Who do you look up to? It doesn’t have to be another business like yours, it can be anyone or any business. Why do you look up to that person or entity? What have they done that you want to emulate?
“If you benchmark yourself against the average you’ll be out of business in 5 years.”
Dr. David Kohl
What Dr. Kohl is referring to is that “average” is not success. As one client said this past week, “Average is the best of the worst, or the worst of the best; either way it’s not where we want to be.”
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of using averages when analyzing business performance. The sample pool will skew the calculation up or down; extenuating circumstances create anomalies in year-over-year business results; the list could go on. In my opinion, average is a useful tool to make yourself feel better about where you’re at. I prefer to make clients uncomfortable about where they’re at so that they are motivated to “Be Better™”.
Here’s someone we all know about who is never not trying to be better: Warren Buffett. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting the Oracle of Omaha is without flaw or that he is somehow worthy of unwavering praise, but it cannot be denied that his approach to building wealth has enjoyed success beyond most of our wildest dreams. Recent articles in the Financial Post indicate that Berkshire Hathaway is currently sitting on about $116 Billion in cash and other short term investments. This cash is sitting idle for the purposes of making acquisitions, but Buffett has admitted that he’s struggled to find acquisitions at sensible prices. Also, the article states that Buffett is unwilling to load up on debt to finance deals at current prices.
“We will stick with our simple guideline: The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own,”
It has been written in this series of commentaries that during the elongated commodity super-cycle which ran from about 2007 to 2015 we could find many “average” businesses who appeared to be “excellent”. The appearance of excellence was fed by strong yields and high commodity prices. To translate: everybody was making money, even the worst managers and the high cost operators. To paraphrase Dr. Kohl: when the bottom 20% of producers become profitable, we’re in trouble! It didn’t take much prudence to be profitable during the boom; how did you compare during the boom? How do you compare now?
So when considering who you want to mirror, is it one who has been racking up debt balls-out on the expansion train or one who has been quietly amassing a war-chest of financial strength that can be deployed when the right opportunity presents? Is it one who operates with reckless abandon, or strategic execution? Is it someone who is average, or is it the cream of the crop?
Plan for Prosperity
Benchmarking data is hard to come by; not everyone is willing to share the details of their successes or failures. So to start, benchmark against yourself. How did your most recent year stack up against your best year ever? How do your 2018 expense projections compare to your 2003 expenses? What has been the 10 year trend of your working capital, EBITDA, net profit, total debt, and total equity? Is it something you’d be proud to share? Let me know; I’d love to hear from you on what you learned from this exercise.