How Competitive Is Your Business?

Every business owner launches his or her company wanting to be successful. But once you get out there, it usually becomes apparent that you’re not alone. To reach any level of success, you’ve got to be competitive with other similar businesses in your market.

When strategically planning, one important question to regularly ask is: Just how competitive are we anyway? Objectively making this determination entails scrutinizing key factors that affect profitability, including:

Industry environment. Determine whether there are any threats facing your industry that could affect your business’s ability to operate. This could be anything from extreme weather to a product or service that customers might use less should the economy sour or buying trends significantly change.

Tangible and intangible resources. Competitiveness can hinge on the resources to which a business has access and how it deploys them to earn a profit. What types of tangible — and intangible — resources does your business have at its disposal? Are you in danger of being cut off or limited from any of them?

For example, do you own state-of-the-art technology that allows you to produce superior products or offer premium services more quickly and cheaply than competitors? Assess how suddenly this technology could become outdated — or whether it already has.

Strength of leadership team. As the owner of the business, you may naturally and rightly assume that its management is in good shape. But be open to an objective examination of its strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, maybe you’ve had some contentious interactions with employees as of late. Ask your managers whether underlying tensions exist and, if so, how you might improve morale going forward. There’s probably no greater danger to competitiveness than a disgruntled workforce.

Relationships with suppliers, customers, and regulators. For most businesses to function competitively, they must rely on suppliers and nurture strong relationships with customers. In addition, if your company is subject to regulatory oversight, it has to cooperate with local, state and federal officials.

Discuss with your management team the steps the business is currently taking to measure and manage the state of its relationships with each of these groups. Have you been paying suppliers on time? Are you getting positive customer feedback (directly or online)? Are you in compliance with applicable laws and regulations — and are there any new ones to worry about?

Loss of competitiveness can often sneak up on companies. One minute you’re operating in the same stable market you’ve been in for years, and the next minute a disruptor comes along and upends everything. Contact us for more information and other profit-building ideas.

Get Started on 2018 Tax Planning Now!

With the April 17 individual income tax filing deadline behind you (or with your 2017 tax return on the back burner if you filed for an extension), you may be hoping to not think about taxes for the next several months. But for maximum tax savings, now is the time to start tax planning for 2018. It’s especially critical to get an early start this year because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has substantially changed the tax environment.

Many variables

A tremendous number of variables affect your overall tax liability for the year. Looking at these variables early in the year can give you more opportunities to reduce your 2018 tax bill.

For example, the timing of income and deductible expenses can affect both the rate you pay and when you pay. By regularly reviewing your year-to-date income, expenses and potential tax, you may be able to time income and expenses in a way that reduces, or at least defers, your tax liability.

In other words, tax planning shouldn’t be just a year-end activity.

Certainty vs. uncertainty

Last year, planning early was a challenge because it was uncertain whether tax reform legislation would be signed into law, when it would go into effect and what it would include. This year, the TCJA tax reform legislation is in place, with most of the provisions affecting individuals in effect for 2018–2025. Additional major tax law changes aren’t expected in 2018, so holding off on tax planning isn’t necessary.

While there’s more certainty about the tax law that will be in effect this year and next, there’s still much uncertainty on exactly what the impact of the TCJA changes will be on each taxpayer. The new law generally reduces individual tax rates, and it expands some tax breaks. However, it reduces or eliminates many other breaks.

The total impact of these changes is what will ultimately determine which tax strategies will make sense for you this year, such as the best way to time income and expenses. You may need to deviate from strategies that worked for you in previous years and implement some new strategies.

Getting started sooner will help ensure you don’t take actions that you think will save taxes but that actually will be costly under the new tax regime. It will also allow you to take full advantage of new tax-saving opportunities.

Now and throughout the year

To get started on your 2018 tax planning, contact us. We can help you determine how the TCJA affects you and what strategies you should implement now and throughout the year to minimize your tax liability.

Manage Costs of Health Benefits with a Multi-pronged Approach

Many companies offer health care benefits to help ensure employee wellness and compete for better job candidates. And the Affordable Care Act has been using both carrots and sticks (depending on employer size) to encourage businesses to offer health coverage.

If you sponsor a health care plan, you know this is no small investment. It may seem next to impossible to control rising plan costs, which are subject to a variety of factors beyond your control. But the truth is, all business owners can control at least a portion of their health care expenses. The trick is taking a multi-pronged approach.  Here are some ideas:

Interact with employees to find the best fit. The ideal size and shape of your plan depends on the needs of your workforce. Rather than relying exclusively on vendor-provided materials, actively manage communications with employees regarding health care costs and other topics. Determine which benefits are truly valued and which ones aren’t.

Use metrics. Business owners can apply analytics to just about everything these days, including health care coverage. Measure the financial impacts of gaps between benefits offered and those employees actually use. Then appropriately adjust plan design to close these costly gaps.

Engage an outside consultant. Secure independent (that is, non-vendor-generated) return-on-investment analyses of your existing benefits package, as well as prospective initiatives. This will entail some expense, but an expert external perspective could help you save money in the long run.

Audit medical claims payments and pharmacy benefits management services. Mistakes happen — and fraud is always a possibility. By regularly re-evaluating claims and pharmacy services, you can identify whether you’re losing money to inaccuracies or even wrongdoing.

Renegotiate pharmacy benefits contracts. As the old saying goes, “Everything is negotiable.” The next time your pharmacy benefits contract comes up for renewal, see whether the vendor will do better. In addition, look around the marketplace for other providers and see if one of them can make a more economical offer.

No silver bullet exists for lowering the expense of health care benefits. To manage these costs, you must understand the specifics of your plan as well as the economic factors that drive expenses up and down. Please contact our firm for assistance and additional information.

Home vs. Away: The Company Retreat Conundrum

When a business decides to hold a retreat for its employees, the first question to be answered usually isn’t “What’s our agenda?” or “Whom should we invite as a guest speaker?” Rather, the first item on the table is “Where should we have it?”

Many employees and some business owners might assume that a company retreat, by definition, must take place off-site. But this isn’t necessarily so. Holding an on-site retreat is an option — and a markedly cost-effective one at that. Then again, it may also recall the old adage: You get what you pay for.

Staying put

Staying put can better keep out-of-pocket expenses in check in several ways. The most obvious is that you won’t need to rent one or more meeting rooms. Perhaps even more important is the fact that no one at your company will need to spend valuable time and energy calling around to various hotels, gathering information and negotiating costs.

You’ll also likely spend less on food and beverages. A local restaurant can probably cater in the food for a nominal sum, and you could buy beverages in bulk. Furthermore, you’ll have no concerns or expenses associated with transporting employees to the retreat location (as long as your employees all work on site).

The problem is that employees tend to view on-site retreats as just another day at the office, and that mentality makes turning on creative juices and accomplishing goals difficult. They’re constantly tempted to run back to their desks to check their e-mail and voice mail. Worse yet, they may consider their employer a little too cost-conscious, if you catch our drift.

Heading out

Generally, people are better able to focus on a retreat agenda at off-site locations. They’re in a new, “special” environment that has no visual cues triggering their workday routines. So, even though you’ll incur additional costs, you may get a better return on investment.

During the planning process, remember that everything is negotiable. Hotels and facilities that host company retreats need and want your business. Get several quotes and compare prices and services. You’ll have more leverage if you avoid scheduling your retreat during a time of year when local venues tend to be busy.

Because hotels earn bigger margins on food, beverages, and meeting set-up fees, many will provide complimentary or discounted rooms for guest speakers and out-of-town employees. Also, try to negotiate a set food and beverage price for the entire retreat rather than a per-person or per-event rate.

In addition, don’t be shy about asking for discounts. For example, if the facility requires an advance deposit and the balance at the end of the retreat rather than giving you 30 days to pay, request a discount for prompt payment.

Thinking it through

Not every company can afford to fly their staff to Aruba and hold beach-side brainstorming sessions replete with tropical beverages. But crowding everyone into the break room and expecting mind-blowing strategic ideas to flow forth probably isn’t realistic, either. Find a suitable and productive point somewhere in between. Let us know if we can help with further information or more ideas.

Seven Ways to Prepare Your Business for Sale

For some business owners, succession planning is a complex and delicate matter involving family members and a long, gradual transition out of the company. Others simply sell the business and move on. There are many variations in between, of course, but if you’re leaning toward a business sale, here are seven ways to prepare:

  1. Develop or renew your business plan. Identify the challenges and opportunities of your company and explain how and why it’s ready for a sale. Address what distinguishes your business from the competition, and include a viable strategy that speaks to sustainable growth.
  2. Ensure you have a solid management team. You should have a management team in place that’s, essentially, a redundancy of you. Your leaders should have the vision and know-how to keep the company moving forward without disruption during and after a sale.
  3. Upgrade your technology. Buyers will look much more favorably on a business with up-to-date, reliable and cost-effective IT systems. This may mean investing in upgrades that make your company a “plug and play” proposition for a new owner.
  4. Estimate the true value of your business. Obtaining a realistic, carefully calculated business appraisal will lessen the likelihood that you’ll leave money on the table. A professional valuator can calculate a defensible, marketable value estimate.
  5. Optimize balance sheet structure. Value can be added by removing non-operating assets that aren’t part of normal operations, minimizing inventory levels, and evaluating the condition of capital equipment and debt-financing levels.
  6. Minimize tax liability. Seek tax advice early in the sale process — before you make any major changes or investments. Recent tax law changes may significantly affect a business owner’s tax position.
  7. Assemble all applicable paperwork. Gather and update all account statements and agreements such as contracts, leases, insurance policies, customer/supplier lists and tax filings. Prospective buyers will request these documents as part of their due diligence.

Succession planning should play a role in every business owner’s long-term goals. Selling the business may be the simplest option, though there are many other ways to transition ownership. Please contact our firm for further ideas and information.

Not necessarily a luxury: Outsourcing

For many years, owners of small and midsize businesses looked at outsourcing much like some homeowners viewed hiring a cleaning person. That is, they saw it as a luxury. But no more — in today’s increasingly specialized economy, outsourcing has become a common way to cut costs and obtain expert assistance.

Why would you?

Outsourcing certain tasks that your company has been handling all along offers many benefits. Let’s begin with cost savings. Outsourcing a function effectively could save you a substantial percentage of in-house management expenses by reducing overhead, staffing and training costs. And thanks to the abundant number of independent contractors and providers of outsourced services, you may be able to bargain for competitive pricing.

Outsourcing also allows you to leave administration and support tasks to someone else, freeing up staff members to focus on your company’s core purpose. Plus, the firms that perform these functions are specialists, offering much higher service quality and greater innovations and efficiencies than you could likely muster.

Last, think about accountability — in many cases, vendors will be much more familiar with the laws, regulations and processes behind their specialties and therefore be in a better position to help ensure tasks are done in compliance with any applicable laws and regulations.

What’s the catch?

Of course, potential disadvantages exist as well. Outsourcing a business function obviously means surrendering some control of your personal management style in that area. Some business owners and executives have a tough time with this.

Another issue: integration. Every provider may not mesh with your company’s culture. A bad fit may lead to communication breakdowns and other problems.

Also, in rare cases, you may risk negative publicity from a vendor’s actions. There have been many stories over the years of companies suffering PR damage because of poor working conditions or employment practices at an outsourced facility. You’ve got to research any potential vendor thoroughly to ensure its actions won’t reflect poorly on your business.

To further protect yourself, stipulate your needs carefully in the contract. Pinpoint milestones you can use to ensure deliverables produced up to that point are complete, correct, on time and within budget. And don’t hesitate to tie partial payments to these milestones and assess penalties or even reserve the right to terminate if service falls below a specified level.

Last, build in clauses giving you intellectual property rights to any software or other items a provider develops. After all, you paid for it.

Need more time?

Outsourcing may not be the right solution every time. But it could help your business find more time to flourish and grow. We can help you assess the costs, benefits and risks.

Find Time for Strategic Planning

As a business owner, you know that it’s easy to spend nearly every working hour on the multitude of day-to-day tasks and crises that never seem to end. It’s essential to your company’s survival, however, to find time for strategic planning.

Lost in the weeds

Business owners put off strategic planning for many reasons. New initiatives, for example, usually don’t begin to show tangible results for some time, which can prove frustrating. But perhaps the most significant hurdle is the view that strategic planning is a time-sucking luxury that takes one’s focus off of the challenges directly in front of you.

Although operational activities are obviously essential to keeping your company running, they’re not enough to keep it moving forward and evolving. Accomplishing the latter requires strategic planning. Without it, you can get lost in the weeds, working constantly yet blindly, only to look up one day to find your business teetering on the edge of a cliff — whether because of a tough new competitor, imminent product or service obsolescence, or some other development that you didn’t see coming.

Quality vs. quantity

So how much time should you and your management team devote to strategic planning? There’s no universal answer. Some experts say a CEO should spend only 50% of his or her time on daily operations, with the other half going to strategy — a breakdown that could be unrealistic for some.

The emphasis is better put on quality rather than quantity. However many hours you decide to spend on strategic planning, use that time solely for plotting the future of your company. Block off your schedule, choose a designated and private place (such as a conference room), and give it your undivided attention. Make time for strategic planning just as you would for tending to an important customer relationship.

Time well spent

Effective strategic planning calls for not only identifying the right business-growing initiatives, but also regularly re-evaluating and adjusting them as circumstances change. Thus, strategizing should be part of your weekly or monthly routine — not just a “once in a while, as is convenient” activity. You may need to delegate some of your current operational tasks to make that happen but, in the long run, it will be time well spent. Please let us know how we can help.