Five elements to make managers think and act like owners #1: Reward sustained improvements in profitability

In this series of articles, we’ve looked at some of the most common mistakes that privately held companies make in approaching the question of incentives, and we’ve sketched out the common themes that owners tend to look for in an incentive plan.

Let’s now move to see how those themes can be realised in practice, by including five key elements in the incentive plan design that will make managers think and act like owners.

#1  Reward sustained, multi-year improvements in profitability
Ultimately an ‘ownership-like’ incentive plan must have financials at its heart, as it is sustained gains in financial performance that power the value of a business. Single period spikes in performance are unlikely to grow the value of the business a great deal however – buyers look for high levels of ‘repeatable earnings’. The more reliable the profit flow, the higher the premium buyers are likely to pay for a business.

I’ll discuss how to reward sustained gains in element #4, but it is worth focusing on how ‘profit’ is defined first, because, as we have seen, the most common profit measures, such as EBIT and EBITDA (or Net Profit, Earnings Per Share, Return on Equity and so forth) can actually encourage decisions that reduce, rather than grow, the value of the business.

One measure of profit that can be relied on to drive decisions that will grow the value of the business is ‘Economic Profit’. Economic Profit is the only metric that can be measured as easily as EBIT or Net Profit and yet ties reliably to wealth creation for owners. It’s measured like this:

Economic Profit calculation

Most owners know that ‘Profit’ is what is left over from sales revenue once all the costs of running the business have been taken out.  But accounting profit forgets one very important cost – the cost of using shareholder funds.  And by failing to put a price on the equity used to fund the business, accounting profit effectively says it’s free.

Pay managers to grow accounting profit and they will be encouraged to use as much of the shareholders’ money as they can put their hands on, after all its free and if they invest it at just 1%, accounting profits – and their bonuses – will grow.

But by charging for the owner’s capital used in the business at a rate that reflects what could be earned elsewhere at similar risk, managers are encouraged to treat capital like the scarce and valuable thing every business owner knows that it is.

Economic Profit puts into practice what anybody starting a new business has to think about from day one: if I put my savings into this business, will it generate more profit than I could have got elsewhere at similar risk?

For managers on an incentive plan linked to Economic Profit it forces them to think the same way: not just will this decision be profitable, but will it make enough profit to justify the owner’s investment?

In the next article we’ll discuss how to align the payoff profile of managers to that of owners.