Growing your business

December 2013 » Features » BUSINESS STRATEGIES
Disciplined execution of strategies differentiates the best companies.
Gerry Salontai, P.E.

Growing any business is one of the more frequently discussed topics for company leaders. Whether it's why some businesses grow in good as well as challenging economic times or how best to grow, the topic is discussed and debated often. Leaders also often express their companies' "growth strategy" as part of the discussion – even though growth is not a strategy, but rather the outcome of executing strategy well. Nevertheless, there should be no argument that growth is vital for the long-term success of the company.

I personally reach back almost a lifetime for lessons learned about business – especially how to grow one. For the growth topic, it begins with my first real job of delivering newspapers. I was on my bicycle at the age of 11 tossing papers on the front porches of homes in my small rural hometown. Handed a route of 40 customers, I proceeded to build it to nearly 150 customers during the next year. You quickly learn about sales, customer service, the positive impact of revenue, along with collections and bad debts.

The newspaper publisher saw an opportunity to deepen its penetration into that "marketplace" of a rural community and thought adding another route would help that cause. As a result, my territory, customer base, and compensation were cut in half overnight. I then scrambled to find new customers – which resulted in an even larger route within a year.

The lesson of the paper route was repeated in a variety of ways in more than a handful of jobs I've held since, including in the AEC industry. This includes the first AEC industry office management position I held, where we grew the office from eight staff members to more than 40 in just over a year. Combining those many lessons and my recent work with dozens of companies in the industry, some differentiating fundamentals emerge for growing a business.

You first need to define the purpose of why you exist as a company and have a vision of where you want or think the business can go. This is fundamentally important to succeed and needs to be supported by strategies that can get you there. Many companies don't spend the quality time in these areas, or they make it so complex or so vague that you can't get there.

Evaluation of why you exist should include an assessment of how you are different and how that might be delivered. The differentiation begins with understanding your company's underlying model of how competition works and using your hedgehog – that intersection of what fuels your engine, aligns with your passions, and leverages this with clients – as an advantage. Innovation, technological superiority, high-efficiency, or client-intimacy approaches should all be considered. The key is to find what makes your company "tick," which can be leveraged to provide the value proposition that's very different than others.

Then you need to develop strategies to reach the vision you have set. This includes the external market or client-focused strategies and the internal ones that help support what you have set out to accomplish. More successful companies develop those "critical few" strategies that will really "move the needle" to achieve success. They avoid setting too many strategies that become difficult to track, are not really meaningful, and thus divert their attention.

Execution seems to be one of the larger sticking points for companies. Many succeed at determining their purpose, setting a vision, and developing strategies to reach that vision. Yet leaders often underestimate that this "planning" is less than 5 percent of the effort needed to succeed. It's the execution of strategy that counts. And with that, there's not a need to spend endless time perfecting those strategies. Action, not perfection, is the order of the day. I tend to keep it simple and follow the spirit of a General George Patton quote: "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week".

That quote, along with one from the founder my old firm seems to underscore a very important aspect of growing a business. Jim Kleinfelder used to say, "This is a pretty simple business – all you need to do is get the work, do the work (well), and get paid for the work." And I've found if you don't do the first of these, then you can forget about the others. This means that the execution of strategy needs to include the customer in a professional services-based business. Companies that are client-centered and continually strengthen their customer relationships will always have an advantage. This fundamental belief is essential not only to fuel internal organic growth but also for acquisitive growth, where leveraging growth of the combined companies can yield big dividends.

The relationship nature of this business underscores the need to have your best people on the frontlines with clients and not tied-up managing or administering internal functions. That's how you can grow at the most fundamental level. Place emphasis on developing deeper relationships with your best clients to derive more opportunity. The most successful companies place the greatest emphasis on client engagement – having the right people focusing on the right customers almost always results in high performance and success. Companies that focus on that fundamental strategy almost exclusively have realized a higher internal or organic growth rate than others.

Finally, progress toward the vision for growth should be monitored closely and contain feedback provisions to determine how well you are doing against the objectives. This is the best way to ensure progress, but more importantly, is to measure if the strategy that was developed is driving decisions that will create real change and progress. This monitoring should be done formally at least quarterly. And it is important to at least annually validate whether the external world has changed since you formulated the strategy, making a difference in the results and in the marketplace. Simply answering the question of the need to stick with it or begin to change the direction of one or more of the strategies is more than appropriate.

Much of this is pretty basic and intuitive. You might say, "We already do all this." But do you? And are you doing it well? Many have much difficulty achieving any real growth of their business. The real differentiator between the best companies and the rest is in disciplined execution. Whether it's the value proposition, the deep client relationship concept, or the quality of any of the other strategies selected, if a company can prepare better for the future in just one area, it will be to execute better. There's not much difference between building a paper route, an office, or an entire company: Establish what you want and then take action to get there!

Gerry Salontai, P.E.,leads the Salontai Consulting Group LLC (www.salontai.com), a management advisory company focused on helping companies achieve success in the areas of strategy, business management, and leadership. He can be reached at 858-756-5169 or gerry@salontai.com.

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