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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?

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.

 

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.

Halloween

Happy Halloween

Let me first get this off my chest.

In this age of hyper-political-correctness, to hear of some schools that are “cancelling” Halloween because of the risk that some costumes might “offend” or “scare” someone is taking us down a path that we may not be able to come back from. I’m not a proponent of Halloween, but I’ll gladly encourage anyone who wants to take part in it to do so, and anyone who doesn’t can also do so. What we need to remember is why we do it, even if we don’t love it…IT’S FOR THE KIDS!
It’s THEIR imagination and THEIR excitement that must not be squelched just to satisfy our guilt over ________ (fill in the blank).

Thank you; now onto the real business at hand.

Getting dressed up in a costume creates an outlet for us to be something we’re not, or maybe something we wish we could be. (As a kid, I wanted to be a pro-football player and might have dressed up as such for Halloween.)

Over the last several years in western Canadian agriculture, “average management” has been dressed up in a costume of “excellence.” With high yields and high commodity prices, even average managers were more profitable than they had been in the long term…maybe ever.

Dr. David Kohl uses the term “black swan” to describe the recent commodity super-cycle because, like a black swan, it is “not the norm.”

black swan is an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and is extremely difficult to predict;

Source: www.investopedia.com

While we might be inclined to associate black swan occurrences with negative deviations from normal, in the case of the last 10 years in agriculture, we’ve experienced a positive deviation from normal. The danger came when many participants in the industry believed that what was happening wasn’t actually a black swan but “the new normal.” Many long term decisions were made based on short term results. True to the black swan definition, the onset of the commodity super-cycle was predicted by very few, and even fewer still predicted it would last as long as it did. Maybe it was the fact that it did last longer than a year or two is why people started to believe it would never end…?

The unpredictability of this black swan continues to cause angst among players in the industry. Some are soldiering forward as they have for the last several years with full expectation that the black swan will return. Others are are in full damage control mode, or even panic mode. Others yet are patiently waiting for the opportunity that always follows the economic cycles.

Market cycles will hurt some, but offer opportunity to others.
The difference between who suffers and who prospers is…Who’s Ready.

– Kim Gerencser

I started making that statement way back in late 2012. The message then was to take advantage of the current up-cycle to solidify your business in preparation for the upcoming down-cycle (because bulls are always followed by bears, which are followed by bulls…it is how cycles work.) Being greedy during an up-cycle brings up another old adage, “Pigs get slaughtered.”

To Plan for Prosperity

When preparing your 2018 projections, compare your projected expenses to your worst revenue in the last 10 years. Is there a negative gap? How big is it? What needs to be done to cover it? Alternatively, is there a positive gap? How big is it? What needs to be done to protect it, or even to leverage it so as to make it wider?

The exercise proposed above is comparable to removing a Halloween costume. While things look one way outwardly, what is actually happening underneath, at the surface, can sometimes be much different and will tell the true story.

Happy Halloween!

PS. Don’t wear your Halloween costume to your banker meeting.

profit

Is Profit a Part of Your Strategy?

Recently I met a confident cattleman who clearly displayed zero interest in what I do for clients and how they can benefit. He was very direct in describing his costs, and knew his break-even on his animals (right to the paperclips.)  He received a compliment from me on being ahead of many of his competitors.

To test me (or so I think this is why) he asked what he should do with his heifers this fall. After admitting that I am not an astute cattle market advisor since most of my work with farms are grain farms, I asked what his thoughts were if he and I weren’t having this conversation. He said he’d keep them and only cull a handful of cows. Doing so would increase his breeding herd by one-third. This, at a time when we’re coming off a serious drought which has left feed stocks and pastures in tight supply and at premium prices.

He sold fed calves this fall for enough to make a tidy profit. In the same breath he bemoans the price insurance premium he paid this year. I wouldn’t have thought that creating enough profit from operations so as not to need risk management programs was a bad thing…

Further to his question about what to do with his heifers, I said that I’d first need to know where the market is headed by taking a look at the futures market for beef and for the Canadian dollar. This was a lead-in to ask him if he does any hedging. His response was, “No, we’re not on the right side to do that.” Puzzled, I asked him to explain. He described how “lots of guys out there hedge the dollar, price all their barley, and contract their sales…basically they’re doing everything to lock in a profit.”

I let that statement stew for a moment; I wanted his own words to sink in.

Then I just blurted out, “That sounds fantastic! Why wouldn’t everyone do that?”

There was no response.

It was at that moment that I knew there was no point berating the issue further. Here was a cattle operator who knew his costs but refused to use that knowledge to his betterment. There was nothing I could say in that moment that would lead him to take a different action.

To Plan for Prosperity

Profit is not a bad thing, it is a very good thing and business must do everything possible to maximize it. The story above is real, and more of the story includes a decision on whether this cattleman should pursue off-farm employment because the cattle alone aren’t providing sufficient income.

I’m puzzled at how off-farm employment along with the cattle herd simply creates more work and is an option being considered, yet more work to maximize profitability in the cattle herd (hedging strategy) isn’t work that is desirable.

Profit feeds your business, it feeds your family, and it feeds your ability to spend time with your family & on other things you enjoy.

Profit is not a bad thing, it is a very good thing.

Is profit a part of your strategy?

Soil Testing Home Farm

Soil Testing Season

This is the time of year when soil probes all over the prairie are taking samples of the soil that provided the crop in the current year and will provide another crop next year. It’s an annual “check-in” to see what’s left.

It was the same about a year ago. We check what nutrient levels remain after harvest, consider what crop will perform best in each field next year, and begin to apply appropriate nutrients (following the 4R’s of Fertility: Right Source, Right, Rate, Right Time, and Right Place) in fall and/or in spring. The crop get’s sown, produce get’s harvested, and we check the soil again. Based on what we started with, what we added, and what the crop used to through the growing season, we compare to what is left in the soil to evaluate how efficient our fertility program was.

If it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been, we examine the effects on our production (moisture, heat, disease, insects, etc.) and we examine our own role in the process by questioning if the seed tool did a good enough job; how about the sprayer? Often time we use weather as the justification to acquire bigger, newer equipment to “get the job done faster.”

What if the entire industry, not just the progressive managers but the entire industry, used that same methodology in analyzing profit and cash flow? It might look something like this:

This is the time of year when spreadsheets all over the prairie are being used to tally up the performance of the business over the last growing season. We start with the working capital we had after last harvest, consider what crop will perform best based on your crop rotation and market outlook, and begin to project input costs and yield & price for each crop. We enter expected operating and overhead costs into a projection, and convert those projections to “actuals” as the year progresses. Once harvest is complete, we evaluate working capital again.

If profitability and cash flow was insufficient to meet expectations, we examine if operating costs stayed within budget or not (and why), we examine if overhead costs were projected correctly or if we let both operating and overhead “get away” this year. What did we not foresee? What did we properly plan for? Did we market appropriately?

The practice of soil testing compliments crop and fertility planning. These are crucial steps to take to create the most efficient plan. Remember, you need to produce at the lowest cost per unit possible. Period. Hard Stop.

The practice of checking financial performance is similar to keeping score. It would be awfully tough to know what adjustments need to be made during the game (growing season) without knowing the score along the way.

To Plan for Prosperity

It’s been said by agronomists that soil testing is “seeing what’s in the bank account” and they carry on in supporting that analogy by stating that no one would write a cheque without knowing what the bank balance is first. Sadly, there any many people who do both: write cheques without knowing what’s in the bank and plant crops without knowing what’s in soil. One won’t break you, the other could.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge comes from management. Management requires measurement. Test your soil (financial performance), because if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

 

**Side note: the photo is from my farming days, and provides a glimpse into the soil I used to farm. I found it interesting to so clearly see the A, B, and C horizons in a single core. **

What Do You Care About

What Do You Care About?

What do you care about?

In a conversation with a fellow business advisor recently, the topic was about how much demand for our services there would be this fall considering the drought, rising interest rates, a rising Canadian dollar, and volatile crop prices. He said to me, “The work we do is important; people need our help,” and then went on to say how he expects there to be significant demand from the marketplace for our financial advisory work.

I questioned whether the farming industry is “generally” ready to place enough importance on financial matters of cash flow, profitability, and leverage to create the demand he described. My experience is that there are pockets of business people who see the value and hire the help, but generally the financial woes faced at the farmgate have yet to cause enough pain to spur on action.

Change will only occur when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.

It seems like there is always something more important.

His response, “People will tell you what is important, and very clearly too! It’s their behavior. Their actions show you very clearly what they care about most.”

Based on how farm equipment sales continue to be incredibly strong, despite challenges to cash flow and profitability, it’s not rocket-surgery to figure out what is a top priority among farmers…

Faced with a choice of one response over the other, how would you choose:
What do you care about?
a)
Ensuring a profitable enterprise for long term growth and sustainability
b) Having a modern/late model fleet of machinery

a) Investing in the crop that provides your income
b) Investing in an “asset” that is a merely a cost and reduces your profitability 5 different ways

a) Getting bigger
b) Getting better

Years ago (WAY back) when I drove a fuel truck for a living, one of my customers always needed significantly less heater fuel (fuel oil) than any other customer on the regular monthly top-ups during one particularly cold winter. It’s not that his house was that new or air-tight; it was not that he didn’t have the money to pay for the fuel (they were a wealthy family.) It was that, by his own admission, he “kept it as cool as possible in the house, about 64 (degrees Fahrenheit).” This was a family of 6, with kids ranging in age from 10-18, whose comfort was less important than money. By his behavior, it was clear what he cared about most.

To Plan for Prosperity

If you feel like you might be facing a choice this year as you evaluate your financial performance, you won’t be alone. Hard choices need to be made by business-people everywhere, every year, all the time. When considering what choice to make, first ask yourself “What do you care about”. When what you care about is clear, the strategy and the action become obvious.

If you are having difficulty defining what you care about, look at past behavior: it will paint the picture for you.

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…

Return on Assets

ROA (Return on Assets)

Return on assets, or “ROA” as we’ll refer to it, is an often overlooked financial metric on the farm. Partly, I think it is because there is a culture in agriculture that places too much emphasis, even “romanticizes” the accumulation of assets (namely land, but mostly equipment.) This doesn’t necessarily bode well for ROA calculations. But the greater reason ROA isn’t a regular discussion on the farm, in my experience, is because it is not understood.

return on assets formula

The math is simple to understand, so when I say “ROA is not understood,” I mean that the significance of ROA, and its impact, is not appreciated.

Return on Assets is a profitability measure. Its key drivers are operating profit margin and the “asset turnover ratio.” ROA should be greater than the cost of borrowed capital.

Let’s ask the question: “When calculating ROA, do we use market value or cost basis of assets in the denominator?” The simple answer is “BOTH!”
Do two calculations:
1) using “cost” to measure actual operational performance;
2) using market value to measure “opportunity analysis” which is a nice way of saying “could you invest in other assets that might generate a better return than your farm assets?”

Operating profit margin is calculated as net farm income divided gross farm revenue, and is a key driver of Return on Assets.

The asset turnover ratio (also a key driver of ROA) measures how efficiently a business’ assets are being used to generate revenue. It is calculated as total revenue divided by total assets. The crux of this measurement is that it has a way of showing the downside of asset accumulation. The results of this calculation illustrate how many dollars in revenue your business generates for every dollar invested in assets. While there is no clear benchmark for this metric, I’ve heard farm advisors with over 3 decades experience share figures that range from 0.25 to 0.50. This means that for every dollar of investment in assets, the business generates 25-50 cents of revenue (NOTE, that is REVENUE not PROFIT).

If assets increase and revenue does not, the asset turnover figure trends negatively.
If revenue increases and profit does not, the operating profit margin trends negatively.
Increasing revenue alone will not positively affect ROA. “Getting bigger” or “producing more” alone without increasing profit does not make a difference. If you recall: “Better is better before bigger is better…”

To Plan for Prosperity

As you will find in many of these regular commentaries, the financial measurements described within are each but one of many practical tools to be used in the analysis of your business. Return on Assets cannot be used on its own to determine the strength or weakness of your operation. But used in combination with other key metrics, we can determine where the hot issues are, and how to fix them so that your business can maximize efficiency, cash flow, and profitability.