Five elements to make managers think and act like owners #3: Ensure the budget plays no part in determining rewards

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.

#3: Ensure the budget plays no part in determining rewards

As we’ve seen, using the budget as the benchmark to determine incentive rewards unintentionally encourages managers to low-ball their budget. The answer is to decouple incentive targets from budget altogether and set incentive targets that reflect reasonable three to five year expectations for the business.

Setting ‘reasonable’ three to five year targets could be just as prone to gaming as the annual budget if not done carefully. The key is to have an independent third party involved such as a trusted accountant or experienced advisor. They should conduct and present to the owners and managers a recommended growth target based on analysis including a detailed review of the historical performance of the business and that of a group of peer companies, examination of forward projections for the business and of the valuation of the business. Comprehensive scenario testing can then be conducted with the owners and managers to build confidence in the appropriateness of the target.

Just as important is the sensitivity of the plan. At what level of performance would no bonus be paid? At what level of performance would a double bonus be paid? These questions are best addressed again with the help of an independent third party who, through detailed analysis and collaboration with the owners and managers, can recommend the sensitivity of the plan.

In the next article we’ll discuss how to ensure only sustainable gains in performance are rewarded.

Is your business engineered to create wealth? Part 4: Planning

Most CEOs would prefer to create more wealth for shareholders than less.

But most companies are not ‘engineered’ to create wealth – internal processes often act to hinder wealth creation, rather than encourage it.

In this article we argue the planning process needs to be more than just a governance tool, it needs to produce an ambitious, clear strategy to deliver a step change in the value of the company.

Every large organisation needs a plan to coordinate the activities of its people, whose job is often just a cog in a much larger machine. And in any company, the objective of that plan should be to grow wealth. That is after all, the job of business in our society.

But plans and budgets in most companies are also used as governance tools, to hold managers responsible for performance. Not surprisingly, managers respond to this by putting forward highly conservative plans. This practice is so common it has a name, ‘sandbagging’.

The outcome of all this for shareholders is a high degree of accountability for a plan that often produces little gain in wealth.

But with care, this barrier to wealth creation can be turned into a powerful platform for the creation of it.

We’ll discuss the problem of sandbagging and how to remove it in the fifth article in this series, but let’s first look at how planning would be conducted if it was all about wealth creation.

If the job of business in our society is to create wealth, then the planning process should address the two key drivers of wealth and clearly address the questions:

  1. How is the business is going to achieve and sustain high returns on capital (quality); and
  2. How will the business find ways to put large amounts of capital to work at those rates (quantity)?

CEOs should not be responsible for changes in the value of their company in the short
term, but they should be responsible for changes in value over a three to five year time
horizon. And it is that horizon that the planning process should consider with questions
like, ‘How will high returns be achieved or sustained over the next three to five years?’
and, ‘How much capital can we put to work at those rates over that period?’

With that overarching goal, it helps then to break the planning process down by thinking
about each business unit in terms of fix, grow or sell.

Businesses with negative Economic Profit Spreads, that is over the past five years or over the forecast period suffer returns (ROCE) less than the cost of capital, need to be fixed. As we saw in part one of this series, for established businesses, negative EP Spreads are highly correlated with wealth destruction. If returns remain low, investing more capital in these businesses will only destroy more wealth.

The challenge for the managers of these business units is to develop credible plans to improve returns. For many, competitive forces are to blame for low returns. Where products or services are largely commoditised, profits and ROCE are driven down. Only those with a sustained cost advantage will be able to sustain high returns in a commoditised market.

In this instance, plans must either be about how to achieve a sustainable cost advantage
or how to differentiate the offering and achieve some pricing power.

Once a business has achieved high returns on capital (a positive EP Spread), it’s time to accelerate wealth creation by growing the business and finding ways to invest, without reducing returns below the cost of capital.

The challenge for the managers of these business units is to develop credible plans that show how high returns can be sustained. It is the nature of our competitive capitalist society that businesses that enjoy high returns attract competition. This is evident in the research summarised in part one of this series. Many low return businesses enjoyed at some stage in their history high levels of ROCE.

But competition brings with it lower prices and more benefits for customers, which usually come at the expense of margins and returns. As if that wasn’t enough, if the business is dependent on a key supplier (such as a landlord, or unique component supplier), they may be able to increase input costs to capture the wealth-creating high returns for themselves.

These businesses need to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the ‘moat’ around their business that will prevent competitors, suppliers and even governments from taking their high returns and in their plans, show how they will deepen and widen that moat, while all the time investing behind it.

We have discussed how high return businesses attract competition, usually driving down returns. Where industry returns are persistently low, the reverse process is often observed: low returns lead to a thinning out of competitors, allowing returns to rise for the remaining players.

If a business is not in a position to lead the rationalisation of the industry by buying out competitors, it can often create wealth by selling into it. These businesses usually trade at a discount to the amount of capital invested in them (ie their book value), reflecting investors’ belief that capital will continue to be invested at low rates of return.

In selling out, vendors can often achieve at least book value for their businesses, thereby creating wealth (taking a negative back up to zero).

Of course it is not just low return businesses that can be sold at a profit; a company that is engineered for wealth creation will also maintain internal valuations for each of its business units and be ready to sell at the right price.

Is your business engineered to create wealth?

Most CEOs would prefer to create more wealth for shareholders than less. After all, in our society, we create different institutions for different needs: governments to create and enforce laws, charities for good causes and businesses as places to store and grow our wealth.
The job of business is to create wealth.

But most companies also face barriers to that goal. Even if you are able to create a great product or service that will improve the lives of customers, competitors will do all in their power to steal those customers, suppliers will squeeze higher prices for their inputs if they can and even governments will sometimes impose special taxes on businesses deemed to be too profitable.

To take on these challenges, every CEO must ask themselves, ‘Is my business engineered
to created wealth?’

In the five articles that follow, we’ll examine the most common internal barriers that businesses
face in trying to create wealth and how CEOs can remove them and in the process,
engineer their business to create wealth.

Figure 1: Barriers to wealth creation


In the first article, we’ll look at research into why some businesses create wealth, while others destroy it.

The second article looks at the impact internal measures of performance can have on decision making and wealth creation.

The third article addresses capital allocation and what can be done to close the accountability loop for investment decisions.

The fourth article looks at budgeting and planning, calling for a greater focus on how the business will create wealth and less on governance and accountability.

Finally, the fifth article addresses incentive structures, outlining some of the most damaging aspects of the more popular plans before outlining a different approach that is engineered for wealth creation.