Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Detritus is an accumulation of disintegrated material. That’s what comes to mind when I’m thinking of Detroit and what its demise portends for the future of our public finances at large. It is irony that the city that is synonymous with the mismanaged private sector auto industry (no offense to Ford) and had to endure the managed bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler is now itself at the top of the iceberg of a growing mismatch between publicly made commitments and the capacity to deliver against these commitments now and in the future.

Detroit has the dubious honor of being the test case for how a public entity can finally face the fact that it has promised more than it can deliver, renege on its obligations and try to start anew.

I see it as a flaw of our democratic system that we can let it come this far, with open eyes, and then have no more choice other than seek refuge in bankruptcy.

It is only the scale of the Detroit default that sets it apart from what is happening all over America. Municipal bankruptcies are popping up all over the place, Stockton and San Bernardino, CA, Harrisburg, PA, Detroit, MI and the cause is just about the same everywhere: incompetent, dishonest and self-absorbed elected officials willing to give away the store to their constituents to be popular and get re-elected. It was no different with General Motors and Chrysler. It was much easier for top executives to give in to UAW demands that would not affect the P&L until after they would have retired than to manage productivity, payroll and retirement expenses in a responsible way and get the UAW to see it the same way.

Unfortunately, we are still only seeing the top of the iceberg.

Just looking at unfunded pension liabilities carried by the States, gives us a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem. The State of Illinois, by itself, has a pension fund shortfall in excess of $100 billion, growing by $17 million every day. The Economist, in its July 27, 2013 edition, points to calculations by the Centre for Retirement Research at Boston College that reckon that the combined pension fund shortfall of all States may be as high as $2.7 trillion. It also reports that Moody’s reckons that schemes are 52% underfunded.

Of course, at the Federal level, it is little different. There too, our public officials have promised much more than they can deliver with existing tax revenues and funding authorizations. The scary part there is that the unfunded obligations under our entitlement programs are not even included in the $17 trillion National Debt. No wonder that my children and their peers have no confidence and, therefore, little expectation that Social Security will be there for them. They are right, unless Congress gets its act together and deals with the important issues of deficit elimination, debt reduction, tax- and entitlement-reform.

State and Federal Governments have no access to Chapter 9 Bankruptcy that municipalities and counties have. They have no other option than to restructure their finances in such a way that they can move forward. In almost all instances that means that they will have to renege on earlier made promises.

There are no good solutions when governments of any kind have allowed to let things get out of hand. The bill becomes due someday and the only question is: who is going to pay it. In the case of counties and municipalities, if the public authorities don’t answer that question, it will ultimately be answered by the bankruptcy court.

In the case of Detroit, which reportedly has a deficit of $18 billion, this means that the bankruptcy court will have to decide how to split the burden between creditors and city employees and retirees who will have to learn to live on significantly less that they were promised by a succession of city officials who have failed them. The outcome will send ripples far and wide in that it will most certainly be precedent setting and affect the municipal bond business and the rights of public-sector workers in every municipality, county or State that has failed to tailor the entitlements of its employees to its revenue producing capacity.

The only good thing in this is that it will almost certainly hasten the process of converting public pensions from defined income programs to defined contribution programs. This process, which is nearly completed in the private sector, is well under way, at least for new employees, in States like Alaska, Michigan (!), Nebraska and Utah.

Detritus is the right word for the mess we are in, because our system of entitlements has been disintegrating even though our public officials prefer to live in denial of this reality until they no longer can, like in the case of Detroit. The real question is: “What needs to change in our democratic process to keep politicians from over promising and under delivering and how can such change be brought about.” That is a question for which there is no bankruptcy judge – or any other arbiter – to answer. The answer can only come from the public that has to hold its politicians accountable for the decisions they make.

A good place to start would be to severely cut or eliminate the retirement benefits and other perks of the very same public officials who signed off on the entitlements that now turn out to be unaffordable. If ordinary public servants have to suffer then the officials who brought this misery about should be the first to see their privileges slashed.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Fire Your Customer?

That is not such a dumb question as it might look at first glance.

Who does not have some customers who want it all on their terms; who nickel and dime you to death; who burden you with unsubstantiated claims and unwarranted returns? Who make you jump through hoops and never pay you on time and only as much as they think they owe you? Do you recognize that customer inside your business?

There is a disproportionate resource (time and management) commitment associated with managing this type of customer. Fire him! Since you don’t get all of the business from your market place anyway, leave this customer to your competition. It will absorb their scarce resources and take their eyes off the ball.

Just like there are undesirable customers, there are also undesirable suppliers, sales representatives and SKU’s.

As a rule, every distributor owes it to him/herself to set up financial tracking systems that allow for the systematic calculation of margin contribution (per month, fiscal quarter and year as desired) per:
·         Customer
·         Supplier
·         Sales Representative
·         SKU

Once these data are available on a routine basis, the magic of the spreadsheet will then easily allow you to rank your customers, suppliers, sales reps and SKU’s in descending order of margin contribution. Voila. You have all you need to dramatically improve your business. All you have to do is draw a line at the bottom 5-10-25% percent of the customers, suppliers, sales representatives and/or SKU’s and resolve to cut out unproductive elements in your operations. You draw the line where the numbers indicate you don’t get an acceptable return for your resource commitment. Let the numbers do the (hard) work for you and cut out the dead wood, religiously and periodically.

Keep in mind that poorly performing customers, suppliers, sales reps and SKU’s are a drag on your financial performance, your operating efficiency and your working capital. Since Cash is King, put it to work where it is appreciated and provides a handsome return.

Not doing anything about below par performance on the part of customers, suppliers, sales reps or SKU’s will quickly become demotivating to those who do perform and will not go unnoticed by the marketplace and employees. It will create a culture of the wrong kind in and around your business.

Growth is a vital part of business, but it also can be a cancer if it becomes growth for growth’ sake. If growth is top-line oriented without regard to the contribution it delivers to the bottom-line it serves no good long term purpose. Sometimes it is better to pull back from top-line growth by taking out the undesirables. It may turn out that firing your bottom 25 customers, terminating your under performing suppliers, killing your under performing SKU’s and dismissing your under performing sales representative(s), is the best thing you could do for your business! 

Just make sure that your information systems let you know with precision which ones to cut.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” John Wooden.

As you climb the ladder in the business world, you get to see a lot of resumes. I have written them, read more than I care to remember and edited many for friends who had good reasons to update their resume.

The one thing about resumes that strikes me now that I have left the field of active career makers is that, without exception, they always include statements like: 
“While at company blank (you fill in the name), I grew sales by 50% and increased margins by 1.2%.” or,
“I turned around a business that was moribund into a top three contender in its field.”

I know, because I have written similar representations in the many resumes that I have maintained over time.

But when, the other day, I hit upon John Wooden’s quote that I repeat in the heading hereof, it dawned on me how misleading and preposterous such representations are. Business is a team sport rather than an individual sport. Business is much more like football or basketball than it is like golf or weightlifting.

Our first resume writer may very well have been in charge of a sales team that achieved the 50% increase in sales and the 1.2% increase in margins, but it would not have happened without the team delivering the results. That does not denigrate or take away from his accomplishment as a team leader, but his resume should not state what it does but rather something like “While at company blank, the sales team under my leadership grew sales by 50% and increased margins by 1.2%.”

Our second resume writer may, as business lead, very well have been in charge of a turn-around of the business segment he was responsible for, but would the turn-around have been successful without the front office directing, supporting and financing the plan and without the staff- fed up with operating in a moribund environment – accepting accountability for the results of the work they were performing? In this instance the intellectual honesty of the resume would be significantly enhanced if it stated: “I was given every opportunity, including a motivated and competent team, to turn around a business that was moribund into a top three contender in its field and I made it happen.”

In either case, the real accomplishment of the resume writer was the fact that he was able to create and manage a team of people that collectively knew what they were doing, wanted to make their hard work matter and were willing to hold themselves accountable for the team achieving its objectives. That is no small feat and worth of a prominent display in the resume.

If you want to be a star, in sports or in business, you’d better first build a team that is competent and motivated to help you achieve your goals. The next challenge will be to keep your team focused and on track and to make sure that you give credit where credit is due: with the rest of the team.