Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Cracks In The Nest

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Attached to my Parents loggia at their country home is a retractable sunshade that provides welcome shade to the outside dining area. This winter, a bluetit created a nest in one end of the sunshade, the giveaway was a few cracked shells lieing on the cobbled stones below. This past weekend’s warm weather created the need to open the sunshade and from the nest flew three small bluetits with their Mother hovering nearby. Unfortunately, the cat spotted one of the chicks later in the afternoon and it didn’t make it back to safety.

A huge number of venture businesses are currently incubated in what appear to be “safe” homes for innovation (corporate accelerator, incubator and venture funds), yet the opposite is true. When the overriding “need” arises to focus on the corporate organisation’s key strategic area (sales growth, capital allocation etc.), many of those early-stage venture will be deemed irrelevant, too weak to survive or fall prey to others. Insurance, financial services and the broader “Internet of Things” businesses are particularly vulnerable, yet most people are looking in the exact opposite direction. No one can predict precisely when that might be but history tells us it will happen. What entrepreneurs would be wise to consider is:

  • Why is this the right home for us today, not when we started? (access to capital, talent, innovation, markets, leadership etc.)
  • What changes (foreseen or unforeseen) in the Corporate organisation’s circumstances (balancing short and long-term profitable growth and their investors’ demands) would dramatically change their opinion?
  • Are our preventative (lines of communication) and contingent measures (Plans B and C) sufficiently robust (speed and quality) to safeguard our firm and its’ investors future should our corporate support end at short notice?

Far too many entrepreneurs are so immersed in building their businesses today, they are overlooking the risks attached to “building a home within a corporate home”, at their peril.

© James Berkeley 2017

 

 

Sleepwalking In Business

Friday, April 28th, 2017

 

My young daughter is going through a period of arriving in our bedroom unannounced in the middle of the night, oblivious to her propensity for sleepwalking or the dangers that lie in her pathway. In almost every high-growth or mid-market business I review for investors, there are instances where the firm is consciously doing things (excessive customer needs analysis), which result in the business “landing” in unfavourable locations (slower client acquisition times), and dramatically increasing the risk for investors (cashflow). Look around your business and ask yourself a simple question, “If it was my money at stake, what would we stop doing tomorrow or do more efficiently?” Then, “why do I not bring this to my direct report and colleagues’ attention?” It is easy to blame others but great businesses are built on high levels of personal accountability at all levels that have zero to do with how much I am paid or my title.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Profit In A False Sense of Security

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

 

I am fascinated by the probable cause when owners, Boards and top management in mid-market businesses (US$10M to US$Bn), “don’t take the money” and shortly thereafter, end up with a failing or failed business. Specifically, when a serious offer is made for growth capital or even an outright sale of the business, and in the next 6-12 months after the refusal, the fortunes of the business partially or totally collapse. Nowhere is this more visible than today’s high growth private tech businesses (the infamous “unicorns”) and in an often overlooked area, service businesses with a powerful owner-operator or managing partner in a partnership structure.

The decision-making factors are consistent throughout. The business has deliberated carefully or taken an opportunistic approach to accepting external capital or key talent. What has varied is the owners’, the Board’s  and/or top management’s judgement, resilience or trust over time. Faced with changing market conditions (regulation, technological and other convergent forces), a key client “win” or “loss”, rising/declining investor or trade interest and so on, there is a discernible change. They consciously ignore other’s prudent advice that they have implicitly trusted in the past (mitigating risk). They increasingly believe that they are “impregnable” in their market position (market hype or vanity investments). They allow common sense to be distorted by inflated but unsubstantiated talk (valuations, growth prospects, barriers to entry, unique technology etc.).

Having worked with six privately-held mid-market businesses over the past 3 years around the globe, who turned down offers and subsequently, experienced very public falls from grace (legal, e-commerce, hotels, gaming, financial services), the underlying “cause” in my experience is ultimately, poor leadership. It is people, not the business that have screwed up.

For my current and prospective clients reading this, who fear my strategic advice comes with a poison in the tail, rest assured I have had a great many more winners than losers!

Yet in the immediate aftermath of a partial or total business failure, there is a rush to assume that the firm’s opportunistic or conservative approach to accepting new capital or talent is the “cause”. That is inaccurate, and here is why. There are a great many successful businesses, who have been consistent in adopting diametrically opposed approaches to accepting external capital or ownership (in insurance, AJ Gallagher vs Hub International, in hotels, Peninsula vs. Fairmont Raffles, or in the premium art business, Christie’s vs Sotheby’s). In just the same way, sticking to niche products, services or geographies or constantly, adopting a diversification approach, is rarely the “cause” of failure.

Take great care in jumping to a conclusion. Profit is to be found, as many smart long-short investors have found, in looking out for a business owner’s, the Board’s and/or top management’s increasing false sense of security, the resulting changes in their behaviour and the positive/negative impact on their business and the competition.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Brexit: Now Britain Quits EU What Is Next

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Four years ago, I contributed to this International Business Times article on Brexit. The impoverished reporter, Moran Zhang, is now a highly paid equity analyst at a Boston asset manager. Life is good.

http://www.ibtimes.com/brexit-if-britain-quits-eu-what-then-1106522

Unlike most forecasters, I am willing to be intellectually honest about my predictions!

#1 I suggested that there was a 70% chance the UK would be still in a reformed European Union. That reform hasn’t discernibly arrived, and from Wednesday, Britain is formally leaving.

#2 I suggested there was a 25% chance the UK would be part of the “outer rings of the European Union”. That will almost certainly be the end-game in some shape or form.

#3 I suggested Brexit would be a process, not an event. There would be no zero cut-off, which is exactly what is happening. The UK will still have commitments after the formal exit date, which it must or wants to keep, for example, security cooperation.

Where Are We Today? A 20% devaluation against the USD, a more attractive export environment, a stock market near all-time highs and near record low interest rates. Signs of inflation increasingly present in the food we buy at the local stores. By almost all measures, we remain in a largely attractive environment for inwards investment, consumer confidence, albeit productivity improvements are slow to feed through and personal debt levels remain high. There remain sharp geographical distinctions. A city state in London that has abundant foreign wealth slushing around, albeit not so much into £10M+ prime residential property but still seeking a home in private equity via funds or increasingly direct investment.  A robust jobs market. In comparison, some of the provincial towns and particularly in Victorian seaside resorts, where prospects for commercial businesses and the local population are less rosy. High streets (or Main Street, as my American friends love to refer to it), is symbolised by abundant charity shops dispersed between closing down sales. Little or no meaningful investment into new economies and new careers. There is a visible political, economic and social divide.

Where Are We Headed? Does anyone really know? Of course not but that doesn’t stop us hazarding a guess. We are in for a minimum 18 months of fraught negotiation, where I think those in the strongest position (Germany) will push the case for a fair settlement with the UK and those in the weakest position, will stubbornly resist (France, Italy, Spain). Politicians will think with logic and act on emotion. Traditional enmities and grievances will be magnified. Leaving is not going to be easy for those remaining in Europe and the UK. Fault lines already visible in the UK, will become more adversarial. We have to learn not to take what others say literally but to take them seriously. That applies to those outside the political bubble, investors, businesses and those directly affected by the political decisions. It is a boom time for patient private capital that can look beyond the immediate volatility.

Life after Brexit for the UK, is also largely dependant on the speed and quality of the trading alternatives. Can the UK create or rather build powerful interfaces with non-EU members to attract abundant sources of capital, people and innovation? Can it manage that process while adhering to the need to control immigration? Probably so. The UK’s future relationship with US, China, India, Canada and so on, has two forks the public (trading agreements) and most importantly, the private sector, the ability of UK SME and mid-market firms, the largest net jobs creators, to open new foreign markets, to attract new sources of capital, to spur new innovation not simply solve existing problems and so forth. The headlines about large global employers shifting jobs are far less significant, yet the media doesn’t portray that story.

The real story is the skills, behaviours and experience each of us has to thrive in that environment. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to push our employers, employees and investors to do about it? What has got us to where we are today, is in all likelihood going to be insufficient in a post-Brexit UK.

My prediction is that in four more years, 2021, there is a 70% chance the UK is in a more prosperous position than we are today. I think there is a 20% chance that we are in a mildly negative position (period of extended sluggish growth). A 5% chance that we are in a disastrously worse position (serious recession, sharp contraction in spending).

I didn’t vote for Brexit but now we are where we are today. Private polling has shown that there is a “silent majority” (former “Remainers” and “Brexiteers”) determined to make a success of their lives. There will of course be the “Victims of Brexit”. Those who will link the decision to leave the EU to their current and future woes, while consciously disregarding their failure to personally reinvest in their own skills, behavioural traits and experience. Those, who absolve themselves from personal accountability for the decisions that are within their control.

Let’s regroup in March 2021!

Adieu.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

A Racing Certainty

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

In a letter to the Editor of the UK’s leading horse racing daily newspaper, Racing Post, James points out that without a “profitable growth” mindset and an investment alternative that reflects it, the industry is accepting certain decline. There is no “plateau”. In this case, The Jockey Club has chosen to sell a profitable business and an iconic racecourse, Kempton Park, for housing development under the smokescreen of further investment in the sport’s “new heritage”. What is really happening is a lack of vision, a lack of bold new ideas and a lack of leadership.  Yet that doesn’t have to be the case, if racing’s rulers want to leave a meaningful legacy.

“Seeking Private Investment” 

170114 Racing Post Ltr1

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Interview With Me: Risks Of International Expansion

Monday, October 17th, 2016

In an interview with ChronicleLive reporter Mark Lane, James explains why the risks of expansion are often overlooked as investors and management jump on the bandwagon of international growth, often with disastrous results.

Export Strategies Can Make or Break An Organisation 

http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/business/business-news/first-steps-ladder-success-international-11970237 

Conviction and Reinvention

Monday, March 7th, 2016

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I have long been fascinated by how people and businesses apply “conviction” (beliefs, investment, action) when there is an immediate requirement for “reinvention”.

In 1999, opposite where I worked on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong was a large commercial real estate company, whose business was fitting out and renting shared service offices. For many years it had a unremarkable name and neon sign over the 1960s building, overnight it added the sobriquet “.com”. Curious I asked a friend who worked in the building what was happening, “Oh the Chinese owner thought because tech is red-hot right now, why not change the name of the company. Don’t worry as tenants we have seen no changes.”

Now you might not be as brazen in convincing your target audience à la Donald Trump and Mitt Romney that your polar opposite views are instantly credible but there is a mindset change needed first to kick start reinvention. Here is 3 simple questions, apply it to any situation you personally or the organisation are experiencing:

  1. What are the beliefs that inform my convictions today about how I and/or the business needs to look in 12 months time? (relationships with clients/investors/ employees/regulators, changing customer base, financial condition, valuable and profitable offerings, discretionary time and so forth)
  2. How do I apply those convictions today to where I/we plan to invest tomorrow? (capital deployment, people, innovation, strategy implementation)
  3. How do I best put today’s convictions into action tomorrow? (priorities, organisational structure, process, exemplars, skills, behaviours, expertise, technologies, accountabilities, rewards system, communication and feedback and so forth)

I can barely think of a sector where the nature of work is not changing dramatically today. With it comes fear (irrelevant, loss of clients or even, unemployed) and opportunity (new investment in new products and services, new markets and new roles).

People believe what they see, not what they hear or feel. If you really want to convince me today that you are serious about reinvention, I want to see immediate changes of attitudes and behaviour amongst influential figures in the business and new, impressive results fast.

If you are willing to be intellectually honest, click on the link below. Ask yourself where do our current attempts sit on the chart and where do they need to be in the future. The distance between the two points is indicative of the small step or giant leap your business and key people need to take.

 

Conviction and Reinvention pv only

Endless needs analysis informing our future strategy (AIG), managers preoccupied for hours creating and talking to the media about our “new culture” (Anthony Jenkins at Barclays) or changes to the plaque over the building door won’t cut it for customers, investors, employees and regulators, however, well intentioned. It isn’t easy but I need to see in your actions that you really believe what you are saying, not merely spouting platitudes to buy time or protect your ego.

© James Berkeley 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Healthy Man Of Europe

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

How are we personally better supported or better off in/out of the EU? In the run upto 23rd June, politicians, business and an array of other interests will seek to explain to us, the electorate. For once, we are witnessing a healthy discussion about Europe’s relevance to the future of one of its’ largest members, the United Kingdom. Politics is working. That is to be applauded and set against short-term uncertainty stirring the financial markets, a price worth paying for.

© James Berkeley 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Inside The Executive Office: Compelling Stories

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

I have spoken to in excess of 750 customers of financial services, insurance and business services advisory and brokerage firms globally over the past 12 months. Hear are the 3 most important questions your clients want to know:

  • Your ability to fix a human problem
  • Your ability to satisfy a human need
  • Your ability to ignite the human spirit

5% of customers report firms providing “absolute clarity/absolute conviction” to all three questions, 55% report firms providing answers that are “opaque/self-doubt” and 40% of responses that are “totally unclear/disingenuous”. If you are an executive in the last two groups (the overwhelming majority), you have a lot of work to do, fast, to change your customer’s perception of your business, your people and the perceived value.

Look at your marketing collaterals, exhibits, media comments, speeches, client and prospect conversations and ask

  1. Internally and externally (clients, business partners, media partners), where can we improve in 1 week?
  2. What needs to change first? (priorities, quick wins)
  3. How will we know we are successful? (what ideally do you want to see, hear and feel)
  4. How can we sustain that level of improvement? (better accountability, enhanced performance, changes to feedback and rewards system)

© James Berkeley 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Behind The First Meeting: The Activist Investor Within

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

I detest the way the debate about activist investors and their motives has descended into a force for good or evil. It is corporate pantomime. A round of boos please after the activist has said their lines. Cheers and name calling after the “innocent” CEO or Board Chair rebuttal. AIG, Sothebys, P&G, Yahoo, and the list goes on. The myth is that the activist investor has an agenda and management and the Board don’t. Sparks fly at the first meeting because that is what the activist wants to see happen. This is rubbish and not supported by hard evidence in many situations. In a lively debate on CFO.com this week, titled, When The Activists Attack  here is a perspective I shared from my first hand experiences with businesses and management brought to book by activist investors:

When the Activists Attack