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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Basics of Moneymaking

A basic question to all prospects as a business leader:

How does your company make money?

Many MBAs can't answer it. Many CFOs and vice presidents can't answer it. Experienced CEOs sometimes struggle to answer it.

The Universals of Business
At the core of every successful business, from a global giant to a corner store, are the same fundamentals of moneymaking: cash, margin, velocity, return, and growth. And at the core of every successful business leader is an intuitive understanding of the relationships among them.

It's easy to think the basics of business are for beginners. Everyone knows what cash is, and that companies must make a profit.

But business acumen isn't about knowing definitions. It's about keeping the basics of moneymaking in sharp focus and balancing them in a way that's healthy for the business.

When you have business acumen, you realize the importance of every job at every stage of your career. A mailroom clerk with business acumen knows that getting checks to the accounts receivable department more quickly will ease the company's cash flow. And a sales rep with business acumen knows that higher-margin products will increase the company's return.

Moneymaking Basics

As the complexity of your job increases, it's easy to lose sight of the fundamentals. If your business acumen doesn't develop, you can stumble -- focus too much on revenue growth and overlook cash, or focus too much on cash and overlook growth.

That's why you should never consider it beneath you to revisit the moneymaking basics. They should be front and center in your diagnosis and decision making in every job you have.
Here are the basics:

No business survives long without it. You should know how much cash your business generates and how much cash it consumes.

What are the sources of it? What drains it? What's the timing of the inflows and outflows and how is it changing? More revenues (sales) often means more cash. But growing a business consumes cash. How fast can the company expand without straining its cash flow?

When people talk about the bottom line, they generally mean net profit margin -- the money the company earns after paying all its expenses, interest, and taxes. But gross margin is important, too.

Gross margin -- the difference between a product's selling price and what it costs to make the product (the "costs of goods"), expressed as a percent of the selling price -- can signal important shifts in a business. When PC makers saw their 32 percent gross margins decline to 20, they knew (or should have known) the competitive landscape had changed.

You have to know how changes inside or outside the business affect gross margin. Are there new entrants in the market who are winning customers? A competitor who's found a clever way to reduce costs and prices? A change in the pricing power of suppliers?

Velocity refers to speed, turnover, or movement.

How much revenue do you turn over, or generate, for each dollar of inventory? If you have $1 million in inventory for the year and revenues of $10 million, your inventory velocity is 10. This tells you how fast you're moving raw materials through the factory, turning them into finished products, and moving those products off the shelf to customers. The faster, the better.

Service businesses can track velocity, too. For banks, velocity of equity -- how much revenue is generated per dollar of equity -- is a useful measure. The concept applies to every business.

Margin multiplied by velocity equals return. If your return is lower than your cost of capital, your business is likely to be in trouble. That's when shareholders get concerned.

How do you boost your return? See if you can boost your margin or increase your velocity -- or, better yet, both.

Every business needs to grow to stay in business. How do you grow in a way that keeps the other aspects of moneymaking in balance? There's no formula -- people with business acumen figure it out.

Where Business Acumen Counts Most

Street vendors in villages around the world use business acumen every day. They have to -- their next meal often depends on it.

In companies, business acumen is crucial when the external world changes and there's a need to reposition the business.

Like when Hollywood studios started selling videocassettes directly to the public at the same time it sold them to video rental companies. That's when Blockbuster's rental business started to slide.

People wanted to buy movies, not just rent them, so Blockbuster started selling them. But the moneymaking was completely different.

Blockbuster was used to buying videocassettes on credit and making payments with the cash from renting them. Returns were high.

Selling videocassettes meant laying out the cash up front, holding lots of inventory, and waiting for the cash to come in when the videocassettes were sold. Cash flow, velocity, and return were all adversely affected.

Where Do You Want to Go?

You don't need business acumen to make a meaningful contribution to a business. But you'll need it to rise through the leadership ranks.

You can't acquire it at a seminar or in a quick read. You learn it by using it in real business situations.

Start now by applying it to your company. Ask for the numbers or pull them from the annual report. Precision isn't necessary -- knowing what to focus on is.

Posted on Wednesday, June 6, 2007, 12:00AM by Ram Charan

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