Leslie Stevens-Huffman

Are we entering a golden age of gas? The International Energy Agency seems to think so, citing the environmental qualities, ease of use and competitive prices of natural gas in a recent report.

New technology is creating plant efficiencies and the evolution of shale harvesting is increasing supply and reducing transportation costs, says Terry Crupi, director of Natural Gas Marketing and Trading for PPL EnergyPlus.

“Natural gas is increasing its prominence in the U.S. energy landscape,” says Crupi. “And Pennsylvania executives have an added advantage, because the region offers a straightforward platform for choosing a provider and managing energy costs.”

Smart Business spoke with Crupi about the evolution of natural gas and what it means for Pennsylvania business.

How is natural gas evolving to meet rising energy demands?

Traditionally, natural gas served as a home-heating fuel and feedstock for the industrial manufacturing sector, which caused demand to soar during colder months in northern regions of the country and highly industrialized cities. By the early 2000s, there was a dramatic surge in the construction of gas-fired power generation facilities, many of which use modern, fuel-efficient, combined-cycle technology. As a result, power grids rely on gas-fired power plants nearly as much as traditional baseload generation facilities fueled by nuclear fission and coal.

This dramatic increase in demand for natural gas has altered consumption and changed the way gas is used by region and season. Although summer demand used to be driven by the need to fill storage caverns for peak winter months, peak flow conditions along the pipeline now occur in summer as well as winter, as gas-fired power plants are used to meet rising summer electricity demands. This has greatly increased the importance of natural gas in our country’s overall energy picture, and lower prices are causing many customers to switch to natural gas. Also, the momentum toward natural-gas-powered vehicles offers tremendous potential for gas to increase its prominence in the U.S. energy landscape.

How do Pennsylvania businesses purchase natural gas?

The structure of the region’s natural gas market has been in place for several decades and provides customers with the opportunity to choose a competitive gas supplier and manage their energy costs. The regulated side of the market includes pipelines and local distribution companies that transport natural gas to end-users, but their rates and returns are controlled by state or federal agencies.

Customers of all shapes and sizes can optimize savings by purchasing natural gas from unregulated companies, because they aren’t required to purchase gas from a local utility. Gas suppliers typically collaborate with customers to develop a flexible pricing structure that meets their needs and optimizes current market conditions.

What should customers look for when choosing a natural gas supplier?

Because the composition of natural gas doesn’t vary, customers should select a supplier based on other characteristics, including:

  • License. Suppliers should be licensed by the state regulatory commission.
  • Financial stability. Assess a supplier’s tenure, history and financial health, as well as the financial condition of its parent, because it needs excellent credit to procure large quantities of gas at favorable prices in the wholesale market.
  • Customer service. Ask to see a sample invoice and review the supplier’s responsiveness to orders for triggering or fixing prices and process for issuing confirmations. Will the supplier help you set hedging strategies? Who will be servicing your account? Remember, the salesperson may not be your contact once you’re a customer.
  • A straightforward contract. Make sure there are no hidden renewal options in favor of the supplier and that any index pricing is appropriate and utilizes standard industry publications. The tone of the contract is indicative of a supplier’s approach, so take note if it seems one-sided.

How can natural gas consumers protect themselves from pricing volatility?

Natural gas is an actively traded and highly volatile commodity, which helps customers lock in favorable prices, but that also makes it difficult to craft an effective risk mitigation strategy. Some customers set price targets that align with corporate budgetary objectives, while others study the market and determine pricing points to capitalize on dips in the market. Still others are simply content to receive market-based pricing by purchasing gas at index-related prices. Customers can employ options to establish some limits on gas price floors and ceilings, but the best practice is to set a strategy that aligns with your risk appetite and execute it well.

How will Marcellus Shale natural gas production impact Pennsylvania energy?

Pennsylvania gas consumers are already seeing benefits from the Marcellus Shale, because the increased supply and proximity to the market is lowering transportation costs and overall natural gas prices. In terms of the total energy picture, it’s also having an effect on electricity markets because plentiful natural gas, coupled with increasing costs of coal, is causing many older coal-fired plants to retire in favor of gas-fired generation. In fact, Pennsylvania is becoming a prominent natural gas producing state, largely due to the Marcellus Shale.

PPL EnergyPlus, LLC is an unregulated subsidiary of PPL Corp. PPL EnergyPlus is not the same company as PPL Electric Utilities. The prices of PPL EnergyPlus are not regulated by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. You do not have to buy PPL EnergyPlus electricity or other products in order to receive the same quality regulated services from PPL Electric Utilities.

Terry Crupi is director of Natural Gas Marketing and Trading for PPL EnergyPlus, a competitive gas supplier serving industrial and commercial customers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. Reach him for wholesale and retail inquiries at PPLRetailGas@pplweb.com or (610) 774-2310.

If a disaster struck your company, could you recover? Do you have a place to store your data so it’s safe and accessible, and do you have a way to recover it after a disaster without bankrupting the company?

Investing in redundant infrastructure and hiring specialized staff to protect yourself is hard to justify in today’s business climate, especially when the rising cost of disaster recovery pushes other critical projects to the back burner. But the answer may be in the cloud, says Ram Shanmugam, senior director of product management for Recovery Services at SunGard Availability Services.

“Recovery in the cloud is offering customers reliable and cost-effective options to increase application availability,” says Shanmugam. “It’s no longer a matter of do you need higher application availability but how can you do it effectively and efficiently compared to traditional recovery models.”

Smart Business spoke with Shanmugam about the advantages of outsourcing disaster recovery to the cloud.

Why is the cloud advantageous?

Organizations require consistent and reliable availability of their recovery infrastructure to match the business value of their full range of applications and data. These range from mission-critical to less critical. Disruption and outages in the availability of mission-critical applications do the most damage to organizations financially and in terms of impact on quality of service, lost reputation and competitive advantage. To design and implement a recovery plan, the IT organization must determine the recovery point objective (RPO) and recovery time objective (RTO) for each mission-critical application. The RPO is the amount of down time and data loss the company is willing to sustain after a disaster, and the RTO establishes the timeline and priority for restoring critical business processes and applications. Finally, to meet the RPO and RTO requirements, the IT organization must invest in space, capital equipment and software, and hire experienced staff to replicate or back up data, then try to ensure recovery by executing rigorous testing protocols.

In contrast, cloud-based recovery offers a reliable and affordable alternative for achieving RPO and RTO requirements and ensuring higher availability for mission-critical applications. Cloud-based recovery solutions offer access to low-cost or pay-as-you-use recovery infrastructure, which can be provisioned on demand to recover mission-critical applications in the wake of failure events, with sufficient security and guaranteed performance.

What should executives consider before outsourcing disaster recovery to the cloud?

  • Cost savings is a significant driver.
  • RPO/RTO. Companies often forsake their RPO/RTO requirements because in-house solutions are cost prohibitive. The cloud offers the ability to significantly improve application availability in a cost-effective manner.
  • Reliability. The ROI of a recovery environment is in the reliability of its performance at the time of disaster. Compared to in-house solutions, managed cloud solutions offers higher reliability in recovery of mission-critical applications after failure events, with sufficient security and guaranteed performance.
  • Skilled resources. In-house recovery solutions require investment in talent to support the infrastructure. In contrast, the cloud eliminates the need for that investment, freeing up resources to focus on value creation.

Does migrating to the cloud create a loss of flexibility?

No. In fact, the cloud allows IT organizations to optimize their investment and resources by offering configurable options to meet the individual availability objectives of each application or business process.

IT organizations also have the flexibility to customize a cost-effective hybrid recovery environment by integrating cloud with dedicated internal infrastructure to support availability of large, complex applications and business processes.

What should CIOs consider when evaluating prospective partners?

Ask these questions to evaluate potential cloud partners when considering cloud-based recovery options.

  • Does it offer meaningful service level guarantees for recovery of mission-critical applications? Can it reliably recover mission-critical applications in the wake of failure?
  • Does it support heterogeneous computing platforms (e.g. Windows, Linux) and hybrid architectures that meet the recovery needs of the entire IT portfolio?
  • Does the staff have hands-on disaster recovery experience? Has it recovered from a disaster? Does it understand the entire disaster recovery lifecycle? Can it provide audit-ready test reports?
  • Can the partner support a broad portfolio of RPO/RTO requirements in its cloud solution? Does it provide options for high availability, as well as less critical applications, in a heterogeneous environment?
  • What is the range of options supported for moving data to the cloud? Does it use monitoring and automation tools to ensure rapid and effective response to failures?
  • Can the cloud partner handle your current and future needs? Can it expand and contract on demand, handle sudden growth or support large amounts of application data?
  • Can clients pay as they go?

Is data in the cloud secure?

A cloud partner should offer multiple levels of security and service options to fit your needs. For those concerned that some data are too sensitive for the cloud, despite security, they can use a private cloud, while selecting a shared cloud for everything else.

One size doesn’t fit all, so a cloud partner should offer a range of private, hybrid and physical environments to make sure your data is secure and can be recovered after a disaster.

Ram Shanmugam is the senior director of product management for Recovery Services at SunGard Availability Services. Reach him at ramanan.shanmugam@sungard.com.

Executives across the Silicon Valley received a wake-up call in January, when Eric Schmidt stepped down as the CEO of Google. Rumor had it the tech giant and former Wall Street darling had missed the social network boom and lost its innovative edge, as Schmidt focused on day-to-day operations while digressing from Google’s legendary 70-20-10 rule, which requires technical staff and management to devote 10 percent of their time to dreaming up new ideas.

Although leadership is the catalyst and source of organizational innovation and creativity, busy executives don’t need a complex plan to inspire and encourage an imaginative culture, as long as they’re willing to shake things up and not punish failure.

“Creative leadership is about giving people permission to dream and encouraging them to try something different,” says Dr. Terri Swartz, dean and professor of marketing for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “You get there by shaking things up and not letting employees settle into the status quo.”

Smart Business asked Swartz to describe the activities and behaviors that inspire and promote an innovative culture.

How can executives inspire creativity by shaking things up?

Although bureaucratic processes and formal protocols create the organizational discipline, which often produces short-term productivity gains, they actually threaten a company’s long-term financial health and stability by discouraging outside-the-box thinking and the development of new products and services.

Give people permission to dream by launching meetings with a brain teaser instead of a reading from the latest financial report and allow them to play with simple, creative toys like Legos, pipe cleaners and Silly Putty during conferences instead of leaving them to text message co-workers or read e-mails.

Next, invite new perspectives on old problems by holding meetings outside traditional conference rooms. Stroll the campus while you meet, congregate in a local park or shake up a stale routine by asking participants to sit in different seats. Finally, change the menu in the cafeteria and even the background music in the office on a regular basis, so employees learn to anticipate and embrace the unexpected.

What other simple, cost-effective techniques incite innovation?

Employees need breaks and a change of scenery to get their creative juices flowing; otherwise, they’ll spend all of their time with routine activities and putting out fires instead of dreaming up new ideas. In fact, carving out creative time and changing venues were simple but effective practices under Google’s 70-20-10 rule. Technical staff were asked to spend 70 percent of their time on core activities, 20 percent of their time on secondary business pursuits and one day each week in a different room or locale, just so they could focus on new ideas. Yet all too often, companies put the kibosh on telecommuting or non-traditional work schedules that break up daily routines and actually encourage forward thinking.

How can executives encourage risk-taking and companywide participation?

It’s easy for companies to digress into a culture that shuns risk and thwarts new ideas as they become mature and successful. But executives can dissuade group thinking and invite companywide participation by maintaining an open door policy and soliciting everyone’s opinions once an idea is suggested. Keep naysayers from getting the upper hand by scripting the positives as well as the concerns when weighing the merits of an idea. And don’t allow risk managers or lawyers to quash new products or ideas until they’re fleshed out.

Finally, travel the hallways and visit the cafeteria to solicit new ideas from everyone. Encourage new behaviors by writing down employee suggestions and recognizing every submission.

What else can executives do to encourage innovation?

First, hire and retain the right people. At first glance this may seem simple, but think of the relationship between elephants and fleas. Elephants are big, organized and successful systems, much like today’s corporations, but they are established and set in their ways. They cannot survive change without fleas. Fleas represent creative individuals or groups. They see themselves as different and want to make a difference. Unfortunately, bureaucracies often isolate or suffocate ‘fleas,’ killing off their ideas and passion, ultimately leading to their own demise.

Second, encourage and reward creative ideas from any source. Also, encourage employees to play together because participating in outside activities or playing group games during lunch breaks builds familiarity and trust, which is essential to the creative process and aids in the acceptance of new ideas. Use instruments, candid feedback and pulse surveys to gauge your open-mindedness and temper your reaction to new ideas and departures from the status quo. Executives may unconsciously quash new ideas by expressing a contrarian view or allow personal biases to interfere with their objectivity.

Next, lead the way by changing your routine and asking line managers to do the same. Finally, be willing to invest in the future. Although investments in dream time and allowing employees to roam the property may not produce immediate financial rewards, there’s no doubt that encouraging innovation will yield dividends in the future.

Dr. Terri Swartz is the dean and a professor of marketing for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at (510) 885-3291 or terri.swartz@csueastbay.edu.

Before the financial meltdown in 2008, prospective home owners breezed through the lending process while pursuing the American dream. Now, even veteran borrowers can be stymied by today’s strict lending environment, especially if they rely on previous knowledge and experience to navigate the process. Fortunately, education, preparation and a little perseverance can help novices as well as seasoned borrowers surmount modern obstacles and realize their dreams.

“The pendulum has swung too far the other way and now lenders are looking for picture-perfect borrowers,” says Janette Mah, senior vice president and manager of the Residential Mortgage Group at Wilshire State Bank. “Borrowers can avoid frustration and disappointment by educating themselves on the underwriting process, meeting with lenders and securing pre-approval for a loan before they start shopping for a home.”

Smart Business spoke with Mah about the current mortgage climate and why borrowers need education and preparation to prevail.

How has the lending climate changed, especially in the greater L.A. area?

Lenders are being somewhat cautious because the economy and the housing market are sending mixed signals about their overall health. Unemployment is still very high, the economy is struggling and some areas in Southern California are still working through a backlog of foreclosed properties, which is keeping residential real estate prices from stabilizing. While the federal government will continue to play a role in securitizing long-term mortgages, the future of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is up in the air. After synthesizing all this information, it’s clear that homebuyers and lenders must approach the market with caution and diligently assess the risks before finalizing a transaction.

What should borrowers know about the current underwriting rules and mortgage qualification process?

Borrowers can no longer state their income; they must provide sufficient documentation to verify their earnings and assets in order to prove they can repay the loan. In addition, lenders are using a new set of standards to underwrite and evaluate risks, and while the requirements may differ for some programs including FHA loans, these are the general guidelines.

  • Minimum credit score of 640 to 660 and a history of financial responsibility and saving. Borrowers can drive a better deal if their credit score is 740 or higher.
  • Employment stability.
  • Sufficient liquid assets to survive a temporary financial set back.
  • Minimum down payment of 20 percent, and the funds must be in the borrower’s account for at least two to three months.
  • Total monthly housing costs for principal and interest, taxes and insurance should not exceed 33 percent of gross income, while total monthly expenditures for all liabilities should not exceed 45 percent. Remember, even deferred payments on a student loan will count toward your monthly liabilities.

How can borrowers prepare for the lending process?

First, know your credit score by pulling a copy of your report and taking the time to clear up any issues before you approach a lender.

Second, research the various loan products to identify one that meets your needs. If you plan to stay in your home for more than seven years, then a 30-year or 15-year fixed rate mortgage might be the best choice, while a loan that offers a fixed rate for just five years might be appropriate if you plan to sell the property in a few years.

Third, study the lending process so you’re familiar with the paperwork and the requirements you’ll have to satisfy along the way.

Finally, calculate your income-to-debt ratio and research the real estate market, so you know how much money you need to buy a house and approximately how much you can borrow before you meet with a lender.

What’s the best way to approach a lender and avoid mortgage scams?

Contact two to three lenders to request face-to-face meetings and a quote. While it’s a good idea to survey the market by searching the Internet, borrowers generally get the best deal from a bank where they have an existing relationship. Vet the contenders by asking for their license number and searching for information on the licensing authority’s website. New legislation has granted consumers additional protection from fraud and scams following the crisis of 2008, so now mortgage originators are required to register and undergo a background check in order to comply with the Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act (SAFE Act).

Total out-of-pocket costs for a 30-year fixed rate loan should average $1,500 to $3,000 and buyers should ask for a written estimate before agreeing to a deal. Lock in your interest rate for as long as possible so you can boldly tout your pre-approved status to realtors and sellers and negotiate with confidence when shopping for a home. Finally, remember to allow plenty of time when you finally locate the home of your dreams, because the underwriting and escrow process takes a minimum of 30 days.

Janette Mah is a senior vice president and manager of the Residential Mortgage Group at Wilshire State Bank. Reach her at (213) 427-1490 or janettemah@wilshirebank.com.

There’s been no shortage of threats to business continuity over the past decade; terror attacks, hurricanes and tornadoes are constant reminders of the need for a well-honed disaster recovery plan. But the era has also featured two devastating recessions and a rash of corporate downsizings, leaving executives with fewer resources to guarantee the timely restoration of critical business operations and databases.

“The events of the past decade have taught us that businesses must deal with disaster recovery in a pragmatic way,” says Kerwin Myers, senior director of product management at SunGard Availability Services. “Otherwise, companies may make critical mistakes and may never recover from a disaster. Conversely, overspending on disaster recovery can also pose a threat to your company.”

Smart Business spoke with Myers about how to ensure business continuity by taking a realistic approach to disaster recovery.

How have the events of the last decade impacted disaster recovery?

Executives seldom thought about disaster recovery before Sept. 11. Now, they recognize the need for planning, but restoring a network and recovering data require professionals with specialized skills, and the rigorous process often takes a back seat to day-to-day operations. Additionally, companies must now adhere to governmental regulations and industry mandates designed to ensure organizations develop business continuity plans.

What are the typical pain points that organizations face when recovering from a disaster?

Recovering from a disaster hinges on accurate and current disaster recovery procedures. Many organizations fail to recover or take longer to recover because these procedures are not accurate or not current. Production Information Technology environments are constantly changing. This means that an effective change management practice that includes a process for updating recovery procedures and recovery configurations is a crucial component to successful restoration. Changes in the production environment happen daily, impacting recovery. As a result, the recovery plan must be kept up to date with day-to-day production changes.

In many cases, organizations depend on the same staff for production and disaster recovery. This requires production to be redeployed to restore critical applications and data during a disaster. But the event may prevent workers from reaching the facility or inflict personal hardships or injuries that keep them from working.

Last, IT professionals spend most of the time maintaining and updating applications, so restoration efforts may be hampered by a lack of knowledge of restoration practices.

What are the key planning elements to help ensure a seamless recovery?

Recovery plans should be customized to individual businesses but should include these critical steps to ensure effective recovery.

  • Create specific and sequential recovery processes and procedures. Employees need  clear procedures to restore critical IT services.
  • Establish priorities. Some mission-critical applications and technical functions must be restored immediately to minimize financial loss. Consider cost/performance trade-offs, estimated recovery times and business needs when establishing post-event priorities.
  • Close skill gaps. Staff members must take on specific roles and duties during recovery, but there’s no time for training once disaster strikes. Inventory the required skills to execute the plan and close gaps through training or by contracting with external providers.
  • IT organizations must ensure production changes are being replicated in recovery configurations and procedures.

What mistakes may impede or prevent a complete recovery?

An outdated recovery plan can stymie recovery. Companies need to reconcile the plan with the changing technical configuration and update procedures and priorities to align with the business requirements on a quarterly or semi-annual basis, as recovery may fail if the plan elements aren’t  tested and refined.

Should all data be recovered in the same way?

Most data centers are a collection of new and legacy systems and applications from multiple vendors, which means all data can’t be recovered in the same way. For example, data from critical tier-one applications may be replicated on servers in other locations, which is expensive, but the investment practically eliminates down time after a disaster.

Applications that run in the cloud can be accessed from any location and the provider assumes responsibility for disaster planning and recovery. Tier-two apps could run on separate servers and are restored from tape backups or a virtualized environment.

How are virtualization and cloud-based solutions impacting backup and recovery processes?

The emergence of the cloud and virtualization has created new rapid recovery options at a better price point. Applications that run on Web-based platforms can be supported by third-party providers with hundreds of servers, so recovery can be as simple as switching to another site. The best providers take a holistic approach by considering the interdependency between legacy and Web-based applications and offer a comprehensive solution.

What should an IT manager look for in an outsourced disaster recovery service provider?

Beyond price and equipment, an IT manager should evaluate the following criteria.

  • Experience and expertise in processes and procedures.
  • Commitment and conviction backed by guarantees and SLAs.
  • Track record. Has the firm been tested by a real disaster? Was the recovery successful?
  • Testing and audits. A provider should conduct hundreds of tests and audits each year, so ask to review its documentation before committing.

Kerwin Myers is a senior director of product management for SunGard Availability Services. Reach him at kerwin.myers@sungard.com.

The introduction of Pennsylvania’s competitive energy market in 1996 was intended to aid businesses (and consumers) that were hampered by electricity rates that exceeded the national average by as much as 15 percent.

But despite the fact that companies have been able to request bids from competing suppliers and purchase electricity supply at lower prices, many continue to pay more than they need to because they haven’t shopped for services or capitalized on falling energy prices by requesting new quotes from competitive suppliers.

“Pennsylvania’s energy market has come back with a vengeance since 2009, but optimizing the potential savings requires new habits and a changed mindset,” says L. Gene Alessandrini, senior vice president of marketing for PPL EnergyPlus. “Just getting online and requesting a quote from trusted suppliers can produce substantial savings for businesses with very little risk.”

Smart Business spoke with Alessandrini about the opportunities to immediately reduce your company’s electricity costs and control future costs by shopping the retail market and partnering with a savvy provider.

Is this a good time to be shopping for electricity?

Absolutely. Wholesale power prices have dropped in 2011, as new companies enter the market and the state-imposed temporary rate caps expire.

Companies that initially shopped the market and signed contracts back in 2009 or 2010 may be able to obtain lower electricity supply costs today by requesting new bids, while companies that haven’t shopped for services can reap immediate savings of 5 percent to 20 percent by doing so. Once they select a provider and sign a contract, smart business executives can turn their attention toward continuous improvement and controlling future costs by finding ways to increase efficiencies and reduce energy consumption. And because companies can lock in electricity rates and easily create energy savings, they free up cash for reinvestment purposes.

How can businesses save money on their energy bills by shopping for supply?

The move to a competitive energy market affords businesses greater control over their operating costs. Today, businesses can select from more than 25 providers in many parts of Pennsylvania and partner with a suitable supplier who understands their business and works with them to make it more successful.

Competitive electricity suppliers are still licensed and regulated by the state, but they are incentivized to purchase energy at the lowest possible price and offer customers top-notch service, as well as education and energy-saving recommendations and tools, because they have to market their services and compete for customers.

But the process could be overwhelming for small to mid-sized companies that aren’t used to vetting suppliers and requesting bids for services. That’s why it is a good idea to secure quotes from a handful of trusted suppliers and then sign a contract to get the ball rolling. Achieve the savings available to you today and then work to improve your knowledge and use of the competitive market.

What do businesses need to know before they shop for electricity?

Buying electricity in Pennsylvania now encompasses three phases. First, buyers request bids to garner immediate savings. Next, they work toward future cost reductions by considering investments in lighting systems, new heating and air conditioning systems or more efficient manufacturing equipment.

Finally, executives should monitor the energy market and request new pricing during the contract term to see if they can secure even lower rates by capitalizing on Pennsylvania’s competitive market.

How do businesses go about shopping for electricity?

The website for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (www.papowerswitch.com) offers buyers a wealth of information, but it’s easy to navigate the procurement process by following these easy steps.

  • Briefly research the market, then complete the online authorization form and request bids from two to three suppliers that you know and trust.
  • Suppliers will be able to review your company’s historical energy usage and expenditures and will discuss with you your company’s projected needs and service requirements.
  • After reviewing the bids, simply select the provider and service package that best meets your company’s needs, then make note of the renewal date and be sure to repeat the process during or prior to the contract expiration.

What should businesses look for in an electricity supplier?

First, executives need to be concerned with business continuity and the financial strength and stability of their electricity supplier. But you should also select a savvy partner that offers more than a commodity. You should look for educational programs, a variety of product and service options and a consultative approach to suggest industry-specific, energy-procurement and energy-saving ideas.

There’s too much opportunity available to businesses for them to sit on the sidelines when, with a little hard work or even just a few clicks of a mouse, they can yield immediate and substantial savings on electricity.

L. Gene Alessandrini is senior vice president of marketing for PPL EnergyPlus. Reach him at lgalessandrini@pplweb.com or (610) 774-4483.

Despite the best intentions, too much success may ultimately lead to failure as employees in well-established companies focus on maintaining the status quo and following procedures instead of looking for new opportunities. Executives ultimately get a wake-up call when a svelte competitor swoops in and seizes market share by capitalizing on an untapped opportunity.

“When things are going well, it’s natural for companies to thrive on their own logic and nurture a culture that resists change,” says Dr. Glen Taylor, director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay. “But if you don’t consider new ideas and opportunities, eventually you’ll hit a dead end.”

Smart Business spoke with Taylor about the techniques that help executives infuse an entrepreneurial spirit into mature companies.

How can executives begin the journey toward an entrepreneurial culture?

Entrepreneurs are found in all types of organizations — small and large, business and government, whether people are paid or act as volunteers. If you act like an entrepreneur you are an entrepreneur. It is a behavior, not a job title. An entrepreneur is a person who is good at spotting opportunities, good at mobilizing resources to pursue an opportunity and willing to act on the opportunity. Finding opportunities requires a new frame of mind or attitude,  thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo. Entrepreneurs shake things up by injecting different points of view into the organization and then leading the way to test the waters to see if there is real potential for something new.

Well-established companies can do many things to encourage entrepreneurial behavior. Managers can encourage divergent thinking by welcoming guest speakers who offer unorthodox ideas or impart pointed observations about the company and industry. For example, an outsider may propose a direct sales model in lieu of traditional distributors or using social media to embrace a new generation of customers. Managers can also initiate internal conversations that challenge employees to step outside their comfort zones and suggest new ideas. Insights about new opportunities can come from anywhere in the organization. Making room to discuss new opportunities can foster a spirit of collaboration and enthusiasm. But in the end, it takes more than ideas and talk. It takes a commitment of resources and a commitment to take action to achieve entrepreneurial results.

How can executives control expenses and still invest in new ideas?

Entrepreneurs are not loners. They usually do best when they build strong partnerships, sustained by a network of supporters who share the vision and who provide a sounding board that fuels the creative process. Small groups of dedicated employees who share a similar vision and are willing to support each other during the incubation process are the ones most likely to succeed in marshalling resources, building prototypes and conducting pilot tests to move forward in a relatively inexpensive and risk-free way to assess the merits of a new opportunity. Experimentation means failing early and often, and learning from the experience to keep moving forward.

 

Why is it necessary to modify organizational incentives?

In mature companies, the organization might be silently fostering competing agendas with incentives that discourage experimentation and impede the creative process. It’s up to executives to assure seamless support for innovation across the enterprise by recognizing and rewarding entrepreneurial behavior. This might require separating responsibilities for new initiatives. If entrepreneurial employees get frustrated and leave, the organization will soon be drained of its creative talent.

What other changes inspire innovation?

Unless companies embrace people with diverse views, the corporate culture will continue to support the dominant view and resist new ideas. People learn through experience that they have to act in a certain way or follow specific protocols to be successful. Entrepreneurs often feel like outsiders and seek greener pastures. Corporate cultures that embrace diverse values and perspectives can infuse an entrepreneurial spirit into the culture.

What else can executives do to support cultural transformation?

Trust is the engine that powers innovation, because, without it, employees will be reticent to suggest new ideas or worry that a failed venture may damage their careers. Executives are responsible for engendering trust by setting realistic expectations and time frames for pilots and experiments and by treating failure as a learning opportunity.

Unknowingly, executives often stifle creativity and reinforce the status quo through their actions and responses, so it’s critical that they set the tone by modifying their behaviors. Show support for the creative process by hosting executive forums or roundtable discussions where employees can share ideas. Since innovation is a social process, encourage collaboration by asking employees to talk about their endeavors in meetings and online forums. But do more than support talk — support action. Finally, generate enthusiasm and raise spirits by celebrating small wins, recognizing employees who suggest bold ideas and applauding cultural change.

Dr. Glen Taylor is the director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at glen.taylor@csueastbay.edu or (808) 203-3818.

Cash is the lifeblood of any business, and most business owners experience the need for an occasional short-term infusion of capital to bridge cash flow gaps, finance bulk inventory purchases or to meet other working capital needs. But after the long recession and credit crisis, many owners are reluctant to take on debt that could prevent them from capitalizing on the rebounding economy.

The solution is a short-term line of credit, or STLOC, which is typically secured by business assets and provides owners a less expensive way to access capital versus other forms of capital such as additional equity injection from the owner or another investor.

“Although business owners should avoid excessive debt, an appropriate amount of short-term debt can help a company grow and allow the owners to maximize return on assets and equity,” says David Song, senior vice president and head of the Corporate Banking Group at Wilshire State Bank. “Despite lingering uncertainty in the overall economy, banks are willing to make short-term loans to well-run businesses.”

Smart Business spoke with Song about maximizing growth opportunities through a STLOC.

When should business owners consider a STLOC?

STLOCs are typically used to finance operating expenses until receivables are converted to cash or to finance inventory purchases until they’re sold and converted to cash. For example, as demand for goods and services rises during a recovery, manufacturers and wholesalers need cash to produce/purchase inventory and finance accounts receivable, while importers need lines to open letters of credit and purchase products from overseas suppliers. Retailers can use STLOC to make volume purchases ahead of a peak selling season, while professional service firms can use the funds to expand by hiring additional employees.

How does a STLOC differ from a long-term line of credit?

A STLOC is a revolving line that is typically used to finance short-term business assets for less than one year, whereas a long-term loan is used to finance long-term assets such as equipment, leasehold improvements and real estate. With STLOC, a borrower can draw on a line as needed within the allowed parameters of the borrowing arrangements and then pay down the debt as cash flow allows. Banks offer various types of STLOCs depending on the business needs, borrowers’ qualifications and industry characteristics.

  • Nonformula line of credit. This line is similar to a credit card, because it can be advanced or paid down at the borrower’s discretion as long as the borrower is in compliance with loan terms and conditions.
  • Trade cycle financing. This type of line is often reserved for importers that use the line to purchase goods from overseas suppliers. Under this arrangement, trade advances are used to finance individual import purchases, which must then be paid back within the pre-determined terms that are based on the operating cycle of the business.
  • Asset-based line of credit (ABL). If a company is highly leveraged and/or growing quickly, bankers often suggest an asset-based line, which allows the business to borrow against a specified percentage of accounts receivable and inventory up to a predetermined amount. The amount available to borrow under this arrangement is referred to as a borrowing base.

Are there risks associated with a STLOC?

While a STLOC can provide access to needed capital, a business owner must be aware that there usually is a set of loan terms and conditions with which the business needs to comply. These terms and conditions require the business to submit certain financial information to a bank within a specified timeframe and maintain financial performance at a level that is acceptable to the bank. Obviously, required payments need to be made on time and it is also important to note that loan outstanding does not exceed the borrowing base in an ABL arrangement. If you stay on top of cash flow, and diligently manage accounts receivable and inventory turnover, you’ll maintain the integrity of your assets and boost your ability to borrow. Noncompliance with loan terms and conditions may adversely impact the business’s ability to borrow.

How can a business maintain the quality of its assets and increase borrowing capacity?

Typically, banks will not lend against receivables older than 90 days or stale inventory that hasn’t turned over within a year. Owners should have adequate staff to monitor collections and avoid excessive inventory build-up. Banks will also look at your customer base to see if sales are dispersed among a large base of customers or concentrated in a few accounts, which increases risk. They’ll also examine the credit worthiness of your accounts and they’ll be concerned if you’re shipping products to delinquent customers.

What do bankers consider when evaluating a request for a STLOC?

A business must demonstrate stable or growing trends, an acceptable track record of profitability, solid credit history and adequate cash flow to service the debt. Bankers will also look for a balance sheet that shows positive working capital and adequate equity levels without excessive leverage. A business will also be asked to provide accrual-based financial statements. Bankers will evaluate the requested STLOC amount and the company’s borrowing needs based upon the business’s operating cycle together with all other business and personal information provided to the bank. As a banker will rely on the accuracy of financial information provided by the business to make lending decisions, the quality of information provided to the bank is vital.

David Song is a senior vice president and head of the Corporate Banking Group at Wilshire State Bank. Reach him at (213) 365-3302 or davidsong@wilshirebank.com.

Plan sponsors have probably heard about the plight of baby boomers who haven’t saved enough for retirement or don’t understand the long-term impact of under-performing funds on retirement plan account balances. Unless sponsors wake up and address these issues, they could be blind-sided by a slew of new regulations or a class action lawsuit, since plan sponsors, as fiduciaries, are legally responsible for acting prudently and solely in the interest of the plan’s participants.

Despite the good intentions of plan sponsors, many participants are struggling to manage their investments and meet their savings objectives. So, savvy sponsors are simplifying plan design and investment options to make it easier for employees to participate in the plan, save more and make prudent choices.

“Employers not only have a moral and legal obligation to help employees retire with financial security, but fiduciaries and trustees can be held personally liable,” says Kyle Pifher, Principal and Practice Leader for Recordkeeping and Administration at Findley Davies. “Unless plan sponsors embrace their responsibilities and take action, they’re going to be bombarded by tough questions from their participants, particularly with respect to the new fee disclosure regulations coming out soon.”

Smart Business spoke with Pifher about the regulations affecting plan sponsors and how simplified plan design and tools can help employees meet their financial goals and retire with financial security.

What precipitated the new fee disclosure regulations?

Most plan sponsors, along with their participants, were challenged with determining the overall cost of the plan, both at the plan level and at the individual participant level. The Department of Labor’s ERISA Section 408(b)(2) regulations require providers of certain services (known as ‘covered service providers’) to disclose to plan fiduciaries certain information concerning the services and related compensation. In essence, the law requires covered service providers and employers to close the communication gap and provide greater transparency around the costs related to investments, recordkeeping and administration, trust and custody, investment advisory, and other plan-related fees and administrative charges associated with defined contribution plans.

How can plan sponsors improve communications and close the gap?

Companies can begin by instituting a retirement plan committee comprised of HR and finance representatives, outside experts, select executives and perhaps a diverse group of associates. The committee’s charter is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the plan participants. Responsibilities include oversight of plan operation, plan design, investment selection and monitoring, participant education, and overall compliance with the rules and regulations that govern retirement plans. The ultimate goal of the plan sponsor and committee should be to help their employees reach a secure retirement. Like anything else, a communication and education campaign should begin with a focused strategy based on the demographics of the company.

How can employers promote financial literacy and ease investment decisions for employees?

Many employees don’t have the time, interest, or knowledge to engage in an educational process, particularly involving investments. Many sponsors are now simplifying investment options and leveraging planning tools that don’t require a lot of action from employees. Many sponsors are regularly reviewing fund performance and altering investment options, and many are promoting the use of retirement date-based and risk-based models, thereby simplifying the decision-making process for employees. Plan sponsors should place a great emphasis on the appropriate savings rate for the individual, achieving a realistic rate of return based on their risk level, understanding the gap that may exist between their current situation and their retirement goal, and what steps can be taken to close or eliminate that gap.

How can plan design encourage savings and promote financial independence?

Many employers have implemented automatic enrollment and automatic escalation of employee deferrals to boost participation and employee savings rates, since history shows that few employees opt out once they’re automatically enrolled in the plan. In fact, some experts speculate that enrollment and deferral rates may be regulated or mandated in the future. Statistics show that matching contributions also influence employee deferral rates. During 2008 and 2009 when some sponsors suspended their matching program,  many participants ceased their deferrals. Since it’s clear that employers have a legal and moral obligation to help employees plan for their retirement, a continuous review of your plan’s design and employer contribution rates should be conducted to encourage positive behaviors.

What else can employers do to help employees retire with dignity?

Employees must understand the importance of saving early for retirement at a level that helps them reach their goal. Plan sponsors with successful retirement programs are proactive in communicating to their employees, and often leverage the expertise of professionals that deliver these services. Many employers engage independent investment advisers, retirement plan consultants, and communication specialists to design a communication and education program specific to their retirement plan. In addition, personalized communications can help tailor those messages for each employee to show them exactly what their retirement savings strategy means for them.

Kyle Pifher is a Principal and Practice Leader for Recordkeeping and Administration at Findley Davies, Inc. Reach him at (614) 458-1869 or kpifher@findleydavies.com.

Downsizing and slashing funds for training and development can help executives boost the bottom line during a recession, but they know it’s bound to have an impact somewhere down the road.

The day of reckoning has finally arrived as companies face a shortage of managerial talent and bench depth, which may keep them from capitalizing on the rebounding economy.

In the Silicon Valley, the annual turnover rate eclipses 25 percent and tech giants have reignited the bidding war for elite technical talent. But companies don’t need to spend a fortune to reinvigorate in-house training programs or author new curriculums, when they can achieve the same results at a fraction of the cost by partnering with their local university.

“The talent shortage has reached the critical stage, especially in the Bay Area,” says Brian Cook, executive director of Continuing and International Education at California State University, East Bay. “The situation will only get worse, unless employers recommit themselves to developing and retaining valuable employees.”

Smart Business spoke with Cook about developing talent and building bench depth by tapping the expertise of your local university.

Why is there a critical talent shortage?

Retiring baby boomers, fewer workers entering the labor force and a series of recessions have created a nationwide shortage of employees with critical skills, but studies of employee preferences suggest the worst is yet to come. Gen X and Gen Y value training and professional development and they’re even willing to change companies to have a chance to build their careers in a learning environment. Given today’s business landscape, employers can’t afford to churn staff and continuously compete for scarce employees on the open market. One important way to stay competitive is by growing your own talent.

How can local universities assist employers with professional development?

Historically, local universities focused on the needs of full-time students who were pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. But today, most students are working professionals, so local universities have taken on an expanded role, which includes supporting the local business community and fulfilling the need for lifelong professional education. Most universities now offer flexible curriculums that cover everything from intensive MBAs to leadership development, corporate training, professional certifications and even functional expertise in areas like supply chain management and human resources.

Many university educators are working professionals and frequently work in the private sector or own consulting firms. Because instructors are of the business world, they understand modern challenges and bring real-world experience to the classroom.

Why are outsourced programs more cost-effective?

Instead of developing curriculums in-house, it’s possible to leverage the talent at taxpayer-assisted universities and offset some training costs by tapping government funds that are earmarked for work force development and tuition assistance. Annually, the federal government allocates $1 billion to alleviate critical skill shortages, especially in the tech industry, and even small businesses may qualify for the funds. In situations where the labor market demands are aligned to business needs, companies can partner with local universities to develop training programs utilizing work force investment funds. If companies find that leveraging internal staff is preferable or more cost-effective, the university can develop the program and train a staff member to teach the program (train the trainer).

How is the curriculum developed and tailored toward the company, industry and individual?

Although corporate training programs are customized, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Universities have the ability to harvest material from existing courses and tap current faculty or an extensive network of resources to accelerate the curriculum development process.

  • Needs analysis: It’s important to interview multiple stakeholders and executives to gain different perspectives, understand the current challenges and establish the course goals. A customized curriculum should dovetail with the business plan, reflect the culture and support existing training and performance management programs.
  • Develop a prototype: The parties should work together to develop the curriculum, and make revisions using an iterative process. The learning modality is critical for working professionals, so consider offering online classes, streaming videos, on site or off site training or hybrid models to suit their schedules and preferences.
  • Implementation and continuous improvement: Survey the participants after launching the course and continuously refine the curriculum. Since business conditions and individual needs change, the university should meet with members of the HR team each quarter to keep their finger on the pulse and evaluate feedback.

How can executives support the professional development process?

Executives are halfway home when they recognize the need for professional development. Studies show that investing in your employees and creating a continuous learning environment bolsters your employment brand and jump-starts innovation. And partnering with your local university offers other benefits, because companies build a network of resources and connect with experts who offer state-of-the-art skills. But, best of all, when executives show their commitment by investing in employees’ professional growth, employees return the favor by continuing to contribute at a higher level.

Brian Cook is the executive director of Continuing and International Education at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at (510) 885-7504 or brian.cook@csueastbay.edu.