Tag Archives: Business

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?

When Will Interest Rates Rise?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...

Image via Wikipedia

With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.

Can Mergers & Acquisitions be More Successful?

Board meeting room

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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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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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Not Really a Global Economy

My Pocket Contents
Image by William Hook via Flickr

The news continues to be full of stories around the Global Economy and how companies increasingly operate independent of national boundaries – so that one could be forgiven for believing that we really do live in a global economy.

However, as my current experience of relocating to a “First World” country – England – shows, where one would expect that things do operate in this way, the reality is very different and the Global Economy seems a long way off.

Certainly, some things work well – one can move money between bank accounts across multiple geographies easily (provided, of course, your accounts are all with one bank, otherwise it’s far more complicated). Mobile telephones also operate well across boundaries, although you pay handsomely for making and receiving calls when away from the country where your phone is registered – profiteering, perhaps?

However, the rather large holes in this Global Economy story (myth?)  have really been exposed when trying to establish myself with the basics here.

  • Renting a home – this is far from simple. You have to get credit reference agencies involved and they require enormous amounts of information. Simply giving them details of your bank/s and relationship managers isn’t enough: you have to do all the leg work yourself.
  • Insurance – amazingly, motor insurance companies apparently don’t give credit for a no-claims driving record in countries like Dubai (an extremely challenging environment as anyone who has driven there will attest), although they are happy to do so for comparatively tame driving countries like New Zealand, so no more no-claims bonus on motor insurance…
  • Telephones – it took me a week to establish that I COULD get Blackberry Services on a Pay As You Go basis (I was told by some mobile operators and some phone shops that this was impossible for the first week, but kept researching until I found it could be done).

In fact, for most general things (even using your new bank account’s debit card) the over-riding requirement is for a local Post Code (you’re asked for this the whole time), so if you’re still trying to set things up and don’t yet have a fixed abode, you end up having to borrow a post code and address from a willing friend or relative for even simple transactions.

Why is it, that with a 30+ year history of banking, credit, insurance, telephone, etc., etc., usage in countries like South Africa and Dubai (countries that have “First World” standards of traceability on such things) I have to start over? One would think this information would be available to the relevant companies and authorities in other countries, but it seems to be only the case for adverse information and anyone else is “guilty until they prove themselves innocent.”

So much for the Global Economy – or is it just a case of laziness and profiteering?

———-

P.S. This relocation process is, of course, the reason for my lack of blogs recently – I hope to be back to regular blogging in September.

Regular readers will notice the banner picture change to reflect my new home…

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Service – the Quick Way to Kill a Brand

I took my car for a service this morning – an experience that once again underscored just how easy it is to chase customers away and kill your brand.

Some background – I currently live in Dubai in the UAE, where the climate and conditions are not particularly vehicle-friendly, so that 4 wheel-drive vehicles such as mine need to be serviced every 5000 kilometres (3000 miles). Because the car is still under warranty this necessitates taking it to the dealership from where I bought it.

This particular vehicle, a Mitsubishi Pajero (also known as a Shogun in some markets) is extremely popular in the UAE – providing a well laid-out, spacious interior, good quality and reliability which is what one needs, especially when the temperature outside is somewhere over 45C. We greatly enjoy the vehicle. What I don’t enjoy is the regular service experience – and come the end of the lease period, I’d switch brands for this reason alone.

And this in a market where new car sales were some 82.5% down last year against 2008 according to ArabianBusiness.com. So you think the dealerships would be delivering exceptional service to maximise what few sales there are. Yet the Mitsubishi agents here seem to be oblivious to this simple approach, as today showed.

Yet, a pre-booked service that should take 30 minutes and be done while you wait, means being without a car for 11 hours – I take that car in at 7:30am and can only pick it up again around 6:30pm in spite of asking for it earlier (bigger services take 2-3 days with these people)!

What amazes me is that they seem to live in perpetual chaos. You book vehicles in advance, turn up at the specified time/day and they still seem to be unable to do the job quickly and painlessly because they’ve always got an unexpectedly full workshop. This sort of approach is, incidentally, quite commonplace here – service lets so many brands down (I have another still-unresolved issue with Bose).

What companies really have to recognise is that the after-sales service experience is one of the quickest ways to kill a brand. Customers are not – or should not – be a one-transaction experience. Lifetime value is what  companies need to focus on, as that’s where the real profits lie – repeat customers that become brand advocates. When are they going to understand this simple concept?

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A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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