Tag Archives: long-term focus

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.

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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?

“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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Living Your Brand – do companies really care about their Brand?

Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City
Image via Wikipedia

2010 certainly seems to be going down as the year when the proverbial corporate skeletons are coming out of the cupboard:

  • Toyota – which had built its brand on reliable, safe vehicles – recalls many millions of cars all around the world in an apparently ongoing saga, with new recalls being announced almost monthly;
  • Goldman Sachs – viewed by many as the pre-eminent merchant bank – being sued for fraud by the SEC and now under investigation by the UK regulators, too;
  • Many airlines – especially those using words like “Favourite” and “5 Star” in their advertising – simply refusing to abide by their legal obligations, in terms of Regulation 261/2004, to provide accommodation and refreshments for their stranded passengers during the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

And this is just a sample of the more recent headline-grabbing issues.

Are they really “Too big to fail” – or just too big to care?

I suspect they believe the latter, not recognising the truth in the old adage that “Pride comes before a fall.” Remember, almost none of the largest and then most successful companies in, say, 1900, are still in any position of strength today – in fact most have disappeared altogether.

These corporates need to get back to basics, to remember that it is their customers that pay their salaries and to start treating their customers as the company’s most precious resource, rather than as a necessary irritant. Simply repeating a marketing mantra branding themselves as the pre-eminent company in their field doesn’t make it true…

The fact is that branding is a lot more than just a logo with a catchy by-line – a company’s brand is everything to do with that company, and the logo is just something to recognise it by as we’re visual creatures. Branding is about customer service, branding is about the way customers interact with the company in all ways, branding’s about staff training, branding includes corporate governance and social responsibility, branding is about all the materials that company produces – from marketing through packaging to the products themselves – in fact, branding is about everything to do with a company.

And this is where so many companies are falling down: they’ve lost sight of everything but the short-term pursuit of the bottom line. And I use “short-term” advisedly – as without attention to all aspects of their corporate brand, those companies will lose customers and start to fail.

Just look at the consumer backlash against many banks that they perceive to have been complicit in the economic downturn. Imagine how consumers who have been poorly treated will feel about giving more of their hard-earned money to those airlines that left them high and dry. Will former Toyota buyers be as happy to buy another Toyota?

Companies need to start refocusing on their entire brand, they need to recognise the power of instant communication for their customers and embrace it to make a positive difference, and they need to once again really put their customers first instead of just saying they do.

What do you think – do companies no longer care about their brand in pursuit of profits? Have you joined the growing ranks of disgruntled consumers and, if so, which are the brands you love to hate?

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Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
Image via Wikipedia

The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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The obligations of Airlines to their Passengers

Europe
Image via Wikipedia

The current chaos following the six-day shutdown of almost all European airspace has thrown the issue of passengers’ rights firmly into the spotlight – particularly with the fact that so many airlines are refusing to take any responsibility for assisting stranded passengers.

With my son being among those stranded (he was stuck in England, trying to get home to Dubai) I have been active in understanding this in order to help him, and so post this in the hope that it will help others in a similar predicament due to the massive problems caused following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.

The governing regulation behind all this is one entitled Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council. The Regulation is available in full from various sources on the web, while this Wikipedia entry has a good summary, and this BBC post has one too.

The summary bottom line is:

  • All passengers stranded in Europe are entitled to their choice of: rerouting to another airport for onward flight to their destination (difficult for this in Europe at present); accommodation, refreshments/meals and communication services (basically 2 calls) while they are stranded (the most applicable option); or a refund of their ticket (not sure why they would want this as they generally want to get home).
    • This is regardless of the nationality of the airline on which the passenger is flying, as the European rules apply to the airlines while they are operating in Europe.
  • All passengers stranded outside Europe with tickets to a European destination on a European airline are entitled to the same choices detailed above.
    • The key points here are firstly that the carrier must be a European airline (if on a code-share flight, the ticket must have been issued by one of the European airlines on that code-share), and secondly that the destination must be a European one.
    • Unfortunately, if you are stranded outside Europe with a non-European airline, they are not obliged to provide this assistance.

Many airlines are claiming that as the volcanic eruption is an “Act of God” (or “Force Majeure”) they are absolved from any responsibility for such assistance and are turning passengers away. This is patently untrue as the regulation only makes provision in such circumstances for airlines to be excused from paying additional (cash) compensation that they are normally liable for in the event of delays. They are still required to accommodate, feed and provide communications for stranded passengers, regardless of the reason.

Other airlines, such as Qatar Airways (on which my son is booked – so much for the “5 Star Service” they like to advertise!), are saying that they are not required to provide any assistance as they are foreign-owned. Again, this is simply not true. Although they are not obliged to provide assistance for those passengers stranded outside Europe, they are absolutely obliged to do so for the passengers stranded in Europe.

Should your airline have refused you compensation at the time, you should retain all receipts for accommodation, food, etc., while you have been delayed and lodge a claim with the airline on your return home.

I hope this will help clear up the confusion surrounding this issue and enable people to claim appropriate assistance.

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What’s the Future of Banking?

One significant side-effect of the global financial crisis has to be a major overhaul of the world’s banking systems. They’ve been shown to be badly broken.

 After all, what is the current state of play with banks in general, when looking at their supposed core competencies?

  • Lending – very little lending activity going on, and only to those that don’t really need it (the very credit worthy);
  • Deposit-taking – although this continues, albeit at a lower rate due to the general economic woes, it’s done with caution and concern as the public no longer believes in the security of banks (the old adage about being as safe as a bank just doesn’t apply today);
  • Investment advice – does anyone trust the investment advice of banks any longer?

 And then there are peripheral activities such as credit cards – banks lowering limits, and now even looking at penalising the credit-worthy that pay up their credit card bills on time: surely a brilliant way to chase away customers…

Talking of customers: the issue of customer service is still something that few banks understand – they’re not open when customers want them to be, and are seldom found where they’re wanted. Fortunately, technology in the shape of Internet and Telephone banking is allowing us to work around these limitations.

And yet, the self-same group that precipitated the economic disaster of the past couple of years through the sale of very dubious investment instruments apparently repackaged to hide their source, believes that they continue to deserve multi-million dollar bonuses “to retain talent.”

What talent, and why should it be retained, considering the mess the world is in as a result of their activities?

Now that so many banks have been shown to have an extremely dubious business model, isn’t it time to relook the very essence of what they should be doing?   

Let’s see a complete separation of activities, so that banks focus on banking and investment houses focus on investment consulting – it’s clear that the “Chinese Walls” in financial institutions were full of holes.

Banking needs to be about rendering a service to the community – after all, a prosperous and stable community base is good for the bank’s business, and a prosperous and stable bank is good for the community. Banks need to focus on the business of taking deposits and making these funds available for loans to build businesses, put people in homes and generally provide a secure growth engine for the longer term. The short-term focus that we came to see in so many businesses (see: The Perils of Quarteritis) is just not acceptable.

And this model need not necessarily result in low returns for depositors – look at the success of microfinancing from Grameen Bank (and, now, others), both for the bank and the community. As with everything, there will be some elements that give lower returns, while others give higher returns. With careful, skilled management, depositors should be able to see appropriate returns while borrowers can secure appropriate loans.

It’s time for financial institutions to rebuild the trust that they’ve lost, and return to being of service to their communities again, rather than simply serving the bankers’ own interests.