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Accounting & Bookkeeping Banks, Lenders & Investors Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance General

Has the Coronavirus lockdown exposed the weaknesses of many business models?

business models weaknesses exposedRobust business models should be based on a clear proposition with a plan for profitable activity.
Each model is essentially a road map of how money will flow from activity.
Business models are a financial expression of the company’s business plan in a way that summarises the strategy, funding, organisation and processes used to achieve objectives.
Given that unforeseen roadblocks and successes will occur, business models should be reviewed regularly and adapted depending on new circumstances and new information.
Tools for refining the model are also useful, such as a SWOT analysis to identify Strengths, and Opportunities to be exploited and Threats and Weaknesses to be avoided.
While arguably, few businesses and especially SMEs, will have had plans to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, it has affected most businesses in ways that were not foreseen. The lockdown has also exposed how little resilience they may have built into their business models to protect from such a crisis.
To a large extent, the situation has exposed a lack of financial resilience but it has also highlighted a lack of character among leaders. The behaviour of leaders in particular will be remembered by those who deal with them, whether employees or other stakeholders.
It is alarming how many directors have been paralysed by the situation and not taken calls or failed to answer with awkward questions, often hiding from the fact that their problems will not go away.
While leaders may not know the answers, they should be visible, they should be looking for the answers and telling everyone what they are doing to find them.
The government is a good example of leaders trying to communicate, I leave it you to decide whether or not their messages are believable or they are doing a good job of leading in a crisis.
James Ball, writing in the Guardian, provides an excellent illustration of two examples of flawed business models, Uber and Deliveroo. At a time when it might be expected that their services would be more in demand than ever as people are required to stay at home and preserve social distancing, he points out that they are not structured to make a profit, but instead rely heavily on growing rapidly, not growing sustainably.
“This is the entire venture capital model,” he says. “….This is a whole business model based on optimism. Without that optimism, and the accompanying free-flowing money to power through astronomical losses, the entire system breaks down.” Indeed, this reinforces my view that the Silicon Valley approach to venture capital has parallels with a giant Ponzi scheme by using new investors’ money to provide returns to early backers.
Will Hutton also looks at business models and considers how the economy might recover from the lockdown in a more sustainable way: “equity investment: the venture capital and private equity industries must transmute themselves from their default role as predators and asset-sweaters to long-term, patient investors”.
I believe the short-term, profit-driven motives of early investors looking for a return before their investment makes a profit is a flaw in most companies’ business models and has contributed to the weaknesses that have been exposed by the measures that have been needed to contain the pandemic.
Some might say ‘buyer beware’ in a world where animal spirits and greed drive behaviour but this argument exposes a lack of character among leaders who should show courage and moral fibre.
Perhaps it is time for a bit more moderation and longer-term thinking in the construction of business models for the future.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance General

Time for a rethink? The global supply chain and short-term thinking

global supply chain rethinkA time of crisis, such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, exposes the weaknesses of inter-dependency and systems and in this case, the global supply chain.
There is perhaps also no better time to review things and perhaps change from the short term thinking that seems to have dominated economics and businesses, especially in those economies like the USA and UK that rely heavily on the purchase of foreign goods.
It is clear that it will be a long time before life returns to normal and it is not yet clear what that “normal” will look like.
In the previous “normal” it was possible to rely on adequate supplies of raw materials for the production of various types of goods, such as food stocks on supermarket shelves.
But one of the first signs of the disruption to come was the rapid emptying of supermarket shelves as people panicked and bought large supplies of various items, for example toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pasta, in anticipation of the coming lockdown.
Another sign of disruption is the price of oil which has plummeted leaving tankers around the world mooring off-shore waiting for prices to rise before offloading their oil.
There has also been the saga of medical equipment such as ventilators to treat those hospitalised seriously affected by the virus and of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers treating them.
Similarly, as various crops were ripening, it became clear that there might not be enough seasonal workers available to pick them, as many farmers had been relying on seasonal workers coming into the country from Eastern Europe.
All these examples provide lessons in the inter dependence of supply chains that support a “just in time” model of global business.
As Larry Elliot wrote in a Guardian opinion piece in mid-April: “The past 30 years have seen global markets – especially global financial markets – increase in both size and scope. Long and complicated supply chains have been constructed: goods moving backwards and forwards across borders in the pursuit of efficiency gains”, meaning that capital flowed in and out of countries equally quickly and there was no thought of building any capital reserves.
In an era of weak growth since the 2008 global financial crisis, he says, “What this amounts to is a world clinging on by its fingertips, even in what passes for the “good times”.
The global supply chain, just in time model effectively did away with large, local warehousing attached to manufacturing units as much as to food stores. It relies heavily on a continuous supply of materials and ingredients being delivered by a well-functioning international and national transport system.
In the UK, particularly, the manufacturing sector has been shrinking for years as the economy has pivoted to rely more heavily on the tech and financial services industries.
The reasons for the decline in manufacturing are myriad but largely down to the long-term investment needed and short-term expectations of investors of a swift return on their investment.
The lack of planning for a rainy day has also been highlighted. This observation is not just of the UK government that has failed to invest in the storage of equipment supplies but it also applies to businesses that have not built up capital reserves and consumers who do not have any savings.
In fairness, it has also brought out the best of those many businesses that have adapted to survive through agility by quickly re-designing their business models and production lines such as those who are now producing hand gel or selling goods outside their shops, restaurants or pubs.
While a short blog cannot hope to analyse all the flaws of a global supply chain model in detail, it has become clear that there are vulnerabilities both to businesses and to national economies that rely on international suppliers and the short term thinking that has driven it.
The return to ‘business as usual’ that is increasingly being demanded may not be possible given how long social distancing may have to continue. How many businesses will cease trading altogether as a result and how many people will lose their jobs will be major factors when we get round to reviewing our trading relationships.
This could therefore be a good time for businesses, economists and politicians to give some thought to creating more robust, longer-term, and perhaps more locally-based systems for the future.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Business Development & Marketing Finance General

Business opportunities for SMEs in the growing demand for sustainability and cutting waste

cutting waste is essential to preserve a beautiful environmentThe neoliberal economic model based on perpetual growth has come under increasing attack from environmental campaigners particularly since the week-long Extinction Rebellion activity in April this year.
With almost-daily horror stories about climate change, global warming and the amount of plastic waste littering the planet, not to mention a significant decrease in biodiversity, it is clear that action needs to happen a lot more urgently than has previously been admitted.
Changing the developed world’s economic model from perpetual to sustainable growth is no doubt going to be a major challenge, particularly in the face of a rise in populist political parties putting national self-interest first and also of some leaders, such as US President Donald Trump who despite the evidence still questions the truth of climate change.
Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a distinction between good capitalism, which he calls “wealth creation”, and bad capitalism, which he called “wealth grabbing” (extracting rent).
Some of this thinking may be behind the recent announcement by the UK’s largest money manager, Legal & General Investment Management that warned about “climate catastrophe” and has promised to get tougher on boards where it identifies a high level of executive pay, lack of diversity in senior corporate roles, as well as “insufficient stewardship” of the way the business is acting.
The company voted against the re-election of nearly 4,000 directors in 2018 – an increase of 37%. – and it has published a blacklist of eight companies whose shares they decided to dump.
In October last year, ten companies announced that they were cutting waste by ditching plastic. They included McDonalds, Starbucks, Aldi, Lidl, Pizza Express and Costa. Supermarkets have also been at the forefront of a drive to eliminating throwaway plastic shopping bags, with Morrisons offering both re-usable and paper alternatives and encouraging shoppers to bring their own containers when buying vegetables.
There is already some evidence that becoming a “greener and leaner” company can actually benefit a business’ bottom line.
SMEs have been encouraged to cut their CO2 emissions and offered financial incentives for changing to more environmentally-friendly processes, such as better building insulation and reducing paper use and have seen their overheads reduce as a result. Use of automation and AI has also benefited some.

Are there positive business opportunities for SMEs as a result of cutting waste?

There has been an increase in the number of small businesses, mostly located in High Street shops, specialising in the repair of household products that would once have been discarded and in teaching people how to do the repairs themselves.
Other small businesses have developed classes teaching people how to make or re-purpose their own clothes and are reportedly thriving.
Here are examples of two other SMEs that have developed, and are thriving based on their social, sustainable and environmental awareness.
In Ipswich, a clothes company originally set up in partnership with Indian producers out of a concern for Fair Trade, has recently formed another partnership with African producers to source sustainably-grown cotton which local garment workers then use to make attractive clothes that are imported to UK to be sold online. One of the selling points of the garments produced is that each item comes with a verifiable history of its production.
Another business operating nationwide and based in Essex has created a service for building contractors with contracts to re-purpose or refit existing buildings. It offers site preparation that includes initial site layout, demolition, removal of internal and external fixtures and fittings, and the removal of all waste sorted into recyclable materials that are verified by an independent adjudicator and certified so that both this company and the contractor have evidence of their efforts to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. It also clears sites at the end of the contract.
With some innovative thinking, there are huge opportunities for SMEs to create completely new, social, sustainable and environmentally friendly products and services.
If you have any examples do please let us know in the comments.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Cash Flow & Forecasting General Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Turnaround

Unintended consequences

Turning around a struggling economy, like turning a business in distress, is a complex process where it is wise to be mindful of the possibility of unintended consequences.
Here are a couple of examples of ideas and policies that seemed like a good idea at the time.
First, of course, was the idea that it was possible to mitigate the risks inherent in subprime mortgages by packaging them with safer loans and creating complex insurance products for protection such as Credit Default Swaps and we all know where that led us in 2008.
More recently, despite many warnings against creating new housing bubbles, the Government’s Help to Buy lending scheme was supposed to encourage construction firms to start building sorely-needed homes.  What has happened so far? Anaemic growth in house building, surging house prices and an explosion of Buy to Let mortgages.
Removing planning restrictions in order to make it easier to convert redundant High Street shops into homes is one scheme of many to revive struggling High Streets.  How about actually addressing the issue of sky high business rates, last set in 2008 before the financial crisis with a review postponed until 2017?   There are approximately 40,000 High Street shops currently empty. Why would anyone start up a new retail business when business rates are so high?
I am sure you will all be able to come up with many other examples. 
Two questions: why do we seem to be incapable of learning the lessons of history? Do we rely too much on social, economic and business models that can never accurately encompass the complexities of real life and real people?

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Business Development & Marketing General Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Turnaround

Learn to say “no”

Most of us love a bargain but it can be a false economy if the lower price means reduced quality.
From the business perspective it can be tempting to reduce prices in order to win orders when trading conditions are challenging.
I’m seeing a lot of businesses agreeing to cut their prices, but equally a lot of them are walking away.
Why are they walking away? Because they are not prepared to compromise their own business models by acquiescing to that kind of pressure, especially if they have confidence in the quality of their product or service and have done the research to pitch a fair price that gives value for money.
A good business will only take on work on terms and at prices it feels comfortable with.  A bad business will succumb to pressure.
It’s better to grow your margins than to grow your business, in my view.  What do others think?

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Business Development & Marketing General Insolvency Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Turnaround

One – or two – swallows do not make a summer

Following on from the demise of Jessups the camera retailers the news that HMV had finally called in the administrators comes as no surprise.
What is perhaps more surprising is that a couple of commentators have seized on this development as perhaps an early sign that banks are feeling more confident about surviving losses and that better times are on the way in 2013 on the grounds that there is usually a rise in insolvencies as an economy starts to recover.
The more realistic view, K2 would say, is that insolvencies are still at a very low level and it is way too early for anyone to be so optimistic.
More likely, and there has been plenty of evidence in the cases of Comet, Jessup’s and HMV, is that their business models have been found wanting in the new world of consumer caution, shopping around for the best prices and the move to online shopping.
With a raft of year-end reports due out this week, including Mothercare, Home Retail Group (Argos and Homebase), Bookers, and Asos the picture will gradually become clearer.  One to watch is Mothercare, which did alter its business model last year to focus more on out of town retail stores rather than the High Street. This measure does seem rather late, being at least 10 years after others took the same initiative. The question will be whether Mothercare has done enough to survive without further and more dramatic restructuring.
While the pain is most obvious on the High Street, reduced consumption, changing consumer behaviour and inappropriate business models apply to many businesses that have not yet gone bust. There is no sign yet of a lift in bank confidence as they continue to prop up zombie companies rather than lending to companies wanting to change their business model or new ones with a vision and growth potential.
For the foreseeable future, businesses would be wise to examine their business models and if necessary to implement change early rather than put it off as restructuring becomes more difficult the longer it is left.  This is still no market for dramatic moves to improve turnover.