Be Thankful for What We Have

Several days ago, my wife was sworn in as an U.S. citizen in a ceremony in Chicago. Having dealt with the government bureaucracy throughout, we did not have high hopes for the occasion, but were pleasantly surprised by the ceremony that took place. Along with the 140 other new citizens and several hundred friends and families, we sang the national anthem and recited the pledge of allegiance. We watched a video about immigrants and also a music video with the song, “Proud to be an American”. The new citizens recited the oath to their new country.

For me, the highpoint of the ceremony was when the new citizens came forward to receive their certificate of naturalization. Of course, this is the digital age, so there were several new citizens taking selfie-videos of themselves receiving the certificate.

The person that impressed me the most was a gentleman in his 60’s, who really looked the part of an immigrant; neatly dressed but somewhat grizzled, with the rough hands of one who had done manual labor for many years. When he received his certificate, he held it aloft in both hands as high as he could reach to show it to friends and family across the room, and then began jumping up and down in a dance of sheer joy, a wide smile on his face. This was an important moment in this man’s life!

Of course, bureaucracy was on display that day as well. It took longer to check in the 141 prospective citizens than the actual ceremony. The Bulldog noted several quick changes in process that could have cut the time in less than half, but I kept my peace that day.

Afterwards, my wife told me about a comment that one of the bureaucrats made during the checking in lineup. Seeing the long line waiting to check in, she asked how many were there. When she was told that it was 141, she said, “Wow, why so many? Are they giving something away for free? I want some!” My wife had the right thought, but she did not verbalize at the time. I will now, “Ma’am, you’ve already got it, and you don’t even know!”

What the bureaucrat had was the liberty and blessings of being an American citizen. Unfortunately, at least at that moment, she seemed to have forgotten that fact. Many do, including myself from time to time. The freedom to live as I would like, to be an entrepreneur and build a business that supports my family and my community. The freedom to express myself and my ideas. We often take these things for granted, and often it is immigrants who remind about these freedoms.

To quote Churchill, “”Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (From a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).

 

Do You Appear Too Powerful to Your Employees?

A number of years ago, I did some work for a large service corporation, one with over 10,000 employees. While I was there, I got to know a young person who worked there. This was his first job in a large corporation and he was frustrated. He felt that he could not get along with his manager and that his manager did not like him or treat him fairly. From everything I could see, this person was doing a good job and I did not understand why he felt that way.

I made a recommendation: before doing something that could have a significant and possibly negative effect on his career, I recommended that he sit down and talk to his manager, and tell him how he felt. I suppose that there are those who think that my suggestion was foolish, but I had not seen any sign from the manager that he felt this way about the young person.

The conversation took place, and the result surprised the young person. The manager apologized to him for the misperception. The manager’s remedy was also a great one. Starting the following week the manager and the young person would have breakfast together once a week and they would not discuss business. Rather, they would take time to get to know each other better.

The weekly meetings ensued, and in this case, they worked out very well. The manager and his employee actually became good friends, which they remain today. But even more importantly, the young person was able to use the mentoring he received from the manager to make significant growth that I know helped him enhance his career. The young person also learned an important lesson in management.

What is the lesson in this for us? Not that as a manager you need to be every employee’s best friend, but that you be open to understanding how you come across to other people in ways that you may not even realize. In particular, if you are the owner or head of a small business, you may be perceived by employees as being very powerful and hard to approach, in particular among your junior staff. Be aware of this when you are managing people, and be open to listening to your staff, and it will help you grow a business of loyal employees.

On the Origin of the Bulldog

My mother passed away several weeks ago at the age of 93. I spoke at her funeral, and as I thought about the stories I might tell, I reminded myself that my mother was the original Bulldog. This story illustrates the point quite well.

My mother drove well into her 80’s, and one day she was driving in the town south of where she lived when she was pulled over by a young policeman. It turns out that she had failed to mail in her registration renewal and it had expired. She accepted the ticket from the police officer, and then told him that she would drive straight home without any stops. He said that, unfortunately, she would have to have the car towed.

So, my mother pulled out her auto club card and started to dial to get a tow. This time, the policeman pointed out that she would have to be towed by the company that the town selected, at her expense. They waited together for almost (a silent) hour until the tow truck came. It was a massive tow truck, and this matters because my mother, at her tallest, barely brushed 4’ 11. I digress on this point for a moment. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about Google’s driverless car. Thirty years ago there was a whole group of drivers that were convinced that there was a driverless car already; they had driven behind my mother!

As my mother’s car was hooked up to the tow truck, she said to the police officer, “I can’t get into that truck, the steps are too high!” That was when the officer made his crucial mistake. He picked my mother up like a doll and placed her on the front seat of the tow truck. If looks could kill, I am sure the officer would have been struck dead on the site. My mother and car made their way home, and somehow, the driver helped her descend from the truck.

That was just the start! My mother began calling her friends and telling them what happened, eliciting much sympathy. The storm gathered and by the time it hit, there were articles in the newspaper, and even one of the state’s senators entered in the fray. When the court summons arrived for the violation, she pleaded not guilty, “I am going to tell the judge what he did to me!”

My mother attempted to talk to the chief of police in the town, but he would not take her call. She then began working on the mayor. After she finally spoke to the mayor, he called the chief and suggested that he take my mother’s call. During that conversation, my mother opened up on him with both barrels, forcefully asking the question, “Would you want your mother to be treated like that? Assuming of course, that you had a mother!” The chief assured her that the young officer would be counseled on his mistake. And, in the interest of peace, the ticket was cancelled.

My Uncle Bernie provided the perfect denouement to the affair, “There’s a police officer in that town that is very, very sorry he ever pulled over Ida Callahan.

Worn Down by Your Business? Beat a drum!

I originally wrote this Blog one year ago, after taking a long-needed vacation during which I attended a seminar on the bodhran, a type of drum played with traditional Irish music. Last year, that meant a few days in Milwaukee. Little did I now where that would lead. On the suggestion of my current music teacher, this year I attended a one week international school for the bodhran, held on the island of Inisheer in Ireland’s Aran Islands.

The school, known as Craiceann, hosted 70 bodhran payers from around the world.When 70 drummers get together, different things may happen such the Gathering Concerto, as seen  on YouTube. Also, here is a link to that concert, as seen on Irish television news. The piece will also give you a taste of the Gaelic language.

I am writing this on Sunday morning of the first vacation I have taken in 2 years. There is so much to do that I don’t know how I can take a vacation right now. I am sure that many if not most entrepreneurs and small business owners often feel this way. Yet, if I allow myself to be completely burned out, my business will suffer. So, here is an idea to help you sustain yourself during busy times. Beat a drum!

Well, maybe not literally, although in my case I do mean so. Several years ago I attended a fund-raiser for a friend’s dance company (Chicago Dance Inc., if you are in or near Chicago, it would be well worth it to catch a performance). I bought tickets for a raffle, and won a free class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Being of Irish descent, I have long been interested in Irish and in particular the bodhran, a Celtic drum. I enjoyed the class and took another. After the second class, I decided to try my hand drumming at an Irish music session in a pub, where I met my current teacher, John Williams.

I now spend a half an hour practicing every day and 3 hours on Sundays playing the bodhran at a pub. The physical exertion of playing the drum has helped to reduce my stress levels and be more relaxed. The camaraderie of the other members of the music “session” and our common love of Irish music has given me an outlet for conversation that has nothing to do with business, so that I am able to focus on something completely different. As well, playing music in a session is just plain fun! How many of us small business owners and entrepreneurs ever do something just for fun?

Now, I don’t think that every entrepreneur in the world needs to play a drum, but taking up a hobby of some sort, even for a few minutes a day, will help you increase your energy and clear your mind so that when you return to your business you will do so with new enthusiasm. My Irish mother in law used to have a saying, “A change is as good as a break!”, meaning that it can be just as restful to do something different as to do nothing at all. I highly recommend it.

If by chance, you would like to hear some great Irish music, stop by Tommy Nevins Pub in Evanston, Illinois any Sunday between 3:00 and 6:00 PM. You might even spy the Bulldog beating on a drum!

Effective, Efficient, Repeatable Processes

There are times, when dealing with different situations in business, when I remind myself that patience is a virtue. I ran into one of those times recently, though I will not release any names in order to protect the guilty! In this case, not only is patience a virtue, but the creation and maintenance of effective, efficient, repeatable and most of all, documented processes could have saved a large amount of virtue expended on my part!

Whether your business is large or small, when you reinvent the wheel with every new business opportunity, you are wasting precious resources. Even worse, when process is informal and undocumented, you could be wasting the precious time of a client or a vendor. This is essentially what happened to me. Had I known what was expected of me when interacting with this vendor, we could have been much more efficient. Imagine what might have happened if vendor employees had known what to do as well.

The first quality of a good business process is to be effective. In other words, the process is intended to accomplish something specific and is designed to do so. Forgive the old adage, but if you don’t know where you are going, you are very likely to wind up there! When designing process, always begin with the end in mind, and be certain through testing that the process actually accomplishes what is intended.

The second quality of a good business process is to be efficient. This means that the process should only include only those inputs, outputs and steps that are absolutely necessary to accomplish the end in mind. Many of us have a natural tendency towards complexity and we must resist at all costs. When you are creating business process, ask at each step along the way, “Is this really necessary?”  Think of the other person, be they client or vendor, carrying out the process; will they be muttering under their breath as to why they must perform this action?

The third quality of a good business process is to be repeatable. As mentioned above, the height of inefficiency is to do the same thing a different way every time (or was that insanity?). A process that is repeatable will gradually build up a body of experience that will help to increase efficiency and reduce performance time.

The fourth quality of a good business process is to be documented. What others don’t know they cannot follow! If a process lives only in someone’s mind, then there will be a constant battle to get the process done well. Of course, there are those who would like to preserve their position by keeping control, but that rarely works in the long run.

A final lesson here: a truly agile business will also have a process that handles exceptions to the rule. When an effective, efficient, repeatable and documented process produces an unexpected result, business agility requires that another process be available to handle the exception.

These simple, common sense ideas can keep all of us from expending too much of the virtue of patience!

Kafka Revisited (Or How Not to Give Good Customer service)

Over the last couple of months, I have been dealing with a government agency that will remain unnamed. Over the course of my dealings with the agency, I began to feel like Josef K. the main character of Kafka’s novel, The Trial. Josef K. had been arrested, but all during the legal process, nobody ever told him why, or what was going on.

After each call with a Customer Service Representative of the agency, I, like Josef K., have felt more confused and frustrated than before. Based on this experience, I would like to give you some rules on how not to give good customer service.

  • Give incomplete or misleading information. Never give a customer the complete set of information that they need to know, although it is all right to let them believe that they do have that information at the end of the call. If you are a big company, chances are when they call back they will speak to someone else.
  • Berate the customer. Tell the customer that they should have known that information already. Make them feel that they are stupid for not knowing the information in the first place and should not have called (forget that if all the customers did know already, you might not have a job!).
  • Send the customer in circles. Tell the customer that you are not in the correct department to help. Be sure to send them to a department that cannot help them, and will insist that they call your department back.
  • Keep the customer waiting. Put the customer on hold for long periods of time with awful music and the occasional announcement that “Your call is important to us!” Hang up on the customer from time to time.
  • Don’t call back. When the customer asks for your supervisor, tell them that your supervisor is busy, but will call them back in a few minutes if the customer will leave a name and number. Be sure to lose the name and number immediately after you hang up.
  • Play on the customer’s emotions. Always tell the customer that you understand why they may be upset then do everything you can to aggravate them further.

There is an old saying, “Those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  I would like to make a modification of that saying to, “Those that don’t know literature are doomed to repeat it.” For the last few weeks I have asked each customer service representative at this agency if they had ever heard of Franz Kafka. Not a single one did!

DuPont Analysis: A Practical Example

The previous Blogs in this series introduced you to the DuPont Analysis; this offering will take up a practical example of how a DuPont Analysis can help you understand the state of a business. The subject of the analysis is a small company that manufactures medical devices of different sorts.  This study uses financials from 2011, at which time the company was about a $1.6 million company. To view or download the DuPont pyramid with pertinent numbers go to this  LINK.

I have discovered that people often feel that financial analysis must be quite complex. Well, yes and no. Large companies with complex business structures can be time consuming to analyze. However, in my experience, small business analysis does not need to be complex at all. As a matter of fact, the problems that a small company may be experiencing are not usually very difficult to pinpoint through financial analysis. The example that follows should give you a feel for the relative simplicity of analysis. Of course, if the numbers themselves are off, so will the analysis, but for the sake of example, the numbers presented in this analysis are accurate.

At the top of the pyramid we have a Return on Equity of 25%. In other words, for every $100 of equity invested in the company, there is a return of $25. Now, how are we to interpret that? There are several aspects to consider. If the company was expecting a 15% return, they are doing quite well. On the other hand, if they were expecting 35%, not so well. The previous year Return on Equity was 26%, which gives you one clue, meaning that the current year is down just a bit. However, the current year’s revenues are up by 16%, so there may be something amiss.

In order to understand better we must go deeper into the pyramid. Return on Capital is 23% with leverage at 1.09, meaning that the small load of debt that the company is carrying is actually improving return on equity (23% X 1.09 = 25%). So the problem is not that the company is over leveraged. As we continue down the left hand side, Net Profit Margin at 23%, Operating Profit margin at 30% and Gross Profit Margin at 72% all seem to indicate that the company has cost under control. On the other hand, perhaps the company could boost returns by increasing leverage. Using debt to increase capital for the purpose of increasing investment might be an option.

When we look at the Total Asset Turnover Ratio (also known as Capital Turnover Ratio), we begin to see the tip of an iceberg peaking above the water. The 1.0 indicates that the company is probably not using capital efficiently. At 1.0, the company is turning each dollar of capital over once a year. So, before the company goes looking for increased debt, they must discover why their use of capital is not more efficient.

We can see that Working Capital Turnover is just over 2, which could be an indication of where the rest of the iceberg is hiding. Working Capital is the amount of investment that is used to keep the company operating. It includes inventory, payables and receivables. Another way that this is expressed is in the Cash Cycle, how many days does it take to circulate a dollar in the process of creating a product, collecting that dollar from clients and paying to vendors.

As we can see, in the pyramid, this company’s cash cycle is 613 days long. Of that cycle, inventory is 554 days. This means that  it takes the company 555 days to circulate a dollar in their production and sales process, including both raw materials and parts purchased from vendors, work in process materials that are unfinished products and inventory both on the company’s shelves waiting to go out  or already on a distributor’s shelf waiting to be sold.

The real problem facing the company is that they are tying up capital in their inventory, making it difficult to deploy that capital for other reasons. For example, if their sales were to create a breakthrough, and they required additional manufacturing capacity, it would be difficult to do without taking on additional loans. But, would they want to take on increased debt when their use of that debt is so inefficient.

The real key is how to shorten their production and sales cycle, so as not to tie up large amounts of capital. The solutions could be improved manufacturing methods such as the use of Just in Time, better forecasting the marketplace for demand and paying closer attention to the inventory on distributor’s shelves. The company would do well to fix this problem before it became an even greater challenge, impeding future growth. In addition to fixing the problem, the company needs to monitor the level of both inventory and working capital closely, to guard against future reoccurrence.

As you can see, understanding the way that financial reports give a vision into the state of a company is not all that difficult. Using the tried and true DuPont Method will afford you that vision into the state of your company, and is well worth the time spent to produce the numbers that “don’t lie”!

The DuPont Method: Activity Ratios

In our last Blog entry, we discussed Profitability Ratios, which can show you how well you are doing at making a profit. As a component of the DuPont pyramid, profitability ratios show you how well you are using your capital to generate sales (click here for an image of the pyramid).

The other component of Return on Capital consists of the activity ratios, which measure how well your company is using capital to support operations. It is often said, “It takes money to make money” and the activity ratios illustrate how well your company is using that money to operate. We should mention, first off, that although we use dollars to calculate ratios, often those dollars refer to non-monetary assets, such as equipment, plants and inventory. The dollar amounts may also denote credit and debt, which we will explain a bit later.

The top activity ratio in the DuPont pyramid is total asset turnover ratio. This ratio tells us how many times a business turns a dollar over during the time period studied. Another way to describe this ratio is to say how many times a dollar’s worth of assets creates a dollar’s worth of sales. The ratio is calculated as follows:

Sales
Average Total Assets

Average total assets is determined by dividing the sum of total assets at the beginning of the time period studied with total assets at the end of the period, divided by two. If a company had total average assets of $100,000 and had sales of $200,000, the Total Asset Turnover Ratio would be 2. In other words, each dollar of assets was “turned” 2 times during the time period. The more times that a dollar of assets is turned, the more efficiently you are using your capital.

Fixed Asset Turnover is especially important to those that have large investments in fixed assets such as plants, machines, trucks and other equipment. The Fixed Asset turnover ratio will tell you how well your company is using these assets. It is calculated:

Sales
Average Fixed Assets

If your company has $50,000 in fixed assets and $200,000 in sales, your Fixed Asset ratio would be 4. In other words each dollar of these assets was turned 4 times. The importance of this ratio is not only in how well you use your assets internally, but also in comparison to your competition. If your ratio is 4, and your competition is at 8, then you are much less efficient, and will find it hard to compete. If your competition is that much more efficient, they could lower prices to be more competitive.

The final activity ratio that we will look at is Working Capital Turnover. As you may recall, working capital represents the assets and cash that you need to keep your company operating. In previous Blog entries, I have often explained that a fast-growing company that is not well financed may run of cash and go out of business, despite success at selling a product or service. This ratio is also referred to as the cash cycle, in other words, how long does it take for a dollar to be create a product or service, and then be received back as payment.

Monitoring Working Capital Turnover will help you avoid that pitfall. There are three components to this ratio:

  • Inventory Days: the number of days it would take to sell the inventory that you have on hand at your current sales rate.
  • Receivable Days: the number of days, on average, that it takes you to collect a dollar of receivables. In essence, this ratio lets you know how much “interest free” credit you extend to your clients.
  • Payable Days: The number of days, on average, that you take to pay a dollar of payables, the interest free credit that your vendors extend you.

The ratio is calculated:

Inventory Days X Receivable Days X Payable Days

If for example, your Working Capital ratio was 45, meaning that it takes 45 days to use a dollar to create a product or service (including paying for suppliers) and collect that dollar back in receivables. Many manufacturers and distributors keep too much capital tied up in inventory. Small manufacturers’ that find themselves in a cash crunch need to look at inventory, including Work In Progress, to be sure that they do not have too much on hand.

All businesses need to pay attention to receivables and payables, which are nothing more than credit that businesses extend to each other. Many a small business has gotten in trouble by purchasing goods and services at Net 60 and selling at Net 90. You must keep payables and receivable in balance in order not to have large amounts of cash tied up in this type of “loan” to your customers.

Now that we have covered the basics of a DuPont Analysis, the next Blog posting will be a practical application of a DuPont Analysis.

DuPont Analysis: The Numbers Don’t Lie

Over the years that I have been working with small businesses and entrepreneurs, I have discovered that there is no better way to judge the health of your company than through financial analysis. As the title of this blog states, the numbers don’t lie. A good financial analysis can lead you directly to the source of any problems within your business. Yet, many small business owners and entrepreneurs don’t spend a lot of time on financial analysis, or only do so superficially.

In my experience, one of the best ways to analyze you business’ financials is based on a method developed early in the 20th century, the DuPont Method of ratio analysis. The method was created by F Donaldson Brown, an employee of the DuPont Company, as a way to manage General Motors . The DuPont Method was considered the standard until the 70’s, although I still find it a very useful tool.

The DuPont Method introduces a pyramid of ratios with Return on Equity at the apex (click here to download a file). At each level of the pyramid, the method deconstructs ratios into their constituent parts. For example, Return on Equity is composed of Return on Capital multiplied by Leverage. Return on Capital and Leverage are then decomposed into their constituent parts and so on.

The key highlight on financial ratio analysis is to see how financial operations drive value. Some finance people refer to this model as the value drivers model; others, as the financial levers model. The former see value drivers as the explanation of how an entity makes money and increases its value, hence the term “value driver.” The latter view financial ratio analysis as the method for identifying the triggers of financial results, hence the term “financial levers.”

There are three different types of ratios within a DuPont analysis: profitability ratios, activity ratios and solvency ratios. Profitability ratios analyze whether or not you are making money, and why. The question why is the most important part of that inquiry. Many are the occasions when an entrepreneur or small business owner will say to me, “According to my Profit and Loss statement, I am making money. Why is my bank account empty?” Profitability ratios will help to answer that question.

Activity ratios will help you understand how efficiently your business is operating. For example, if your business turns over its capital 3 times a year, but your competition does so 5 times a year, you could be at a competitive disadvantage. In other words you will find it harder to compete because the competition used its capital more efficiently.

Finally, solvency ratios will tell you whether or not you have the financial wherewithal to stay in business. There are many businesses that are the victim of their own success. A business that has a great product or service that others want to buy may expand so rapidly that they don’t have the capital resources (money) to keep up with the expansion. Solvency ratios will help you understand where you are in terms of capital resources and how fast you can grow.

So, tune in for the next three weeks as we take on the DuPont Method.

i Project Management Accounting, Callahan, Stetz & Brooks, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken New Jersey, 2007
ii Ibid.

It’s Cash That Counts

Next week I will begin a series about a financial anlysis tool known as the Dupont Analysis. To set the foundation, I am repeating this Blog about cashflow, because it introduces the capital blance sheet, which is integral to a Dupont Analysis.

I was working with an entrepreneur in startup mode, and was once again reminded of the difference between profits and cash. Particularly in startups, but also in more mature companies that achieve a breakthrough of some sort, mistaking profits reported on an income and expense statement with cash in the bank could be a crucial error. How do people make this mistake?

They do so by not taking into account the timing of cash flows. Remember, an income and expense sheet is reporting sales and expenses as they are booked for accounting reasons, but the cash flows that accompany the sales often do not happen at the same time.

For example, unless they are in retail, most companies do work on a credit basis (when retail accepts a credit card payment, they deposit slips like cash, so there is no extended term). You may not think about that way, but terms like Net 30 or Net 60 are nothing more than extending credit to your clients. In other words, your company is financing your customers’ purchases. The longer that it takes to be paid by your customer, the larger the debt that you finance.

Every company has a cash cycle, and depending on the business that you are in, there are more or less components to that cash cycle. Let’s take a company that distributes materials to other businesses. Here is a view of their cash cycle:

1. Purchase materials on credit terms (Net 30, 60, etc.) from suppliers
2. Hold in inventory
3.Repackage and sell to customers on credit terms (Net, 30, 60, etc)
4. Paid by customers
5. Pay suppliers

Now, this is a simplified cash cycle, but you get the idea. Obviously, if your customers are slow to pay you and you must pay your suppliers, you could be in for a shortfall of cash. Actually, one of the greatest risks to a startup or small company that is trying to grow is running out of cash while the business is expanding quickly. We should also note that there are other expenses (salaries, benefits, office space or utilities) that must be paid even if your customers are not quick paying you.

That brings us to the concept of Working Capital. Working Capital is the amount of cash that your company needs to have available in order to keep the cash cycle going or better put, to keep the company going. Working Capital is usually tracked in a type of spreadsheet known as a Capital Balance Sheet (which is a bit different than a Balance Sheet).

In a regular balance sheet, capital is kept above and debt below. In a capital balance sheet, a certain portion of debt is brought above. Here is the outline of a how to calculate Working Capital in a simple capital balance sheet:

Receivables (what your customers owe you)
+ Inventory
+ Current Assets
– Payables (what you owe your suppliers)
= Working Capital

Working capital represents the cash that a company needs to keep on hand to operate with receivables, inventory and payables. Receivables represent the cash that you have invested in materials and financing your clients. Payables are what your suppliers have invested in your company.

If the company sells $10,000 worth of materials in a month, 50% at Net 30 and 50% at Net 60, it means that they will not collect any cash for at least 30 days (if the customer pays on time!), and some of it not for 60. Even so, after expenses they might show a net profit of $1,500. There’s the rub, the net profit is not cash in the bank! If the company has bills to pay this month (or salaries) they must use the cash flow from previous sales to pay.

A startup company, in particular, will have problems if as they grow they do not have adequate cash in the bank to pay for expenses while waiting for cash to flow from sales. Often, a portion of the original investment capital in a new company is put aside for Working Capital; other means of having working capital at the ready could include a line of credit.

This is precisely what is meant by being adequately capitalized. Working with investors, bankers and others, the company’s executives must ensure that they have the cash in the bank to operate or they will literally be “out of business”!