Posts Tagged ‘management’

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.

 

Hot Airbnb

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

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A rocket-propelled growth trajectory creates a “siren call” to investors and garners predictable and less predictable media comment. Executives ride the bandwagon of super valuations (fame, inflated bonuses, celebrity) but all too often the focus on dramatic market expansion and top line growth outpaces risk mitigation initiatives (the boring stuff). Heat melts the shell of the rocket on re-entry and the business becomes highly vulnerable.

This past week, Airbnb came in to sharp focus with me. (1) A European CEO of a “bricks and mortar” global serviced apartment business pointing out that Airbnb is flagrantly allowing its’ hosts in many key European gateway cities to run full-time hospitality businesses (83,000 room listings in Paris) and (2) Personally experiencing their underwhelming response to a cyber hack on my own Airbnb account.

My observation is Airbnb are playing too fast and too loose. They are tripping up on common sense responses to foreseen risks (cyber hacks, hosts flouting local trading rules), not just unforeseen risks. I don’t believe they are alone, there are hundreds of “celebrity” high growth businesses, whose risk mitigation strategies are being lapped by their growth plans.

I am all for disruptive businesses helping raise the levels of customer service. That is capitalism. No business or industry has a “right” to survive. What isn’t acceptable is when a business is acquiescent or adopts approaches (cyber hack) that are so inadequate that trust and integrity is destroyed. Are management asleep while cyber thieves roam freely in their booking system, setting up fake bookings, lifting credit card information, conversing brazenly with hosts and potentially putting “hosts” in physical harm’s way with bogus guests? Are their customers solely responsible for alerting Airbnb to breaches and mitigating the immediate risks (financial theft, loss of personal data, potential physical harm to hosts)? Should  this matter to investors?

Yes, if you are an investor for whom reputational risk is equally as important as financial risk.

There are plenty of disruptive businesses (Ryanair), where executives have assailed their competitors, regulators and their customers for years while the growth trajectory dramatically outpaces the risk mitigation strategies.

The difficulty arises when growth slows, investors ask “why”?

Businesses aren’t in existence to be liked, they are in business to be respected. If you don’t believe that look at Apple, GE, Singapore Airlines and Virgin. When respect is destroyed by leaders failing to prioritise managing risk effectively, customers, shareholders, employees and business partners walk. No one individual or brand is insulated from that certainty.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

FOG

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

 

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Time and again, particularly in growth businesses, I see leaders proudly trumpeting their unplanned but hugely gratifying successes that they have achieved. When I ask about what decisions they will make today about planned future growth, their default is to say that we are in “pause mode”, and recall past stories of investing too early in entirely different businesses, at entirely different stages of growth. “I know it sounds silly, we know that we need to invest first and then enjoy the returns but we are not in that mindset, at present.”

The effects are the “stop-start” impact of growth on the top and bottom line. Sales pipelines that are at one moment overflowing and another running dry, revenues that have a strong couple of quarters followed by leaner quarters and increased volatility in profits. The volatility creates a sense of unease in management’s own thinking and often investor unease in management’s ability to achieve their projected profitable growth targets, as originally agreed. Confidence is a fragile vase, once shattered hard to put back again.

We all know that we must grow our businesses but coming to terms with the consequences of growth is seismic for some entrepreneurs and executives. From an investor’s perspective, management’s fear of growth (“FOG“), is as debilitating a condition for an organisation’s future as the actual consequences of the growth investments made. The consequences of investing too late or not at all, are rarely even considered after the event by management (the great business development hire you never made, the business you could have acquired, the market opportunity you could have secured and so on).

Understanding what are the causes of “FOG”, are fundamental to growing a thriving business. Why is it that management are unable to take prudent risk? Why cannot they put in place appropriate preventative and contingent actions? Why have they stopped trusting their own judgement?

The answers give you a more profound understanding of the management team, the beliefs that govern their actions and the results that in all probability will arise for investors.

There are, of course, rational consolidation moments in periods of high growth, to ensure growth is manageable and healthy or when there are dramatic macro environmental changes taking place in a designated market. What I am suggesting entrepreneurs and executives think about is the irrational moments, management’s self-inflicted fear of growth and the consequences for their key constituents. Are they afraid of the dark or the “monsters” that may appear in the dark?

© James Berkeley 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Avoiding The Regulatory Tailspin

Friday, July 29th, 2016

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Countless businesses today are being thrown miles off course in accomplishing their profitable growth goals (banks, financial services, insurance, gaming, healthcare, energy and so forth) largely because of their own inadequacies. They are like the pilot who hits turbulence at 30,000 feet, loses their bearings and temporarily or permanently is sent into a tailspin. If you are going to fly, you accept there is a high probability of turbulence. If you are providing essential products, services and relationships in society today, expect to be held to account for your standards and behaviour. Stop moaning.

Leaders have two options: embrace or resist regulation. Then adjust the speed, direction and ascent of the profitable growth plans to accommodate the proposed changes. Here is what sets apart my very best clients:

  1. Positive Regulatory Mindset. Business leaders, who maintain a perspective that says “there are abundant opportunities in front of us, we didn’t wish the regulation but we will learn to live with it”, empirical evidence suggests dramatically outperform others. Change is a constant and our futures are about embracing change (biotech, pharma). Contrast this with those business leaders, who only see fear, limited opportunities on the horizon, vent loudly at the negative consequences and create Domesday predictions (airlines, agriculture, bookmakers). Change is a threat to their cosy status quo and they do their level best to resist it until such that they wearily accept it or fold their cards.
  2. Impressive Regulatory Engagement. Seek to be on the front foot with regulators, actively maintain a presence in the regulatory dialogue within the industry, take positions on regulatory boards and consumer watchdogs.
  3. Superb Regulatory Antennae. Most regulation is reactive to events, changes in consumer perception, media perception and political perceptions. Rarely can you accurately predict the timing but you can sense the shifting of opinions and the force fields (changes in critical factors ‘+’, ‘-‘ or ‘neutral’) that create the momentum for change.
  4. Rapidly Mine Regulatory Motives. Behind every regulation lies an emotional imperative. Understand why a powerful voice(s) at the regulator or consumer body discernibly sees their self-interests best served in implementing the new policies and procedures, in the proposed time frame and manner (increased power, greater influence, greater control, greater political influence, greater credibility and so forth).
  5. Quantify Regulatory Value. “Value” in the form of tangible, intangible and peripheral benefits that arise from regulation (although sometimes they may be hard to discern) and the investment required to enact it. Tangible benefits over a defined time period (clawing back funds over trading or market abuse scandals). Intangible benefits and the breadth of scope (bankers behavioural changes and sweeping industrywide cultural changes to treating their customers fairly). Peripheral benefits (structural market changes such as the Dodd Frank Financial Regulatory Reform Bill and the impact on proprietary trading businesses in investment banks). Lawmakers and regulators are typically prudent risk takers, smart business leaders are keenly attuned to how they weigh up the risks and rewards (personal and professional) and act.
  6. Anticipate Regulatory Opportunity. Outstanding businesses have a regulatory radar system (Corporate Affairs) embedded into the upper and mid-level line management tiers that excels at alerting them to: Why there is a need for regulation? (public sentiment) Why now? (window of opportunity) Why on the basis proposed? (tried and failed with other legislative tools)
  7. Acute Sense of Regulatory Timing. Can you identify the priority that is driving the need to enact the regulation (political fall out, media outcry, changes in public opinion etc)? Timing is about regulators and lawmakers priorities. Stuff gets done because they need to be seen to be doing something (seriousness, urgency and gravity behind the issue). Inevitably, it is almost overpowering, ill-conceived and often off target but that is not the point. Lawmakers and regulators can show they acted. Don’t blame us.

Large or small businesses, the dynamics are largely the same but the consequences are often dramatically different. How many of these skills, traits and expertise do you Managers possess today? What do your profitable growth plans demand that you possess in future in order arrive safely at your desired destination? How do you best upgrade your regulatory response toolkit and when?

© James Berkeley 2016. All Rights Reserved.