blindspot

Blind Spot

The bigger the rig, the bigger the blind spot.

For those of us who drive or have driven semi (a.k.a. highway tractor) the blind spot is a reality we must be vigilant of every time we roll. Most “4 wheelers” have never experienced the challenge of maneuvering a vehicle of that size.

Small cars have blind spots too. They are, however, much smaller and therefore easier to manage. It does not matter how big your vehicle is, your blind spot is dangerous if you don’t turn your head to have a look.

With multiple mirrors, and now even with on-board cameras, managing the blind spot has come a long way. Tools and technology have made blind-spot management far more effective.

But the blind spot is still dangerous if you don’t use the tools.

What blind spots do you need to manage in your business? Some blind spots that I’ve seen cause problems for business owners include making decisions with short term emotion versus long term vision, complacency, and entitlement, just to name a few.

All the tools and tech in the world won’t eliminate the risks coming out of your blind spot, especially if you don’t turn your head and have a look…

Short Term Emotional Decisions vs Long Term Vision

Everywhere I look, I see growing examples of business owners making short term decisions based on emotion that ignore any long term vision. In agriculture, it’s applying last year’s factors, such as drought, hail, or disease to this year’s plan. To paraphrase an astute and highly intelligent young farmer I spoke with in the last wee, “many farmers will put big hail insurance coverage on land that saw hail last year for the first time in over 10 years, or they’ll build a 2018 crop plan that is suited to a lack of moisture because of the drought in 2017…”
I see examples in cash flow management where business owners will spend frivolously after one or two good years in a row instead of building a war chest of working capital from recalling the tough times of recent memory (“recent” being a relative term that would extend to as few as 10 years ago.)

Complacency

We’ve heard all the anecdotal evidence of how we must be adaptable to change, change is the only constant, innovate or die, etc. etc.  Or the cringe-worthy, six deadliest words in business: “We’ve always done it this way.” Complacency in business is a killer. Just ask Kodak, Nokia, and Blockbuster Video.
We are in the digital age where automation, the Internet of Things, and machine to machine communication will continue to rapidly move from concepts we read about in industry publications to standard fare. Indoor plumbing and color TVs were once outlier ideas too…

Entitlement

At TEPAP, I listened in on a discussion contrasting nepotism, which usually carries with it a negative connotation, and entitlement. “Entitlement” ranks way up there on the list of my most despised words. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of “nepotism” either, but it is not inherently bad. It is when entitlement infiltrates the nepotism that things can go bad.

nepotism
ˈnepəˌtizəm
noun: patronage bestowed or favoritism shown on the basis of family relationship, as in business and politics;
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nepotism

 

Plan for Prosperity

These are but three blind spots that can cause you problems in business. There are more, but each business and family are different, so none can apply to everyone every time. Ignoring your blind spot will allow a risk to sneak up on you. Yes, even if you’re in your semi-truck and a motorcycle is in your blind spot, you won’t likely be fatally injured if you collide, but your rig will be damaged and your trip disrupted. In this metaphor, the truck is your business, the motorcycle is the unforeseen risk you didn’t notice because you failed to check your blind spot. The damage to your rig may be financially insignificant, but still requires attention that is taken away from your business. The trip that was disrupted is your cash-flow, potentially your profit, and maybe, ultimately, your success.
What if you were the motorcycle and it was a semi-truck in your blind spot?
Drive safe…
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.

Changing Paths

Changing Paths

Two summers ago, 5 friends gathered to undertake a 2-day back country mountain hike. All the plans were finalized well ahead of time. Everyone invested in proper gear for such an adventure: backpack, drinking water storage, hiking boots, etc. The weather was perfect. The gear lived up to its expectations. No one got hurt. The entire excursion truly was a success.

The best intentions ahead of such a trip were evident, yet preparations had to be made for unpredictable scenarios such as encountering a bear, inclement weather, or getting lost. There is no cell service in the back country…

In this case, everyone was prepared for challenges along the way.

Contrast the story above with a trip into the city, or even a longer trip to location out of province. If it’s a day trip or a short run, as long as there is enough fuel in the vehicle, all you might grab is a jacket on your way out the door. Longer journeys might lead you to give the vehicle a servicing beforehand, fuel it up, and load it with some luggage and possibly snacks for the drive. You know what route you’ll take and you know how long it takes to get there. Off you go…

Along the way,

  • you find your primary gravel road is getting a culvert replaced (forcing a 5 mile detour);
  • you drive through an unmarked rough patch on the highway that causes your coffee to spill on your lap;
  • you come up to a minor collision where the emergency vehicles (tow trucks, police) have slowed traffic which is now backed up one-eighth of a mile;
  • The total drive time of 1 hour (or 2 hours, or 7 hours) other than the 3 points above were “ideal driving conditions” with smooth roads, light traffic, and a tail wind.
  • You arrive at your destination 20 minutes later than planned but safe and sound.

We might describe this story as a terrible excursion where nothing went right. Yet, we did arrive safely, without injury (or worse.)

In the first story, about the mountain hike, the friends were later discussing doing another such trek in the future. It is good for the soul, after all. In that discussion, comments were made about not needing to “over-pack” next time (because the first trip had no significant challenges likes bears or snow.)

In the second story, unforeseen obstacles hindered progress and challenged our perspective of what a successful trip really is.

To Plan for Prosperity

The journeys above are a metaphor for your business.

When tackling something new, it is common to over-prepare. Then if the venture is successful, it is easy to shuck all the preparedness that wasn’t needed the first time around which could put you and your business at significant risk. What in your business is equivalent to running into a bear on a back country mountain path?

Conversely, when setting out on a familiar trek, any glitch (no matter how small) can cause us to get upset, even angry, and wonder “why is this happening to me?” We fail to recognize that we didn’t plan for any contingencies, and left ourselves at risk. What in your business is equivalent to a 5 mile detour, or hot coffee spilling in your lap?

How do you respond when revenue falls short of expectations, or when a key employee resigns? In business, and in life, we have to be willing and able to change paths, sometimes by choice while other times we are forced.

Our ability to adjust is critical to our 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.

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.

Test Your Outlook

Test Your Outlook

Price vs. Cost

*The following three lines are excerpted from Seth Godin’s Blog, October 16, 2017*

Price is a simple number. How much money do I need to hand you to get this thing?
Cost is what I had to give up to get this.
Just about every time, cost matters more than price, and shopping for price is a trap.

Does what Godin writes above strike a chord with you? When I hear of farmers selling out their long time input supplier to buy fertilizer for $5 per metric tonne cheaper from the dealer 20 miles down the road, I can easily understand that this is someone who does not understand price vs cost.

Expense vs. Investment

Too often there is confusion about what constitutes an expense and what constitutes an investment. An investment will provide a return over what you’ve paid, an expense will not.
Examples of investments are crop inputs, land, hired help, and quality advisors.
Examples of expenses are repairs, fuel, and equipment.
Sadly, when profitability is at risk, the first place many farmers look at is what falls under investment.

Price vs. Value

Price is what you pay.
Value is what you get.
And while it seems simple to distinguish one from the other, when emotion enters the equation we find that value is often seen where it does not actually exist.

Profit vs. Cash Flow

When I was still farming, the first year that dad wasn’t actively farming on his own any more and had rented us all his land, I was negotiating with him on when he wanted to get paid the rent (in the current year or after January 1). When he offered to defer to the new year since he had enough old crop sold already, I thanked him while admitting that it would help us since we were tight on cash for the next couple months. His reply was, “I thought you said this farm was profitable.” I told him it was, yet he wasn’t able to recognize that even though we weren’t flush with cash at that moment, we were profitable.

Often times when working with clients, I am offered a projection that they might have built on their own. Whether they call it a profit projection or a cash flow projection, it usually is a combination of both: it contains cash flow items like loan payments as well as expense items like (non-cash) depreciation. Doing so makes the result of the exercise look much worse that it actually might be.
Profitable businesses run into cash flow challenges at times; unprofitable businesses run into cash flow challenges most of the time. To rectify the issue, one must first know whether the problem is profitability or cash flow.

Problem vs. Opportunity

Recently, I read an article written by a farm advisor that described the panic of a client who hedged 30% of his new crop production at a profitable price. The panic was because the market had moved higher. His view was that this was a problem, but the advisor patiently guided him through the reality that this was actually an opportunity to price more crop.
The producer viewed the situation as a problem because he felt he “missed out” on selling for a higher price.  The reality was that he was already priced at a profit (a meager one, but still a profit) and now had the opportunity to price in even more profit. Sadly it seems he would have been happier if the market had moved down because his hedge would have been even more in the money despite the fact that the remaining 70% of his new crop was unpriced and might then be unprofitable…

To Plan for Prosperity

Objectivity can be difficult to maintain when making business decisions. I know; occasionally I have the same difficulty in my own business, and that is why I have a business advisor.

As entrepreneurs, we get caught up in what we’re doing, what we’re trying to solve, or what we’re working to create. We can get so engrossed in our own ideas that we sometimes fail to see what is blatantly obvious, that which can bring faster results, a more desirable outcome, or just less stress. Garnering the perspective from someone outside our business is a great way to test our outlook.

 

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. **

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?