Category Archives: Business – General

Capitalism – What the Future Holds

Wall Street

Image by Mirka23 via Flickr

The world is in a state of flux.

With the economic downturn lingering far longer than most people expected, governments are under growing pressure to kick-start economies. However, a growing number of countries with looming debt crises and a consequent unwillingness or inability of governments to spend more money hampers this.  And, as the northern hemisphere weather warms up, we can expect to see growing numbers of demonstrations by people wanting jobs or, at least, a reduction in job cuts.

All of which leads to the question – is the capitalist system doomed?

I don’t believe for a moment that this is the case – history shows that capitalism is the most effective way for countries and people to grow their wealth – but I do think we’re going to see some far-reaching changes.

Back in September 2009, I suggested in my post, “The Perils of Quarteritis” that the short-term thinking so prevalent in recent years had contributed significantly to the crash, and that businesses would move to a longer-term, more strategic model.

The March 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review has a wonderful paper, “Capitalism for the Long Term,” by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company where documents his findings from 18 months of research and hundreds of meetings with business and government leaders. In this paper, Barton makes 3 points to support his conclusion that capitalism must survive, but that it needs to change, too:

  1. A return to longer-term thinking by companies, investors and politicians alike – he refers to this as “The Tyranny of Short-Termism” (my version was Quarteritis).
  2. That there is no difference between serving the interests of shareholders and of stakeholders – in spite of a more recent belief that serving stakeholders made shareholders poorer, managing for long-term value growth benefits not only stakeholders and society but shareholders, too.
  3. Company executives and boards need to act more like owners, not temporary care-takers – as by doing so they will naturally look to the long-term and so benefit the company, its shareholders, its stakeholders and society as a whole.

Basically, it all comes down to taking a longer-term view of business (as well as the economy, in the case of government) and a consequent change in leadership style, too – see my post of November 2009, “Leadership for the New Business World.”

This longer-term thinking and more inclusive leadership approach will ultimately be to the benefit of all – investors, executives, employees and society as a whole.

What do you think?

Update (31Mar11): Read the Leadership Interview with James Quigley of Deloittes, just out at N2growth.com – leadership is about trust and looking to long-term sustainability.

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that although many companies, and almost all large ones, grow through mergers and acquisitions, most of these result in a decline in overall value, rather than the envisaged increase?

In the lead-up to such activity – the “engagement period” if you like – shareholders are shown clearly the benefits that the merger or acquisition will bring: lower overall costs, great (combined) market share, stronger sales teams, more experienced management in the combined entity, and so on. All of which is supposed to lead to greater overall value for the shareholders – a case of the proverbial 1+1 resulting in a good deal more than 2.

The reality is, far too often, startlingly different with 1+1 adding up to a good deal less than 2. In other words, significant shareholder value is lost in the process.

Naturally, there are many reasons for this decline in value – most commonly those resulting from a attempt to merge two very different corporate cultures and the consequent fall-out. And much of this happens in the board room.

I’ve seen many cases of incompatible cultures clashing in boardrooms, although I’m fortunate to have avoided this first-hand. Too often, the newly constituted board in an M&A situation will have directors drawn from the two companies proportionate to the value of each part in the transaction and so the acquirer will seek to dominate the acquiree, even when the reason for the acquisition (as is often the case) is that the latter has qualities the former believes is missing from its own company. The result is the departure of the very expertise being acquired and the consequent drop in overall value.

It seems to me that there is one reasonably simple way to increase the likelihood of success – and that is to increase the size of the overall board with the appointment of further Independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) when companies are undertaking mergers and acquisitions.

The Corporate Governance Code states “Except for smaller companies, at least half the Board, excluding the Chairman, should comprise Non-Executive Directors determined by the Board to be independent. A smaller company should have at least two independent Non-Executive Directors.”  But how many companies actually carry this through?

Should this strong recommendation not be even more strictly adhered to during the M&A process? Bringing a substantial body of independent, experienced NEDs to a board can reduce the level of infighting and help to ensure that the talent/expertise being acquired stays in the transaction.

As we see the global economy slowly recovering, we can expect to see a strong increase in M&A activity as companies seek to assure their future positions while values are still relatively low. This is the time for boards of companies – large and small alike – to become more independent.

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Can Twitter Really Drive Investment Decisions?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

A group of hedge-fund managers are launching a multi-million dollar hedge fund next month, using Twitter as its market indicator to determine sentiment and to thereby make investment decisions.

This information came from a recent article on CNBC / Yahoo Finance which quoted Derwent Capital Markets – a London-based hedge fund – as saying it had successfully marketed the new venture, officially called the Derwent Absolute Return Fund, to high net-worth clients and had attracted over £25 million in investments.

The company is confident it can achieve returns of at least 15-20% per annum by analyzing information gathered from over 100 million tweets each day, which the firm brands as “The 4th Dimension.”

On the face of it, this may sound like a risky, or even crazy, venture – but is it?

Let’s face it, the concept of rational markets has been comprehensively debunked during the last few years of economic crisis, and the global growth in wealth came to a dramatic end largely through a change in general sentiment. We’ve also seen plenty of allegations – many apparently backed by evidence – of collusion between those in research and those in investment banking to pump stock prices of certain companies at various times. In fact, based on this and my own experience, it seems that relying on the “experts” to manage your investments is no greater guarantee of success than simply using a general market-tracking fund – and often provides worse returns.

Furthermore, most people agree that we won’t see real growth return this cycle until consumer confidence picks up. Isn’t that really just about general market sentiment?

So contrary to some of the views on this fund, I would argue that this is a smart bunch of people – what they’re doing is using current technology to gauge market sentiment and make investment decisions from there.  Instead of listening to a small group of people to try to understand what “the man in the street” is saying, they’re tapping into the collective feelings of millions.

I see this as the start of a whole new way of tapping into societal collective wisdom and sentiment. What do you think?

BAA Humbug – The short- and long-term effects of greed and ineptitude

BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

Image via yfrog: BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

I’m going to try not to make this too much of a rant, but I’m both extremely disappointed and annoyed – not for me personally (thankfully I wasn’t directly affected), but for the thousands of people who’ve had their holiday plans, reunions and Christmas spoilt through a combination of woeful ineptitude and greed.

And, I think, there’s a real danger of this ineptitude and greed having long-term effects that are several orders of magnitude more serious for the country as a whole.

I’m talking here, for those of you who’ve not yet guessed, about BAA and Heathrow.

How can a company entrusted with managing the world’s busiest international airport be so unprepared for winter? It’s certainly not through lack of money – BAA is on track for an operating income of nearly £1 billion this year, and yet their total expenditure on preparing for snow and winter conditions this year was just £500 000…  (an amount the board has just allowed to be increased to £10 million – still only 1% of their operating profit!). In my view this is a typical case of short-term profit focus, at the expense of long-term sustainability (see my post: The Perils of Quarteritis).

It’s not as if they didn’t have warning. The first cold snap hit at the end of November and there were already warnings that heavy snow and icy conditions could be expected for the rest of the year. Granted, by then it was probably too late to have been able to source much new equipment in time (although they should have learned a lesson from January & February), but they put no contingency plans in place at all.

What about a deal with farmers nearby to use their tractors and grading equipment in an emergency? What about stockpiling grit, salt, glycol, etc.? Then they compounded things by turning down offers of help to clear the runways and taxiways from the military.

And, on top of this, they apparently gave out poor information to airlines such as BA which could have operated more flights than they did, and so reduce the backlog somewhat.

So, this corporate greed and ineptitude directly ruined the holidays for thousands of people, apart from costing hard-pressed airlines a good deal of money (can they sue BAA?)…

But the long-term effects could be even more serious. With some 30 million people a year visiting Britain, annual tourism expenditure of some £90 billion and almost 8% of jobs supported by tourism, this is a vital sector of the economy. However, the unreliability of British airports – especially one as important as Heathrow – is bound to make travellers think twice about using Britain as a stopover point, or even as a destination.

And airports in the Middle East such as Dubai and Qatar are eager to take these passengers. For example, Dubai is already the 4th busiest international airport in the world, with huge expansion already underway, and one of the youngest fleets in the world (and a flexible one, as Emirates was apparently able to put on 3 extra flights a day to clear their backlog once Heathrow reopened).

The impact of a diversion of disgruntled passengers from Heathrow to Dubai, for example, would have an enormous impact on Britain and on the struggling BA.

BAA needs to wake up, stop being so greedy and to accept proper responsibility for its role in running strategically important airports – or it needs to be replaced by a company that will do so, and quickly.

What do you think – should the company, its leadership, or both be replaced?

Who Controls Your Brand?

social media compain
Image by Laurel Papworth laurelpapworth.com and Gary Hayespersonalizemedia.com

The old order is being turned on its head; companies used to being in control of their customers and their brand are now finding customers are wresting control from them and that they need to adapt or face obscurity.

The enabler behind this is, of course, social media. Customers are now able and willing to discuss their experiences with friends and followers around the world, and companies ignore them at their peril. And yet, it seems to be more common for companies to ignore what is being said on Twitter, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on YouTube, and on all the other social platforms around the world.

Even though some two thirds of Fortune 500 companies have a Twitter account, and more than half have Facebook and YouTube accounts, they’re just not listening – reports indicate that 43% of all companies have never responded to a single Tweet, while only a quarter of companies respond to a comment posted on their Facebook page.

All this does is reinforce the view that companies are not interested in their customers. Better to have no presence at all than a presence where you don’t respond (the same goes for “customer-service” telephone lines and email addresses!).

However, the fact of the matter is that nowadays you HAVE to listen to what your customers are saying and you MUST respond. That’s the best way to turn customers into brand advocates – and isn’t that what every business wants? What’s more, it’s worth remembering that your products and services are only as good as your customers think they are and that they’re prepared to pay for; it’s much better to know they’re unhappy sooner than later, so you can fix the problem.

Word of mouth has always been the strongest way for businesses to grow – or shrink – and all that social media is doing is enabling this process to operate more quickly, and a lot more widely.

Companies that have embraced this – think Zappos and Starbucks (or Threadless, the T-shirt company that went from startup in 2000 to $30M in revenue last year) – are rewriting the rules for customer service, marketing and the way they’re perceived. Ask Comcast, who went from ignoring social media to an advocate and transformed the company’s image.

While the positive impact is clear and quick to see, the negative impact on companies that do it wrong will take longer to be really apparent – they suffer a slow, steady decline in brand image with all that follows from this – so the good news is there’s still time to adapt, but they shouldn’t wait too much longer.

As Jeff Bezos said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” If you’re not in the social media room, you’ll never know – and what you don’t know, you can’t fix.

By embracing social media, having conversations with your customers and other stakeholders, you will greatly strengthen your brand and your company.

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“The Lifetime Value of Customer” Concept

AA vintage sidecar (date unknown) at the Great...
Is the AA’s approach to customers old-fashioned?
Image via Wikipedia

Well, we survived October unscathed (although it remains to be seen if Ireland will drag the whole of Europe down) and am now pretty well settled in England so will be able to write more frequently again.

An issue that has really been highlighted during my move is that so many companies here seem to have little or no understanding of “The Lifetime Value of Customer” concept. And I’m not just talking about SMEs here – in fact, many of them understand it far better than the big ones.

Let me illustrate this – apart from Newsweek, that troubled publication that continues to make it far more attractive to take out a new subscription each year than renew (see “Is There Value in a Repeat Customer”), an excellent example of this is the AA (Automobile Association) here – an organisation that is clearly confused by policies and customers.

Having been a member of its sister organisation in South Africa for some 20 years I joined the AA in England as soon as I was no longer using hire cars, and had bought my own. It’s just a piece of mind thing for me as I’ve only had a very few occasions to need their help in all the years. Well, as luck would have it, a few weeks after joining I did need them, so put in a call.

I won’t go into the details here – suffice it to say that I needed to upgrade my membership for the call to be answered (hadn’t read the small print carefully enough) so did so. Imagine my shock to find that I was not only charged for a new, higher-level membership plus a penalty for not having had the right level when making the call, but was given no credit for my previous membership fees. In other words, I was considerably worse off than somebody who was not a member at all when calling.

Assuming that somebody had pushed the wrong button, I wrote to the AA and – after having to request a response for a second time – got a rather offhand letter referring to “company policy”: that wonderful phrase used by so many people to hide behind. The fact that the policy is stupid seems to have escaped them.

The fact is that the AA, for the sake of around £40 will lose my future membership fees of probably some £3000: an extremely poor decision. They just do not understand the concept of “Lifetime Value.”

Mind you, they’re not alone – I’ve seen numerous examples of some of the world’s biggest companies throwing away, potentially, millions of dollars/pounds in future sales through mistreating their customers in the technology channel.

And yet the concept is so simple: attend to your customers, have sensible policies, take the opportunity of turning an unhappy customer into an advocate for your business and you will thrive. Take a short-sighted view at single transaction level and risk all those future earnings you might otherwise have had – not exactly a guarantee of long-term success, is it?

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October 2010 – Another Black October?

a tale of two lottos
Image by jordi.martorell via Flickr

There’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding October as regards the stock market – it’s probably the single most feared month of the year, with the three biggest crashes all occurring (or starting) in October. Will October 2010 be another bad month?

The Great Depression was triggered by the sharp slides which happened in October 1929 (and kept going), although the biggest one day drop was that of 19th October, 1987, when the Dow lost nearly 23% in one day, and then kept dropping for some weeks until finding a new bottom, with losses of somewhere around $1 trillion. Most recently, October 2010 was seen as the worst month for the stock markets after the banking crisis came to light – and the economic repercussions are still being felt strongly in most parts of the world.

Although there was hope that economic recovery would continue throughout this year, there are growing concerns about whether this will happen, or if we will see a further drop – the infamous double-dip recession. Behind this are the questions of whether governments put too much money into trying to boost recovery too soon, or whether they haven’t put enough in for it to be effective; how and when countries are going to be able to afford to pay for the economic stimulation so far given, and how they can pay for any more if this is needed; and whether the idea of such government intervention has been effective at all, or whether the market needs to sort itself out.

I’m certainly not qualified to answer these questions. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone really has the answers, especially given that we’ve seen fairly convincing proof that markets are far from rational as they had previously be held to be. Watching the daily rise and fall of the main indices like the Dow Jones it seems to me that the smallest piece of news is magnified in terms of its impact on the market overall, with billions of dollars being added to, or taken from, the value of companies on the strength of relatively insignificant items.

If this is the case and we go into the last quarter of the year without some strong positive news, will the markets over-react once more and lead us back into a “Black October.”  What do you think?

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