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

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