Archives for posts with tag: business

The Wall Street Journal editorial a while back,  made an interesting observation about our President and his style of leadership and negotiating. The article was primarily focused  on how Mr. Trump is approaching trade issues with China, and the rest of the world and specifically his emphasis on protecting domestic car production. But, I believe this can be applied to much of how our President approaches issues from foreign policy to healthcare etc. The article, by Holman Jenkins, Jr., states that President Trump is playing checkers while the rest of the world is playing chess. He relies on his gut and ignores briefing materials, etc..

Long time readers may guess that I have my own story about this type of game theory.  I learned about chess vs. checkers during my work on USG Corporation’s financial restructuring.

It was early in USG’s three year financial crisis, I was alone in New York having lunch with our newest financial advisor, Lazard. I was with David Supino, one of Lazard’s senior Partners and the head of their debt/bankruptcy advisory practice. An appropriate title as USG Corporation had accumulated massive debt in fighting a hostile takeover and was struggling to stay out of bankruptcy!   

We were at the famous Sea Grill restaurant in Lazard’s office building at 30 Rock (called that before the Tina Fey TV show). As USG’s newly named CFO, I was trying to understand this bizarre restructuring process from David who had done this for decades. USG, you see, had all these multiple groups and levels of creditors we had to satisfy to avoid a forced in-court bankruptcy. I was explaining, to David, my thoughts about how to negotiate with all these parties at the same time. 

My approach was this. On Star Trek’s Enterprise they had a three dimensional Chess set; when you moved a piece at one level it affected pieces at the other two levels. I asked David if this was a good way to look at our situation, like a Three D Chess game.

David stopped eating, spit out a piece of food, and started to shake, laugh and cry all at once. At first I thought it might be a heart attack until David screamed at me, “James, This is your problem! You think you are playing Chess! It’s more like Checkers but half the pieces are missing or broken! There is no Board and no Rules! Now do you understand what it means to be in Financial Restructuring!”

And, as our three year journey continued, I realized that my friendly advisor, David, was exactly correct. As detailed in the Crisis Management chapter of my book, The Business Zoo, any major crisis brings its own terminology, its own rules (or lack of them) and an often unclear path and timetable to ever get out of the crisis. This can apply not only to a financial or business crisis but a personal one as well.

So, what I learned then, and perhaps what leaders around the world need to learn about dealing with President Trump, is that you really need to understand what game you and your opponent think you are playing. And maybe the condition of the pieces and the shape of the board!

Usually business, life and even politics can be pretty straight forward. So, I would choose a really good checker player over a weak chess player any day!

 

As an accountant and CPA, I always thought I understood basic financial concepts. Net Earnings was computed by deducting all your expenses from Sales. And Cash Flow was, well, cash flow, or your Net Earnings plus Depreciation. These were defined by generally accepted accounting principles or GAAP and used to publish a firm’s financial results.

Well, guess what? That is not the way it is anymore. I started to discover this when some of the young people I advise go to work for firms like Salesforce. For many high growth technology firms, like this one, there really aren’t much Net Earnings anyhow and they even report Sales in ways I was never taught!

So recently the Wall Street Journal had an article called “Fanciful Measures of Profit.” This trend does go back to my days in the 1990’s at USG Corporation. USG had borrowed huge sums of money and due to the interest expense (and a slump in the construction markets) we had no earnings. So we reported EBITDA, Earnings before Interest, Taxes and Depreciation. As their CFO, I would joke to investors that when you have no earnings, you report EBITDA instead. My old friend, Warren Buffet’s partner, Charlie Munger, called these “bullshit earnings”, and he was not far off. But the fun did not end there!

The Journal reported that this year alone, companies have filed 450 documents with the Security Exchange Commission, SEC, with variations of my old EBITDA. A popular one is EBITDAO which adds back the cost of stock options issued to management. There is also ones that add back pension cost, leasing cost, exploration costs and almost anything else you can dream up. Technically, all these so-called financial measures must be shown with the traditional GAAP reported earnings. But in quarterly earnings calls and meetings with investors, firms primarily stress these adjusted earnings calculations because it makes them look better. And stock analysts have adapted and now use many of these new earnings measures when they review a firm and recommend their stock.

I am having a hard time with all this. I was taught that, in the end, all firms need to make real net earnings and to generate cash flow to survive and grow. But today companies get around this by borrowing money and issuing more stock. And if the firm, like Salesforce, is in a trendy field like software platforms on the cloud and is growing rapidly, no one seems to care if they have GAAP profits or not. Salesforce stock has climbed over 80% in three years without much real Net Income at all. This was also the story of high sales and stock growth without earnings for years for companies like Amazon and Facebook.

So what to do? Every investor needs to decide for themselves. For every Amazon, Facebook or Salesforce that soars and succeeds, there are dozens of firms that fail. Or, heaven forbid, the next great idea comes along and wipes out the competitive advantage, market share and quickly the value of their stock!

But I have decided that even an old CPA needs to be open to the way this new economy of ours is working and to make some investments in firms that may not have met my conservative old standards. After all, my wife, Tricia, is the one who insisted in 2004 we buy stock in some small computer firm called Apple! (We should have bought more!)

Only time will tell if this new investment approach works!

Crain’s Chicago Business wrote several months ago about how big companies are putting increased pressure on their much smaller trade creditors to extend their payment terms. A small Chicago stamping plant with $10 million in annual revenue, makes parts for Honeywell whose revenues are $39 billion and whose free cash flow is about $5 billion. Until recently Honeywell paid this firm slowly, by most manufacturing measures, at 60 days. Now they have asked for 120 days. This makes the smaller firm their Banker.

Chicago based Boeing, whose sales are even larger at $100 billion last year, recently asked suppliers for 120 day terms as well, according to the same article.

Both Boeing and Honeywell have an “A” credit rating, the best in corporate America.   This means they can borrow money pretty much whenever and from whoever they want and, in today’s financial world, very cheaply. So why do these giant companies penalize  very small suppliers by not paying their bills in a timely fashion? Because they can. Today there are plenty of small suppliers willing to accept these credit terms just for the chance to sell to a giant customer. At least for awhile or until it crushes the small firm’s own credit situation.

Is this a new phenomenon you might ask? Of course not. This has gone on forever in business. What is new is who is doing this and why.

Years ago, my wife Tricia sold office furniture to the then giant telecommunication firm MCI which became Worldcom which became Verizon. Standard terms from small furniture distribution firms were 30 days. One day MCI just decided to take 60 days. As a commissioned sales person, Tricia was charged a financing charge by her own firm which reduced her, already small, commission. At the time, MCI was just starting to have  financial problems, a falling stock price and eventually declared bankruptcy.  So, in the past, large firms often leaned on trade creditors to try to buy time to restructure their business.

My old firm USG Corporation went through its own financial restructuring due to excess debt taken on to avoid a hostile takeover. One of the many things we did to survive was to maximize our days outstanding with our trade creditors. But we did this after talking to the creditors and sometimes making special accommodations with them.

But what is going on today is totally different. Honeywell, Boeing and I am sure a host of other very large and very financially solid firms are unilaterally and without much communication or rationale just stretching out their credit terms to the severe detriment of a lot of small and struggling suppliers. A former USG Corporation financial colleague of mine was concerned that by not paying our bills according to their standard terms we were being “immoral and unethical”.  I never agreed with that characterization at the time or in our circumstances.  But what is going on today I do consider bad business practices that border on unethical.

Business like life relies on relationships. This credit practice is very bad for relationships and karma. And it will likely lead to more failures of small firms which are so critical for our economy.

Just when I thought I had heard almost everything, a group of over 40 year olds are suing Price Waterhouse Coppers for not hiring older workers! The lawsuit alleges that PWC discriminates against older applicants by focusing on college campus recruiting and trying to create a workplace “where youth is highly valued”, according to news articles.

Having grown up in business in what we now call a Big 4 CPA firm, I do have a couple thoughts to offer these disadvantaged older workers:

Although you may be attracted to the initial starting salary of up to $60,000, you better be prepared to work your behind off! CPA firms still average 70 to 80 hours a week, especially in the “busy” season from late fall until spring. Some CPA consultants work these long hours year round depending on the client and projects to which they are assigned. If you take the $60,000 and divide it by sixty plus hours a week you are really earning closer to $35-40,000 a year. And you have very little personal time! It is common to work late at night and six day weeks.

Starting jobs in the professions such as accounting and law have always been like this. There has been some effort, in recent years, to make them less exhausting and more family friendly, but based on the chat sites I reviewed, things have not improved much. This is why these starting positions are a young person’s game. Right out of college, with no spouse, and no family, this makes sense.

CPA and law firms also have very strict hiring criteria. The better firms only hire the best  people from the best colleges. And, yes, they are mostly all young, recent college or MBA graduates. And they all report to young, bright people who may be in their mid 20’s who report to young, bright people who are in their late 20’s. This is the age old formula and it works. By the time a young professional hits age 30, most have left public accounting for a more stable, and family friendly job. The few that remain into their 30s and 40s have been well indoctrinated into the firm’s culture, which is also very hard to do with an older worker starting out.

So, believe me when I tell the older workers, you do not want a starting job with a CPA firm! The money may sound good but it is not a lifestyle that works for those over age 40!

 

Warren Buffett began buying USG Corporation stock in 2000 right before its second bankruptcy, not great timing. But USG seemed to fit his investment profile: an industry leader in a basic industry-building materials.

Warren and Berkshire Hathaway stayed in during USG’s bankruptcy, loaned the Company money at 10% and then converted it into more stock. Today, Buffett is USG’s largest shareholder with just over 30% of its common stock. For most of the last twenty years, this was good for USG. A friendly stockholder of that size makes any company almost bullet-proof to any unfriendly takeover attempt. And Warren Buffett is usually a very friendly shareholder; until he isn’t.

Recently, a private German building material firm named Knauf made a hostile take-over bid for USG. Knauf has owned about 10% of USG also for the last twenty years. Normally a take-over bid by someone owning only 10% would not be a sure thing, but there was a unique wrinkle in this offer. Warren Buffett joined the proposal by offering Knauf an option to use his shares in getting the deal done. So now USG faces a take-over bid backed by 40% of its shares. And four other funds like Vanguard own, in total, another 20% of the shares. So, it is very likely that USG Corporation will be acquired. It may just be a matter of time and final price.

Since I left USG Corporation before Warren Buffett bought his first shares in 2000, one could ask what does this have to do with me? On many levels, nothing. Most of the people I worked with there are retired or dead. I was USG’s CFO during their first restructuring not the second one that Mr. Buffett waited patiently to end. But even though I was only at USG a dozen years, the experience and the people meant something to me. We fought to save USG in its first major financial restructuring. It took a toll on me, but it also left a mark and feelings of respect and admiration for the place. USG is a very proud and independent company with a lot of history and a unique culture.

So, this event got me thinking!

All the firms I worked for in my business career may be gone. Arthur Andersen by government decree; Donn Corporation sold to USG; IMC Global which merged with part of Cargill to become Mosaic; and now the 100 year USG Corporation. I outlasted them all.

In the generations before me, people worked their whole life for one firm and then retired there. Some of my wife’s grandparents did that in the tire industry in Akron, Ohio. And at least one of those firms, Goodyear, is still around!

But for the millennials of today, my experience probably seems quaint. Only four companies over an entire work career? Nowadays young people will have a dozen or more employers and no reason to wonder what happened to their previous ones. We change jobs as often as we change our cell phones.

So, best of luck and success to the people and culture of old USG Corporation whatever happens to it!

And Warren Buffett showed up twice: early in my working career and after I retired.

 

Whenever a blogger references really important people or companies, the number of hits on their website goes up. I have found this occurs when I mention my wife’s favorite company, Apple, or the infamous, to me, Tesla. But I actually have had two connections to the famous and well-regarded, Warren Buffett. Let’s start with a story I will call:

Leaving Donn Corporation for Warren Buffet!

I believe that everything in life and business is a cycle. There is a beginning, middle and an end that occur over some variable but predictable timeframe. Daniel Levinson’s book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, talks about this in detail and gives creditability to the notion of a seven-to-ten-year cycle or itch both in one’s personal and professional life.

For me, it was about twelve years after I started with the private Donn Corporation that I almost left. At the time, my old boss had retired and I was the Chief Financial Officer.

The Donn companies had grown ten times in that time period. We had gone through several financial and organization crises. I had finally been able to build a small but great corporate headquarters staff that was working well with both the owner’s family and Donn’s unique business people. The large Donn domestic business had an excellent Controller who was gladly taking on some my work.

I was bored to death! I had never experienced that feeling in public accounting or at Donn. And, I was about 38 years old, prime for what Daniel Levinson would call the Age 40 Transition. He wrote that, at all of these critical times in our life, we all consciously or subconsciously reflect and re-evaluate both our personal and work lives. Sometimes we make big changes and sometimes we don’t.

At exactly that moment I received a call from an executive search firm. As CFO of a very private mid-sized firm I did not get a lot of these calls, but when I had in the past, I would say thanks but no thanks. This time I actually listened. This time I even agreed to meet the headhunter for lunch. And what I heard was fascinating:

-a much larger, well known public firm was the client

-they wanted someone with my diverse background

-they were growing worldwide through acquisitions

-the CFO role involved a large pay package with stock options (not available at private Donn)

And here was the strangest thing. They were located literally down the street from Donn! It seemed too good to be true. But it also seemed like the perfect next step for me. The bigger size and the public company status were both appealing.  I love doing deals and the stock was a way to build-up my own net worth. I even really liked the search person. So, I agreed to interview. We were closing in on an offer when the headhunter called to say the search has been put on hold. Hmm. Okay.

A few months later he called and told me that his client has just been acquired by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and it will become one of their portfolio companies. But they still want a CFO.

I said no thanks. The CFO role in a subsidiary of a private company is not the same as a public firm. This is true even if the owner of the private firm is Warren Buffett.  By then, Donn seemed more fun. And, unbeknownst to me, within a short time I would be involved in the sale of the company to USG Corporation. I never regretted my decision to stay with Donn even though I missed the opportunity to work with a legend.

There is a valuable lesson here that I often explain to people I advise. Sometimes, in your personal and business life, you need to take a long, hard look at where you are and explore your alternatives.  You may decide to make a move or you may decide you are better off staying where you are. But the internal review process is critical whether you are in your Age 40 Transition or not!

Next time, I will tell you about my second connection to Mr. Buffett.

 

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about the government’s watchdog, the SEC, having concerns about the quality of audit reports issued by one of the Big Four CPA firms, KPMG. This resulted in an indictment of several people. What the government noted was poor audit quality based on their review. Big 4 CPA firms have also been charged with fraud in other high-profile cases. In fact, government test audits of all the Big Four firm’s work show that about 25% of all audits were what they call, “deficient”.

The issue is that investors rely on the outside auditors to check the accuracy of a firm’s financial reports. The SEC and the federal government has focused on this since the bankruptcies and accounting scandals involving Enron and World-Com in the early 2000s. And the Big Four CPA firms audit almost all the public firms in the Standard and Poor’s 500. So, this is not a good thing, no matter how you look at it.

As a former CPA in public accounting and a former CFO who worked with auditors for  decades, I have some thoughts for the Big Four CPA firms.

Training is first. Accounting firms send their new staff to a couple week training program. This is nowhere near enough. When I was an entry level staff person, I understood very little about internal controls, proper procedures, and really the whole auditing process. It took into my third or fourth year before I felt comfortable. More hands on training ever few months would have helped even though this is expensive.

Supervision is next. CPA firms have a very clear hierarchy of command where each layer above supervises and reviews the work of those below. The Senior on an audit might have a handful of staff reporting to them which does not sound unreasonable. But the Senior auditor also has work only they can do, like taxes, and rarely has enough time to supervise and help train their staff. Managers supervise Seniors but a bunch of them at once on often very different types of audits. More time needs to be allocated for review and supervision so that audit quality can improve.

Finally, we need a clear and mutually agreed understanding of what an audit is and what it is not. Audits are not meant to detect fraud yet many people believe they are. If fraud is found, however, it must be reported. As the government completes all these test audits perhaps the expectations versus the deliverables of an audit can become less fuzzy.  We also have whole new issues these days with technology,  cyber crimes and data security that did not exist that long ago. The responsibility of the auditor needs to be re-defined.

All of these items will take more audit time and thus audits will cost more. That will  become a reality. Historically, audit clients put constant pressure on their auditors to lower their fee. Going forward, if we want to improve audit quality and significantly reduce deficient work, audits will cost more. The investing public deserves it.

As recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, Warren Buffett just announced a new management structure for Berkshire Hathaway. This occurred, in part, to prepare for succession once Mr. Buffett is gone. When discussing one of the new leaders, Ajit Jain,  Mr. Buffett stated that if he, his longtime partner Charley Munger and Mr. Jain were stuck in a sinking boat, the most important person to save would be Mr. Jain!

This is not the first time I have heard of the Life Boat Theory of management.

Gene, my old boss and mentor from USG Corp., had a theory and a story about everything. And most of these contained valuable lessons about leadership.

After my company, Donn, was acquired by USG, they combined us with their similar businesses to form USG Interiors. Nothing about this merger or combination was going smoothly especially the people part. So, USG’s Chairman decided to move Gene in as Interior’s CEO which made him my direct boss.

The Donn business and its managers were still headquartered in Ohio at the time.

Gene decides to fly to Ohio for a day to meet Donn’s key people and see our operation. As the CFO of the former Donn and now Interiors, I am asked to organize this important trip. No problem.

I create a detailed agenda. I will pick Gene up at the airport and spend a little time. Gene will then meet, in half hour intervals, the other key Donn people and tour our facilities. By late afternoon back to the airport.

Except Gene decided to spend the entire morning with me which forced the whole agenda to compress.

Although I knew many of the senior USG people from their purchase of Donn, I had never meet Gene. Apparently, he had heard a lot about me! During the couple of hours that we were alone, we had a very frank conversation about everything that was going good and mostly not good with this new Interiors business.

By the time we rode back to the airport, Gene and I had gone from relative strangers to sharing mutual respect and even trust. Gene then ask us to move to Chicago where I could best handle the Interior’s CFO role. We made the move and never regretted it.

But what about the Life Boat Theory?

After we moved to Chicago,  Gene and I were working very well together.  One day I ask him why he spent all that time with me that first day in Ohio.

Gene smiled and said it all goes back to his training as an officer in the Navy. If your ship is sinking, each officer is assigned to be in charge of a certain life boat. Whatever roles the crew played in normal times are now dramatically changed. And as the officer in charge of a life boat, you need to decide not only who you want on your boat but also which order you will try to save them from drowning. And again, the skills one had on the main ship may mean very little in this new crisis.

So,  that first day that Gene and I spent time in Ohio, he was trying to figure out if I should be the first one he wanted in the Interiors life boat with him.

I was always grateful that I passed that test.

And, as with many things I learned from Gene, I used this several times in my career.

It does not just apply to a management crisis but to any major transition that occurs.  A major financial restructuring or downsizing could cause you to re-evaluate your priorities and your team. In USG’s financial crisis, a whole new group of senior business and financial managers were chosen. Starting a new job at a new firm can also lead you to quickly evaluate and rank the team you inherited. When I was hired as the CFO at IMC Global, I had to orchestrate a major bank and bond financing without a Treasurer in-place.

Just like in Gene’s Navy life boat story, at times in business and life, you need to quickly choose the best team for the situation that can help save you and your firm!

Gene never met Warren Buffett, but they would have gotten along very well!

One of the business blogs I follow is the Leadership Freak by Dan Rockwell. Dan had a post about the importance for Leaders and Managers to learn to say No. He cites the fact that saying Yes is much more popular in corporate America, as it tends to please people, while showing a willingness to try new things, etc. But No can be equally powerful.

So this got me to thinking about my own career and the power of Yes and No.

When I was a young, senior financial person at the private firm, Donn, I worked  with many older, operating people and the firm’s owner and his family. I found myself almost always saying Yes to try to please or impress these important peers or superiors. Of this group, one of the most famous and demanding was Branco, Donn’s European President. In my book, The Business Zoo, I tell a story about how skilled and smooth Branco was at getting his way. That story illustrates that Branco was a Grand Master at wining and dining, which was his preferred way to get things done.

After a while, Branco and I became friends and although he was always insistent on getting his own way, at times he gave me some advice. One day he told me that my problem is I cannot say No to anyone! An ironic comment from him, but very true.

I started to look at the world in a much healthier and useful light. I learned that there were times that, for the company or my own mental or moral well-being, I had to say No. But most importantly I learned how to say No without getting people upset, perhaps by suggesting an acceptable (to me) alternative approach. That made me a much better manager and leader. The Yes and No’s need to be in a balance that works for you.

And Branco? Sadly, after he retired he asked me for something and I said No. After that he quit talking to me. Branco will return in a story or two in my second book. Stay tuned!

Over the years, I have often been asked by younger people starting out, what second language should I learn? A great question and one to which I have discovered the correct answer can change over time.

When I was younger and working with Donn Corporation, we had international  businesses in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Scandinavia. Since I was traveling several times a year to these locations, I really wanted to learn a second language. As I have often done when facing a new decision, I thought I would ask the experts what they thought. We had a French President, Chris and a German President Branco. On my next trip to Europe I had the following conversations:

Brad to French guy Chris: Should I learn French or German?

French guy Chris to Brad: Learn German because you can not trust the Germans!

Brad to German guy Branco: Should I learn French or German?

German guy Branco to Brad: Learn French because you can not trust the French!

Now I had created a Real problem. I safely chose Not to learn either language.

In the last two years we have travelled to Switzerland and to Paris and Brussels. The Swiss all speak 5 or 6 languages and excellent English. This year in Paris and Brussels we noted that almost everyone we came in contact with willingly and smoothly spoke English. This was not always the case, especially in Paris, but it is today.

Why do even the reluctant French speak so much English? It is not because they love Americans and certainly not the British all of a sudden. Rather it is because wherever we travelled in Europe we ran into huge groups of tourists from Asia especially China. And how do all these Asian visitors communicate in Europe? In English, of course.

Which leads me back to the question of learning a second language. Americans are lucky and blessed that English has become the international language of both business and leisure. But if a young American asked me today what language should they learn, my answer would be Mandarin, the most spoken of the several Chinese languages.  In the retail and hospitality businesses,  a young person who speaks Mandarin can get a job wherever they want to.

But there is another correct answer to this second language question. Young people around the globe should learn the language of Coding. Coding is what allows us to create and use computer software, use apps on your mobile devices, engage in social media sites like Facebook and to explore the web and visit websites. Technology is the future and Coding is the key to technology.

So that is my final answer, lock it in, learn Coding!