“We did an acquisition about 15 years ago. It did not go well…I guess you could say we are still ‘recovering,’ the CEO of a family-owned business recently shared with me during a meeting.

She went on to explain there were a number of integration issues and other challenges that cropped up post-closing that the company was not prepared to handle. From payroll issues to disgruntled employees to operational challenges – the experience was “traumatic,” for the organization according to the CEO.

Fortunately, the company is in a better place today and is ready to explore new ways to grow. While leadership recognizes the potential of a strategic acquisition, because of their previous experience, they are, understandably, hesitant.

It’s not uncommon to have this reaction. But just because an acquisition didn’t work in the past, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon M&A as a tool for growth. You can learn from what went wrong last time and be successful when executing future deals.

There are many reasons deals fail from culture clashes, hidden liabilities, poor planning, or simply inadequate of expertise, but these issues point to one overarching reason for acquisition failure – lack of strategy. Alarmingly, many companies take on a reactive approach to acquisitions, buying whatever company comes their way without first developing a strategic plan. Not having a plan is a surefire way to fail.

In the case of our family-owned business, they decided to take on a strategic approach to M&A this time around. Unlike last time, where they adopted a “plan as you” approach to M&A, they dedicated serious resources to establishing a strategic plan for acquisition prior to even looking at companies. This included identifying potential integration challenges and developing a 100-day post-closing plan long before the deal closed to avoid the same issues as last time. With a firm foundation the company was able to identify the right opportunities for growth and execute a successful transaction.

If you are still suffering from the results of a failed acquisition, I encourage you to adopt a strategic approach right now. Gather your team together to review your growth options in light of your overall strategic vision. Then, you can determine your next steps whether its organic growth, external growth, minimizing costs, exiting a business, or doing nothing. With a strategy in place, you will avoid many pitfalls and maximize your chances for success.

The possibilities may be endless, but your resources are not. For many business owners with limited time and money, deciding which ideas to pursue can be a challenge. Here are three ways to prioritize your options for growth:

1. Start with your company vision

The best way to make sure you’re moving in the right direction is to take a step back from all of your ideas and begin by looking at your vision for your company. Who do you want to be as a company? When you have a clear picture of your goal in mind, it will be easier to visualize what steps you need to take in order to achieve it. Without a clear vision you could end up pursuing options that actually drag you in an opposite direction.

2. Use tools to stay objective

While it’s natural to be somewhat subjective, after all business growth is exciting, you don’t want to make decisions based on emotions alone. Try bringing objectivity into your decision-making process by using tools to evaluate and compare your options. When it comes to external, growth, we typically use the Market Criteria Matrix to evaluate the best markets for growth and the Prospect Criteria Matrix to evaluate acquisition prospects. This tool can be adapted to evaluate any opportunity for growth.

Keeping your vision in mind, develop about six key criteria of your ideal opportunity. Next, you develop metrics to quantify the criteria. For example, if one of your goals is to expand your operations to the West Coast, one of your criterion would be location and the metric could be located on the West Coast. Give each option a rating using a 1-10 scale and see how well the options compare to each other and to the criteria you’ve established.

3. Gather data

Making a decision without the proper information can be a big mistake. Conduct research to validate (or invalidate) your assumptions. You don’t have to uncover every granular detail, but it will be helpful to have an understanding of trends and how they will impact your market in the future. One of the best sources of information about the marketplace is your customers. Try identifying the needs and wants of current and future customers. It may even be as simple as conducting a customer survey or asking your sales department for input.

While it can be overwhelming to process through all your options for growth, the good news is that you have many options! Hopefully these three suggestions will help you organize your thoughts as you plan your next steps.

Photo Credit: Bs0u10e0 via Flickr cc

Are you thinking about growing your business? In any business endeavor, having the right questions is often half the battle.

Join us for a new webinar on “7 Strategic Questions to Ask Before Pursuing Mergers & Acquisitions” on Wednesday, December 7. We will cover 7 powerful questions that have been tried and tested with dozens of clients at the outset of their growth programs:

  1. What business are we in?
  2. What is our core competency?
  3. What are we not?
  4. Where is our pain?
  5. What are our dreams?
  6. What is our risk tolerance?
  7. What is our company DNA?

Explore each question in depth and learn how they have immediate applications and a direct impact on your growth strategy.

After attending you will be able to:

  • Establish a firm foundation for pursuing strategic M&A and external growth
  • Use tools to examine your current business situation
  • Begin to develop an action plan for growth

Date: Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Time: 1:00 PM EST – 2:00 PM EST

CPE credit is available.

Photo credit: Ryan Milani via Flickr cc

Entrepreneurs rarely face the challenge of having too few ideas. In fact, like most entrepreneurs and business leaders you probably have a multitude of great ideas for growing your own business.

Your biggest challenge may be figuring out which of all the alternatives is the best way to get from where you are now to where you want to be.

We recommend using a systematic process to sort through all your ideas and create an action plan. Here are some steps in that process:

1. Think about your vision.

Where do you want your company to be in a year and in ten years?  All your initiatives should help you move toward this goal. If an idea isn’t helping you achieve your vision, then maybe you shouldn’t spend time on it.

2. Prioritize your ideas.

While all your ideas may seem wonderful, upon closer inspection you’ll likely find that some are more worthwhile than others. For example, if you envision taking your business national in the next five years, you may rate ideas that help expand your geographical presence more highly than those that do not. Use tools such as the Opportunity Matrix or Weighted Criteria or even a simple pro-con list to help you objectively sort through the possibilities and organize your thoughts. These tools will also give you the confidence that you are selecting the best and most important ideas for growing your business.

3. Get focused.

Without clear focus it’s difficult to move forward. If you’re all over the map, you won’t apply the time and resources needed to grow. Rather than diluting your efforts develop a plan focused on one goal and concentrate mostly on that. You can always modify your plan as time passes and your goals change.

4. Execute your plan.

As Nike puts it, “Just do it!” There comes a time when you need to move from thought to action. If you’ve done the upfront work on planning your growth strategy, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

By following these steps you’ll identify the ideas that will help you create a pathway for growth.

For the last couple of years, corporate America seems to have been playing it safe when it comes to growth. Currently U.S. corporations are holding on to a record $1.65 trillion in cash.

Are you in a similar position, perhaps? Cash may not be your “security” blanket but you may be unwilling to take the risks needed for growth.

Based on my daily interaction with midmarket companies, I would advise you to be proactive about your business growth. Failing to do so allows your competitors and the market to control your future. What good is cash if you don’t use it to grow your business?

Fortunately, it seems that some U.S. businesses are getting off the sidelines and putting their money to use. Many are investing in mergers and acquisitions, according to a report by the Association for Financial Professionals. In fact, this is the first year-over-year decline in cash reserves since 2011.

This trend reflects a growing confidence in the U.S. economy and it also demonstrates a profitable way to use cash rather than just letting it sit around.

But what about your company? Are you “playing it safe”? It’s not too late to take a proactive, strategic approach to growth. Here are four suggestions for putting your money to work rather than hoarding it:

  • Mergers and Acquisitions – Use M&A to grow quickly. Add a new customer base, enter a new market, or gain a new technology or capability. The core benefit of acquisition is that you have a ready-made solution you can use on day one, without building it yourself.
  • Stock Buybacks – Public companies will use excess cash to repurchase their own shares if they believe the price is undervalued. While stock buybacks don’t create any real growth for the company, they increase the earnings per share and can be a tax-efficient way to distribute earnings to investors.
  • Research and Development – For some, organic growth is a better pathway than M&A. Invest in the future: What will your customers want in a year from now and in 10 years? Use your money to develop new products and services. See how you can be best positioned for future growth.
  • Plant and Equipment Upgrades – Updating your physical assets can help you become more efficient, reduce costs, improve your services, and prepare for future growth. For example, upgrading plant equipment might improve safety and reduce down-time caused by accidents. Upgrading your software might allow you to process more orders per employee and build for scale.

Whatever course of action you decide to take, don’t sit on the sidelines or cling to a false sense of security. If you’re not growing you’re dying.

*This post was originally published on LinkedIn

How well do you really know your company? If you’re the owner or the CEO, you might say you have a pretty good handle on it. After all, you’ve been there since the beginning and you’re the leader.

While that might be true, you may not really know everything about your organization.

I’ll give you an example. We typically have our clients conduct a cultural assessment in which the acquisition team — the CEO, other C-suite executives and senior-level managers — each are asked to draw an organizational chart.

In one case, the CEO drew a chart depicting a flat hierarchy with everyone one the same level. According to the CEO, the business had open communication and everyone’s opinion was equally valued.

What one of the managers drew was quite different. The top of the paper showed one person labeled “God” and everyone else was way down at the bottom in what looked like a zoo.

Company Culture Diagram

Company Culture: Obviously, the CEO and the manager had very different perspectives about the organization!

Obviously, the CEO and the manager had very different perspectives about the organization!

While this is an extreme case, I tell this story to emphasize the importance of doing a cultural assessment, particularly if you’re the leader of your company. Having a clear and accurate picture of your business’s culture is important as you embark on an acquisition program.

Choosing the best option for growth.

More often than not we find our clients have too many choices rather than too few. The difficulty lies in prioritizing options and determining which one is the best path forward.

You may find yourself in a similar situation. With so many options how can you choose?

Although it may be tempting to tackle this challenge by deeply analyzing each option, first take a step back and evaluate your own business.

  • What is your core competency?
  • What are your current capabilities?
  • What are you strengths and weaknesses?
  • What is your vision for the future?
  • Where do you want to be tomorrow? In a year? In five years? In 10?

This self-evaluation is critical in determining your best options for growth. After all, if you don’t know where you are going, how can you possibly select the right path? With the foundation set you’ll have a clearer idea of which options will actually help you meet your goals and take your business down the right path.

Let’s admit it right away: This is a trick question. The correct answer is usually not the first answer.

Here’s a classic example from the annals of corporate America: Union Pacific thought they were in the business of railroads—the commonsense answer. In reality, they were in the business of mass transportation. Had they recognized this early enough, they might today be flying planes or building hybrid cars.

Here’s a more recent example. A client of ours supplying the upper end of the bicycle industry thought they were in the business of making brake mechanisms. Their special capacity was in lightweight solutions, and we resolved that they were in fact in the business of making racing bikes faster.

This realization led to a strategic expansion into gear systems. It took a process of careful self-examination to discover what now looks obvious but was not when we began.

So exactly what business are you in? Among all the mass of activity your company is engaged in, where is the beating heart? Step back, look at the big picture, and ask yourself: ‘‘What is our business really about?’’ The answer should be as short as you can make it:

  • ‘‘We are in the custom car auto parts business.’’
  • ‘‘We are in the investment advice business.’’
  • ‘‘We are in the residential community planning business.’’
  • ‘‘We are in the organic fertilizer business.’’

You may need to take several shots at this. There is a tendency to either be too granular (‘‘railroads’’ rather than ‘‘transportation’’) or too global (‘‘creating exceptional customer satisfaction’’). Remember that growth is your purpose. You need to define your business in a way that sets a trajectory broad enough for expansion and focused enough to stay on track.

So what business are you in? Don’t underestimate how powerful this apparently simple question can be. Your decision will almost certainly impact the trajectory of growth you choose.

What makes this so important is that in a world of rapid change and expanding global markets, you face an almost intolerable surfeit of opportunities. Without being anchored in a strong, unmistakable self-definition, you will be easily dragged this way and that.

*This post was adapted from David Braun’s Successful Acquisitions, available at Amazon.com

Although imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t guarantee success. Assuming that the success of one business assures the same result for yours is a bit absurd because fundamentally the two companies are different, each with its own challenges, strengths, cultures and dynamics. You may think this concept is self-evident, but I’ve seen many executives approach their business strategy this way.

It’s important to remember that businesses in the same industry, even competitors, have very different strategies. For example, think about how Target and Walmart operate. Blindly taking another’s strategy and dropping it into your business would be like using a blueprint for an apartment high-rise to build a single-family home in the suburbs. It just doesn’t work.

That’s not to say you can’t learn from others or adopt best practices, but ultimately you – not your competitors – should drive your business strategy. Focus on yourself: identify the best opportunities and best growth strategies for your company. Leave the copying to the cats.

Photo Credit: Christian Holmér via www.christianholmer.com cc

I had the opportunity to speak on building a lasting legacy in the September issue of Washington DC SmartCEO Magazine. The article focuses on how business owners and entrepreneurs can build a lasting legacy for their company. As I said during my interview, Capstone is not just about me, it’s so much bigger than that. You can read the complete article here.

Photo Credit: Victor1558 via Flickr cc