Monthly Archives: October 2012

The business of life Chapter 37 – the joy of closure

Assembled in a meeting room in a hotel close to Newcastle airport early one morning, the two sides eyed each other warily.  We had not met for three years but had fought with all the powers of the law on our side and what had seemed like pure obduracy & guile on our opponents’ part.  It appeared that Clifford had convinced himself that our legal claims would melt away as we failed in the business his father had founded all those years before.The business of life - chapter 37

The plenary session began with both sides facing each other either side of a long table with the law society facilitators at either end.  Both sides had legal teams present comprising lawyers and barristers, all enjoying huge hourly fees whatever the outcome.  The process of spelling out our claim in great detail and at length whilst staring Clifford in the eye was a strange experience indeed.  It was exceeded only by having to listen to what we felt constituted the fairy tale of their defence and counter claim.  The plenary session over we retired to our respective rooms and the shuttle diplomacy began.  The chairman visited each party in turn to ascertain at first hand the reaction each group had to the others’ position.

It was clear that no quick or easy solution was likely to emerge, in fact it seemed that Clifford and Mike were as resistant to a settlement as ever.  Day turned into evening with no progress at all and the session broke up with each group making its own arrangements for dinner.  The next day began and continued all morning with no progress.  I was becoming increasingly irritated by the corporate finance partner from our law firm who could only match the other side’s bluster and seemed intent on ensuring that we ended up in court.  In contrast, Stephanie his manager who had worked closely with me over the previous three years impressed me greatly with her calm efforts to find a solution.

The day wore on in like fashion and Roger, Malcolm and I were becoming resigned to having to endure the costs and uncertainty of resolution before a judge.  I had been casually intrigued by the behaviour of our barrister who for the last hour or so had been ignoring the rest of us and quietly doodling on his pad (or so I assumed).  “OK,” he suddenly exclaimed, “this is how I see things.”  He then proceeded to share his doodles with us, which were actually a matrix of all of the claims and counter claims at stake.  Ranged against each claim was a percentage calculation of the chances of each party winning or losing with his best estimate of the awards and costs each would incur should they win or lose.

The bottom line was the view that we had an almost 100% chance of winning all of our claims.  His view was that Clifford had, at best, only a 50% chance of winning their counter claim.  However, the killer result was that the costs and damages Clifford would suffer as a result of our wins would exceed any benefit from his counter claim succeeding by a factor of about ten.  We called in the chairman who quietly listened, asked a few questions and departed to put this picture before Clifford and Mike.   An hour later he returned and we learned that they had capitulated almost completely.  A couple more hours later we all signed the necessary documents that drew matters to a close (apart from some remaining issues that festered on with HMRC).

As I drove back to Yorkshire that night I reflected on what had happened over the last three years.  Many years previously Clifford and Mike had put in train a course of action that was relatively insignificant at the time but one that had snowballed into major proportions.  I felt it was sheer arrogance and mindless bravado that had brought Clifford into conflict with us, a process that set about unravelling their plan & compounding matters through their refusal to negotiate.  It was clear that Clifford and Mike’s legal team had failed to advise them of the costs they could incur by their actions.  We had won a long, drawn out and bloody battle that had never been of our choosing and had won handsomely.  Strangely, it gave me little satisfaction other than great relief that the whole sad story was over.  I had closure.

Freed of the efforts and frustrations of a long and drawn out legal fight, we threw ourselves back into the challenges of improving our complex new group of three companies.  MSG was our strategic acquisition, the core of our business with, we believed, great potential for highly profitable growth and an ultimate sale.  By the standards of the UK engineering sector it was already a highly successful business (not least due to its non-involvement in the mainstream automotive sector, one we steadfastly ignored).  It had a potential to become even more profitable through an ability to offer unique solutions to demanding blue-chip customers.  We knew that it would take hard work and patience owing to the extremely long leads times required to replace an existing process.  In the case of one of the major customers we won, it took fully ten years.

Trisk and Bison were more tactical (and certainly opportunistic) acquisitions.  Both produced exceptional profits in the first year of our ownership.  If we had then put both businesses up for sale life would have become a lot simpler (a lot sooner).  However, buoyed by the wondrous sound of cash hitting the bottom of the piggy bank and improving PEI’s balance sheet, we pressed on certain that we had hit the magic formula.  From then on matters got infinitely more complex as the cash production machine slowed.

There are long, frustrating stories behind our ownership of both these businesses but I’ll restrict myself to the following brief accounts.

A common feature of both businesses was the quality of management and many of the staff we inherited (courtesy of TUPE).  In both cases, instead of their embracing the change and opportunity brought by new ownership, we had to spend too much time fighting a tendency to revert to the orthodoxies that drove them into administration in the first place.  It was almost as if they believed their failed businesses had been pursuing the correct strategy and policies all along and some freak external event had knocked them temporarily off course.  These tendencies were bad enough but the net effect was to divert our attention from MSG where, with hindsight, we should have concentrated our time and energies.

With Bison, it only took a parting with the MD (son of the CEO of failed parent PLC) and four short years to sell the business in 2003.  We heaved a sigh of relief and moved on.

The situation with Trisk was much more complex.  The company still had technical leadership in infra red paint curing and had also developed ultra violet technology for more demanding applications.  The business was certainly a world leader in its sector and exported to every continent across the globe.  Once we had taken over we saw that Trisk had a number of critical strategic issues.  A major market for Trisk had been the USA where we had a network of commission agents.  Our products were capable of commanding far higher price levels but the agents had learned to sit on their hands ahead of the peak winter demand until our locally based manager panicked and reduced prices.  This was a pattern that revealed itself to be a major problem in many parts of the world.  Attempting to establish a stable and rational pricing strategy proved to be particularly tough due to internal company politics and the weak MD we had inherited with the business.

The other major problem took several years to emerge as the Trisk management either weren’t aware of the shifting dynamics of their marketplace or they ensured that they wouldn’t reveal what they knew (knowing it would require them to change strategy completely).  Trisk had built its initial success on designing and selling IR paint curing systems almost exclusively used for automotive repair work.  These systems were based around an array of IR lamps mounted on relatively simple mobile stands that could be moved around car repair workshops.  Trisk had also adapted the concepts into larger arrays built into custom spray booths.  A major market shift began to make itself felt in the first couple of years following our acquisition.

Legislation was driving the introduction of health and safety and other environmental regulations and these were killing off small repair shops, consolidating the market towards larger and more efficient units.  As this trend continued (fuelled by a succession of mild winters) sales of Trisk’s traditional mobile units declined.  The problem, that took some time to emerge, was that we were not gaining the share of in-booth systems that we should have been achieving.  Booth manufacturers were being involved at the design stage of the new super car repair shops permitting them to specify whose paint curing system was installed.  By the time Trisk personnel got to know about a new repair centre it was already up and running with a competitor’s curing system installed with the booths.

It was clear that Trisk management and sales staff had simply been unaware of this key shift in market dynamics.  Or worse, they had chosen to keep doing what they always did (in their comfort zone) in the hope that it might bring about a return to the glory days.  Around the time that this strategic market shift was becoming apparent, our MD, Tom, came to us with a request to buy the company out from us.  Tired of the short-sighted and intransigent management at Trisk and a need to re-focus our attention back upon MSG, we agreed.  What followed was a disaster that we should have foreseen.  Tom took many months getting funding and putting his bid together during which time he clearly neglected the company.  The bid he put to us ultimately was derisory, was duly rejected and he departed shortly afterwards.

Roger and I became more closely involved in running the business and the strategic issues began to surface.  Trisk’s real expertise lay in the technology of curing paint quickly and effectively and it was a world leader in this field.  The actual delivery systems were secondary but it was vital that Trisk became involved in ensuring their systems were specified at the design stage of the spray booths.  We recruited a marketing manager to research the market, promote and co-ordinate the use of Trisk technology into booths.

We also looked to see where else the technology could be most effectively employed.  It didn’t take long to discover that the servicing and repair of commercial aircraft was a potentially hugely profitable sector.  The leading edges of wings and tailfins had to be resprayed on a scheduled basis but the paint curing systems used were slow and expensive.  Trisk’s solution could eliminate days of aircraft downtime saving thousands of pounds for the operators.  With these two strategies in place, we employed an aerospace expert and a new managing director.

Sadly, our new MD transpired (despite an apparently strong CV and significant technical qualifications) to be completely ineffective and I had the task once more of seeing an MD off the premises.  It became clear that the sales and marketing team were not being successful in either ensuring specification of Trisk technology into new booth installations nor were they taking the action we had agreed to improve pricing.  Despite diverting major time on the part of our local MSG US manager towards assisting Trisk, the distribution problems there remained.  The fledgling aerospace business was still struggling to break through and gain aerospace approvals.  Our aerospace manager resigned taking up a more mainstream role in the sector.  Despite investing huge amounts of our time the team never seemed to have their heart in stepping out of their comfort zone and taking the necessary action that would turn the business around.

Looking back, Roger and I had believed in the business and had pushed hard to effect the changes that we believed would turn its fortunes around.  Our experience once more had been of ineffective management that we had inherited (and subsequently employed).  Buying both Bison and Trisk had stretched our management capabilities to the limit.  I still believe that we could have made a success of Trisk had we been able to concentrate solely on that business.  Both businesses had initially contributed strongly but we should have sold both within a year.

Although 3i had never overtly pressured us to sell PEI we did experience attempts at ‘persuasion’ occasionally and around this time a fresh ‘persuasion offensive’ was made.  Roger, Malcolm and I discussed the situation and decided that we would put the entire PEI business up for sale.  MSG had been performing well, our debt had been significantly reduced and we would be glad to see the end of Trisk.

Could we find a buyer for the whole business?  Would we receive offers that would reflect the value we had built in MSG?

 Image courtesy of careers.guardian.co.uk

 

The Business of Life Chapter 36 -it’s not just the business risks

Roger was taken seriously ill over the Christmas holiday 1998 and admitted to hospital with crippling back & chest pain.  Following MRI scans and blood tests he was diagnosed with an MRSA infection in his thoracic spine.  The affected vertebrae had all but collapsed, were partially fused, trapping nerves and were the cause of the excruciating pain he was suffering.  No one knew the source of the infection or how it came to lodge in his spine but it seemed life threatening at worst and incapacitating at best.  Whilst Roger was being pumped full of a cocktail of the most powerful antibiotics I pondered our situation. When it's not just the business you have to fear

 The illness could not have come at a worst time.  Our dispute with the vendors of MSG had reached the stage where a court action seemed inevitable and with the only certainty that we would be spending vast sums more to fuel the action.  I had been overseeing the detailed investigative work inside the company and liaising with our legal team.  I could ensure that our claims continued to be pursued with vigour but there was a peak of activity occurring simultaneously on a number of fronts.

A few months earlier one of our minor customers had been placed into administration.  The loss to MSG was small but the business itself was interesting.  The company concerned was Trisk, a world leader in infra red paint curing equipment for the automotive after market.  Situated only a few miles from us in Sunderland, it had enjoyed explosive growth with the founder recently receiving the accolade of North East Businessman of the Year award.  Unfortunately, a combination of poor strategy and uncontrolled spending had run the business into the ground resulting in the management being replaced and the bank appointing an administrator as soon as they had recovered their overdraft.

 The other aspect was that Trisk was also a 3i investment.  Although they had no hope of recovering their original investment they assured me that they would be supportive of an acquisition by us.  Prior to Christmas we had met with the administrators and the new management at the Trisk headquarters.  The new team had all been promoted from within and, whilst lacking experience, seemed supportive of our efforts to acquire the company.  However, there were a number of other parties interested including the largest competitor, Hedson of Sweden.  We were fully engaged in negotiations when Roger was taken ill.

Our efforts to locate at least one suitable acquisition candidate in our own engineering sector had come to nothing.  Having scoured our industry, had meetings with owners and analysed many sets of accounts, we came to the decision that there was not a competitor worth buying.  With the exception of a single piece of equipment (that we subsequently acquired for very little) none even had assets worth acquiring.  It was also quite clear that our competition fought with only one weapon – price.  They competed with each other for components that had always been made by the spinning process simply driving down price in the process.  The result was that margins in all of the competition were slender to non existent.

Following our strategic review we had identified that any new major business to be targeted would have to be conversion from alternative metal forming processes.  It was apparent to us that we could offer significant technical advantages for industrial applications where the risk of failure in life had to be eliminated.  This was a risk in particular (and demanding) applications where components had been made using alternative metal forming processes.  Companies were prepared to pay heavily for a process that eliminated these risks.  As the result of our new strategy, Roger had targeted the medical division of one of the largest industrial companies in the world.  Within hours of his contact they had put an engineer on a plane from the USA to meet with us.  Now, they had followed this up with drawings for a set of major components for one of their products.  The only person with the engineering skills to lead the investigation into how we could produce the components was Roger.

When I went into the hospital the following day to discuss how we might make alternative plans, I found I had been beaten to it.  Drawings were strewn across Roger’s bed and a small team were assembled around him.  “If I don’t do it, no other bugger can.” growled Roger in his inimitable manner.  He proceeded to lead the team that developed our ultimately successful solution from his hospital bed in the weeks that followed.  Samples were produced, shipped to the US and soon approved.  Unfortunately, despite our superior solution (and the winning of an internet auction) we fell foul of internal politics and it was to be several years before we became a regular supplier.

The infection that had laid Roger low was finally pronounced clear but it was to leave him with subsequent and recurrent problems that continue to this day.  Somehow he would shrug the problems off and battle on displaying a level of fortitude and perseverance I have never witnessed before or since.   It soon became apparent that to pursue these strategic opportunities required investment in new equipment that was capable of producing the power and tolerances required for the demanding, new work.  Over the next few years we acquired two of the largest CNC spinning lathes in Europe (capable of spinning components up to 5 metres in diameter).  These were followed by smaller state of the art spinning machines, water jet cutting, high speed plasma and a robot.

Our bid to acquire Trisk was successful, beating off our Swedish competitor.  Getting to know our new business and repositioning strategy proved to be a time consuming process.  However, we quickly had the business back into profit and started looking for fresh opportunities.

In another serendipitous turn of events we suffered a further minor bad debt when a second of our many MSG customers went into administration.  The company, Bison IBC Systems in Bradford, produced UN standard intermediate bulk containers for the transportation and storage of hazardous chemicals.  It was a leader in its field and had a strong reputation for quality.  However, once again we found a company that had been mismanaged, although this time it was through the activities of its parent company.  Following protracted negotiations we bought the assets of the business later in 1999.  A similar pattern occurred as with Trisk and profits started to flow shortly after our acquisition.

 By the end of that financial year both new acquisitions had made strong profits and, combined with our MSG business, we produced an extremely strong result for our holding company, Precision Engineering International (PEI) which we held jointly with 3i.  We now owned a portfolio of 3 industrial companies, each a leader in its sector.

Pleased with our track record, 3i positively encouraged further acquisition activities.  As a result I received a copy of their entire engineering and manufacturing portfolio (over 500 companies) together with an open invitation to consider any of these for acquisition.  Detailed investigation made clear a couple of things to me.  The first was that it was extremely satisfying to discover that we were one of their top performing investments in these sectors.  The other aspect was learning that they were quite amenable to turning over an investment with a fresh set of partners they considered could produce a higher return.  However, despite spending a great deal of time in further research and analysis there was no obvious target for us.  Shortly afterwards, another problem was sprung on us.

When I set up the funding to acquire MSG I had sat through a ‘beauty parade’ of banks (something that might reasonably be called an oxymoron).  The bank that offered the lowest lending rates and the most attractive deal was Allied Irish.  It seemed that they wanted to become involved in supporting VC backed deals and were anxious to become involved with 3i, hence their better than average offer.  All had gone well for several years although it was clear from various meetings that they knew little about manufacturing and less about engineering.  Nevertheless it was a shock when they turned up one day that year and said they were calling in their millions and we would have to refinance.  When pushed for a reason they claimed that they really didn’t understand our sector and were going to concentrate on property, a sector where they had real expertise.  Well, we all now know how that one worked out for them!

We refinanced easily with HSBC and that relationship worked well for a number of years with further lending to support our growing capital investment programme at MSG.  Until that is, they decided to replace their extremely knowledgeable regional director for someone who knew about as much about business as Allied Irish (perhaps less).

In 2000 another significant event took place.  Our claim against the vendors of MSG and our defence against their counterclaim had been consuming vast amounts of my time and we had already run up massive legal fees.  With all legal avenues exhausted, I had prepared for a full hearing with a brief to a very experienced barrister in London.  We were convinced we could win our case and this meeting reinforced that view.  The process had become more and more fraught as a result of constant rejection by the vendors of each and every attempt we made to resolve the matter and obstruction of our investigations.  It didn’t help that Clifford had a reputation as a blustering bully whose usual line of defence was attack.

Nevertheless, in one last attempt to avoid the additional time and expense of a trial we made a proposal to the vendors to join with us in the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process.  To our great surprise we learned that they had agreed to this process.  The stakes were very high.  We had already sunk a large six figure sum into legal and investigative fees in the previous three years but there always has to be an element of risk and uncertainty in legal matters.  Even the ADR process didn’t come cheap with barristers in attendance on both sides.

 Some weeks later I sat across the table from Clifford with our respective teams ranged around us.  It was the first time we had met since we bought the business three years previously and in that time I heard he had suffered a stroke.  Would illness have mellowed him or would he be as obdurate as ever?  Could we reach a settlement and put an end to the vast drain on time and expense?  Or was this just a futile exercise?

Image courtesy of gastroenterologyupdate.com.au

The Business of Life Chapter 35 – when you can’t take no for an answer

ABC desperately needed to acquire a competitor.  If we didn’t then it was increasingly likely that we wouldn’t succeed in turning the business around and finding a buyer of our own.  We knew that acquisition of a suitable company offered us the only realistic opportunity to reduce the cost of sales, boost influence with major suppliers and make a step change in performance.  We also needed to acquire a competitor with distribution rights to certain ‘flagship’ brands.  We had a suitable and seemingly willing target but one huge problem remained; we had no money and no hope of raising any fresh capital. When you can't take no for an answer

The only option was to get the parent company of our target to fund our purchase.  Having worked for most of my career within very large organisations, I understood the type of pressures that can arise.  Someone in the organisation might be so personally desperate to offload their losses-making UK division that they might be prepared to find a way to finance our purchase.  So, having said we were interested at a much lower price than they wanted, we left them alone whilst they negotiated with a number of our other competitors.  No sale took place.

After about six months we approached them again with the following proposal; we would buy the customer list and the goodwill and pay for this out of a percentage of future gross profits over the next 3 years.  We required that they transfer the stock to us and we would pay for it as we sold it.  Any stock still unsold after 1 year, we could return.  They would make the entire workforce redundant and bear the cost themselves.  Finally they would retain the premises.  Following an agonising wait, they accepted our terms in their entirety.

We had assumed that only around 30% of their turnover would be retained but in the event we kept over 60%.  We also retained the distribution rights to the ‘flagship’ brands (having sounded out these suppliers in advance) and used these to grow our business significantly in our traditional accounts.  Over time we backed away from the poorer credit risk customers we had and replaced these with business grown from the higher quality new ones.

Our investment in stock settled down to a level not much higher than pre-acquisition despite the significantly increased turnover.  A key influence in this had been the previous identification that no one person in ABC (except Mike) had responsibility for the value of stock.  A product manager was appointed who, in addition to his responsibilities in managing the ranges, had responsibility for sales forecasting & absolute levels of stock.  With his efforts and skills, stock turns improved, our service levels got better & working capital requirements reduced.  We were often able to win business at regular prices because we were the only distributor with stock.

One of the most successful moves we made was to de-emphasise sales revenue.  In order to adapt to rapidly changing pricing levels amongst competition, it was essential to allow the sales team certain flexibility over day to day pricing.  The problem was that sales revenue was chased to the detriment of margins.  This was especially evident as every month end approached.  In an effort to remedy this we scrapped sales targets and moved to cash gross margin targets.  All access to sales figures was removed from the internal IT systems.  In our internal communications only cash margins were ever referred to from that point on.  The result was a steady improvement in margins that provided clear, additional profit.

Despite including some of the major global corporations (e.g. IBM) the behaviour of most suppliers was chaotic.  They lacked any evidence of a coherent strategy and seemed entirely reactive, capable only of using price as a variable.  We put together a detailed presentation that Mike then made to each of our suppliers.  In it we spelt out our analysis of the sector, our plans for the future and what we needed from our chosen suppliers.  We announced a supplier performance monitoring system together with an annual Supplier of the Year award.  Each month we shared the ratings of our suppliers across 25 pre-announced criteria.  The results were dramatic, with suppliers rapidly falling over each other to improve their ratings (and in so doing improving service to us).  Tangible support in terms of focussed co-operative promotional activity rose and with it our sales.  The year end saw a major one day event for all suppliers with awards given for the best in category and overall winner.  The programme cost us very little but grew in effectiveness each year.

Performance slowly improved and monthly profits started to be the norm.  Gradually, the losses on the balance sheet were being eliminated.  However, part way through this process one of the major customers was placed into administration owing us over £160k.  There was little hope of any recovery and most of the loss was uninsured.  We managed to cover the loss from the provisions we had built and a small insurance recovery.  The shock of this was severe though.  Strict new credit policies were put in place and the board agreed a new guideline that no single customer would be allowed to represent a greater exposure than a pre-set limit.  It was clear that we urgently needed to lift the quality of our customer base to continue building the business.  Many of the traditional customers were just too risky to allow the credit required to fund the extra volumes we required.

Priority then turned to improving the internal processes of the business and to improving profitability.  A range of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) was identified for the entire business with weekly & monthly monitoring agreed.  These became the dials we all watched on the dashboard & formed the language we all talked within the company.  A complete review of the financial systems was undertaken and tight new accounting controls were put into place.

A reorganisation of the internal sales structure was achieved that established a series of teams comprising a Field Sales Manager plus a Customer Service Executive and a Telesales Canvasser.  This restricted the number of expensive field sales heads & beefed up the proactive telesales’ prospecting & selling activities.  Grouping them into discrete teams gave a sense of identity & team spirit.  The increased communication achieved within the teams greatly assisted sales results.  Various techniques were tried in an effort to improve the rate of proactive sales calls.  Finally, the ‘quiet room’ concept was born where each prospector went into a spare office for number of hours per week & made calls from a direct outside line with no distractions.  The rate of new business rose.

That some sales people were much better than others soon became apparent.  We suspected that technique was the cause.  External sales trainers were brought in to overhaul our sales approach & re-train the entire sale steam in a revised selling model.  The sales team loved the process and learnt many new lessons, which they were quickly able to apply.  Mike decided not to replace the sales director but to run the sales force himself (which he did with great leadership & drive).  Mike had a natural ability to lift spirits in the team.  Following a particularly successful month Mike would declare a beer and pizza outing to celebrate.  If the business had an especially bad month, he didn’t rant and rave but declared a beer and pizza evening to put it behind them!

Freed of the German company, we were now making profitable inroads into Europe via a UK based sales effort.  Curiously, Hull proved to be a fertile source for staff with European language skills.  The business went on to make three straight years of good profits and the balance sheet continued to improve, building thereafter to achieve a very healthy net asset value.  Finally, the remodelling of the business was rounded off with a change of name to ABC Technology Distribution Ltd.

The bank had been patient during this period and had finally let us leave the ‘intensive care’ department.  Mark T had moved on within 3i and had been replaced with Ian with whom I built a close working relationship.  The relationship however maintained certain protocols one of the most important being that I never allowed a parallel reporting system to creep in.  We were fellow shareholders with common risks and common interest but all the key issues were reported formally.  There was however a great deal of pressure to achieve a sale and I was constantly keeping Ian up to date on our plans whilst shielding Mike from as much of this pressure as I could.

We did have a very clear plan for a sale however, one that was clearly understood by the board and was one that we carefully implemented.  Mike had known the CEO (Mike B) of a major US distributor, Scansource, for many years and had ‘borrowed’ many of their business practices and strategies.  Having closely followed Asda’s emulation of Walmart, which directly facilitated the eventual acquisition of Asda, Mike’s stated intention of selling out to Scansource made a lot of sense to me.  One significant problem had occurred though.  Having opened a competing business in what Mike B saw as his backyard, the relationship had soured.

Now that we had succeeded in extricating ourselves from the USA, Mike attempted a charm offensive designed to achieve a rapprochement with his erstwhile mentor.  The news that we might be ‘on the market’ to such an obvious buyer was duly conveyed.  This did not achieve the desired effect and it was with dismay that we learnt that Scansource were trawling Europe looking for acquisition candidates whilst ignoring ABC and Mike’s blandishments.  We had to battle on with improving the business with no other realistic purchaser in sight.

Finally, Scansource came knocking on our door and negotiations for a sale began.  After a long, drawn out and frustrating process we achieved a sale in May 2002 for a healthy sum that gave me and all the ordinary shareholders a good return on their investment.  Additionally, Andy and I received a healthy incentive payment from 3i that had been offered to us 5 years previously in the event that we achieved a recovery of their investment.  Mike stayed with the business but this didn’t last long as making the shift from owner to employee was never going to be an easy one.  He went on to form another business in a related field that has been extremely successful.  And, in a strange turn of fate, the Scansource European MD ended up working for me in an unrelated business I formed some years later.

The previous five years had never been easy, firstly with the challenges of keeping ABC afloat, then of making that vital acquisition and going on to achieve a satisfactory sale.  This had been taking place against major problems in my other investments.  It was though, and despite the many pressures, one of the most satisfying times of my career working with such a cohesive and successful team.

Elsewhere life was equally challenging, frustrating, commercially dangerous and rewarding.  I was getting used to it.

 Image courtesy of thepoliticalcarnival.net

Osborne’s employee rights sacrifice, equity for all scheme

Do politicians really think through the ideas they float?  Do they have any idea of the realities of business and especially the entrepreneur?  Come to think of it, do they have any idea of the complexities of business?Osborne's employee rights sacrifice, equity for all scheme

As a retired businessman who ran, bought, created and sold businesses, large and small in over a dozen industries, I have a reasonable knowledge of the problems facing business owners and the people who work in them.  I also spent many years in the layers below the top to have a fair understanding of the issues that face employees, what concerns them and what doesn’t.  Let’s start with the problem that Osborne is purporting to solve, the great employee rights and employment law burden.

Before the current edifice of employment law was created and forced onto business the policies that determined how employees were recruited, trained, paid, promoted, cared for, pensioned and fired were largely at the whim of the employer.  What this meant was that all of these factors were points of differentiation that clearly separated good employers from their bad competitors.  Working for Unilever in the 1960’s I enjoyed benefits and practices that would still be regarded as outstanding even today.  Has the welter of employment law really made things better for the average employee in the average company?

Consider first that small and medium businesses (SME) account for 99.9% of all enterprises and 58.8% of private sector employment.  To the vast majority of these businesses employment law brings little benefit over and above that which enlightened owners and managers strive to achieve without the aid of the law.  But it also brings huge compliance costs and the threat of many disgruntled employees running off to employment tribunals.  Today a malicious ex-employee can wreak havoc upon a good employer.  Maternity leave can also create a nightmare for small companies.  There will always be bad employers just as there will always be bad employees.  We must ask ourselves what we have really gained by forcing policies borrowed from some of the country’s (and the world’s) largest companies onto our SMEs.  And that is before we should ask ourselves what role corporation tax and employers national insurance contributions do for employments levels.

So, if Osborne is recognising at least part of the problems facing employers here in the UK with his equity for rights proposal, shouldn’t we be applauding his scheme?  Sadly, I don’t think we should.  I believe that it is another dose of borrowing concepts of best practice from the largest corporation that will do nothing for the 58.8% of private sector employees who work within the SME sector.  And nothing for the company owners of these businesses.  Let me explain why.

There are already employee share ownership schemes that are used by large companies.  Usually these shares encourage employees to save and should they leave or require the cash then there is a very liquid market waiting to buy their shares.  The risk, of course, is that the value of the equity falls (remember Northern Rock).  Overall these schemes do not represent more than a fraction of the total equity of the company and do not carry voting rights or eligibility for dividends.  Are they effective in engendering concepts of ownership amongst participating employees?  Or are they just a savings scheme?  Would such a scheme encourage employees of these large companies to give up their rights?  And would having two tiers of employees be of real benefit to the company?  You decide.

However, when we turn our attention to the SME sector the problems become significant.  In privately owned companies equity is usually guarded closely by owners or can be very limited in number (£100 companies are quite common).  The reason for this is quite simple.  For those owners who wish ultimately to sell the business to achieve a return, then they wish to retain the largest percentage of equity they can.  For those businesses that are run as family concerns then there is little intention to sell and equity is often held in a web of different generations of family members and trusts.

There could be attractions for an SME to set up such a scheme as a means of opting out of employment legislation.  Any benefit for the employee could be completely illusory.  Why?  The issued value of any shares provided in such a scheme is likely to be low and any return only available when (and if) the company is sold.  Given that there is no market in equity held in privately owned shares, any departing employee (for good or bad reasons) would be at the mercy of the company in deciding a price for buying them back.  The cost of setting up such a scheme would be quite high.  Would it raise meaningful sums for a startup or early growth business?  Not a chance.

Of course there are already businesses run as cooperatives but these are tiny in number.  There are also those businesses who run employee share ownership schemes, these usually being very large companies with differentiated cultures and attitudes towards employees.

In my view if Osborne really wishes to help both private employers and employees he should scrap swathes of employment legislation (as it frequently strangles employment opportunities in 99.9% of private enterprises).  He should also reduce or eliminate corporation tax and employers national insurance contributions both of which act as a tax on employment.

Time to scrap the idea, George.  conference season is over for another year.  Just go and talk to a few SMEs before the budget.

Image courtesy of guidetowomen.wordpress.com

The Business of Life Chapter 34 – life under water

Earlier in 1997 I had been asked by 3i to review a technology business they had backed that was being viewed increasingly as a ‘problem child’.  I agreed to meet the two main director shareholders of Advanced Bar Coding (ABC) to see what the situation was and if we could work together.  The business, a distributor of bar coding products, had been formed by the joint MDs in the early 1990s.  It operated from an industrial estate in Hull where it had offices, warehouse and a technical department.  Approximately 60 staff were employed & turnover was around £8.0m (having grown by approximately 35% each year since formation).  There were two other members of the board, a Sales Director & a Technical Director.Life under water

The situation I found was dire.  It was clear that the business was on the brink of insolvency having lost £1.0m in two disastrous investments in the USA & Germany (with the losses increasing each month).  The bank was threatening to withdraw their overdraft and had placed the management of the account into the hands of their ‘intensive care’ division.  The factoring company were reeling in their advances due to the poor credit record of many of the customers.  Margins were slender and seemed to be slipping with each passing month.  On the initial visit I got on well with Mike and Alan (the joint MDs) and was subsequently appointed to the board as a non-executive director.  The total investment made in the business by the shareholders and the bank was, to quote a phrase, “below water”.

Mike was a volatile powerhouse, a dynamic and successful salesman, totally committed to his business but very autocratic and appeared lacking in broader-based business & strategic skills.  His energy was inexhaustible but at times he seemed merely reactive to events.  The other main shareholder, Alan, was a quieter and amiable individual who acted as Finance Director (despite being completely unqualified).  We started work on a revised business plan to try to convince the bank to stay with us while we turned the business around.  A core element of the plan was withdrawal from both the USA & Germany.

The meeting went well but the bank refused to support the plan unless 3i and the shareholders increased their investment.  In a separate meeting they also conveyed that any further support would be conditional on a restructuring of the board.  Specifically they required that Alan step down as joint MD and Finance Director and be replaced by a new and suitably qualified accountant.  I was appointed chairman and required to invest, as was the incoming FD.  3i agreed to inject a modest amount of further capital and the whole package was conditional on finding a buyer of the business without delay.

Mike and I had agreed to approach the subject of Alan’s departure in a joint meeting with him and I hoped that we could resolve the matter, if not amicably, at least following due process.  An early demonstration of Mike’s volatility was not long in coming.  I arrived on the morning allotted for our meeting with Alan to find no sign of him but was greeted by Mike in an agitated state.  “I’ve fired him,” were the first words he uttered, “I couldn’t stand him any more.”  It seemed a row had blown up early that morning between the two of them resulting in this potentially disastrous turn of events.  Not only were we liable for a clear cut claim for unfair dismissal but there was the not insignificant matter of Alan’s equity.

Upon inspection of the Shareholders’ Agreement I found that there was no provision in it that required Alan to sell his equity back to the company in the event of his departure.  Given the dictate we had been given to sell the business, the prospect of a disgruntled Alan with no requirement to sell his shares rendered this possibility almost impossible.  I proposed that I met with Alan and asked Mike to have no contact with him.  Over the next week or so I shuttled back and forth in a diplomatic mission that ultimately resulted in us buying Alan’s shares back for a nominal sum.  With the bank onside, albeit with a reduced overdraft (and ABC still in the intensive care department), the factoring company agreeing to continue support and 3i making their additional investment, we were only left with a small number of mountains to climb.  We now had to extricate ourselves from the USA & Germany, find a buyer for the business and, without delay, find a new FD.

In the event this last requirement proved relatively painless and Andy joined the team first as a consultant and then formally as FD.  An accountant with a very commercial outlook, good venture capital experience and somewhat of an IT expert, he also had the invaluable experience of having been part of a team that built and sold one extremely successful company.  He was a thoroughly nice guy who fitted in well but something of the iron fist in the velvet glove.  If Andy felt a particular course of action was not either legally, procedurally or ethically right then you knew that it was not going to happen.  Colin the technical director was supportive but I had my doubts about Jay, the sales director (who soon moved on as the business became progressively more structured in its approach).

The three remaining board members became the most successful team I have ever worked with in my entire career.  If anyone from outside had been an observer at many of our board meetings they might have thought we stood no chance of success as violent argument was not unusual.  But we proved Meridith Belbin (probably the world’s first, and arguably the best, expert on team-working) right.  Successful teams don’t need to be harmonious affairs, in fact dissent often ensures full examination of the relevant facts and the available options and leads to successful decisions.  Mike grew in my estimation.  I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for him to be planning the sale of his treasured business although I did know that a sale was something he hoped would never happen.  A previously successful entrepreneur, he had seem his creation grow and then fail, saw little or no hope of a return on his investment and had to welcome onto the board two outsiders who questioned every assumption about the business.  We certainly had blood on the walls at times and Mike would often storm out of the boardroom with a face like thunder when a decision went against him.  But always, and often within the hour, he would seek me out and tell me that he had already implemented (or put into motion) whatever change was required.

Mike knew everything about the industry we were in and everyone in it.  The problem was that his knowledge was vast at the micro level but it was akin to a huge database without a search facility that could link aspects together.  He had always existed previously making rapid decisions and usually without reference to others.  The business had been Mike’s train set.  I was worried however that he lacked the experience or toolkit effectively to analyse the industry and our place within it.  He didn’t know what he didn’t know so often he didn’t go looking.  If we were to stand any chance of turning the business around and selling it on (let alone making a return on investment) I knew we had to have a coherent strategy, one that would take us out of the maze we were in.  Mike had resisted initial attempts to instigate a full strategic review.  “Waste of time,” he would claim, “I know everything about this industry and this business.”  Finally, he agreed to a rigorous process of strategic review and over several long meetings, by a process of research, brain-dumping, questioning and probing a clear picture appeared that the whole board could grasp.

In a highly fragmented channel, it was clear from our research that ABC was market leader in distribution.  This leadership stemmed from high levels of customer satisfaction, driven by an industry leading catalogue, great depth and breadth of stock, a superior technical infrastructure and a uniquely proactive telesales process.  Critically, we had premises and systems that could support at least double our current sales.

We had a customer base with a low level of creditworthiness, poor sales and marketing expertise below Mike and suppliers (some of whom were well known global corporations) with chaotic distribution strategies, poor service and zero demand building activities.  It was also now clear that we were suffering from a lack of certain key ‘flagship’ brands.  But overwhelmingly we suffered from a continual cash drain from the USA and Germany operations and a balance sheet with a £1m hole.

It was apparent that there were actions we could take to improve matters such as boosting our technical services and expanding our specialist product ranges, both of which provided superior margins.  We urgently needed to improve the quality of our customer base and lessen the risks we faced from bad debts.  But, far and away, the only option that offered a real step change in our fortunes would be to acquire one or more competitors.

Prices across the whole market were falling year on year and manufacturers continued to dump stock further depressing prices and margins.  But the greatest threat facing the business was of the bank ‘pulling the plug’ completely, leaving us with no means of raising the capital we needed to turn the business around.

The situation the business was in could be summarised as being fraught with problems and opportunities!  There was also only a very limited window of opportunity to act.

Mike admitted that he had learnt a great deal from the process & a new strategy was agreed by the board to move the business towards achieving a sale.  We were still living from hand to mouth in cash terms and were very exposed.  We desperately needed access to the ‘flagship’ brands to improve our offering in every category.  So, the suppliers of the brands we required were approached to allow us to gain access.  An agreement was reached with the least important of these, however the main two companies still declined to add us to their distribution base.

The obvious solution that had emerged from our strategic review would be to buy a competitor & transfer all business to Hull, thus improving sales & profits in one giant step.  We researched all competition & identified the half-dozen most likely candidates who had the key brands we required.  Meetings were held with all of these; some were initially interested in a sale, some refused.  But the crushing difficulty was in obtaining further funding.  Following meetings with both the bank and 3i to present our proposed strategy, both agreed that acquisition was an excellent idea but flatly refused to lend more to achieve it!

 Over the next six months and only following a great deal of effort (initially attempting to improve our operations) we finally succeeded in withdrawing from the USA and Germany.  A small but significant victory was receiving an ex gratia payment from one of the big four accounting firms that recognised faulty due diligence work they had carried out in Germany had led to the problems we had encountered.  We were still technically insolvent (with huge negative equity) but we had stopped making losses and, painfully slowly, each month we were starting to reduce the hole in the balance sheet.

Priority was then given to improving the internal processes of the business and to improving profitability.  Much work was done to analyse the customer base, sorting them into categories.  The sales force was now targeted with specific objectives against each of the main customer groupings.  Certain customers were ‘de-emphasised’ and left to competition.  However, we still could not break into certain of the best potential customers due to our lack of the remaining key brands.  The only remaining way we could gain access to these was via acquisition.  The problem was that we couldn’t raise a single pound more finance.

Of the discussions we had been having with a number of acquisition targets, one of these was owned by an American parent, primarily involved in software.  The UK products distribution business was losing money heavily, the parent was very keen to sell but they wanted serious money for a sale.  The business was ideal as it had both of our target brands, had an excellent customer base (a good percentage of which would be new to us) and had leasehold premises we did not need.  We estimated that we would need none of their staff and could transfer the entire business to Hull.  We also felt that we could grow sales of our product range via their customers.  A perfect match.  We left them with a statement that we were very keen to buy but that their price was too rich for us.  The chances of them selling to us seemed remote as we simply couldn’t raise any money.  The only option left would be to get the American parent to fund our acquisition.  But would they?  And if they wouldn’t, what future would ABC have?

We were still way ‘under water’.

  Image courtesy of lakedistrict.gov.uk