Building banking partnerships Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
Among the key players in any company’s financial group are its CPA, corporate attorney and business banker. The typical business manager might feel like an orchestra conductor, giving each musician room to play a part, but trying to keep the whole thing in balance.

 

“Rarely do all the providers have the full picture — and it is even rarer that they have a common, shared understanding,” says David J. Janus, president and CEO of FirstMerit’s Cleveland area office. “I think the biggest synergy is the shared knowledge of the owner’s long-term strategy and goals.”

Smart Business turned to Janus for tips on keeping the relationships harmonious and in balance.

What is the basic strategy with providers?

External service providers are no different than a management team. The owner must get them all working in the same direction to execute their strategy and to accomplish the goals they set forth. Too often these service providers are privy to the piece of strategy around the particular service or project they are working on but do not have the entire picture.

A service provider might suggest a solution that fits the current situation, but another solution would be better from a long-term perspective. For example, I’ve worked with companies that wanted debt capital available for substantial growth and large equity capital distributions for estate planning purposes, to buy out shareholders, and to purchase another company with bank debt. Those objectives are in conflict with each other.

Ideally, we’d want to sort out the priorities with the owner along with the accountants, lawyers and insurance providers to find the best solution.

Does the orchestra leader analogy really work?

Yes, it does. The conductor is always trying to get the most out of each player, but they are best when in perfect harmony. Rare is the company that tries to get perfect harmony. The typical business owner views them as providing separate services and playing separate roles.

So are all equally important?

I’m not sure it matters who is most important. All would be deemed ‘trusted advisers’ of the owner but it depends on the owner’s needs and the situation to determine who plays the lead role at any particular time. The fact that each provider brings unique services to the owner suggests they are all equally important.

What other professionals should have a seat at the table?

Add the commercial insurance provider into the mix and any consultants the company uses with any frequency: management consultants, HR consultants, industry consultants, and so on.

These providers all sit down with owners and sometimes with the leaders. What information you give them depends on what they need to know at the time. An owner likely would want his management team working with the CPAs on an acquisition, but the owner may not want management involved in some litigation work done by the lawyers. It’s very important that service providers know each other and effectively provide the best service possible.

Do many businesses do this?

No. In fact, I have yet to see a business owner pull together his or her entire professional service team for a strategy summit.

Should all parties have similar access to corporate records and books?

Service providers know what information they need to review. I wouldn’t suggest they all have free access to everything, but if the information is pertinent to the situation or the project then they should have access. The business owner should be in a position of complete trust with these service providers, so full disclosure is best.

Why is it important to get them all working on the same page?

Having your professional service provider group working collaboratively will yield better results, avoid surprises, mitigate potential problems, potentially head-off bad decisions and help owners meet their objectives.

I would suggest a summit among these providers once a year after the financial results are available for the most recently ended year and plans are complete for the coming year and beyond. This should be a thought-provoking session about where the owner wants to go with the business, how success is measured, how he or she plans to get there and what impediments might be in the way. Consider this group your informal board of directors. After all, you’re paying them for their advice and service, so why not get the most of synergies among them?

DAVID J. JANUS is president and CEO of FirstMerit’s Cleveland area office. Reach him at (216) 694-5658 or david.janus@firstmerit.com.