It’s a rocky road for employers these days – one day it’s a COVID19 alert level change and the next we’re dealing with an earthquake. Much support has been given to employers to help them through these times but have employees been properly supported by all the processes and systems we’ve seen launched since COVID19 first made its presence felt?
A couple of weeks ago the national alerts sounded following the earthquakes – particularly the big one in the Kermadecs – and many employees were sent home. The question is, were they sent home with or without pay? What were their expectations of their employer in that particular emergency? Did they expect to be paid for the day even though it was unlikely they would return to work until the emergency had passed? It’s hard for businesses to bear that cost in the current COVID climate yet, if employees don’t know what to expect from their companies when emergencies occur, how will that affect their relationship with the business? As we know, one of the many COVID fall-outs is the lack of skilled staff – so will poor communication or unclear policies lead to staff losses?
All these questions take us back to the topics of contingency planning and internal communication. In between emergencies – which seem to come thick and fast – it is worth taking some time to work out how your business is going to manage employee expectations. As businesses grow, it can be hard to maintain good internal communications but it should always be a priority. Strong businesses are strong from the inside out. Internal communication that helps employees understand emergency processes – from where to head when an alarm goes off to expectations around pay, sick leave and holidays – is essential for a business to thrive.
All businesses – large or small – should communicate constantly with their staff. That way when the unexpected does happen, what comes next is no surprise. Physically, when the tsunami warning sounds, we all want to be high and dry but nobody wants to be left high and dry financially. Forward planning, understanding your cash flow – getting inside the numbers – building reserves where you can, all help you, as a business owner, survive the storms and make sure your employees are sheltered when the going gets rough.
New Zealand’s small businesses are known for their ‘family feel’ and the majority of business owners create a work whanau where trust and respect flourish. This is often the result of good internal communication backed by great business planning on the part of the owner. If you are a young business, a growing business or even a larger business that may have lost touch with its employees and their expectations, the advice would be take a moment and sort out your policies today then let people know what to expect and when. Being prepared for the next emergency and knowing how you are going to manage the situation is all part of our new reality where the unexpected is the norm.
All successful businesses want to grow. However, rapid growth can be a mixed blessing, and unbridled growth can quickly become a burden with bottlenecks and organisational issues flaring – so how do you manage a business boom?
Growth brings new challenges across all areas of your business from staff to systems, to quality control, customer service, fixed costs, labour productivity, and to cash being absorbed by working capital.
Overtrading is a common cause of receivership after a recession as working capital is depleted –and fast growth means businesses simply run out of cash. Construction companies commonly fail because they take on too much work, are spread too thinly, leading to quality defects, weak project management and timetables slipping behind. Performance and liquidated damages claims soon follow.
Hence one of the most common outcomes if you are growing fast is the need to refinance with your bank, to provide facility headroom and liquidity to support your growth, as for many small businesses attracting new equity is not a viable or quick alternative.
While most companies plan and strive for growth, not all are adequately prepared to manage it when it happens unexpectedly and hastily. Fortunately, there are things you can do before you find yourself swimming in more business than you had ever anticipated.
Firstly, be certain that your company is not undergoing seasonal or one-time-only growth – in our volatile COVID world, expect the unexpected as a downturn or new lockdown could happen anytime.
Some questions to ask include:-
Do I have the necessary capital (equity and term debt) to finance my growth?
Do I have surplus assets that I could turn into cash if need be? This may extend to securing or re-mortgaging your house.
Am I expanding too quickly? Is it profitable gross margin business or is it growth for growth’s sake?
Am I hiring too fast? Have I got the right people on the bus, and is our labour productivity being maintained?
Am I collecting my receivables fast enough?
Is my inventory and stock turn in line with my growth?
Is my production line efficient? Are my input costs competitive, and is our supply chain secure?
Is our quality control and customer service falling?
Are our fixed costs or chassis right to run the engine?
Lastly, does my management team have the right competencies to handle our company’s growth? Where are our holes and blind spots?
The purpose of these questions is to diagnose potential weaknesses, where the cash is going or leaking and to gain more control over the key aspects of your business that impact cashflow.
A source and application of funds on your balance sheet can quickly tell you where the cash has gone – or is going – and profitability trend analysis is a vital component of your financial analysis. Trend is your friend. Display your income statement in four different ways,
• $ for multiple periods / rolling twelve months • Averages over the last four or five periods • Common size expenses as a % of sales • Dollars/unit e.g. in a restaurant $/customer or $/table or in a food business $/kg.
Common sizing quickly spots expenses that have changed – and highlights questions to be asked, the main question being why the change?
Understand your breakeven position and current headroom. Explore a range of scenarios that forecast your cashflow and future cash requirements when you hit targets, fall well short or knock everything out of the park.
Knowing this, you can look at your current financial situation and assess if you can make improvements. You may be able to get additional financing for working capital, restructure your debt or convert unused assets into cash.
Carefully consider how each situation would impact your business numbers in terms of employees, costs, resources, and so on. Knowing your threshold before a jump in growth occurs will enable you to recognise early on when you’re reaching capacity and allow you to react with agility because you already have a plan in place.
Invest in a well-built simple financial model that can provide these answers quickly. You’ll be thankful you’ve done it should your business suddenly take off.
Demonstrating strong management of receivables, stock, and payables plus control of overhead costs is key to gaining a bank’s confidence in your management team. Be particularly careful about maintaining cost controls during growth spurts where businesses often go on a spending binge.
Communicate early with your bank. Banks hate vacuums, and too many customers leave it too late to address refinancing needs. Understand banks like to be repaid and high growth companies usually need more debt support and are therefore regarded as risky.
You can also look for alternatives to conventional debt financing. For example, you may be able to negotiate better payment schedules with suppliers, or look at leasing vs. buying assets or asset financing for vehicles or plant, or maybe you can consolidate a number of loans to simplify things.
The key is to get the refinancing you need. Longer term debt with reduced monthly payments can be achieved by spreading your payments over a longer period.
After analysing your company, you will be better able to examine your ability to repay debt. A refinancing application is very similar to a normal financing application. In both cases, the lender establishes certain debt repayment conditions, which you must be able to fulfil. If you cannot demonstrate your repayment ability, the lender will not assume the risk alone.
New legal requirements imposed on Banks mean they require comprehensive business plans, strategy, and a credit story supported by both historic and forecast financial scenarios. This takes time and expertise to prepare. If it is not in your management team’s skillset – get independent advice.
In all cases you need to demonstrate:- • Your management are competent and experienced • The key risks are managed and mitigated • That you have sufficient working capital and equity in the business • That you can clearly demonstrate your ability to repay the loan/s
In conclusion, extreme growth is a good problem to have so long as you’re prepared for it. Combined with simple management strategies such as benchmarking stress points, empowering employees, optimising efficiency, and leveraging technology to create scale will put you in a strong position when your company finds itself on a hot streak.
It’s a horrible feeling. That sudden realisation that the wrong fuel has gone into the car. I’ve done it myself – in fact, I did it the other day. I made the fatal mistake of putting petrol in my diesel vehicle, but fortunately I realised what I had done before starting the engine. From what I understand it is not an uncommon mistake, particularly for those that regularly swap between diesel and petrol cars.
After several phone calls I realised that the only thing I could do was to engage a ‘fuel removal specialist’. Although I had a busy day in front of me I had no choice but to wait for two hours at the filling station for the expert to arrive so he could suck the petrol out of the tank and thus avoid serious damage to my engine. Not only did this cost two hours of my time, it cost $275.00 for the service. A costly experience, but a small cost in comparison to what I would have had to pay for engine repairs, had I started my engine.
On reflection, there are two reasons why this incident happened; I was rushing and I wasn’t truly present in the moment.
Relating this experience to business, how often do employers make a rash decision because they are rushing and not present in the moment? Maybe they make a poor hiring decision and promote the ‘not quite suitable’ person from within the company, or employ an external candidate even when their gut feeling says they shouldn’t – but they do so anyway because it seems the easiest option and they just want to get it done.
I have made this mistake too and it is one that I always regretted. Like the fuel scenario, hiring the wrong person can be detrimental to business – much like putting petrol in a diesel engine. Not only can this lead to a financial cost to the business, it can also undermine the culture within the team. In this example, your investment in an effective recruitment process to ensure you have the right people on board will pay significant dividends over time and will more than compensate for the time and effort you put in.
We live in a busy, sometimes chaotic world, so we need to raise our awareness around this propensity to rush. Rushing affects our ability to be present, it increases our stress levels, it can lead to mistakes and it can inhibit our ability to make effective business decisions. So take your time – and don’t ruin your business engine.
As we marvel at the speed and agility of the four America’s Cup teams on Auckland’s harbour this weekend, it is interesting to reflect on how they got there and how they continuously innovate and improve.
To innovate you need an open and collaborative process and sometimes, businesses of all types rest on their laurels and forget the creativity and passion that got them started. Many years ago, Edward De Bono developed the Six Hats thinking process to encourage productive discussion and innovation in organisations, rather than blame or arguments. The Thinking Hats take away ‘right and wrong’ and encourage people working in a team to take different views.
First is the ‘Blue Hat’ that facilitates or conducts the process and keeps the team on track.
The ‘White Hat’ analyses – for example, it produces the engineering data which helps the high performance teams work out how to get the boats to go faster.
The ‘Green Hat’ is the creative hat full of alternative ideas – who else would have thought of leg-powered bicycle grinders on our boat in Bermuda?
The ‘Yellow Hat’ is the sunshine – full of optimism, it looks for benefits. In our Bermuda bicycle example leg muscles are larger than arms. This gave the AC50 grinders more power to supply the hydraulic systems which raise and lower the foils and pull in the huge wingsail.
The ‘Red Hat’ is the intuition hat, driven by emotion. “My gut feeling is this will or will not work.” Intuition is often built on complex judgement based on years of experience and may be an art rather than a science. Boatbuilding is an art and it is worth reflecting that, in business, restructuring often fails because the human element, the emotion, is not properly taken into account.
The ‘Black Hat’ is the caution or critical judgement hat. Engineers try to make sure the loads on these boats are safe. Get it wrong and death is a real possibility. However, imposing too much health and safety too early can kill creativity.
The boats we see in January and February will be very different to those we see this weekend. The ‘Blue Hat’ will oversee continuously trialing and optimisation on the water – proof that innovation is a continuous process.
As a small business owner, you’ll be wearing many hats – De Bono’s colourful collection and the Captain’s Hat too, as you steer your enterprise through the choppy waters of 2020 and beyond. A start up business is often born from a Green Hat creative idea, or from an optimistic Yellow Hat applying someone else’s crazy thinking. Bridging the ‘valley of death’ and not running out of cash in a start-up requires a big Blue Hat to navigate uncharted territory. Often it takes many years – and continuous innovation – to get your business model right.
I am currently working with a customer whose Black Hat thinking began an innovation process, building an automated system that manages lead generation and marketing through to sales, operations, accounting and pricing. Any information technology system implementation requires all the hats to get it to work, and because of the new automation his net profit margins are now much higher than his competitors.
As your business matures, it is easy to become stale – competitors whittle away your super profits and you continue to cut overheads. If you look at breweries, beer is in decline, and they have had to develop or acquire new categories to achieve growth or sustain profits. Innovation and creativity is the lifeblood of your business and is underpinned by your passion for what you do. Keeping your creativity alive is essential, as is innovation because, if you stop innovating or let your creativity stagnate, you can end up like Kodak.
Kodak was so blinded by its success in selling film it completely overlooked the disruptive potential of the digital camera invented by Steve Sasson, one of its engineers, in 1975. However, the real disruption occurred when cameras merged with phones and people shifted from printing pictures to posting them on social media. Kodak missed the trend and had to deal with the resulting consequences.
So remember as you watch the boats fly through the harbour this weekend, every captain must innovate, be prepared to change course and adapt – or run the risk of losing the race.
Skilled workers are getting harder to find – as our Spring Pulse Check revealed. The big question is how do you keep your employees happy and engaged so they’re not tempted to head somewhere new?
In pre-COVID times a pay rise might have been just the thing to keep them onboard but as times get tougher that may not be feasible. How do we tackle this tricky topic in these difficult days?
Pay and conditions are top of the list for many employees but in today’s world people look for more from their employer including the opportunity for personal and professional growth. Excellent internal communication is vital to ensure your employees know what is going on and that they feel listened to and understood. Small businesses frequently report that their staff are like family but sometimes, as can happen in any family, people don’t talk to each other enough and problems arise.
All businesses – small or large – must remember that while employee engagement is important, the employee experience is now a critical consideration. The employee experience has a number of different aspects, internal communications being one, with the others including training and development, recognition of their work, how change is managed, flexibility and a sense of purpose.
You may not be able to provide a pay rise at this point in time but the other aspects of the employee experience are within your grasp.
Focus on training and development and, again, if budgets are tight, look for help and support through schemes like the Regional Business Partner Network. Communicate constantly – keep your employees briefed on the changes and challenges the business may face and celebrate the wins. Recognise their efforts – it could be as simple as publicly acknowledging a job well done – but let them know you appreciate their skills and abilities.
After our year of working from home, working through disruption or not working at all, we all understand the need to keep people engaged when the organisation is operating remotely and there are many approaches to help with this but don’t forget to maintain the good communication habits you cultivated during the crisis and stay connected to your employees.
If you find you can’t recruit someone who has the skills necessary to support your business look to your existing staff – there may well be someone already working for you who is willing to grow and is capable of doing the job but they will need you to invest in the extra training or development to undertake the role and, of course, pay them appropriately for their work.
Above all, be a trustworthy employer. Your employees will be looking to you to lead them through this period of time and effective communication, a good employee experience and a demonstration that you care will help keep your ‘work family’ together and growing happily.
Our recent Business Pulse Check showed 7% of respondents have experienced more late payers and defaults, while 4% are struggling to pay creditors. In recent client coaching sessions, I am also noticing that there is an emergence of fiddly credit issues that are starting to take up a little more time for both business owners and their credit staff. These issues range from company liquidations, more creative excuses for not paying, down to just not paying on time, or paying later than normal. In some cases, the debtor has grown their exposure with the company over recent months without any further analysis of the increasing credit risk.
In a paper I wrote earlier this year on the Changing Face of Credit Risk I emphasised the need to continue to be vigilant with your credit control processes and procedures.
With the Christmas break coming up it is critical that everyone makes sure they have robust processes in place for collecting outstanding debts – including pro-actively following up overdue amounts expediently. Anything left outstanding on Christmas Day is unlikely to be paid until late January, with the resultant impact on your company cashflow at a time when it is most needed.
In the meantime I would suggest you remain focused on the following:
Watch for changing signs with any clients i.e. increased exposure/delays or excuses in paying.
Where appropriate be pro-active in updating Terms of Trade, particularly in cases where you may not have personal guarantees and exposure is increasing.
Use credit checking more regularly for clients who are showing different patterns in their payments.
If appropriate, consider registering under the PPSR register.
For clients showing changes in trading/payment patterns consider putting in place credit watch processes.