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Ken Keller: Time-tested business survival lessons

Posted: April 27, 2010 3:25 p.m.
Updated: April 28, 2010 4:55 a.m.
There are signs the economy is turning for the better. Long-distance trucking is on the rebound, restaurant traffic appears on the upswing and retail stores are slowly making a comeback.

About 10 years ago, after the economy went through a rough patch, a column was published entitled, "Survival lessons from the great dot-com disaster." Some of those same lessons still apply today.

Now is the time to become aggressive about new business acquisitions. In the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," there is a scene in which Jimmy Stewart's character Georgge Bailey, as he is leaving town on his wedding day, is forced back into the family savings and loan office because there is a great panic, and a mob of customers are trying to get their money out of the bank before it closes.

Bailey then explains to the crowd of frightened customers, "Don't you see, Potter (his competition) isn't selling. He's buying. Now if we will all calm down, we can make sense of all this."

And so it is with business today. Growth is easiest through acquisition.

Build stronger ties to your customers. In times of crisis, clients need to hear from vendors and suppliers far more frequently. They need to know your business is there for them and still in business. They need to know your business is ready, willing and able to sell, ship and deliver products.

It is time to exhibit and emphasize creativity and innovation. Clients need to know vendors are thinking outside the box when it comes to taking care of their needs.

Additionally, suppliers need to be innovators presenting ideas and solutions. Employees should be creative thinkers as well. Be open to the ideas from employees.

The person at the top sets the tone for the company. If the leader is unwilling or unable to think creatively, it is likely that the staff is being stifled as well, and clients are not receiving one of the key intangibles they are seeking.

In the world of business, innovation doesn't require drastic changes. In fact, innovation can be worthwhile to a client by simply taking an existing product or service and improving it by 5 percent.

This step involves taking time to simply think. Everyone in business tends to get so caught up in what is happening right now that most people don't take time to just think. Being in a quiet place sometimes enhances creativity, but creativity is also enhanced by being in a venue of creativity - a museum, at the ballet or at the symphony.

Now is the time to increase cost effectiveness across the board. Take time to map the processes that define the core business.

Start with the most common, tracing them from start to finish. When reviewing these processes, extra steps and duplication of effort is likely to be found.

Make sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Take a minute to determine what productivity level is expected on a daily basis. Start eliminating the distractions that keep people from doing their jobs. Make sure they have the tools they need to do the work they have been assigned.

Redefine your business. Railroads were once in the transportation business, but now, with the exception of Amtrak, they are in the freight business.

In the early 1980s, United Airlines determined it was in the travel business. It bought hotel chains (Westin), car rental companies and the like. That strategy did not work, required change and the company is now solely in the air-travel business. It sold off the hotels and rental car companies to focus on what it did best at that time.

Revitalize the organizations vision. Without a vision, you will never accomplish the goals set for the business. Businesses that grow and are successful have a vision.

Make building cash reserves a priority. Avoid jumping on the bandwagon and spending money that doesn't need to be spent. Every owner needs to review all company expenses in order to determine what expenditures are essential and which ones are not.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Brain Food for Business People" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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