Business Strategy for the Economic Recovery

economic recovery is coming, but not all businesses will gain from it.  Some executives will step outside to smell
the sweet aroma of economic growth, only to find that half their market share
has been taken from them.  More
successful managers will enjoy earnings growth hugely disproportionate to their
industry’s profits.  The difference will
be due to tactical steps taken now to accentuate the recovery’s benefits.

the sales side, companies should first tend to their core markets and
customers.  This is not as easy as it
sounds, but it offers great potential for gaining market share. 

Growing Market Share in the Economic

old fashioned sales effort dwindles in a recession.  Sales representatives get discouraged.  Oftentimes sales staff have been cut so much
that the remaining people become order-takers, answering calls from repeat
customers but not cold-calling or contacting past customers.  I believe that the greatest swings in market
share happen at economic turning points. 
Fire up your sales reps.  Hold a
sales contest.  Those luxury Las Vegas
rewards trips that corporations have been criticized for having?  They are cheap now, so offer special
incentives to your sales people. 
Celebrate every last sale—and every unsuccessful sales call.  The business will come, and when it does, it
will come to the sales reps who have been making the calls.

are very light in many industries.  Some
of your competitors will not be able to serve their loyal customers—and nothing
kills customer loyalty like not being able to serve them.  A few months ago I spoke with a fastener
distributor, someone whose business is providing nuts and bolts to manufacturers
and contractors.  He was located in a
dreadfully overbuilt part of the country, so construction was particularly bad
in his market.  Manufacturing was
garden-variety bad.  Yet he told me his
sales were up.  “How did you manage
that?” I asked.  His simple answer: his
company maintained their inventory as his competitors cut theirs.  In my book, Businomics, I counsel businesses to not let their inventory get
bloated as the economy turns down, and that’s still good advice at the
beginning of the recession.  But
companies have to maintain enough inventory to serve their customers.  This may be an area of opportunity for you.

your cash is too thin to keep inventories stocked where you’d like them,
consider whether some parts of your business are peripheral to your core
market.  For example, an auto parts
dealer might make most of his profit selling parts to repair shops, and the
rest of his profit comes from selling after-market accessories directly to the
public.  The after-market business is
secondary to his core market and can be cannibalized (financially speaking) if
necessary to keep the repair parts in stock.

you have made sure that you’re serving your core customers, only then make sure
your secondary lines are well-stocked. 
At this point, ask yourself if you have the capacity to sell a little
bit more.  Don’t be so sure that you can,
because you may have laid off some critical people, and your banker may not be
keen on providing you with enough credit to carry greater inventories or
receivables.  But if you do have the
means to boost your sales even more, then look around the periphery of your
core market.

Core Markets

company that has been selling in Texas may want to look into Oklahoma, Arkansas
or Louisiana.  A company that has been
selling aluminum extrusions could consider copper and brass.  A business that has sold only through
manufacturer’s representatives might try selling to wholesalers.  And a company that has served the consumer market
may want to branch into small and home-based businesses.  The specifics will vary from company to
company, but the truths of the recession—that sales people are discouraged and inventories
have been over-cut—apply to these neighboring market segments.

that is eyeing an adjacent market will be tempted to wait until the economy
fully recovers, the firm has built up its cash reserves, and is generally
breathing a little easier.  That,
however, is exactly the time when the competitors in those other segments are
serving their customers well, able to withstand new competition, and not
inclined to cede market share easily. 
Now, while the competitors are worried about survival, is the time to

Cutting Costs in the Economic Recovery

market share is only half of the opportunity in the recovery.  The other is the ability to acquire critical
resources at bargain basement prices. 
Let’s start with real estate.  If
you are renting your space, ask for a rate reduction.  Don’t bother coming up with a reason, just
ask—everyone else is.  If your lease has
only a year or two before it expires, ask how big a rent concession the
landlord will give you to extend your lease now.  It looks much better for him to have
long-lasting leases, and you lock in a very favorable rate.  If you’re in a position to buy land or
buildings that you may need in the future, do it.  Nobody knows exactly where the real estate
market bottom is, but we’re close enough to it that it’s almost a no-brainer to
buy if you can.

about new equipment?  Don’t.  Look for good used equipment.  Check out the auction sites, get to know
dealers in used tools, and listen to the gossip at industry meetings.  Two-year old machinery at 35 cents on the
dollar beats a 15 percent discount for brand new.  With capacity utilization at very low rates,
there should be plenty of stuff available. 

alternative to grow capacity at a low price is to buy an entire
competitor.  That has two benefits: it
adds to your capacity while reducing your competition.  If one of your competitors is having trouble
with his bank, or has been closed out of trade credit by his suppliers, you may
be able to step in and buy the equipment at a steep discount to new pricing,
while gaining a book of business at no additional cost.  Before buying new equipment, think carefully
about your alternatives.

about raw materials or other inputs to your business?  Be cautious before you lock yourself into a
long-term supply agreement or buy a large volume of material.  Prices certainly have dropped in the last
year and a half, by 15 percent for the average industrial commodity (as of
September 2009).  However, many prices
are still above 2006 levels, so it may not be much of a deal.  Use your cash and willingness to take risk

recovery brings not only opportunities, but also headaches.  One that will be coming up is vendor
performance.  Many suppliers are barely
holding on, with a skeleton crew and minimal working capital.  They may not be able to handle a larger order
when your sales turn up, which could leave you unable to deliver product to
your customers.  Take some time to
understand your critical vendors, at a level deeper than chatting with the
sales rep.  Ask about their finances and
their critical staff.

talent is still abundant in most fields other than health care and government,
though this will change in a year or so. 
Need a new IT guy, bookkeeper or human resources person?  Pick them up now while they are still
unemployed.  It will be tempting to hire
them real cheap (at least, I would be tempted), but be careful.  When the rest of the economy bounces back,
skilled people will be short supply once more. 
If you do start your new hires at low salaries, be ready to give them
above-average pay raises for the first year or two, to bring them up to
market.  That saves you money initially,
and nothing promotes loyalty like an unexpected pay raise.

less skilled workers, look at who you’ll want working for you five years down
the road.  You can be picky now, but you
may not be able to be too picky then. 
Look especially for people who have taken temporary “scut jobs” to tide
them over during the recession.  They
have the kind of work ethic that will help you when you get busy.

turnaround in the economy offers the potential for savvy companies to grow
market share while lowering costs.  It’s
not time for business as usual.