- Player: Albé Geldenhuys
- Company: USN
- Launched: 1999
- What they do: Sports nutrition and supplementation
- Group turnover: R1 billion
- Visit: usn.co.za
The Start-up Story
Starting Small, Thinking Big
Lesson one, when you launch a business, know where you want to go. For Geldenhuys, who had consistently been the Health & Racquet Club’s top performing salesman (by a long margin), chasing and achieving targets isn’t just a vocation, it’s his life’s blood.
Even the name he gave to his fledgling business marks this mindset: Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN) was chosen because of the US in its name.
“At the time, there was a perception that US brands were the best. I wanted to capitalise on that, and the name subtly suggested an international product.”
Like any truly successful entrepreneur, Geldenhuys is a consummate salesman, and he understood from the get go that businesses need to be trading. “At first, I wasn’t even thinking about launching a product line, or even a business. I just wanted to be selling product and making a small profit.”
He bought two product ranges wholesale, Muscle Science and EAS, and sold them to health shops. “The problem was that I started getting complaints. Muscle Science wasn’t a great product, and EAS was a pricey US product.”
Geldenhuys spotted a gap in the market. “What was interesting is that this was already a busy market. It was small and saturated, so there wasn’t really room for another competitor. The available products were either too expensive, or poor quality. I was convinced that if I offered a good quality product at an affordable price, I’d have a shot.”
And USN was born. “I researched formulations in magazines and through supplement reviews. At the time Creatine was a big deal, so I bought barrels of it from Crest Chemicals, bought bottles, mixed my formulations and bottled it.”
He started selling to everyone: Friends, people he’d met at the Hatfield gym, and most importantly Blue Bulls rugby players who also worked out at the gym. “I targeted anyone. I had no strategy beyond just sell, sell, sell,” he recalls.
The ‘non’ strategy worked though, because soon supplement shops started contacting Geldenhuys directly, particularly the in-house Health & Racquet shops. Word spread: If you wanted to buy good quality sports supplements at an affordable price, Albé was your guy.
As a start-up, USN was a money-in, money-out business. “I could only buy raw materials as and when I had the cash. Everything we made went back into product. We kept our overheads incredibly lean, and just focused on growing sales, and having enough product to meet demand.”
The entrepreneur was thinking about how to scale the business’s growth. He realised that just manufacturing and packaging the best product at a reasonable price, with a diverse offering wasn’t enough.
“Making sales always goes back to the same key question: What do your consumers really need from you? At first, the answer to that question was a good product at an affordable price. We experienced rapid growth based on simply meeting a need in the market. But we wanted to be bigger, and that meant expanding our market. So I needed to ask the question again.
“Now what do our consumers need from us? The answer was simple. They needed to understand how to use our products. The demand was there, but most people weren’t actually sure how to use sports supplements properly. That was our in. We started educating the market, adding meal plans to our packaging, and focusing on telling people how to use what, and what the results would be if our various products were used correctly.”
By January 2000 USN was still operating from the kitchen. It had a turnover of R20 000 a month, and enjoyed a 60% gross profit, largely because it had no overheads, and the product sold below retail prices.
“We were proud of our turnover, but I was focused on the next step,” says Geldenhuys. “I approached ChemPure to assist with the products. I had market research, they had the raw materials.”
ChemPure was housed within the CSIR, and agreed to incubate the still-small USN within its premises. It was a game changer for the start-up. They moved out of the kitchen, and within four months had grown their turnover from R20 000 to R160 000 a month. From that moment, USN started doubling its turnover every month.
Geldenhuys, his brother and girlfriend (soon to be wife) were a tiny team on fire. One of the key secrets to Geldenhuys’s success at this stage was that he always got paid. He made sure invoices were sent timeously, and he followed them up relentlessly until the cash was in the bank.
Growing in Leaps and Bounds
Since its inception, USN has enjoyed massive growth. From R20 000 a month turnover in January 2000, by the end of 2002 the product was in Springbok Pharmacies and Dis-Chems around the country, and monthly turnover was in the millions. Geldenhuys had achieved this feat without splashing out any cash on big advertising campaigns.
And then he got his first real curve ball. In early 2003, Dis-Chem bought a 50% stake in Evox, one of USN’s biggest competitors. Dis-Chem was USN’s biggest customer, so the move shook Geldenhuys to the core, as he knew Dis-Chem would promote Evox.
“I was always stingy with money. I liked a nice healthy bank balance. We’d enjoyed massive growth without spending anything on marketing, and that was the way I liked it. But I also knew it was time to spend some of our hard-earned cash to build brand awareness. It was time to advertise.”
True to form, Geldenhuys wasn’t just going to splash some cash around and hope it worked. He was going to be strategic about his marketing spend.
“Always look at yourself, and what you bring to the table. I had some great contacts in rugby thanks to my sales background at the Hatfield Health and Racquet club. This was my in.”
Geldenhuys approached Jaco van der Westhuizen, a Blue Bulls player who had been injured and was out of shape. “I made him an offer. ‘If you get into fantastic shape, using my products and sticking to a strict health routine, I’ll put your face everywhere – in Men’s Health magazine, on billboards – everywhere. You’ll get noticed. Everyone will be talking about you’.”
Within seven weeks van der Westhuizen went from flat and white to an athlete in incredible shape. “The transformation was unbelievable, and we made a huge splash of it. He was the talk of the town.” Within three months van der Westhuizen was on the Springbok team.
“It did wonders for both our brands. He was also our first USN brand ambassador.” The first of many. Geldenhuys soon realised that his business was long past start-up stage. “Spending money made us more money. We were creating more demand than ever before. People were talking about us. Turnover grew, profits grew and the business grew.”
Geldenhuys’s strategy to ensure Evox didn’t steal his market share was two pronged. He needed to send buyers into stores looking for the product, and once there ensure USN was the brand they actually bought.
“We returned to a strategy that we knew worked: People need to know how to use your product. The more consumers know, the more likely they are to buy, but the more the assistants in the stores know, the more likely they are to recommend your products, and so we trained the guys in stores. They must know more about USN than Evox. Period.”
Within six months the relationship between Evox and Dis-Chem ended. Evox had relaxed its marketing efforts, expecting Dis-Chem to sell for them, and Dis-Chem had done the same, expecting Evox to put in the work and prove the ROI of the acquisition.
The real winner was USN, which had used the challenge as a reason to up its game and focus on cementing an even bigger section of the market.
The Downside of Growth
In many respects, the business grew too fast. “I had my finger on everything: Stock, our warehouse twice a day, finance. I even stuck labels on bottles if I had to. By 2004, our sales were excellent, but our back-end was a mess. We’d grown too big for our structures.
I wanted to focus on product development, advertising and sales. I didn’t want to be MD as well, but I knew we needed a detail-orientated person to focus on putting proper systems and processes in place. I appointed one of my managers, Johan Visagie, a lawyer friend who was excellent at the details, to be MD.
“I’m an autocratic leader. I tell everyone how things are going to happen, and they make them work. I’d go so far as to say that I rule by fear. My team listens to what I say, and the structure was always clear. Johan was a mild-mannered, diplomatic HR guy.
Where I had been a firm task master, Johan was a gentler and friendlier boss, trying to operate within a framework that I had created. The company culture didn’t know how to adjust and we ended up losing some great people as a result.
“The second problem was that although I needed a strong MD, Johan had previously worked under me. He didn’t come into the role and immediately embrace it as a position of equal footing. He didn’t push me or challenge me. I started feeling very alone in my own business.
“We’d enjoyed phenomenal growth, but I’d gone from knowing every single little detail in every spreadsheet, to walking through our own warehouse and feeling lost. I needed a strong partner who I could bounce ideas off and who would give me honest feedback. My MD told me what he thought I wanted to hear, instead of what I needed to hear, or what was actually happening in the business.”
As Visagie got more involved in the business, Geldenhuys’s feel for the numbers started slipping as gradually a distance opened up between him and the daily operations of the business.
It would take five years, Visagie stepping down and a new CEO (whose name we’ve chosen not to mention in this article) at the helm before the implications of that separation from the numbers would really make itself felt.
“In 2010, based on our market presence and massive sales figures, PSG approached us with an offer to purchase. I had no intention of selling – in fact, I’ve always believed that if someone approaches you to sell, it means you’re doing something right – but I invited them in to do an audit anyway.”
The results were devastating. “They discovered R12 million in stock losses. My CEO had projected a profit of R28 million, and instead, we had lost R12 million. It was unbelievable.”
Where Had Things Gone So Wrong?
“I had completely taken my eye off the ball, putting all my trust into our CEO while I continued to focus on sales, product development and launching USN overseas.”
The CEO in question had originally joined the business to head up a new sports drink division. He’d been an executive at Coca-Cola, and he understood the market.
“Up until that point, we’d been pumping money into the new product but it wasn’t really working, and we were losing a lot of money. When he joined us he was exactly what I thought I needed: A silver back with lots of business experience. He talked an excellent game, and I thought we could benefit from his expertise.”
He soon went from running the drinks division to being appointed sales director. And then he left due to a job offer to run Coca-Cola in Kenya. “I was disappointed to lose him; I had really started to rely on him,” says Geldenhuys, which is why, when he wanted to return to the business – but this time as CEO – Geldenhuys readily agreed.
“Johan had served the business well, but I believed that a new CEO would be a better fit for the growth path I wanted to take USN on, so I agreed to his terms, he joined us and Johan stepped down.”
It would prove to be the single biggest and most expensive mistake Geldenhuys would make. “There were so many issues it’s almost painful to list them,” he says.
“His first hire was a drinks director who arrived and then two months later had a big back operation and was off for six months. He hired a financial manager who was indiscreet with salaries, which also cost us a lot, because we had to suddenly increase a number of salaries to keep staff.
“He had a penchant for employing people from big corporate backgrounds who wanted to follow the corporate systems that they knew. We had always done so well because at heart we were a small, agile, flexible entrepreneurial business and not a corporate. We were losing that magic.
“The most unexpected development, was how this man whom I liked and trusted to be the CEO that my company needed, suddenly became power hungry and started abusing his role. I’ve always believed that it’s good to put pressure on people, but you can’t treat them badly.
Worst of all, he was making mistakes. He over-ordered products we had discontinued. He was running the business, and yet he had no idea what was happening in the business. He was over his head, but hiding it well as he talked a good game.”
And then PSG came along and revealed just how far the rot had spread. “At the time, our turnover was R300 million, with a projected profit of R28 million, which I was already unhappy about – where had our great margins gone? Then PSG came along and said, sorry, you’ve actually lost R12 million in stock, and you’re making no profit.
“I was floored. I’d put a lot of faith in my CEO. But I also realised I’d been a bit of an ostrich with my head in the sand. There were so many things I couldn’t control that I didn’t want to see what was actually going on. It was time for change.”
The Billion Rand Question
In 2010, USN had a high turnover, but the business was in shambles. Despite its size, failure was a real possibility – but not an option for Geldenhuys. One of the PSG auditors, Jurie Bezuidenhout, wanted to join the business.
“He had a private equity background and he really understood financials. He felt he could help me effect a turnaround. I also had an excellent sales manager who was about to leave because of the CEO.
Things suddenly clicked into place for me. With a strong sales director, chief financial officer and myself focusing on the products, we could turn this business around, without an MD or a CEO.
“R10 million and an unpleasant fight later, we parted ways with the CEO. Next was our head of logistics. We had massive stock losses and our efficiencies had dropped. We started out with service levels of 95%, which meant that 95% of our stock reached the shelves where it was meant to go. Under the helm of our new logistics manager, this dropped to 72%. It cost me six months’ salary to get rid of him, but it was worth every cent.”
Now the business went back to basics.
“We’re not a logistics company. We never will be. We need to focus on what we’re good at, and outsource the areas that we’re clearly not good at. We got UTI Pharma in to run the logistics side of our business. We sold the warehouse and all of our trucks. We had to retrench staff, which is never easy, but ultimately we needed to make decisions for the good of the business.
“Today, we focus on developing products and marketing. As soon as we went back to our roots we started making more money, and more profits – and the refreshed focus allowed us to focus on international growth.”
The proof is in the figures. Since 2010 USN’s turnover has grown from R300 million to R1 billion, and with the brand having launched in the UK in 2009, Australia in 2012 and the US in 2015, that growth is set to continue into the stratosphere.
Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.
- Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
- Company: Property Point
- What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
- Launched: 2008
- Visit: propertypoint.org.za
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.
While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.
Risk, reputation and relationships
“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.
So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?
Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.
“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”
Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”
A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.
“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”
Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”
This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.
“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”
In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”
Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.
“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”
Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.
Building a sustainable start-up
While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.
Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.
1. Align and partner with the right people
This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.
2. Make sure you get the basics right
Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?
3. Understand your value proposition
Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?
4. Unpack your value chain
If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?
8. Don’t ignore technology
Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.
Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.
“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”
Networking, collaborating and mentoring
Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.
“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.
“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”
The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.
To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za
Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive
Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.
- Player: Michael Mankins
- Company: Bain & Company
- Visit: www.bain.com/offices/johannesburg/
“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.
Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.
A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.
While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.
“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”
Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.
The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.
“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”
So, what were the differentiating factors?
What’s dragging your organisation down?
First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.
“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.
“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”
This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.
What the research revealed: Time
“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”
These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”
The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.
What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.
“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.
“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”
The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.
Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.
“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?
“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”
What the research revealed: Talent
According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.
“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”
To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.
It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.
This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.
“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”
The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”
The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.
“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.
“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’
“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”
The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?
“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.
“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”
Teams perform better than individuals
To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.
“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”
Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.
“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.
“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”
According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.
“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.
“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.
“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”
How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.
“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”
What the research reveals: Energy
According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.
“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”
Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”
Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.
“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.
“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”
The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”
Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.
Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.
7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up
Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.
- Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
- Company: Brand Cartel
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: brandcartel.co.za
“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”
When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.
Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.
“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”
The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.
“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon
“We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”
This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”
The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.
Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.
This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.
“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.
Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”
The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.
“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.
The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.
Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.
“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”
The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”
The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.
The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.
“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”
Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.
1. Play with your work
Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.
2. Wag your tail
The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.
We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.
3. Check it, don’t wreck it
The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.
4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)
We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.
That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.
Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.
5. Put your name to it
It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.
We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.
When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.
We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.
6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)
We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’
7. Walk the talk
For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.
Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.