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”!