enron

I find the actions of companies compelling reading! From Enron to Tesco you couldn’t make it up. We stand back incredulous that despite all the checks and balances boards full of worthy, highly experienced people, still manage to preside over some monumental screw ups, says David Mansfield, visiting professor at Cass Business School

 

Readers of Fresh Business Thinking can learn from studying the actions of others. I’ve written before about looking outside our own particular world for some free training. Applying a particular situation to your business as if it was real is a great use of time.

If you must have an “awayday” to review the company try and do something useful with it. By that I mean don’t have an oversubscribed agenda and an endless stream of power point decks. Use this expensive and valuable time well to challenge what you do and why you do it. There’s so much information around, everyday there’s another great case study.

Companies generally review their performance on a quarterly or annual basis. Strategic priorities change, resource is allocated and budgets are updated. This is usually a fairly benign, steady as you go, state of affairs. It’s OK but it’s not great. Often away days are part of this process and frankly having wasted too much of my life in airless rooms, they’re not for me anymore.

There are lots of ways a company can review what it does. Here’s one way of doing that which is highly effective, doesn’t involve Power Point and will deliver great benefits.

In order to set the scene, you need to create a sense of crisis. Larger companies often do this by asking their advisors to review their defence strategy but that’s only part of the story. Because it only covers how the company is likely to respond. Rarely does it lead to the company doing anything now!

Take the recent audacious Kraft bid for Unilever. Much has been written about this and you’ll be very familiar with the story. Paul Polman received an unwelcome call from Warren Buffet, saying they’d like to make a multibillion dollar offer for the business. After a very short, uncomfortable time, the offer is withdrawn but life for Mr Polman and his team will never be the same again.

That moment of crisis shone a very bright light on Unilever. The company’s track record, performance and strategy were the subject of global discussion in mainstream media and government. According to a recent independent report the majority of investors would have preferred the bid to progress. Why? Because they’re judged on their share portfolios and takeover bids mostly come at a premium.

So now that has gone away, investors want to know how the share price can be grown in other ways. They’ve focussed on the underperforming divisions and slow growing territories, where the company has a large presence. They’ve also drawn attention to Mr Polman’s altruistic approach to business, suggesting he should concentrate his efforts on improving commercial performance. The margins at Kraft are significantly better than Unilevers.

In response Unilever have announced an accelerated strategic review. Shortly the board will present some significant changes, which will include a radical review of each division and the contribution it makes. Already the margarine business appears to be leaving the company.

Here’s the key question and it’s not just aimed at Mr Polman. Why does it so often take an unwanted bid to shake up a company? What they appear to be doing they could have done a long time ago. Only now are they apparently dealing with long standing issues that are restricting growth and holding back the share price.

The great news is we can all learn and improve our business by using the Unilever experience. Here’s what you should do, no matter how big or small your company is. Create a crisis by dividing your executives into two small teams. One for attack and one for defence. The attacking team will highlight all those areas where the company is weakest.

The exercise will identify investment ideas that haven’t delivered, that you’re too proud to scrap. “We’ll give it one more year”. Under performing brands with declining sales. Low margin products that don’t compare favourably with competitors. Overseas territories that have never hit budget and are now a drag on the P&L.

If the defence team can’t provide some very quick and tangible reasons why things should be left as they are you’ll come away with some important actions. And a fitter better company as a result of the role play. Create a crisis and learn from it!

By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School