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Three Major Threats to Long-Term Business Growth

When that investment fails to pay off, when business growth does not occur, the beginnings of a death spiral quickly become apparent.  Low growth means that rising costs eat into constant levels of revenue and that profits decline. Less profit means less capital available to reinvest, which, in turn, means less product innovation and expansion.  Generally, the operation continues to contract, unless the company is bought or infused with more outside cash in an attempt to keep it operating.

Growth, however, isn’t just important for the above reasons.  In fact, I would argue, that financial considerations are the second most important reason that a company should keep expanding.  

The most important reason?  Growth keeps the company culture energized.

Yes, it’s an intangible, but it’s a critical intangible.  Growth creates jobs, generates excitement, and confirms the vision and the passion with which the company was created in the first place.    When a company is on the upswing,   it gives everyone in the organization a sense and an understanding that the company has merit and worth.   Everyone loves being part of a winning operation – it creates an overall affirmative mindset.  That mindset causes employees to believe they can make things happen – and they generally do.

As a market researcher; researching and recommending alternative paths to maintain profitability can only do so much.   Company management is obviously behind the wheel and must steer the business in the correct direction.   That the company ends up not on the road to success, but, instead, stuck in a ditch by the side of that road, is mainly due to an imbalance between strategy and execution as well as ineptness.


There’s a popular expression to describe a company that focuses on strategic management without giving proper weight to thinking through the operational execution of that strategy – “Big Hat, No Cattle” (it’s even the title of a Randy Newman song).  The term refers to someone who acts as if they’re the biggest thing going, even though they actually have very little going for them.

Acquisitions can be a major culprit in this arena.   When a company is cash-rich, it becomes like an overeager bidder at an auction, spending foolishly and not really thinking about whether he can use what he’s buying.  The business will say that buying another company will provide incredible synergy, as well as additional marketing and operational firepower – and then, after they make this heavily-hyped purchase, they’ll end up with a disaster on their hands.

Announcing a constant stream of new products, new markets, and new acquisitions may look good in press releases in which the CEO can brag about all of his or her wonderful plans – or in wonderful, colorful charts and PowerPoint presentations to analysts and investors.  But, in reality, none of these over-ambitious projects ever gets the follow-through attention it needs to succeed.  In the meantime, the company’s resources are spread too thin while attempting to do too many things at once, taking away vital focus on the core business. 

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter once studied the acquisition history over three decades of thirty-three high-level companies that all resided in the top half of the Fortune 500.   The results of that study weren’t encouraging to those that like to embark on buying binges.  Companies who made acquisitions whose businesses were related to the buyers’ ended up divesting 50 to 60% of those acquisitions because the fit didn’t work.   That’s over half. 

Even when you think you’ve done your homework on the company you’re after and the acquisition should be a no-brainer, you can still get burnt.   An anonymous case study from my company discusses one of our client’s strategic decisions to buy another company.   On paper, it looked like an incredibly good fit and the acquisition, at the time, was doing quite well; so well, in fact, that the buyer decided to let the company continue to operate as autonomously as possible.  The thinking was, why mess with success?

Well, in this case, some serious messing should have been done.  The newly acquired company ended up losing 40% of its sales; they knew the dip was coming; they artificially boosted their sales through discounts and other short-term devices, and made themselves look a lot better on paper than they actually were – so they would be a prime takeover target.     

(As a side note, it’s never a good idea to let a new acquisition continues to operate as it did before the takeover.  The acquiring company should put its stamp on it right away and put its own processes into place.   Even if it’s just a holding company making the buy, they should still bring in a high-end system to drive efficiency and assure profitability.)  


A company with a strong execution, weak strategy style knows how to execute, change direction and make things happen.  Unfortunately, it may change direction as often as somebody might change their socks – and it also may make so many different things happen at once that it can’t keep track of any of them.

When a bottle rocket goes off, it can make an impressive display. Unfortunately, it shoots every way without lasting impact.

Good Execution, Poor Strategy

A business that has poor strategic management but excellent operational execution is much like that bottle rocket – it looks great to the untrained eye, but its razzle-dazzle is soon spent and all that’s left is smoke slowly dissipating in the air.

Think about the cost of everything you buy today versus twenty-five years ago.  You’d probably say everything is a lot more expensive today than it was in 1987.  That’s not true of many manufactured goods, especially apparel.  The cost of a dress shirt, for example, has declined dramatically in inflation-adjusted terms over the last few decades – because of the low cost of making them overseas.   American designers are still making their margins, but the US manufacturing side of the business is virtually dead and buried for all but a few specialty brands.

So why would a company continue to focus on manufacturing when the writing has been on the wall for quite some time?   Why would they spend time on a strategy that just leads to a dead end?

Simple.  They are unwilling to leave their comfort zone and/or invest in new technology.  Doing what they’ve always done is convenient and can be a short-term cash cow.  It’s what they know how to do and, up until now, it’s what’s worked for them.   Frankly, they don’t know how to do things any differently – and that’s not a crime.  What is a crime is not putting resources into rethinking the company’s vision and creating products that will continue to be economically viable?

How many dominant companies died because they failed to change when the need for change was obvious?  As an example, Sony failed to act on the digital music transformation, allowing Apple to become the dominant brand.  Paper bag manufacturers failed to acknowledge that plastic bags would become the dominant product in grocery and retail stores, and today few paper companies have transitioned to plastic bag production.    

And that’s exactly the same process that would have saved the all-too-real example of the manufacturing company we looked at earlier.  By “freshening up” its approach, and researching what products it could produce with its enormous resources that would still be competitive, the company could take its proven ability to execute and combine it with a strategy that would ensure long-term survival.

The real fatal flaw of Weak Strategy/Strong Execution is when a company is intent on taking as much action as possible without any real coherent vision behind it.   A company is only capable of carrying through one or, at the most, two big mandates at a time.   If management is trying to introduce a completely new product line and launching a major safety effort in its operation and pursuing an aggressive acquisition drive and taking the company public….well, something’s going to give. 

This can even happen at the plant level.  If bonuses are dependent on productivity, and you’ve set up a major safety initiative that ends up slowing down workers, you’ve pitted two major forces against each other.   You can’t expect two mandates to succeed if they can’t happily co-exist.   


Okay, this final threat has nothing to do at all with any matrixes or quadrants.  And it has everything to do with, forgive my bluntness, just being plain stupid.   There’s not a lot of excuse for what happens in this arena. 

Here’s another anonymous case study:  we did work for a company that actually thought it was a good idea for everyone to take a fifteen-minute smoke break.  Nothing wrong with that.  Except the policy was to take that fifteen-minute break every single hour. 

That’s 25% of each and every work day, willfully evaporated by management.  Words almost failed me when I heard about this, but then, finally, a few managed to work their way to the front of my brain – words like, “crazy,” “ludicrous” and “suicidal.” 

Other forms of ineptness are more easily-understood; for example, when a company misreads what they should be selling and to whom.  This is a wrong turn that happens on a regular basis.  A lot of the info about the marketplace comes from the sales force – but, as we just discussed in the last section of this chapter, that sales force can be incredibly biased towards their own self-interest, which doesn’t necessarily match up with the company’s best interests.  

Even the dynamics of a management meeting can alter the perception of the market in a negative way.  Whoever argues the loudest or most eloquently can easily dominate an important discussion and cause the wrong decision to be made.  Or someone may have just read an article in The Wall Street Journal that motivates a sudden inexplicable push for a major company policy revision, even though the current policy may be what serves the company the best. 

And frankly that kind of anecdotal evidence – a newspaper article, a TV report, or even a stray remark by a business associate – is frequently the basis for really wrong-headed decisions.  In these cases, company management doesn’t take the time to do the necessary research to make an informed decision.  In one case I remember, our client’s management suddenly ordered their plant manager to reconfigure everything in order to make a new product.   That came about because the CEO happened to be walking through the production facility of another firm that used them as a supplier and overheard someone say they needed this particular product.  Based on that random remark, and on nothing else, my client was suddenly going to a lot of time and expense to supply this product. 

The other side of that same coin is that you can receive good data and completely misread it.  The challenge is always separating true change from random noise. A company might interpret a short-term growth in sales and see it as a trend – when, in reality, it’s a blip.  Another company might manufacture products meant for elderly consumers, see that the number of elderly people is growing rapidly, and assume they have made a wise decision – when, in reality, they haven’t done their homework and a new advance in technology is about to make their products obsolete.    

There is never just one question to be answered – there are dozens.  When an outside research firm is retained, its mandate must be to look at its challenges from every perspective.  Good news should be challenged, bad news should be analyzed for the upside and future projections should be bounded by all appropriate considerations.