As the new year approaches, most of us turn our efforts to plans for the upcoming twelve months.  Those who own businesses not only have to make plans for our families and personal lives, but also for our businesses.  There are so many different areas to concentrate on when it comes to beginning of the year business planning, it can often be overwhelming just to think about it.  However, by going through your business plan and seeing what needs the most attention this year, you can narrow down your planning and then turn to the experts to help you put these plans in place.  Here are just a few different areas that you may need to consider this new year.

Financial Planning

According to Aron Coit with Continuum Financial, “Every business has its own plan.

You first need to figure out what stage of business you are in and what your needs are in that stage, then you can build a plan from that point.  The four stages each business goes through are Startup Stage, Growth Stage, Maturity Stage and Transfer Stage.  In those four stages, there are also four different planning levels: Risk Management, Business Succession, Personal Protection Planning and Employee Benefits.

Under Start up Stage, Risk Management you want to build up a cash reserve, and protect the business from a loss of a key employee of that business. Business Succession, you want to develop a transitions plan in case of a death or disability of the owner. Personal protection planning is key in a start-up stage of a business. You want to look into protecting the owner’s income stream, and also provide for the family’s long term goals. Employee Benefits are limited at this stage unless you are trying to make sure that they are competitive with other businesses in the same industry.

During the Growth Stage, Risk Management is when we could make sure we build protection again cash flow. Business Succession, you start building that strong management team and determine the value of the business. Personal Protection planning, you review the retirement plans and also explorer income tax strategies. There is nothing worse than building something and then paying taxes on all the hard work to make the same as a start-up company. Employee Benefits, you start looking at offering the employee sponsored benefits and retirement plans and sometimes we will look at some selective benefit programs for top performers.

Then in the Maturity Stage, you focus on reducing the company’s debts. At the Business Succession point, you need to know the value of the business and determine the long-term goal of the company in case you are going to transfer it to a key employee or family member. I see a lot of companies that wait too long for this part and it really prevents the owner from being able to see it for what it’s worth. Personal Planning is built around the estate taxes and is the time to review the wills and trusts. With the laws in this area changing every year, this is one of the most important to review on a yearly basis. By the Employee Benefits point, you would have retirement plans in place and we review the cost of these plans to make sure we are competitive with others in the industry.

Finally in the Transfer Stage, I would transfer the business plans to the new owners and explain this to them. Business Succession is just executing the strategy. Personal Planning is key at this point: you implement the retirement strategies, and review the legacy ideas as well.”

“There are a lot of laws and changes coming in the next year,” concludes Coit.  “I would highly recommend talking with someone who can help take advantage of some of the tax credits available to them, and also make sure that they are maximizing their results by paying less in taxes. I personally just received my 1200 page 2012 Tax Rules for small businesses. With that many changes out there, I would lean on the safe side and meet with a financial advisor, CPA, and attorney who they like and trust and meet with all three of them at the same time. One thing I have learned with working with businesses and owners is time is never on their side, so make it the most effective as possible.”

Investing

Many times, investing can be an important part of your planning.  Whether you are doing it for personal or business reasons, here are five investing rules to live by from Mike Story, Omaha Division Sales Manager at Physicians Mutual.

Do Your Research: Before making any investment decisions, get a good understanding of the product and company — read books, surf the Web, ask financial advisors.

Invest Safely: Don’t risk money you can’t afford to lose — like money to pay your mortgage, rent or other bills. Instead, use “extra” money — funds that are left over after you’ve paid all the necessities.

Diversify Your Portfolio: Make sure you have a variety of investments that includes different types of stocks, bonds and cash — this spreads out and reduces your risk.

Know Your Risk Level: Typically, the younger you are, the riskier you can be. That’s because if you have losses, you have plenty of time to rebuild your savings before retirement. Then, as you get older, you should begin to shift to a more even mix of risky and safe investments. The closer you get to retirement, the safer your investments should be.

Re-Evaluate Your Portfolio: Look at your portfolio regularly to make sure you are on-track with your saving goals and make adjustments as needed. However, don’t make panicked decisions — investing will always have many ups and downs, so give yourself at least five years in each investment.

Remember, if you have any questions, always consult a financial advisor.

Computer Training

No matter what type of business you’re in, it’s likely that computers play a large part.  If your team is not effectively using their computers, they could be losing time, productivity and may even clients.  Put it into your plan this year to get your employees (or yourself) some additional computer training.

“Personal computers have become so complicated that it’s difficult to keep up with all the improvements and shortcuts in the latest releases of software (think Windows 7 and Microsoft Office),” states David Cohen with Cohen’s Computer Club.  “Many of us are not making the best use of our time at work because we don’t know the shortest, quickest or most efficient way to get something done (think Windows shortcuts and reorganizing the file directory).  To make matters worse, we may be embarrassed about our lack of knowledge and fearful that others will find us out.  How can a business owner guard against deterioration of his or her company’s productivity caused by small inadequacies of computer training?”

“In comes Cohen’s Computer Club, offering 1-1 private instruction on your computer,” continues David. “We assist you in becoming more efficient, more proficient and more comfortable in your computer usage.  We can be hired by the employer and loaned to individual members of the company for one or two hours of lessons.  On the other hand, we have been hired by employees (with the permission of the employer) to spend time on the weekend helping them brush up on the basics of computer organization and software specifics.  Our students tell us that their productivity has improved because of our instruction.  Of course, when new software needs to be learned by a few people who are already computer savvy, the traditional classroom teaching paradigm is often the way to proceed.   Cohen’s Computer Club is ready to provide individual or classroom instruction.  Feedback from our clients reinforces our belief that we have the valuable ability to communicate meaningfully with people at all levels of computer proficiency.  Investing in a few hours of instruction will be repaid with long-lasting satisfaction and success in business.”

Network Management

Many of our businesses depend on our computers and most depend on a network that they probably don’t understand enough (or have enough time) to manage themselves.  Therefore, working with a network provider/manager that you trust is key to the business plan of most companies.

Phil Lieber with P&L Technology says, “This year, P&L Technology realized that we are more than just a day-to-day partner for our customers and that we must be proactive in meeting the ongoing and future needs of our customers.  We hired an upper level executive who has IT experience, but more importantly has business experience.  Mr. Ed Bruening owned an IT company in Lincoln for many years.  His goal is to meet with our customers on a quarterly basis so we can provide input into the long-term planning of any organization.  It is very difficult to provide planning input if we don’t understand our customers’ needs.”

“Most business owners in today’s economic environment need to focus on the execution of their business model and partner with strong companies in all facets of their business and IT is just one of those areas,” Phil continues.  “The business needs to control the IT, not the IT controlling the business.  Make sure you sit down with your provider and have a plan in place for 2012, whether it is application upgrades, server upgrades, disaster recovery plans or cloud strategy and make sure the IT plan coincides with the business goals.  The only constant in the business world is change and you can either embrace it and profit from it or ignore it.  Gone are the days of meeting once a year.  Business owners today must meet with customers every day and adjust to the needs almost daily and an IT infrastructure must support this, but you have to understand what it is supporting first.  Too many business owners get caught up in the technology without understanding how the technology will enhance the customer experience with the organization.”

Equipment/Software to Improve Efficiency

The start of a new year is an excellent time of year to pause and probe your organization’s operational processes regarding document/package distribution.  Are documents currently printed that could be electronically distributed?  Are mailings currently manually collated that could be electronically collated?  Could your direct mail response rates be dramatically improved by utilizing a double window envelope with trans-promotional advertising?  Could mailing software reduce your outsourcing costs?  Would independent parcel insurance be a savings over carrier provided insurance on your outgoing parcels?  Claritus specializes in all types of document/parcel distribution hardware and software.  Make a New Year’s resolution to contact Claritus and request a complimentary Executive Summary of your organizations distribution process.

Standards, Benchmarking and the Value of Competition

On the important topic of standards, benchmarking and the value of competition, Mark Kottke of National Account Systems of Omaha has the following story to share:

“In April of 1992, I was hired as a collector at a medium sized agency in Minnesota.  The agency had five different divisions and about 120 collectors. I was fresh out of college, had no business or collection experience and I was pretty naïve.  Nonetheless, they gave me my first shot.

The manager who hired me was responsible for the bank card division and monthly performance for a number of top 10 issuers all over the country. Apparently all of the major lenders had figured out a long time ago that competition drives superior performance, and had no less than five or six different agencies competing on each individual portfolio. If the agencies collection results were competitive month in and month out, the banks would increase your market share, you would add collectors and your department and business would grow. Conversely, if your agency’s performance results were not up to the standards set by the other competing agencies, the banks would take away market share, you would lose collectors and your department and business would shrink.

Although it took me a couple of months to come to this conclusion, the collection floor in the bank card division that I was hired into was a microcosm of how the top issuers managed their agencies – the competition was objective, fair and fierce; no room for politics in the realm of running a competitive collection floor. No amount of explaining, rationalization, or excuses could cover poor performance. If your individual production and performance were at the bottom of the department totem pole you ran the risk of losing account inventory, having corrective action plans and account audits thrust upon you, and ultimately losing your job. On the other hand, if you produced superior results met and surpassed the monthly goals that were set for you by your department head; you were rewarded with more account inventory, bigger goals and larger monthly bonus checks.

One of the major defining moments in my 20 year career as a professional collector happened at the beginning of my third month on the collection floor.  The two previous months I had tried to be popular and ‘fit in’, missed my production and collection goal(s) both months and failed to cash a bonus check.  I almost quit, maybe the collection industry just wasn’t my cup of tea. Then I had an epiphany.  I went around the department and took a poll.  I asked everyone who the best collector in the department was – 29 of the 30 collectors named the same person, Mike R.   It turns out he was the best collector in the company, not just the department. I snuggled up to my supervisor and requested a new seating assignment, right next to the legend himself.

The rest, as they say, is history.  I immediately started blowing my goals away and nine months later I had my own team of collectors, two years later I had my own department, ten years later I was president of a $40MM collection agency and 20 years later I own the company.

What does any of this have to do with act of annual business planning you may ask? Know your competitors, study your market and your competition before you do your strategic business planning; embrace the concept of objective competition, both inside and outside your organization. Without competition, inertia sets in, politics take hold, and even the most perfectly designed business plan is destine to fail.”

Leadership Training

“Effective business planning is about more than just planning,” points out Nikki Ellison with Ellison Partners, who help their clients develop their leadership skills with the LEAP program.  “Achieving results through business planning requires not only a good plan but a framework to support and implement that plan.  Often, the missing components of the framework are a process to execute on the plan, including action that will need to be taken to hit the planned targets, which is then delineated into specific tasks spread among team members.  Team members must be held accountable for completing their portions of the plan and the degree to which they are completed.  It must be a holistic process, not just a plan that gets set aside during the whirlwind of the everyday business.”

“Execution in the face of everyday business is the biggest obstacle that people face when making plans,” continues Nikki.  “Business plan failure occurs when businesses fail to incorporate the framework to execute the plan and then don’t hold people accountable to the plan.  In high school, college and life in general, we are taught about strategy, about having a plan, and we might even be taught time management or project management.  What we often fail to teach is how to execute these strategies and plans, or even what the pieces of execution need to be, let alone what components are necessary for execution to really happen.

Our firm was recently hired to implement our Strategic Design and Tactical Planning Initiative™ at an area business. Upon debriefing the selection process to clarify why our firm was chosen and what their specific expectations of our firm were, the company President shared that he was tired of spending lots of money on Strategic Planning then not really doing much with the plan. He described it as having ‘bad strategic planning years’.  His firm executes at a very high level and his goal was sustainability.  He knew that to achieve the level of sustainability that his company owners expected, his team would have to become better at incorporating strategy planning outcomes into their day-to-day work.  In a nutshell, our firm was chosen because we could provide him the framework to ensure the level of execution – thus results – he desired.

We designed a specific framework to support not only strategic planning but the execution of the plan with a focus on achieving results.  We incorporate the tools in our process to assist our clients in putting that framework in place.  Our process does not stop with the planning but incorporates a framework to hold leaders accountable to carry out the plan and shows them how to make strategy part of the day to day activities.  It becomes a better way of achieving results rather than something to do in addition to everything else on their desk today.”

“It takes strong leadership, with the right people in the right seats doing the right work, to drive this sort of framework,” concludes Nikki.  “High performing leadership teams begin with high performing leaders. To support strategic planning, we highly recommend evaluating your leadership team and providing them the education, coaching and support they need to truly be strong leaders.  Too many times we promote because of the competence in their job only without any regard to their ability to lead.  Leaders who take the time to really master leadership competencies become indispensable to organizations.  Their results far exceed those of other leaders.  The key is to find effective leadership training.  Take the time to do your homework and ask what results the participants are actually seeing.  Talk to the participants themselves.  Don’t pay for a fun day of leadership vacation send your leaders to training that will benefit them and you for their lifetime.”

Branding Your Business

Branding is a very important part of business planning.  How others perceive your company is critical to the success of your business plan.  E&A Consulting Group, Inc. hired an advertising company to help design printed documents for marketing.  “We began with the intention to create marketing materials for project managers to provide clients during visits.  What we discovered was until we could clearly identify ourselves that our message to clients would be inconsistent,” said John Meng-Frecker, Director of Business Development.  E&A selected Rebel Interactive to help them find their brand.  Rebel worked with E&A’s clients and their staff of engineers, planners, technicians and surveyors to find that: we value genuine relationships, our vision is to plan and design innovative futures, and our passion is getting it done (with fun).  E&A’s brand of Engineering Answers is found in the strength of their commitment to clients, the technical abilities of their civil engineering professionals, and the motivation of staff who love their work and who have pride in the built result.

Rebel Interactive recommended that business planning decisions can and should be made using companies brands as a compass.  E&A is working on the development of their brand which will serve as a common thread throughout their marketing materials, proposals, and advertising.  More important, but more difficult to accomplish is adopting the brand within the culture of the company.  E&A asks each employee to think how they provide Engineering Answers in their daily work.  Surveyors ‘engineer answers’ by careful work and professional representation of the company.  Planners ‘engineer answers’ by creating the vision for clients to develop commercial and residential subdivisions.  Civil engineers provide ‘engineering answers’ in the calculations they perform but more importantly by following jurisdictional regulations so those answers stick when its time to build.  Construction observers and managers ‘engineer answers’ by ensuring the ultimate success of a project.  Erosion inspectors ‘engineer answers’ by keeping projects in environmental compliance and communicating between owners, contractors and design engineers.  A brand is much more than an advertising slogan when used this way.  Breakthrough brands become interchangeable with the culture of the company.  When you think of popular brands you think of their formula, their look, their process as an integral part of who they are.

E&A has begun to build brand development into their business planning for 2012.  Their New Year’s resolution is: ‘At E&A we provide Engineering Answers through genuine relationships.  We are passionate about creating innovative designs and getting the job done right.’

Auctions

If your business has reached a point where you need to get rid of inventory or property, perhaps this is the year to hold an auction.  An auction can raise money or liquidate your current inventory in case you want to change the focus of your business.  Contact a professional auction company such as Auction Solutions, Inc. to take care of this task for you so your auction can be as successful as possible.

The topic of business planning is an enormous one and can include a number of different aspects, some of which are vitally important to your individual business and others that are not so critical.  The key is to focus on those areas that are most vital to your business’s success and growth over the next year and partner with the professionals who can help you put the processes in place to move forward.