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How Good Is Your Business Intuition?

Tips to sharpen your powers of perception.

Bill Bartmann

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I first learned the business value of estimating when I left home at age 14 to join the carnival. One of my early jobs was to run the “Guess Your Age and Weight” booth. I first tried to guess people’s age and weight until the booth owner slapped me on the head: “Hey kid, stop being so accurate. I want them to win, okay? If they walk all over the midway with a giant stuffed bear and our banner, it’s free advertising for me. The less accurate you are, the more money we’ll make.”

That was a real eye-opener for me, because I began to understand the nuances behind estimating. In my subsequent 40 years in business I’ve come to learn several more lessons about how to sharpen your estimating skills.

1. Don’t overestimate your intelligence or underestimate the intelligence of others.

As a cocky, freshly minted millionaire in real estate I thought I saw a tremendous opportunity in the oil and gas business. I concluded that the locals were indeed yokels too dumb to take advantage of the riches beneath their feet.

I cashed in my real estate chips and moved them all into oil production – and promptly lost my shirt. The lesson? Rather than let my tongue hang out over the prospect of riches, I should have reeled it back in and asked myself if those so-called yokels could know something I don’t and why might others also see this opportunity but not jump at it.

2. Step back for a clearer view.

I later made a fortune by correctly estimating the wave of defaulted consumer and business debt to wash over our economy in the 1990s. It wasn’t due to my intuition but rather to stepping back, looking dispassionately at prices and volumes, and extending trend lines. My competitors could have done the same thing but my guess is they were way too buried in daily operations to see above the forest.

3. Create a feedback loop for your estimates.

One of the keys to growing my business was that I made an unbreakable rule: On every single defaulted loan we bought – and we bought millions of them – we always compared actual results to our original estimates. Then we fine-tuned our estimating engine for the next round of purchases. I know it’s more fun for entrepreneurs to look to the future, but it’s crucial that you continually sharpen your estimation tool against results and adjust accordingly.

4. Don’t underestimate other people’s fear.

My company did the first-ever securitisation of unsecured, delinquent credit card debt. We were the darlings of Wall Street, which invested several billion dollars in my firm. That was until an anonymous letter surfaced with allegations about my company. I incorrectly estimated that investors and the rating agencies would listen to reason and we could calmly analyse the facts. They listened politely and then bolted for the door. Literally within days, I had lost a personal fortune. Had I properly estimated their level of fear, I would have gone into survival mode and not into talking and reasoning mode.

5. Identify the other party’s dominant motive.

When my company was in crisis I agreed to step aside temporarily, even though I had a controlling interest in the stock. I made this move because I incorrectly estimated that the new caretakers would care as much about the company as I did. It was too late when I realised why they made several cataclysmic decisions – they were too new to the company to care about its long-term survival. They were merely executing a short-term salvage operation.

To make matters worse, I continued to apply wishful thinking to the equation by repeatedly estimating that if I just worked harder and smarter, I could bail out water faster than my business ship was taking it on. If I had accurately estimated that we were in fact swamped, my decisions would have been different.

Why do we sometimes see things more clearly in hindsight? Partly it’s because we can more easily identify the important factors that determined the outcome. It’s also partly because we’re more likely to see things as they actually turned out instead of how we hoped they would turn out. In order to realise your brightest business future, you owe it to yourself to sharpen your estimating skills by examining past results, facts and using rational perspective.

Is Your Business Leaking Money? These are the Holes You Need to Plug

Bill Bartmann is the world's foremost authority on profiting from government bailouts.

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How To Increase Profits By Focusing On The Needs Of Customers

How a water softener company boosted sales with moves as simple as changing its ecommerce platform and hiring an AdWords advisor.

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“Growing a small business is hard. If it were easy, everyone would have a business,” says Tom Tarasiuk, who knows first-hand the difficulties that small businesses go through when they try to succeed at online marketing.

As president and owner of Discount Water Softeners, Tarasiuk has helped his company streamline its efforts to provide an outstanding user experience and increase sales. This undeviating focus on the customer and a willingness to take risks have enabled the business to grow.

Here are those all-important strategies he’s used:

Customer-centric product development

Tarasiuk says that a key tactic in his company’s growth has been the work by leadership to keep overhead costs low. One way that’s been done is by eliminating the usual middle men and purchasing water systems directly from the manufacturer.

But even more important has been the company’s customer-focused philosophy. The company keeps its overall inventory minimal and develops products and features that will meet the needs of its clients. It’s done this by avoiding stocking merchandise that won’t sell because people don’t need it.

As Tarasiuk told me: “Happy customers are a critical part of our growth. We base our additional or new products on what customers are requesting or what areas of the market need a void filled.”

Related: Small Changes that can Greatly Increase your Profits

Improving the user experience

user experience

The company’s emphasis on the customer plays out in its online marketing strategy. Case in point is when managers decided in 2013 to switch ecommerce platforms. They had been using Volusion and transitioned to Magento.

Tarasiuk says they wanted a framework that would allow them to customize various types of content (images, videos, etc.) on any of their pages. Their goal was to improve the user experience and increase conversions. They did have some concerns about the switch, he says. They feared Magento would be less user-friendly on the back end. But without taking risks, an organisation cannot grow. The result? After changing to Magento, the company’s sales nearly doubled.

And it saw its organic SEO increase noticeably with almost no additional effort. At that time, the company completely redesigned its website. Again, prioritising the customer was key. The location of optional items and upgrades on the site was improved, for instance.

This allowed customers, Tarasiuk says, to “customise their orders and learn what upgrades would benefit them the most for their needs.” The site redesign, he says, increased company sales by as much as 15 percent.

Saving time with email

Another major part of refining the user experience and cutting costs at Discount Water Softeners entailed enabling customers to resolve some of their issues through email instead of over the phone. At one point, customer service reps were taking 45 minutes to handle each call that came through. Tarasiuk says he didn’t have enough employees to handle the volume of the calls. And hiring more workers would mean increasing overhead costs.

Instead, he solved the problem by allowing people to ask their most common questions through email. Through Magento, the company added PHP forms for people to fill out and used Crazy Egg to determine the best places on the site to put the forms. The company also increased sales by driving traffic to the forms by using Google AdWords. This solution cut, by 30 minutes, the time that its reps spent on each call, Tarasiuk says. It allowed the reps to handle a higher volume of calls without adding more employees.

Related: 10 Ways You Should Invest Your Company’s First Profits

Google AdWords has been crucial to growth.

Google AdWords has been crucial to the growth of Discount Water Softeners. In fact, Tarasiuk goes so so far as to call AdWords “essential to efficient performance and high ROI for sales.” He says he believes every company should have someone who is skilled at leveraging AdWords to its full potential.

Tarasiuk’s business has been using Google AdWords for over 10 years, and he describes learning how to leverage this tool as “pivotal in our growth.”

When the company first started using AdWords, it wasn’t selling much and was spending only $20 per day on the tool. But then Tarasiuk found Gail Gardner, an AdWords advisor teaching pay per click strategies at the now-defunct SearchEngineForums, and the situation changed. The advisor told him that if he wanted his company to be “discovered,” he should be spending at least $70 to $80 on AdWords per day.

Following that advice, Tarsiuk says, has revolutionized his company’s online presence and has been a decision he’s never regretted. At one point, when Gardner changed her work and switched to managing PPC accounts, the company had to go without an advisor for a period and instead rely on Google support. That situation wasn’t ideal because it wasn’t clear whether Google was prioritising the company’s campaigns or focusing on its own interests, Tarasiuk says.

Google did help keep Discount Water Softeners going, but it also didn’t see a marked improvement in its campaigns at the time. The assistance of an advisor was what really made a difference in itsprofits. So Tarasiuk contacted Gardner and asked for a recommendation for a new AdWords manager.

“That original AdWords advisor was essential at not only jump-starting our internet presence, [but] she showed us how to use and manage AdWords,” he says.

Bottom line

Bottom line

While there is no formula for growing a business successfully, there are principles that can guide you along that way. Take smart risks, and make your decisions based on what will help your customers. Because of the time and money Discount Water Softeners saved on strategies it adopted, it has been able to use the extra resources it gained to launch a new line of high-efficiency water softeners.

The company has also been able to diversify its merchandise, improve its product and benefit the environment, Tarasiuk says.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take,” he says, quoting hockey star Wayne Gretzky.

Related: Successful Entrepreneurs Limit The Downside To Maximise Profits In The Future

This doesn’t mean you should be reckless. It means to get good advice, and then take a leap of faith based on that information. If you don’t, you’ll never know what you could be missing.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Why Mitigating Your Risk Can Drive Up Your Fleets Profits

Business naturally comes with risk. How you mitigate that risk could mean the difference between a sustainable, profitable enterprise and a business surviving on the edge. Here’s how fleet management companies handle their risk.

Catherine Bristow

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“Whether your fleet consists of ten vehicles or 1 000 plus, it always boils down to the cost of maintenance, fuel and cost-efficient routes,” said Dr David Molapo, head of fleet management, vehicle and asset finance at Standard Bank, at a round table event hosted by Standard Bank to determine key impacts on profitability and growth in the fleet management industry.

To keep costs down and profits up, focus on:

  • Mitigating fuel costs for business growth
  • Implementing tools and telematics to save on transport and fleet spend
  • Training and monitoring drivers to ensure driver and load safety
  • Mitigating risks such as hijacking, driver behaviour and delivery delays
  • Bringing services in-house
  • Complying with legislation.

Attracting and training quality drivers

Attracting quality drivers is one of the industry’s main challenges. Businesses often have to recruit drivers and upskill them to become quality, reliable drivers.

Related: How TomTom Telematics Is Blurring The Lines Between Your Fleet And The Office

“SAB has a programme where a driver will be sourced and run on a SAB truck for a year to 18 months,” says Con Conradie, country commodity manager: Fleet for SABMiller.

“He is assessed over a long period and once he meets the grade he can buy his own truck and receive a ten year contract.”

“We place our drivers on advanced driving courses and all our drivers are allocated to a specific vehicle, which has reduced our insurance costs,” says Dorin Charalambous, MD of DSC Transport.

Preparing for the risks

risk-management-advice

Hijacking

“We have branded our reps’ vehicles with a full body wrap,” says CEO of Nature’s Choice, Greshan Mandy. “Since then we have not had a single case of theft. It’s advertising for your business as well as an immediate deterrent.”

Driver behaviour

“We contracted with Driver Check to monitor our fleet and their behaviour on the road,” says Mandy.

“We also have cameras in the vehicle to watch the vehicle and the driver,” he adds.

“These can deter the drivers from driving recklessly. If your driver has not done anything wrong the camera can prove his innocence,” says Reinard Basson, financial manager for Shoprite Group Transrite National.

Delays in delivery

“A truck is scheduled to do a certain route and that whole route has been timed, from the moment it leaves the depot, when it stops at an outlet and the time it takes to offload,” says Conradie. “Each vehicle has a slot at the outlets and the vehicles have mechanised forklifts. We levelled the pavements and widened the doors at our outlets so that there would be no delays,” says Conradie.

“Sometimes we deliver palletised goods and the next day it is a delivery of cement bags. Often there is no one to assist with the offload, which results in delays while you wait for assistance,” says Hennie Engelbrecht, director of Kopano Fuel.

Related: How To Keep The Wheels Turning For Your Transport Business

The need for specialist services

Transporting for niche industries is in demand, with specialist transport services required for niche products.

“Cost is important to us but delivering the product the way we want it delivered is also key,” says Carel Ganger, financial director for Ceva Animal Health. “We’re transporting a high value product and there’s a need in the transport industry to do something specific for cold chain.”

Bringing services in-house

“We used to use sub-contractors to get our product to the market as quickly as possible. Courier costs were becoming exorbitant and we were being impacted by the labour strikes in the transport industry,” says Mandy.

“We made a decision to bring transport in-house and we are now saving around R300 000 per month.”

Complying with legislation

“Our legislation and regulations are changing and many municipalities across the country are taking pride in maintaining their road infrastructures and ensuring that vehicles carrying abnormal loads have the right permits in place. This is beneficial to the industry,” says CEO of Matalana Transport, Comfort Padi.

“Customers are also ensuring that suppliers become compliant with the current legislations, such as ensuring that transport suppliers are ISO 9001 accredited and compliant.”

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How To Maximise Real Returns For Your Shareholders

When you are both a shareholder and a manager of a company, it is all too easy to forget that, as a director, you have a responsibility to deliver returns and create value for your shareholders.

Carl Bates

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When you sit as a director on the board, you have to apply your mind to how the board and the wider team will deliver on the expectations that shareholders have or should have of the business.

There are many ways that directors can create tangible and meaningful value for shareholders and other stakeholders. Just having an effective governance process creates shareholder value. However, as a director here are some specific ways you can drive shareholder value creation.

Related: Give And Receive: The ROI On Incentives

Watch out for the illusion of success

When you are involved in day-to-day operations, it is so easy to fall into the trap of seeing all the good work that your team is doing as the reason to justify why shareholders are not getting the returns they should. In one of our companies, a shareholder once commented that ‘nothing seemed to be going on’.

I was initially taken aback and, as the excuse was about to pop out my mouth, I realised that he was right. If a shareholder does not get their return or some form of increase in value, then there is ‘nothing going on’ for them. When you wear your director hat in a boardroom, then understanding, agreeing and meeting shareholder expectations is a key area of focus.

Wear the ‘three hats’ well

As a shareholder-manager who also serves as a director on the board, you have to learn how to put aside your shareholder and manager hats and instead wear only your director hat. We have observed that the ability to wear the right ‘hat’ at the right time creates massive value for the board and the company as a whole.

Shareholder issues simply do not belong in the boardroom. They cloud effective decision-making and can, ultimately and ironically, destroy shareholder value even if the majority of those present are shareholders.

Independent directors are therefore pivotal in keeping everyone focused on just wearing the director hat well.

Turn risks into opportunities

Risk is inherent in every aspect of being in business. We cannot escape it, yet we can learn to mitigate the likely risks we face. Directors on a board should take this one step further – by finding ways of turning risks into opportunities. Perhaps a key risk for you is the availability of qualified and experienced employees.

A board might look at this risk and see the opportunity inherent in establishing a learning academy as a means of taking control over the quality and availability of critical human capital, which could even become an additional profit generating business in the short-term to medium-term.

Learn how to identify the right opportunities

Entrepreneurs tend to excel at drumming up new ideas and opportunities, yet they struggle to choose the right opportunities in the context of limited time and resources. The board of an SME or privately-held company adds value to shareholders by establishing a framework to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’.

This accelerates the growth in value by choosing the right path at the right time and keeping the entrepreneur ‘on track’.

Never underestimate organisational culture

As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The best business model and strategy can all be for nought if the culture of the company is toxic or undermines the promise of the enterprise.

Directors on a board should never underestimate the importance of the collective values and behaviours of its team and how this directly enhances or destroys shareholder value.

Related: Today’s Incentives, Tomorrow’s Leaders

Address the ‘elephant in the room’

And lastly, SMEs and privately-held companies are renowned for avoiding the tough conversations at a board or executive level, especially when there are personal relationships between shareholder-managers.

In wearing the director hat well, supported by candid independent directors, massive value can be quickly unlocked through decisively acting on the long-unaddressed issues that drain all the energy out of the team.

In short, directors have an absolute role in ensuring value creation for shareholders. However, this does not happen by accident, it happens by design. Have you designed your board to achieve this?

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