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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?

Contrast

Contrast

Did you ever wonder how so much expansion is going on during what is supposedly challenging economic times?

In this part of the world, in fact in this part of Canada, we are experiencing economic growth that is far less than we’ve enjoyed over the last decade. Government spending has been reduced provincially, and the federal government deficit has grown exponentially; we were teased with drastic changes to our federal business income tax structure; we’re paying higher levels of consumption tax; unemployment has grown; overall confidence has declined.

And yet, we continue to see businesses growing, we see new construction in housing, commercial, and industrial levels, consumers continue to buy new cars and take vacations. On Boxing Day, my thermometer read -32 Celsius but there was a line up outside the doors of the Visions Electronics store prior to their 6am opening. How tough can these times really be?

Notwithstanding the socio-economic challenges that our society faces (none of which I am trying to discount here), behavior would indicate that the “tough times” aren’t as tough as we’re being led to believe.

Contrast the difference between 2 businesses in the same industry: both make widgets, both have sales forces, both face the same challenges of staying relevant in the sleepy industry of widget production.

Company A wants to corner the market and pursues a mission of expansion that leans hard on the idea that “bigger is better,” and expecting it to lead to greater efficiency, sales, and profits. Company A increases debt and increases cash flow spending on capital assets, technology, and marketing to fuel its expansion aspirations.

Company B recognizes the truth in the adage “Innovate or die.” While the widget production industry is sleepy, Company B knows that the status quo is not sustainable. Five years ago, Company B developed a 5 year plan to position itself to be an innovator in widget production. It carefully managed margins and cash flow so as to create a “war chest” of resources.

Which company is building a new production facility in 2018? Which company is at risk of losing not only its market share, but its best people,  to its competitor? Which company will blame the tough economic times for the decline of its business?

The best businesses, and it doesn’t matter which industry they are in, the best businesses plan. They plan for cycles, growth, innovation, and the unforeseen (like the 4 D’s: death, divorce, disability, disagreement.) Businesses that do not plan leave themselves at the mercy of the market, the fickle nature of consumerism, or “tough economic times.”

Plan for Prosperity

Planning, in and of itself, does not guarantee prosperity. Even execution of the best plan does not guarantee prosperity. But in contrast to your competitors who do not plan, who make decisions based on short term perspective and emotion, or who are happy just floating along, there is a clear and obvious line separating the grain from the chaff.

Which side of that line do you want to be on?

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.

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.

 

Perspective

Perspective

What do you want to accomplish between now and Oct 1, 2018?

If I had asked many of you that question one year ago, you might have provided a response that would make you cringe using the lens of today. Last year, may farms were suffering from excess moisture, and long drawn out harvest. On this date one year ago, there were millions of acres yet to be harvested in western Canada. If one year ago you were hoping for a hot dry 2017, well…you got it.

How has your perspective changed over the course of a year? What is affecting the change in your perspective? If you’re more concerned about short term fluctuations rather than big picture issues, such as a recent market correction versus the tax changes currently proposed by our federal government, then you’re probably looking down the hood of the truck instead of down the road.

If you’re more concerned about short term fluctuations rather than big picture issues, then you’re probably looking down the hood of the truck instead of down the road.

My best client relationship has evolved from our original work of clarifying Unit Cost of Production by drilling down operating and overhead costs, so that we are now pursuing 5 year expansion strategies and establishing tactics for handing off management activities as part of a transition plan that is still 5-10 years away.

In the next breath, when asked “What is the greatest challenge on farms today,” I regretfully cutoff whoever is asking the question by blurting out “cash flow.”

I see numerous farms who do not suffer cash flow challenges. They experience the same weather, the same markets, the same interest rates. Yet somehow these farms do not suffer under the same cash flow pressure. Why is that?

Perspective.

Successful businesses have a long term perspective. Those businesses recognize the variability in the aspects affecting their business that they cannot control (like weather, markets, interest rates), and as such, they prepare themselves and their businesses for what’s coming “down the road.”

Looking down the hood instead of down the road doesn’t give you time to prepare and react to what’s coming up ahead.

Here is an easy recipe to help prepare for what’s coming up “down the road”:

  1. Understand cost of production, right down to the paperclips.
  2. Get lean in how you manage your operating and overhead costs.
  3. Maintain modest personal drawings.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary assets and the debt they bring with them.
  5. Build working capital to a minimum of 50% of annual cash costs.

By implementing these 5 steps into your action plan before spring, you will instantly be miles ahead of your competitors one year from now.

To Plan for Prosperity

There is no crystal ball in my possession, so I cannot predict what is coming down the road. What I can tell you is that I have seen the effects of business cycles on the unprepared, I have seen the effects of poor perspective on the oblivious. Conversely, I hold great admiration for the business people who had the foresight to control all that they were able to control, including how they were affected by that which they couldn’t control.

What’s your perspective?

Canola 100 fail title

Why the Canola 100 Challenge is So Wrong

Announced two years ago around this time, the Canola 100 challenge baits farmers into taking part in a “moonshot”: an attempt to produce a verified canola yield of 100 bushels per acre. It isn’t that efforts to increase yield aren’t a good thing, because they are. But by what means are we attempting to achieve these yields?

This “contest” may be virtuous in spirit, but it overlooks the not-so-old adage that “better is better before bigger is better.” That applies to this argument too.

The rationale behind my position is supported in this Western Producer article that describes a farmer’s chase of this moonshot, throwing everything including the kitchen sink at his crop in an attempt to cash in on the Canola 100 prize. (Spoiler alert: it failed miserably.) This particular attempt can be summarized in this quote from the article:

The fertility program cost $300 per acre more than what was done to the check field but yielded only 70 bu. per acre, which was 1.4 bu. per acre more than the check field.

The driving factor behind efforts to maximize yields should be ROI (Return on Investment) and Gross Margin. Doing so would focus on maximum economic yield, not maximum production yield. There’s something about that pesky law of diminishing returns that gets overlooked when trying to shoot for the moon…

If maximum economic yield is the target, then Gross Margin is the focus. How that gross margin is achieved is up to each producer, but make no mistake about where the focus needs to be. In my experience, minimum gross margin, that is gross revenue less seed, chemicals, and fertilizers, at MINIMUM needs to be 65% to sustain the business. High cost operations need greater gross margin to cover all those costs.

To put that in reverse, if 35% of your gross revenue can go to crop inputs, then each $1.00 invested into inputs should return $2.86 in gross revenue. To apply this to the example above, the “extra $300 per acre” in fertility should have delivered $858/ac in gross revenue. If Canola was $10/bu, that’s nearly 86 bushels per acre above the check field.

Canola 100 fail

Let’s push the argument harder: if the example above actually hit 100 bushels per acre, and acknowledging the control field yielded 68.6 bu/ac, the gross margin on the Canola 100 plot was $14 per acre, or about 4.67%.

This is IF the 100 bushel yield was achieved…and face it, $14 gross margin doesn’t pay many bills; in fact, it wouldn’t even buy the fuel for the contest plot.

To Plan for Prosperity

Make no mistake about the messaging here: as a producer of commodities, you need the bushels!!! But do not lose sight of the fact that as a producer of commodities, your only chance of remaining sustainably profitable is to produce at the lowest cost per unit. Period. Chasing maximum yield at a 1:1 ROI won’t get it done.

1. What is your historical gross margin?
2. What are your operating and overhead costs?
3. Know these to be able to plan for maximum economic yield.

 

Better is Better

Better is Better…

Would you rather make $50/acre profit on 20,000 acres or $100/acre profit on 10,000 acres?

This is a question I ask any farmer who admits to pursuing aggressive expansion. As was aptly described in a recent edition of FCC’s AgriSuccess  in May 2017, journalist Kevin Hursh discusses cost effectiveness of farm expansion with Kristjan Hebert. Kristjan has been quoted in this commentary a number of times in the past because he is the first person I hear using the term “Better is better before bigger is better.” To his credit, he admits that it isn’t his phrase; he heard first heard it from someone else.

The question posed at the beginning of this piece is meant to evoke an admission of any business flaws that have crept in to the practices and decisions that drive aggressive expansion.

The point is acknowledge that for all the risk undertaken in the operations of any agricultural enterprise over the course of one year, the end result must recognize the effort involved and the risk taken. If you’re working harder and risking more, why would you accept less profit? True, the linear dollar profit is the same in this example, but the profit per unit (in this case, per acre) is half. Anyone who can prove that their whole farm costs, right to the paperclips, are also halved is welcome to step up and prove that bigger is in fact better. I’ll wait…

There are many advisors who have questioned why any commodity production business would want to rapidly expand before doing the best job they can on what they already have. The argument on what led to the mindset of expansion at all costs hasn’t been settled in over 20 years, and won’t be settled here today. But in the end, we can do better, we must do better, because now we know better.

And the words are true: Better IS Better…

To Plan for Prosperity

This week’s piece is purposefully pithy. It is meant to drive awareness of the “Costs and Effects™” of the decisions made in our businesses. Every choice we make has a consequence, and to truly “be better,” we must evaluate each business decision on its merit, not how it makes us feel.

While bigger can sometimes be better, it’s guaranteed that better is always better.

 

Discipline

Discipline

Over the last number of weeks, we’ve contrasted two fictional farmers and their approach to managing growth, and specifically an expansion opportunity. One failed in his aspirations, the other succeeded. One of the major factors contributing to the results of both examples is discipline.

“Fictional Fred” was lacking discipline. He shot from the hip, and ran his business in a reactionary fashion. He did not make it habit to consider the impact of the decisions he was making, whether it be adding another combine late in the season, or attempting to take on additional land that would equate to an immediate 66% increase in cultivated acres. He recklessly adds equipment to his business which has driven up his equipment cost. This has also come with the cost of damage to his relationship with his primary lenders. Fred behaves in a way that many people think is entitled. He’s done few favors for himself with his recent actions.

“Imaginary Harry” exercises great discipline in how he manages his business. He has a strategy that was constructed with the aid of his trusted advisors. He is confident that his strategy is the best way to achieve his family, business, and financial goals. As such, he establishes operating plans each year that follow his strategy; he maintains a capital expenditure (CapEx) plan that follows his strategy; he sticks with the cash flow and financing plan that follows his strategy. He’ll always politely listen to the pitch of those who are trying to sell him something (because everyone wants Harry to be their customer) but if it doesn’t fit into his strategy, Harry doesn’t buy.

Strategy is not written in stone. Strategy is a a concept as much as it is a plan, and as the CEO you need to be able to adjust your strategy when the environment changes.
Discipline is a character trait, a behavior, that equips a person to avoid distraction and stick to the plan, and as the CEO you need to be able to maintain discipline when warranted, but also be able to permit flexibility when needed.

To test your disciplinary mettle, the next time you face a distraction, ask yourself the following:

  1. How will this decision affect my strategy (my goal) of achieving ___________?
  2. Will this have a positive or negative impact on my cash flow and profitability?
  3. Is this a “want” or  a “need”?

To Plan for Prosperity

As defined by Merriam-Webster, strategy is “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time,” and discipline is “a way of behaving that shows a willingness to obey rules or orders.”

The strategy is yours, you created it. To not maintain discipline to your own strategy is aptly described by Marshall Goldsmith in his book Triggers: (you’re) failing a test that (you’ve) written!”

 

Strategy

Strategy

In the last two issues through prose, we’ve contrasted two differing approaches to managing growth opportunities in a farm operation. “Fictional Fred” shot from the hip, taking more of a “ready, fire, aim” approach to business. That style has a time and place, and even if it isn’t your core modus operandi, there may be situations where you need to act fast to take advantage of an opportunity before it’s gone. In most businesses, however, a gunslinger approach such as this does not make for a long term sustainable enterprise.

By contrast, “Imaginary Harry” ran his business with more precision. He understood that the best way to improve profitability in a commodity production business was to stringently manage all that he could control, recognizing that there is so much that cannot be controlled.

Fred wanted to get bigger, but he overlooked being better. Harry wanted to get bigger only if it made him better.
Harry has a defined strategy that he is acting on, and he is making more money because of it.
Fred’s strategy, if he even has one, is loosely put together, and like that of a sweater of similar description, would come apart completely at the first snag.

Define Your Strategy

A business operating without a strategy is eventually caught up in “the spin-cycle.” Like a clothes washing machine, around and ’round it goes: daily tasks and routines repeated each day, weekly repeated each week, monthly repeated each month, yearly repeated each year. As days, weeks, months, and years go by, without direction and strategy the time marches on and business results fail to meet expectations. Then who is to blame? Let the finger pointing begin!

If your strategy is to be the biggest, then declare it. Make it your success criteria.
If your strategy is to be the least indebted, then declare it. Make it your success criteria.
If your strategy is to continue the family legacy and take over the family business then declare it. Make is your success criteria.

To Plan for Prosperity

The point is not to tell you that your strategy is right or wrong; the point is to HAVE a strategy.
Having no strategy is like shooting targets with a shotgun: you’ll hit something, but it might not be what you wanted.

passion

Passion

“A business without passion is merely a job.

A passion without business is merely a dream.

Making a business of your passion is a bountiful success.”

This morning I was in an email conversation about “mastering your craft” with a fellow business advisor, an incredibly intelligent woman who also happens to be one of my best friends. It reminded me about one of the points I would make during my many speaking engagements over this past winter: sometimes passion is not enough.

We’ve heard it and read it before. It falls out of the mouths of motivational speakers everywhere. It is seen regularly on daytime talk shows, infomercials, and of course, the interweb. “Follow your dreams…harness your passion…” What if passion is not enough?

There are many who venture into “business” who are either ignorant or willfully blind of the financial and management side of “business.” Often they believe that their skill and their passion are all that is necessary to be successful in business. As Michael Gerber wrote in The E-Myth, “The Fatal Assumption is: ‘if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand the business that does the technical work.’ And the reason it’s fatal is that it just isn’t true. In fact it’s the root cause of most small business failures.”

Just because you’re a great cook does not mean you should open a restaurant.
Just because you’re a great welder does not mean you should start a manufacturing company.

This is not to discount the importance of mastering your craft. Realizing on your passion is a gift too few of us ever get to realize. BUT…if you intend to make your passion into a business, you need to know BUSINESS!

I don’t know anyone anywhere whose passion is “cash flow,” but it is an integral part of business that must be intimately known, or the gap from startup to liquidation could by mighty small.

To Plan for Prosperity

During many of my speaking engagements this past winter, I’ve suggested that a simplified strategy can be 1) Find what you are passionate about, and 2) Determine if you can make money doing it. Passion on its own is not enough.

There is a difference between “business owners” and “people who own businesses.” The former are entrepreneurs; the latter have bought themselves a job. Despite “The Entrepreneurial Myth” as Gerber defined it, all hope is not lost for those who have fallen into it. The people who will be most successful are those who can admit they need help in areas where their passion does not lie.

“Do what you do best, and get help for the rest.™”