Entrepreneurial excellence: Challenge #1

9781496932259_COVER.inddThis article is from Chapter 4 of Uncle Ralph's, "Don’t Do It the Hard Way”.  Read the book.

Challenge #1: Strategic Leadership + Management Effectiveness

Start with a plan.

 As we started our e2eForum on a bright sunny spring morning, this was on the flipchart:

The Entrepreneur’s Challenge:

Strategic Leadership + Management Effectiveness

It is my favourite theme and I had been asked to decide on today’s discussion topic, so there it was. Some around the table had heard me rant on this subject before, so I was trying to approach it a little differently.

“Today I’m going to start by admitting to you my own biggest mistake as an entrepreneur – failing to continually think strategically. I was too often pre-occupied with operating issues and short-term problem solving. Stuck in the old dilemma of too busy fighting fires to ever work on fire prevention.”

“This was especially true in my first business, computer products distribution. There was so much detail to keep on top of – markets and technologies, customer service issues, managing employees and learning everything I had to know as a new entrepreneur about the running a business - from accounting systems and freight rates to lines of credit and payroll deductions.”

“I had all the usual excuses for being drawn into the daily crises and never getting back to the drawing board to review the original strategic plan and see if we were still on track. To be honest, our original plan was not very strategic and never looked past the first two or three years. It was only focused on making our numbers, not on strategic positioning and managing our important business relationships. We made good short-term decisions to maintain profitability and win our share of competitive battles, but did not effectively protect ourselves from conflicts with our major suppliers and were not prepared for the rapid decline in profit margins as competitors flooded the market.”

“We started business in the mid ‘80’s when IBM personal computers and the clones and compatibles were first landing on desktops everywhere – in offices, schools and homes. With our one primary product, computer monitors, we were initially competing with only about six major brand names and four other regional distributors.”

“Our customers were primarily the local computer stores that were on every second street corner and in every shopping centre. We were selling a few hundred monitors a month and average profit margins were at 12% to 14%; pretty healthy we thought. But high profits and fast growth brought a lot of competitors into the market. By the mid ‘90’s we had over forty competing brand names and at least twenty competing distributors. Profit margins in distribution slid to about 4%; no longer healthy. Our volume was up to ten times over our second or third year, but net profit was the same and we now had huge risks in inventory and receivables.”

“That’s when I made the decision to enter into the merger which would have helped us to diversify our product mix and customer portfolio and reduce the risks. Unfortunately, the merger didn’t work so we wound it down and I subsequently left the computer hardware industry about two years later. Very quickly after that consolidation eliminated most of the players in the personal computer market – only a few major brand names, three large multinational distributors and three or four national retail chains remained by the year 2000.”

“Any survivors from that era had to be very good at re-positioning their businesses to keep up with the rapid evolution of the computer business.”

“Your own business may not see rapid change like the computer industry, but I’m sure that whatever business you are in, technology and the Internet continuously affect how you do business. You have to adapt to keep up with changing competition and new customer expectations.”

“Don’t make the mistake I did of getting lost in the operating details and neglecting to raise the periscope and scan the horizon for oncoming threats or opportunities. Be prepared to respond.”

Keep your head up

“I do try to keep aware of what’s on the horizon,” said Dave, “but sometimes I have very limited choices available for my response. We expect our manufacturers to keep up with the technology and the competition and our bike dealers to do a good job of attracting customers and making the sale. As the national distributor, we provide the pipeline to market, but we need the people at both ends to work with us.”

“And it is true,” he added, “even if we’re in ‘old economy’ traditional businesses, we all have to keep up with technology – both to remain competitive and to rise to new customer expectations. The devices and applications all keep getting cheaper, easier to use and more effective at delivering the results. We simply cannot afford to stand still – the competition will beat us and the customers will leave us if we don’t keep sharpening our tools.”

Looking around the table it seemed we all agreed with Dave. Strategic vision and leadership need to be constantly applied to daily decision making.

Lack of strategic direction, in my opinion, may be the biggest mistake for entrepreneurs and can be fatal to the business.

Your Uncle Ralph, Del Chatterson

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