate means that small and medium sized businesses, which have battened down the hatches for the last few years, can increasingly start to take a more proactive position. But most markets are likely to remain highly competitive; so focused strategies, well developed business plans and ever increasing levels of operational excellence are essential to long term sustainability.

The Challenges for the Window Industry in 2014

It looks as though the UK economy may have grown by as much as 2% in 2013, which is a lot faster than the pundits were forecasting not very long ago. That’s great news but, perhaps even better, the IMF has just upgraded its 2014 growth forecast for the UK to 2.4%. In general the outlook for businesses is now much more encouraging than has been the case for several years. But what does this all mean for the window and conservatory sector?

We need to remember that our problems started long before the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession. The window market, including all its sectors, peaked in around 2004 and the prime driver for its decline, since then, has been saturation in the domestic replacement window sector, which was, and still is, the largest sector by far. The market today is substantially smaller than it was ten years ago; and, even though respected market analysts, like Robert Palmer of Palmer Market Research, are forecasting growth over the next two or three years, for the foreseeable future, the total window market is unlikely to be anywhere near as big as it was in 2004.

Let’s now think about what happens in shrinking markets. Consolidation tends to occur between some of the major players, as they take capacity out of the market. We’ve seen that happen; for example, Epwin Group’s merger with Latium Group; and Veka’s acquisition of Bowater Windows (WHS Halo), the business I started in 1982. The number of companies withdrawing from the market or diversifying into other sectors also tends to increase; and we’ve seen that as well. Sadly there tend to be more company failures; and that has happened too. But perhaps most significant of all, shrinking markets tend to change the structure of supply chains, as businesses become more focused on their core strengths; and I’d like to look at this more closely.

Over the years, the systems companies, as a group, have never created any real brand strength for their products, except within the trade itself. This is quite unusual; and, if you think about other building material and home improvement markets, they are littered with well-known brands. Ideal Standard, Showerlux, Mira, Stelrad, Myson, Poggenpohl and Alno are but a few. Of course a few major players have developed well-known brands; for example Everest, Anglian and Safestyle; but these are the exception. The vast majority of the market is dependent on products originating from the systems companies. As a result, most small and medium sized players are selling commodity products and having to rely, almost entirely, on their own reputations rather than on the brand strength of the products they supply. To the homeowner one plastic window is much the same as another; and this has left most of the systems companies as capital intensive producers of a commodity, from which they make little or no money. Ironically, this has also helped both timber and aluminium products to stage a revival; and some businesses are doing very well, as a result.

At fabricator level we’ve seen some major changes. The number of fabricators has been falling for quite a long time, giving rise to a trend of fewer larger fabricators. Some of these large fabricators have developed very successful strategies, focussed on building market share, as smaller retail fabricators withdraw from fabrication to focus on sales and installation; think of Polyframe. But interestingly, despite market shrinkage, a higher casualty rate and fewer fabricators, the number of businesses involved in the industry hasn’t changed very much. So what we seem to be seeing is polarisation between a relatively small number of major players and many very small businesses, often started up by ex-employees of larger businesses that have either downsized, diversified, withdrawn or failed. This in turn has led to the development of the “one stop” specialist trade counter businesses such as Window Fitters Mate and The Window Store. These businesses are merchanting operations, from which small window installers can buy their frames, glass, trims, fixings, mastics and everything else needed to install windows, doors, conservatories and roofline. So we’re seeing another layer in the supply chain, which now progresses from systems company to fabricator, then to trade counter and finally to installation contractor. Interestingly enough, the market is developing in a similar way to the central heating market, after the central heating boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Something I predicted in an article I wrote for Glass & Glazing magazine back in 2002.

Shrinking markets impact on individual businesses in many different ways; but ultimately, it’s all about market share. Stronger businesses take market share from weaker businesses; so if you’re losing market share in a falling market, you’re hurtling towards the precipice of oblivion, unless you can do something to reverse the trend. Even if you’re gaining market share, your sales can still be falling unless you are gaining market share at a greater rate than the rate, at which the market is shrinking. So what determines whether you gain or lose market share? The answer is whether you can create and maintain sufficient competitive advantage. If you can, you’re winning; if you can’t, you’re not.

Hopefully, the UK window market has now hit the bottom of the cycle and is starting to show some signs of revival. However, we are likely to have a problem of overcapacity for some time, until supply and demand have reached a more sustainable equilibrium. So life is likely to remain tough for many businesses in the industry for a while yet. Achieving and maintaining real competitive advantage is, therefore, all important. So let’s look at what this means.

When we talk about competitive advantage, many people tend to think about things like price, quality, customer service etc. And of course these are all important factors. I like to group all of these together under the heading “Operational Excellence”. Basically it’s all about being better, more efficient and more cost effective than your competitors; and in highly competitive markets, this is essential. However, if we’re honest with one another there are far too many businesses in the window industry, whose level of operational excellence isn’t good. And these businesses need to work hard on addressing this serious weakness, if they are to secure their futures in the tough market conditions that are likely to prevail for the foreseeable future.

However, there are other equally important factors in the creation of competitive advantage and I’d like to mention three of these.

The first is financial strength. Obviously larger corporate businesses have much more financial muscle than SMEs; and this will always be the case. But that’s not really the issue. If a smaller business has a strong balance sheet, relative to its size, it is in a much stronger position than similar sized competitors with weaker balance sheets. It is much easier for it to fund the changes it must make in order to achieve the levels of operational excellence that are required to give it the competitive advantage it needs. But there are far too many businesses in the industry with weak balance sheets. It is, therefore, very important for those businesses to rebuild their balance sheets. To some extent the issues of balance sheets and operational excellence are chicken and egg. You need some financial strength to achieve the level of operational excellence you require; but you need to achieve a reasonable level of operational excellence to build your balance sheet. So some careful and well thought through strategies are needed.

The second is sales and marketing strategy. Whilst there are undoubtedly examples of some really good and highly effective sales and marketing practices within our market, the industry, as a whole, remains in a time warp. We’ve grown up on a diet of untargeted, randomly implemented, in your face, lead generation, accompanied by crude, high pressure selling that focussed on pounding “punters” into submission. It worked, in the past, thanks to almost 35 years of uninterrupted market growth aided and abetted by a lack of both consumer awareness and statutory regulation. But the world has moved on. Our market has been contracting for nearly ten years, our customers are far savvier and statutory regulations are much tighter. Added to all this, the internet has revolutionised retailing and direct sales in a way that we couldn’t have imagined only a few year ago. Today, successful retailers and direct sellers, across a wide spectrum of market sectors, are those that have adapted to and exploited these new conditions.

Marketing today is about getting the right product to the right customer, at the right time, via the right channel, at the right price. It’s about brand building, establishing brand values, brand positioning, delivering the brand promise, accurate targeting and empowering the customer to make his/her own decision in your favour. As an industry we’re light years behind many other retail and direct sales markets. But actually, this presents a huge opportunity for those businesses that are willing and able to embrace change and turn themselves into modern marketing businesses. Despite all the gizmos and widgets we build into our products and get very excited about, in consumer terms, we’re supplying “me-too” commodity products, which are very hard to differentiate. Gaining competitive advantage, at consumer level, through product differentiation is, therefore, nigh on impossible. But gaining competitive advantage by taking a 21st Century approach to marketing is where the future lies for the more switched on businesses in our industry.

The third and final factor is the more general business strategy. Where does your business sit within the current supply chain and is that position sustainable, as the supply chain changes?

We’re seeing fabrication consolidating towards fewer larger fabricators; and many of those larger fabricators are doing very well as a result of this momentum. They’ve probably achieved fairly high levels of operational excellence and may have built up reasonable balance sheets. They’ve also seen power, in the market place, shifting towards them and away from the systems companies. But what happens when the flow of small fabricators, pulling out of fabrication dries up, as it will? Without a brand, these businesses will be faced with the same problem as the systems companies; selling a “me-too” commodity product. So will they make the same mistake that the systems companies made or will they start to develop networks that are based on consumer brands?

We’re seeing the growth of very small installation businesses and the one stop trade counters that supply them. Without any consumer brands, this part of the market is inevitably price driven, particularly as many of these small installation businesses have limited selling skills. Depending on whether some of the larger fabricators do or don’t embrace the brand challenge, this may or may not continue to be the case. Thinking outside of our market, you can buy a top of the range Worcester Bosch boiler via a small plumber/heating contractor and pay a premium for the product, whilst paying a much cheaper installation fee than you’d pay British Gas. So there may be an opportunity here for premium prices for a fabricator brand but installation will still be cheaper for the homeowner than it would be through a larger retail business.

At the other extreme, we still have a few major brands selling at premium prices; Everest and Anglian spring immediately to mind. But the interesting one is Safestyle because they have come in as a comparatively late entrant and have grown to become a major player, ranking alongside Everest and Anglian. They’ve also been very clever with their brand positioning, which differentiates them from their two main rivals. This all indicates that there is still a market for higher priced branded products. But set it alongside the growth of the trade counters and small installation businesses, and it suggests that we’re starting to see a significant degree of polarisation between the large brands and the small installers. In this situation, the middle ground is inevitably being squeezed; and this is precisely what happened in the central heating market after the central heating boom of the 1970s and 1980s.

So if your business is in this middle ground, as many are, what are you going to do? You can either carry on and be pushed gradually into extinction or you can start to develop a strategy that reduces your exposure. That could include many different things. You could look at developing a trade counter business. You could become a specialist in a particular niche – conservatory roofs, composite doors, bi-fold doors, vertical sliders, etc. You could diversify into other materials – timber, aluminium, composites etc. You could diversify into other home improvement products – kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, studies, garage doors, driveways etc. You could combine any of these and many more options besides. You could also develop entirely new business models that are web based. You’ll need to tread carefully and you won’t get everything right first time but the successful players, in the future, will be the ones that address the challenges that a changing market presents.

Summing all this up, it seems to me that we operate in an industry that has, to a large extent, been bypassed by developments in many other markets and that we’re now a long way behind the general level of play. The peaking of the market around 2004, its subsequent decline and the effects of the recession, since 2008, have played havoc with us; albeit some star players have emerged during that period. However, the long term effects of those difficult years and the impact of what is now a mature market means that the industry itself must also mature. Businesses, in general, need to raise their game, combining operational excellence and financial strength with 21st Century marketing and business strategies that are sustainable in a market that is changing beyond all recognition.

Cash v Profit

The UK economy is coming out of recession; that now seems to be the general view of economists, politicians and business. In fact growth in the July to September quarter was 0.8%, which equates to an annual rate of around 3.2% and is the fastest growth rate of all the G7 countries, over the last quarter. Even better is the fact that all sectors of the economy – services, construction and manufacturing – are growing.

This is all great news and let’s be thankful that, at long last, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. However for small and medium sized businesses, it presents some new challenges and I’d like to highlight some of the more significant ones.

The last recession was longer and deeper than any other recession since the Second World War. But it has shown some very different and perhaps unexpected characteristics.

Consider employment and unemployment. The following tables show changes in employment statistics between August 2011 and August 2013. I’ve extracted all of the data from official figures prepared by the Office for National Statistics.

People in Employment

People in Employment

The number of people, aged 16 – 64, who in theory could have been working has risen by 101,000 (0.3%). But the numbers in employment will always be much lower than the total number in the 16 – 64 age group, which includes students, people who have retired early, people of independent means, people who are sick, disabled etc. However, the really significant factor is that the number of people, in employment, has increased by nearly 600,000, which means that many jobs have been created or existing vacancies filled; and there are proportionately fewer people, under the age of 65, who are economically inactive.

Economically Active & Unemployed

Economically Active & Unemployed

My second table shows that the number of people, between the ages of 16 and 64, who are economically active, has increased by 700,000 over the two year period; and yet, the number of people, who are unemployed, has fallen by 90,000. These first two sets of figures seem to disprove the suggestion that the unemployment figures have fallen, due to people being reclassified as economically inactive and in receipt of other benefits. The new jobs do seem to be real and the fall in unemployment does appear to have happened.

Full Time v Part Time Employment

Full Time v Part Time Employment

My third table shows that the number of people, working part time, has gone up by 269,000; so some of the new jobs have been part time. However, the number, working full time, has increased by 519,000. The notion that most of the new jobs are part time is, therefore, a myth. Most of the new jobs are, in fact, full time.

All of this has been happening at a time when public sector jobs have been cut by 437,000. So the private sector has actively created over a million new jobs, most of which are full time. And this has happened, during a recession, which is unprecedented. It also means that the wealth creating part of the economy has increased its capacity, which is now likely to be underutilised. But that, in turn, means the private sector should be able to support significant growth, as the upturn gathers momentum.

However, there is considerable evidence that salaries and wages have fallen and that living standards have been supressed. Furthermore, despite the loss of nearly 450,000 public sector jobs, over the last two years, public sector jobs now command a 6% premium over private sector equivalents, according to the “Policy Exchange” think tank. This all points to many private sector employees having had no pay rises for some considerable time and to people leaving public sector jobs and taking lower paid jobs in the private sector.

Understandably, the political focus is now moving from economic growth and unemployment to the cost of living. In reality, it is quite normal for real wages to continue falling during the early stages of a recovery. But it’s also normal to see pressure building up for wage increases; and realistically, there is likely to be a period of catch-up over the next two or three years. The challenge for business is to ensure that the higher wages that ensue, are paid for through productivity improvements and don’t just inflate costs. However, that should be possible due to the extra private sector jobs and capacity that have been created.

Another factor to consider is that the rate of business insolvencies has been considerably less, during this recession, than during previous recessions. And much of this is due to the banks, which have tended to leave struggling businesses to continue struggling, rather than calling in loans and appointing administrators. But the downside is that there are now a huge number of zombie companies that can barely generate enough cash to service the interest on their debts and keep their creditors at bay. The UK’s largest insolvency practitioner, Begbies Traynor has calculated that there could be as many as 432,000 businesses in this category.

If we now start to join up all the dots, a picture is emerging of a whole raft of businesses, particularly small and medium sized ones, which have weak balance sheets, high wage costs, upward pressure on wages, suppressed profits and cash flow difficulties. Add to this, a lack of investment in infrastructure, IT, R&D, plant & machinery and training and it’s clear that many of these businesses will struggle to invest and grow as the economic recovery gains momentum. Indeed, there is a developing school of thought that, because they will act as a brake on the recovery, it may be preferable to steer many of them towards administration, thereby releasing their employees to work for stronger businesses that can fully exploit the recovery.

I don’t want to get into the political arguments of whether this is right or wrong but I do want to emphasise, to owners of small and medium sized businesses, the importance of developing robust business strategies that take account of these very real challenges. I’ve written a series of articles about many aspects of planning and managing small businesses but, on this occasion, I want to focus on the difference between cash and profit because having a clear understanding of those differences is an essential part of developing a realistic and achievable growth strategy that is able to capitalise on the current recovery.

Depending on your type of business, it is perfectly possible to run a significantly loss making business, whilst generating a substantial cash surplus; at least for a time. It is also perfectly possible to run a profitable business and have a serious cash shortfall. So let’s look at this in more detail.

First of all consider a Business to Consumer (B2C)/retail business. It receives payment for its goods/services at the point of sale. In some cases it may have even taken a deposit prior to the point of sale. So it’s generating its cash very quickly. However, it may be paying its suppliers and employees a month in arrears. The following table is a very simple profit and loss account and cash flow statement for a £1m turnover business doing precisely as I’ve described.

B2C Business £1m Sales

B2C Business £1m Sales

This business has sold goods or services to the value of £1m and has collected all of the cash from those sales during the year; but it has made a loss of £50k because its total costs have exceeded its sales revenue. However because it is paying its suppliers on net monthly terms and its wages a month in arrears, it has only paid for 11/12ths of its costs; so its cash outflow has been less than its total costs. As a result it has generated £37,500 of cash, albeit, it still owes its creditors £87,500.

If the sales and expenditure figures, in the P&L, remain the same in the second year, the cash gain, in the first year, will have been a one off because the business will pay out 11/12ths of its costs for year two plus the final 1/12th for the first year. As result, it will have a net cash outflow equal to its loss i.e. £50k.

But now see what happens if, instead of remaining static in the second year, the business increases its sales by 20%, whilst maintaining its overheads at the previous level.

B2C Business £1.2m Sales

B2C Business £1.2m Sales

It still makes a loss, this time £10k. But it benefits from collecting all £200,000 from the additional sales but only makes payments for 11/12th of the additional cost of sales. As a result it generates £3,333 of cash. So over the two year period, it has made cumulative losses of £60,000, whilst generating £40,833 of cash

If, on the other hand, the business reduces its sales, in the second year, by 10%, whilst still maintaining its overheads at the previous level, a very different picture emerges; and this is shown in the next table: –

B2C Business £900k Sales

B2C Business £900k Sales

Not only do the losses increase due to the lower sales volume, but the cash drain is even greater. Cash in is reduced by £100,000 due to sales also being £100,000 lower, resulting in a loss of £70,000. However, payments related to the cost of sales, drop proportionately less because they include 1/12th of the cost of sales from the previous year, which were 10% higher. So the cash outflow is £76,667 i.e. £6,667 more than the actual loss. Over the two year period, this means that the cumulative losses would have been £120,000 and the net cash out £39,167.

This is a classic problem for many B2C/retail businesses. They embark on a growth strategy funded out of cash flow rather than profit. Providing they don’t let their overheads expand at a faster rate than their sales, they can keep growing and maintain a positive cash flow, often for several years, whilst continuing to generate losses. However, at some point, the crunch inevitably comes. Growth grinds to a halt; sales decline for a period; the cash disappears and bang! the business goes bust. The home improvement market is an example of a sector that has a large graveyard of companies that collapsed in this way; and some of those failures were quite spectacular.

Now let’s consider the reverse problem.

Take our £1m turnover business but, this time, let’s assume it’s trading Business to Business (B2B); that it’s profitable but gives its customers ninety day terms, whilst paying its suppliers in thirty days. The next table shows simple profit & loss and cash flow statements.

B2B Business £1m Sales

B2B Business £1m Sales

Here’s a nice little business making a modest profit of £25,000 but, because it has only collected 9/12th of the cash from its sales and has had to pay out for 11/12th of its costs, it has had a net cash outflow of £143,750, which it has had to fund.

If its P&L was to remain unchanged during its second year, then it would collect £1m of cash from its sales (3/12th coming from the first year’s sales); and it would pay out twelve months’ costs (1/12th from the first year’s costs). It would, therefore, generate £25,000 of cash.

As with our retail business, the second year’s cash flow would match the profit or loss generated, providing sales and costs remained the same. But let’s see what happens to this business if it grows by 20%, whilst holding its overheads at the same level as in year one.

B2B Business £1.2m Sales

B2B Business £1.2m Sales

A sales increase of 20% would result in a profit of £65k (+160%). Cash flow would benefit from collecting three months’ cash from the previous year, as well as nine months from the second year. But cash from three months of the incremental sales, in the second year, would not have been collected by the year end, so the cash generated would only be £41,667.

The cumulative profit for the two years would be £90,000 but the cumulative cash position would show a net cash outflow of £102,083. It would, therefore, take several years of this type of expansion to recoup the initial cash outflow from the first year. And this assumes that overheads could be maintained at year one levels, which may be unrealistic.

Now let’s see what would happen if we go for a 50% increase in sales. In this case we’ll also assume that overheads would increase proportionately.

B2B Business £1.5m Sales

B2B Business £1.5m Sales

The net profit of £37,500 would be higher than in year one but would be suppressed by the additional overheads. But there would have been a net cash outflow of £6,250 because the cash from three months’ worth of incremental sales would not have been collected. So, in this scenario, there would have been two years of cash outflow, totaling £150,000 despite profits of £62,500, during the same period.

For businesses of this type, growth can be quite tricky. It needs to be planned and it needs to be controlled because, even though the business may be profitable, it may not have the working capital it needs to fund the growth it would ideally like to achieve. In a worst case scenario, it could fail due to over trading.

There are, of course, ways of funding the working capital needed to support growth; invoice discounting being one option. But however it is done, it involves a cost, which impacts on both profit and the amount of cash required. So there is a balance to be struck that keeps the costs manageable, the bottom line sufficiently profitable and the level of growth supportable.

For most small and medium sized businesses, the recovery shouldn’t be a signal for a mad dash for growth because rapid growth has its risks. For B2C/retail businesses, the risks tend to revolve around throwing money at growth because the cash is available in the bank. But costs then tend to get out of control, which hits profitability and ultimately leads to a crisis. For B2B businesses the risks tend to be around over trading, the inability to fund growth and the risk of running out of cash, which also ends up in a crisis.

Stronger businesses will obviously want to capitalise on the recovery and should of course do so; but it’s important that their growth strategies are properly planned, resourced and controlled. It’s also vital that funding is in place to support the growth plan and that the incremental sales make a real contribution to the bottom line. Whether you run a B2C or B2B business, both cash and profit need to be properly managed; and focusing on cash at the expense of profit or profit at the expense of cash is a road that invariably leads to a crisis. Get all this right and the business should grow and prosper; get it wrong and the business could be in trouble.

But what about the many zombie companies that now exist? Well, I’m afraid that some harsh truths may need to be faced. The first is that most of them are where they are due to bad management not bad luck. The second is that some of them are probably past the point of no return and just don’t have a viable future. For those that do have a chance of recovery, they really must address the underlying strategic, operational and management deficiencies that are responsible for their current predicament. Only when they’ve done this and can demonstrate a turnaround are they likely to get the support that they need, from suppliers, customers, banks and finance houses, to put in place even a modest growth strategy. But with the right approach and the right help, I’m sure that many of these zombie companies could be brought back to life.