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Sustainability – What is It?

Are you sick of buzzwords? They’re everywhere…all the time. Some are actually impactful, but all are meaningless without context.

One buzzword that actually has some meat is “sustainability,” but in the next breath it’s meaningless because it can be over-used, misinterpreted, or put into the wrong context. Often times the word is attached to “environmental” sustainability and conjures up visions of environmental enthusiasts/activists/evangelists, but the term sustainability is simply defined as being able to last or continue for a long time.
Ref. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sustainable

Using that frame of reference, let’s focus on the financial aspect.

You have put many changes in place in your business over the years. Ranging from new/improved processes to increased size & scale, each change has had an impact on your business. No question, your intention has always been to implement a change for the betterment of your business. But prior to initiating any action, was an assessment of the sustainability of the proposed change ever done? How did you quantify the impact of the change?

There are many success stories floating around lately about producers who gave up some rented land and increased their overall business profits from doing so. While this is counterintuitive to the deeply embedded mindset that “bigger is better,” clearly the financial sustainability of the status quo was in question for these particular operations.

What is the financial sustainability of increasing the size of the factory (more land), adding capacity (more/bigger/newer equipment), or increasing labor (more people)? Each of these needs to be evaluated beyond the obvious cash costs. What are the incidental costs, meaning:

  • Increasing the size of the factory (More Land) carries
    • Higher ownership/operating costs for PP&E (property, plant, & equipment);
    • More cash to service debt on the asset;
    • Change in insurance costs (which way will premiums go, up or down?)
    • Change in utilities costs (which way will heat and power go, up or down?)
    • More working capital to be able to utilize the increased scale of the business;
    • Etc.
  • Adding Capacity (More/Bigger/Newer Equipment) carries
    • Higher costs for PP&E (property, plant, & equipment);
    • More cash to service debt on the asset;
    • Change in insurance costs (which way will premiums go, up or down?)
    • Change in operating costs (which way will fuel and repairs go, up or down?)
    • Will you need to add staff (another operator)?
    • Will you need to upgrade your systems and/or technology so the new equipment can operate relatively seamlessly in your existing set-up?
  • Increasing Labor (More People) carries
    • Additional cost for benefits (pension, vacation, etc.)
    • Higher management requirement (to approve holidays, implement performance evaluations, conduct scheduling);
    • Any additional tools for employees to use (hand tools, vehicles, computers, etc.)
    • Training costs.

Each of these points above has an impact on the decision to increase the size of the factory, the capacity of the equipment, or the volume of human capital in your business. Evaluating each decision above with a broader perspective, which would include an expected ROI (Return on Investment), is the best way to understand the sustainability of each option. If the desired change to your business provides insufficient ROI, it puts the sustainability of not only the project but your entire business in question. At minimum, ROI must exceed the cost of borrowed capital that was utilized for the project.

Plan for Prosperity

Buzzwords aside, sustainability is as much of a mindset as it is a business practice. Sustainability deserves a place in your business’ values and mission & vision statements. It should make up a component of every business decision that you consider. If your business is not sustainable, what are your plans for afterwards?

Reflection

Reflection

We are now bombarded with headlines, columns, and blurbs about how this is the time to pause and look back over the last year. What went well? What didn’t? Blah, blah, blah…

If you’re not doing this throughout the year, not just now in late December, I have to ask, “Why the hell not?” Do you think a hockey team plays the entire game without checking the scoreboard and the clock regularly? They would be quite surprised to have the final buzzer go off only to find they were losing the game and didn’t make any adjustments that could have led to a win…

No, this column is not like the others that suggest you look back and give thanks. That is, however, good advice and a wonderful practice to follow.

This column suggests that you look for your reflection. It can be seen in places we don’t always look until much time has past, which often leads to difficulty making sufficient adjustments (Ref. the hockey team described above.) Here are a few places where you’ll see your reflection, if you look…

Your Children

As a young man, I was told regularly that I was very much like my dad, right down to the way I walked and talked. I took that as a compliment because I really looked up to my dad. As I matured as a man, I began to see some of his shortcomings and decided I didn’t want to be a mirror of him but a better version instead. I try to emulate his virtues and learn from his faults so that I can be the best dad I can for my two young daughters.

I see strong reflections of myself in my children, especially my oldest. She has perfectionist tendencies, wants to do right by everyone, and is incredibly well spoken for her age. All are qualities I’ve been told would aptly describe me as a toddler. Those might be her worst qualities because on the other end of the spectrum, she has the most beautiful soul: caring, generous, forgiving…I could go on and on. I’ve learned that perfection kills progress and am working on improving my perfectionist tendencies every day. Now I need to learn how to teach her what I’ve learned in this regard.

Your Business

As a solo-preneur, (that’s the phrase I’ve coined to describe me and everyone else who is a solo entrepreneur) I am my business; I am everything in it and for it, from creating and executing the marketing plan to opening the mail. If I’m not working my business, my business is idling in neutral.

In businesses with a team, be that team a family or arm’s-length employees, the team will be an indirect reflection of you as the leader. A motivated and conscientious team is a reflection of an appreciative and fair leader. An apathetic and truant team is a reflection of a harsh and impatient leader.

However, it matters not whether our business is a team or a solo, the drive towards success that is seen in our businesses is a direct reflection of us, the leaders. Our level of engagement in the moving towards our big picture, long term goals will correlate almost perfectly to the results we achieve. My engagement in my business has been challenged in the last half of 2017 as I dealt with a difficult personal issue, and the results show it.

Your Circle

People tend to gravitate to other people of their ilk. It’s natural. Is your circle of friends & contacts positive and optimistic, or negative and pessimistic? By surrounding ourselves with other just like us, we risk getting caught up in an echo chamber where our perspective is never challenged and will never change.

To Plan for Prosperity

Reflection is more apparent than we might think. Yet it is often difficult to recognize. And despite all this, typically the best tool to settle the challenges in business is a mirror.

 

**Credit Where Credit is Due
Last week we shared again that “Cash Isn’t King, It’s the ACE!” This was first heard from Phil Symchych of Symco & Co. management advisors symcoandco.com  and we didn’t provide proper citation or acknowledgement. For this, we apologize. Phil has been a great friend & advisor and we look forward to continued success.

 

Cash Growth and Misplaced Priorities

Cash, Growth, and Misplaced Priority

It’s been said many times by many pundits that “cash is king.” If you are a regular reader of my weekly commentary, you’ll know that I am not one who abides by that line of thinking because Cash Isn’t King. It’s the ACE!

However, GROWTH is King!

Growth is King and Cash is the Ace. What a tandem! It’s no wonder that in Texas Hold ‘Em poker, an Ace-King is known as “Big Slick.”

Recall that growth is not just about size and scale. Growth takes many forms; successful businesses “always grow, and grow all ways.”

The misplaced priority is when business pursues growth (expansion) at all costs, when it puts growth (expansion) above cash. I’ve seen businesses “grow” themselves to the brink of bankruptcy…

In an effort to spread out overhead costs, many businesses are driven to scale up. If rapid expansion is undertaken while in a weak financial position, the business has just been weakened further.

Cash is required to support any expansion plans. Expanding will not fix an insufficient cash position.

To Plan for Prosperity

Expansion plans must be carefully drawn up to ensure sufficient resources are available to support the goal. Expanding with insufficient resources, especially cash, can accelerate the decline of your business.

 

Top Shelf

Top Shelf

Top Shelf.

It’s a phrase best known for describing the highest quality wines, spirits, and liqueurs.  Those who produce such fine beverages are known to maintain unwavering quality in their attention to detail, ensuring that each bottle meets the highest standard for which they’ve become known. Connoisseurs know which brand is “top shelf” by its reputation.

Same can be said for restaurants. At a client reception, I witnessed great care from our service staff to ensure every order was correct, on time, and to their diner’s expectations (even better to be above those expectations.) The entertainment factor was brought into play during desserts when special coffees that donned towering flames were prepared right in front of us. Everyone had a wonderful time, and the tip showed our appreciation.

“Top Shelf” is synonymous with quality. This moniker can be applied to almost anything from cars to clothes to food or to service. We all aspire to enjoy something “top shelf” once in a while.

Of course, top shelf does not matter to all people all the time. Some things in life just need to be economical. Would you pay $5 for a can of “top shelf” soda pop from a boutique brand when you can drink Coke or Pepsi for under $2? It’s unlikely you’d get in line to pay premium rates on your electricity bill, and no one would choose to pay $15 per pound for bologna…”top shelf” or not.

The contrast is determining where we will settle for “economical” and where we desire “top shelf.” In the commodity business, and yes if you produce grains or livestock you are in the commodity business, it is easy to get into a pattern of “everything economical.” This is because you sell the commodities you produce at the lowest price the market is willing to pay that day…because it’s commodity! And so, that thinking permeates through your entire business driving you to search for the cheapest option: fuel, fertilizer, parts, insurance, repairs, professional services, etc. You’ll notice that equipment did not make that list; somehow equipment remains the anomaly that defies the theory of “everything economical.”

Would the management of your business be considered “Top Shelf”? If it was to be rated by experts and evaluated by professionals, how would you measure up? Are you okay with “everything economical”, or when it comes to your legacy, your family and your business, should “top shelf” be the minimum requirement?

To Plan for Prosperity

If you deserve “top shelf management” in your business then elevate your skills or seek it out externally. Relentlessly adhere to consistent “top shelf” quality in your management systems, information, and decisions. Recognize where in your business you should be “economical”…but (spoiler alert) it should not be in your management.

Like top shelf booze, you too can be known as a top shelf manager by reputation…if you develop the habit of “unwavering quality in attention to detail” just like those whose product is found on the top shelf.

Goal Congruence_LI

Goal Congruence

Have you been beat up enough yet about “defining your goals”? Every article I read relating to business management and every presentation I attend relating to business management always brings up the need for you as the businessperson to “define your goals.” For the record, “business management” in the context of this piece also include business transition (succession) planning.

The beatings will continue. They’ll continue as until everyone doesn’t just listen to the advice, but acts on it.

More often than not, when I ask a client (or even a prospective client) what are their goals, I get a blank stare, as if the concept is a foreign language. Far too many business owners have given little consideration to what they are trying to achieve in the business.

If it’s just a place to work and/or a lifestyle to enjoy, then declare it as your goal.
If it’s a family legacy that has been left to you that you intend to leave to your children, then declare it as your goal.
If it’s to achieve the largest scale in your market area, then declare it as your goal.
If it’s to create financial wealth and prosperity for you and your family, then declare it as your goal.

Don’t just tell the advisor you’ve hired, and paid well, that your goal is “to make more money.” That’s everyone’s goal, whether employed for someone else or self-employed like you. Let’s get serious.

There are four sample goals described above. These four have been chosen because they are the most common goals I have identified in working with entrepreneurs for the last 15 years. What I mean by “identified” is that while some of these goals have been declared, it’s more common that the goal is insinuated by (or surmised from) the behavior of the owners. The problem is when business owners try to combine more than one of those four sample goals listed above; this happens almost all the time.

The first goal listed, lifestyle, is not congruent with any of the other three.
We’ve learned that largest scale does not automatically equate to increased financial wealth and prosperity; again, not necessarily congruent.
The only congruity among the four samples is between family legacy and financial prosperity.
– yet behaviors often do not follow those goals.

It is advisable to have multiple goals in business and in life. In business, none of the goals we may have can be achieved without prudence in financial management. Remember, profit feeds your business, it feeds your family, and it feeds your ability to spend time with your family & on other things you enjoy. If you feel uncomfortable declaring one of your business goals to be financial wealth because you don’t want to be thought of as a greedy person, then don’t declare it, but for the sake of your business’ and your family’s future, behave like it. If you’re not profitable, if you’re suffering under the pressure of non-existent working capital, or worse, then none of your goals are achievable. Period. Hard stop. I’m sorry to have to deliver that cold truth in such a harsh manner.

To Plan for Prosperity

The challenge I lay out for all entrepreneurs is this: be clear on why you do what you do, establish working parameters and behaviors that support it, and evaluate your progress & results regularly to ensure you’re still on track. How sad would it be to never check the map for the entire journey only to end up somewhere you never meant to be?

Not only must your goals be congruent, but your behaviors must be as well. You and your business face enough turmoil, challenges, and risks. Don’t create more challenges by making decisions that aren’t congruent with your goals.

FOUR HANDS MALE AND FEMALE TOAST WITH MUGS OF BEER

Milestones

This is the 150th consecutive Tuesday that I have written and shared this weekly Op-Ed piece. Thank you for reading it each week. I am humbled by the number of subscriptions you have provided.

Truth be told, I almost blew right by this milestone. There is another piece I had written that was ready to be sent. It was only when preparing to load it into the emailing program I use that number 150 came to light. This gives a good opportunity to pause and reflect.

In January 2015, I was starting from square zero by going fully independent in my business advisory practice. I left behind all of the clients and prospects I had at the time to start with a clean slate and a clear conscience.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the last 150 weeks.

  1. Right when you think you know something, someone comes along and blows that “knowledge” right out of the water. Hence, one of the mantras I live by: Learn, Unlearn, Relearn.
  2. Success is not defined by how big your investment portfolio is, or how large your business is. As Alan Weiss says, “There Is Always A Bigger Boat™ – stop living by other people’s standards!”
  3. The greatest limiting factor in our businesses is usually ourselves. Our businesses are limited by our vision, our fears, our aversion to the right risk, or our propensity for the wrong risk. Coincidentally, this also applies to our lives.
  4. Far too many businesses continue to make decisions with inaccurate or insufficient information at best… or with emotion & a hunch at worst.
  5. Going by behavior and attitudes, the shift from farming as a “lifestyle” to farming as a “business” still has a long way to go.

What is your milestone in business? How has your business changed over that time? What is the next milestone you see?

To Plan for Prosperity

The path is never clear, there are always obstacles that will cause you to make adjustments. It is safe to say that someone else’s path may not be best for you since it’s their path, not yours, and you’re not them. Choose your path carefully, but give yourself the freedom to choose another when necessary.

  1. Clarify your definition of success.
  2. Establish specific goals that will lead you to success.
  3. Set out tactics to achieve your goals.
  4. Prepare contingencies.
  5. Execute.

I’ve revisited that simple 5-step plan more than once in the last 150 weeks. I expect I’ll revisit it several times more over the next 150. I utilize my business advisor to help me with that process; I am walking my talk…”Do what you do best, and get help for the rest™!”

Cheers to Success!

 

Complex Decision Making

Complex Decision Making

On October 21, 2017, Seth Godin wrote the following:

Decision making, after the fact

Critics are eager to pick apart complex decisions made by others.

Prime Ministers, CEOs, even football coaches are apparently serially incompetent. If they had only listened to folks who knew precisely what they should have done, they would have been far better off.

Of course, these critics have a great deal of trouble making less-complex decisions in their own lives. They carry the wrong credit cards, buy the wrong stocks, invest in the wrong piece of real estate.

Some of them even have trouble deciding what to eat for dinner.

Complex decision making is a skill—it can be learned, and some people are significantly better at it than others. It involves instinct, without a doubt, but also the ability to gather information that seems irrelevant, to ignore information that seems urgent, to patiently consider not just the short term but the long term implications.

The loudest critics have poor track records in every one of these areas.

Mostly, making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That’s the hard part. Choosing the best possible path is only possible after you’ve established that you’ve got the guts and the commitment to make a decision.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, none of us is ever wrong. We can, without fear of reprisal, predict what just happened 5 minutes ago.

In business, we can not afford to avoid the complex decisions. Leaving it to chance or following the crowd is about as solid of a strategy as allowing “hope” to be your business plan…

In the next breath, we must cut ourselves some slack; large and complex decisions are daunting. It can seem easier to do nothing than to tackle a complex decision and risk making the wrong choice. But, as Godin wrote, “making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That’s the hard part.”

To Plan for Prosperity

“Paralysis by analysis” is an old adage that accurately and humorously describes our inability to make a decision (and act on it) because we never stop considering different options. We might feel like a failure, or inept, if we don’t get the decision right.

In reality, more opportunities are lost from perfect inaction than there are mistakes made from imperfect action.

Know the Signs

Know the Signs

When you see a cow that is limping, you check her out to see what the ailment is. A prudent cowperson can quickly recognize foot-rot and will tend to the cow to make her well again.

When you see yellowing bottom leaves and/or thin, spindly plants in the canola crop, you know it is lacking nitrogen. If you see the signs in time, you can top dress nitrogen fertilizer onto your crop and see a positive benefit.

When we see a tire is low, we fill it.
When we see windows are dirty, we clean them.
When we find the level of fuel in storage is low, we order more fuel.
When cash flow is abundant, we spend it in ways we wouldn’t usually spend it.
Yet, when working capital is depleted, when cash flow is tight, or when profitability is dicey, we typically soldier on…doing what we’ve always done.

This makes no sense. The last two sentences above make no sense at all.

When the bank account is empty and the line of credit is nearly full, do you:
a) Apply for more credit, at your primary lender or elsewhere?
b) Evaluate your cash outflow to date and reexamine your plans for the rest of the year?

When working capital as slipped down so low it would barely cover the crop inputs loan, do you:
a) Analyze what caused the current situation?
b) Seek action to rectify your working capital position?
c) Both a) and b) ?

The case for “knowing the signs” is made by acknowledging the impact of each risk that is identified.

In the crop, the yellowing of canola leaves won’t spur any action if the risk to yield potential is not understood.  If the risk is understood, then an informed decision can be made to act or not act. If there is no effort put in to understanding the risk, then the decision to act or not act falls somewhere between apathy and laziness. Being ignorant to the specifics of the risk and its implications is no longer an excuse now that we have access to all of humankind’s knowledge in our pocket…

If you’re unaware of what are the signs of nitrogen deficiency in canola, if you’re unaware of what are the risks of foot-rot in your cattle herd, you are best to seek advice from an expert.

To Plan for Prosperity

The risks of maintaining insufficient working capital, and the risks from shortfalls in cash flow, are obvious to those of us who specialize in the financial side of business. We know the signs. We know what it takes to fix it. We know what should happen to ensure the situation isn’t repeated.

 

Systems

Systems

Last week, we discussed the importance of adding value to your business. It hinges on knowledge that allows you to see where your business is creating value or eroding value. Without the knowledge to see where value is positive or negative, we risk making decisions that are emotional or even irrational, but always uninformed.

The key to adding value in your business comes from knowledge about the goings on in your business.

Lately, one of the more common challenges I’ve heard from clients is the challenge of accurately reconciling inventory. Yield monitors are an acceptable guess, but certainly they cannot be taken as gospel (I cannot rationalize how a machine running at high speed can provide an accurate measure of yield without stopping to calculate the mass of the grain…but I digress). Many operations have scales on the grain carts, and while this technology is much more reliable, it is useless if the information is not being recorded.  We wonder why the old adage rings true, “You never get as many bushels out of a bin as you’ve put in.” And we haven’t yet touched on inputs (seed, chemical, fertilizer) nor how you manage returns and the subsequent credits…

You never get as many bushels out of a bin as you’ve put in.

With all the technology available to accurately reconcile inventory, the reason it remains a challenge is that the system of recording and managing information is broken…if it exists at all!

Here is a small sample of the systems you need in your business:

  • Managing/tracking cash and working capital;
  • Managing/tracking inventory (production, inputs, parts, fuel, etc.)
  • Managing/tracking staff (hours, vacation, sick days, etc.)
  • Managing/tracking equipment (operating efficiency, service, repairs, etc.)
  • Controlling Unit Cost of Production
  • Creating Profit.

To Plan for Prosperity

You wouldn’t jump into your combine without confidence that all systems are in place and working properly; in fact, the manufacturers now have systems and sensors in place for almost everything making it so you can’t operate if something “isn’t right.”

There are far too many variables in your business and leaving any of them unmanaged puts your profit and cash flow at risk. With little in the way of guarantees that profit and cash flow will sufficiently meet expectations each year, isn’t it worth investing in the right systems to garner full control of your enterprise?

Adding Value

Adding Value

To actually add value to your business you must have profit from operations. Every dollar of retained earnings that is left in your business increases the value of your business. Simple concept.

In agriculture, when someone says “adding value” we typically hear “value-added” which means something like processing, milling, refining, etc, etc, etc. Basically we infer that it is anything one or two steps up the value chain that isn’t the actual farming.

At this point, many ears close and minds drift off…

What I’m referring to today is what adds value in your business. It matters not whether your business is production, processing, or any product/service that supports your business, there are aspects where value is insufficient and it is hurting your bottom line.

What Doesn’t Add Value

  • Anything that does not provide an ROI (Return on Investment) above 1:1.
  • Anything that doesn’t provide a measurable and quantifiable improvement to efficiency (which can be translated to ROI.)
  • Anything that uses more cash that it provides.

Examples would be a brand new pickup truck, renting land that (at best) will only break-even, chasing yield to the detriment of gross margin.

What Does Add Value

  • Cash flow and expense management
  • Driving down Unit Cost of Production
  • Empowering your people

Examples would be building and preserving working capital (especially cash), understanding total farm costs relative to production, building a team of competent people who can replace you.

Defining Value

Maybe this is the place to start? How do you define value in your business? What do you see as providing value? For far too many farms, value is centered around land appreciation (a passive boost to equity) and new equipment (a major draw on cash.) Interesting how these two focus points are conflicting in how they affect a business’ financial position…

Does value comes from biggest yield, biggest equipment, biggest acreage base? Or does it come from profit, efficiency, and control?  I might be swimming against the current here, but my vote is the latter…

To Plan for Prosperity

Knowledge is key. Without knowledge, determining value becomes emotional, a guess, or a hunch… To understand value in your business requires an awareness, a level of knowledge, that does not come from gut feel. Your systems for managing the operation and all the financial decisions that go along with it are what will provide the knowledge to help you determine where you are adding value, where you can create value, and where you’re letting value be eroded away…