Northern California (1069)

Steve Jobs was the master of spotting trends and the opportunities that go with them. He was so good at it that he could see trends when they were still in their infancy. This allowed him to create products that kept his company at the front of the waves of change and ultimately drove massive profits and stock growth for Apple.

While not many people possess the uncanny sixth sense that Jobs had, it’s important to spend time studying your industry and what’s happening at various levels, from customers to suppliers to competitors.

You need to recognize when the trend is pushing positive growth and when it’s not. The additional challenge is to know the difference between a trend and a fad. A trend is more long-lived and drives a lot of long-term opportunity, while a fad tends to burn out quickly. This isn’t to say that trends last forever, because they don’t. An important part of studying trends is to know when to jump off the wagon and find the next opportunity, because if you ride a trend too far, you may find yourself in a rapidly declining industry or an area of waning interest.

For example, Y2K was a fad. For those who don’t remember, the Y2K boom was caused by old computers that only saw years as two digits instead of four, and widespread computer issues were predicted if systems weren’t upgraded. A giant boom in computer consulting and sales resulted from this issue, but it was short-lived. The moment 2000 rolled around, the need for Y2K upgrades dried up.

The dot-com boom, which was partly fueled by Y2K, was a trend. For a number of years, a ridiculous amount of money was being thrown at any project that contained the word “Internet,” regardless of its business model or competitive factors. While it was active, there were plenty of online growth opportunities for businesses to take advantage of.

Those who recognized the trend were able to capitalize on it, and more importantly, those who recognized the end of the trend were able to cash out before it went bust. Not every trend will be as big as the dot-com boom, and depending on your industry, they may not be so obvious.

Finding and recognizing trends starts with studying your industry. You need to stay in tune with what’s happening with competitors and constantly read about not only your industry but related ones as well. Talk to suppliers and vendors to get their opinions as to what direction your markets may be headed. But the most important thing may be to have an open mind. Don’t assume that because something hasn’t changed for 20 years that it isn’t ever going to change.

With an open mind, you are more likely to recognize an emerging trend before everyone else has rushed to capitalize on it, putting you ahead of the curve. Once you are exploiting a trend, you have to be equally diligent to know when it’s going to end, and that’s done in a similar fashion to identifying it in the first place: Stay plugged in to your industry.

These are exciting times and change is all around us. Look for the hidden clues that can lead you to the next big opportunity, and never stop challenging your own beliefs. The CEOs who do the best over time are the ones who don’t accept the status quo.

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.

As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

 

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

 

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

 

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.” ?

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.,

(415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

Ask customers where your business provides the most value.

Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.

Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

 

The Rosson File

Charlie Rosson

CEO

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

 

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

 

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

 

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

 

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

 

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

 

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

 

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports

Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:00

Jerry McLaughlin: Live outside the box

Written by

Most business leaders want to greatly improve customer loyalty, and I am no different.

To drive loyalty to my promotional products business, we have tried all the usual means — low prices, free shipping, membership club benefits, discounts and exclusive product offers.

Once, we even tried sending a vase of fresh flowers after each order. None of these initiatives resulted in the dramatic improvement that we sought. Over the years, we have engaged a series of expert consultants to find even more ideas to try. But in our business, customer loyalty remains a tough nut to crack.

The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. struggled with similar obstacles when it came to problem-solving in their business. Many were scientific, and — even though Eli Lilly’s substantial R&D group is staffed with talented technical experts — some problems resisted a solution for years. However, the company did invent a way to solve some of its problems quickly and cheaply.

 

Use expert advice — of others

Here is the gist of it: Eli Lilly discovered that it could solve a lot of the most intractable problems by giving them to experts from other fields. Simple? Yes. Counterintuitive? Yes. The surprise is that it seems to work.

The company put together an online network of thousands of scientists from other disciplines and “broadcast” their brain-stumping challenges to these experts from other fields. In many cases, the experts solved the problems by simply drawing on knowledge common in their own areas and applying it to Eli Lilly’s dilemma.

Eli Lilly’s scientists, we may presume, know just about all there is to know in their respective fields of expertise. Likewise, in my company, our experts know just about all there is to know about the industry, our products, our customers, competitors and so on. When the subject-matter experts can’t solve a problem, you need to cast a much wider net. If the specialists are stumped, then a solution, if found at all, will come from people outside the field.

 

Modify your individual process, if needed

Today, our company is using a version of Eli Lilly’s method in our business, which other organizations might also use to address their toughest problems. I didn’t have the time or means to put together a large team of experts from outside disciplines to work on my company’s challenges. So we use a modified Eli Lilly approach: We deliberately, routinely expose our in-house experts to nontraditional experiences and knowledge.

The idea is to see whether we can find our own answers by investing to acquire experiences outside those we normally encounter. In recent months, this new approach has involved my participation in a variety of eye-opening situations, including a meeting with the Cavalia producers, lots of museum visits, a guided tour of London graffiti and a design school workshop at Stanford University. On a personal level, I’m trying much harder to add new concepts and idea possibilities to my thinking.

I don’t know whether we’ll crack the customer loyalty problem in this way, but I can tell you that the ideas we discuss now are fresher than those we used to generate. That’s why my prescription for increasing the likelihood of solving the toughest problems is this: Live outside the box. ?

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. McLaughlin can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has not-for-profit financial reporting on its horizon. The board is expected to propose new guidance on non-profit financial reporting standards in the second half of 2013.

“It’s exciting because the FASB is actively working to make the financial statements more understandable for the user and more comparable across the varying types of not-for-profit organizations, which will allow these organizations to better tell their story to donors.” says Liz Dollar, a partner in the Not-For-Profit and Government group at Moss Adams LLP.

Smart Business spoke with Dollar about how these changes originated and what they could mean for the not-for-profit world.

What is the FASB’s Not-For-Profit Advisory Committee?

This 17-member committee was established in 2009 to act as a standing resource for the FASB. The various users and preparers of not-for-profit financial statements now have a formal process to give input that guides the FASB on the impact of the current standards, and provides feedback on proposed updates. The committee also can assist in outreach activities to the sector.

How is the committee filling a need in the not-for-profit world?

The most impactful financial reporting standards for not-for-profits were statements on Financial Accounting Standards 116 and 117, but these standards were written almost two decades ago in the mid-90s. The committee has focused on determining whether these standards still make sense in the current financial environment. The committee also considers overall financial trends such as the convergence of international and U.S. standards as well as increased emphasis on reporting and transparency of financial information.

What has the committee recommended to FASB?

The committee and its three subcommittees, Reporting Financial Performance, Liquidity and Financial Health, and Telling a Story, recommended:

  • Focusing transparency on operating and non-operating activities in the statement of activities.

  • Suggestions for improving the cash flow statement, better linking it to the operating measures.

  • Reducing the net asset classes from three to two — unrestricted and restricted — in an effort to make financial statements easier to prepare and use, while adding some subcategories into the new net asset classes. Streamlining and improving the footnote disclosures, which have gotten long and can be unclear to many users.

  • Requiring some sort of management discussion and analysis in the financial statement that tells a story of what happened during the year. This could enhance the understanding of donors about the financial health and performance of the organization.

What is the FASB doing with these recommendations?

The FASB is currently working on a project entitled Not-for-Profit Financial Reporting: Financial Statements, which is focused on net asset classifications and the information provided in the footnotes about liquidity, financial performance and cash flow. An exposure draft is expected in the second half of 2013. After the comment period, changes likely would be implemented around 2015.

The FASB also added a research project looking at other financial communications, which could include requiring a management discussion and analysis in the financial statements.

Why should not-for-profit organizations be excited about these potential changes?

Not-for-profit organizations often need an audited financial statement because of a donor, statutory or lender requirement. However, they will tell you that most people don’t look at or understand these financial statements. When using a document to tell a story and solicit funds, the 990-tax form is often a more useful tool and something that is comparable among all not-for-profit organizations. The hope is that with the current project the FASB changes will simplify the financial statements, making them in turn more user friendly and useful to the reader.

What does this mean for business owners?

Not-for-profit financial statements typically are very different from for-profit financial statements. So, someone from a public company who serves on a not-for-profit board or who is a potential donor could have trouble reading the statement. With potential changes to the net asset classifications, focus on liquidity and streamlined disclosures, the not-for-profit financial statements should more clearly reflect an organization’s financial position and be more usable to those with a for-profit background.

Liz Dollar is a partner, Not-For-Profit and Government group, at Moss Adams LLP. Reach her at (415) 677-8247 or elizabeth.dollar@mossadams.com.

 

Upcoming live webcast: Register now for “Legislation with Social Purpose: Examining Regulations on International Activities and Social Purpose Corporations in the Context of Today’s Economy.” The webcast will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. PST Tuesday, March 12.

 

Insights Accounting & Consulting is brought to you by Moss Adams

Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:41

Jerry McLaughlin: Live outside the box

Written by

Most business leaders want to greatly improve customer loyalty, and I am no different.

To drive loyalty to my promotional products business, we have tried all the usual means — low prices, free shipping, membership club benefits, discounts and exclusive product offers.

Once, we even tried sending a vase of fresh flowers after each order. None of these initiatives resulted in the dramatic improvement that we sought. Over the years, we have engaged a series of expert consultants to find even more ideas to try. But in our business, customer loyalty remains a tough nut to crack.

The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. struggled with similar obstacles when it came to problem-solving in their business. Many were scientific, and — even though Eli Lilly’s substantial R&D group is staffed with talented technical experts — some problems resisted a solution for years. However, the company did invent a way to solve some of its problems quickly and cheaply.

Use expert advice — of others

Here is the gist of it: Eli Lilly discovered that it could solve a lot of the most intractable problems by giving them to experts from other fields. Simple? Yes. Counterintuitive? Yes. The surprise is that it seems to work.

The company put together an online network of thousands of scientists from other disciplines and “broadcast” their brain-stumping challenges to these experts from other fields. In many cases, the experts solved the problems by simply drawing on knowledge common in their own areas and applying it to Eli Lilly’s dilemma.

Eli Lilly’s scientists, we may presume, know just about all there is to know in their respective fields of expertise. Likewise, in my company, our experts know just about all there is to know about the industry, our products, our customers, competitors and so on. When the subject-matter experts can’t solve a problem, you need to cast a much wider net. If the specialists are stumped, then a solution, if found at all, will come from people outside the field.

Modify your individual process, if needed

Today, our company is using a version of Eli Lilly’s method in our business, which other organizations might also use to address their toughest problems. I didn’t have the time or means to put together a large team of experts from outside disciplines to work on my company’s challenges. So we use a modified Eli Lilly approach: We deliberately, routinely expose our in-house experts to nontraditional experiences and knowledge.

The idea is to see whether we can find our own answers by investing to acquire experiences outside those we normally encounter. In recent months, this new approach has involved my participation in a variety of eye-opening situations, including a meeting with the Cavalia producers, lots of museum visits, a guided tour of London graffiti and a design school workshop at Stanford University. On a personal level, I’m trying much harder to add new concepts and idea possibilities to my thinking.

I don’t know whether we’ll crack the customer loyalty problem in this way, but I can tell you that the ideas we discuss now are fresher than those we used to generate. That’s why my prescription for increasing the likelihood of solving the toughest problems is this: Live outside the box.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. McLaughlin can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

 

 

As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.”

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., (415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

  • Ask customers where your business provides the most value.
  • Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.
  • Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

The Rosson File

Charlie Rosson

CEO

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports

 

Every business owner requires the services of outside accountants from time to time. On the surface, many CPAs seem similar. They list the same services, have the same accreditations and work in the same industries. But do they all deliver the same value? Is one CPA as good as the next? How can a business owner tell if he or she is truly getting the greatest value from a service provider?

Jerry Krause, audit partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, says delivering value to a business owner requires more than just technical expertise. “Serving a business owner is about much more than providing specific services or understanding accounting principles and tax codes,” says Krause. “Delivering value requires taking the time to understand the full picture of the owner’s business, personal and financial situation.” He says strong relationships are the foundation for value-added delivery.

Smart Business spoke with Krause about the best approach to building valuable relationships, where accountants could fall short, and what business owners should expect from a trusted adviser.

What should business owners expect from their accountant?

First and foremost, business owners should expect their accountant to be looking out for them. That means proactively identifying opportunities and avoiding problems. If an accountant is only providing the services a business owner is asking for, they aren’t doing him or her any favors. A trusted adviser is not an order taker. They listen to what their clients are saying and will be creative and proactive in finding solutions.

For the owner of a closely held business, an accountant needs to know more than just the business issues. Business decisions affect personal and family finances, so sound advice can’t be given without knowing the ramifications of what’s being advised. To properly advise business owners, accountants need to understand all of the factors involved.

What does it mean to be a trusted adviser?  

A trusted adviser will talk about more than just numbers and compliance. Conversations should be wide-ranging and include company operations, tax planning for the business and the owner, exit strategies, and estate planning.

Further, a good adviser must be willing to disagree with his or her client. Many business owners lack peers within their organization. Sometimes there can be great value in challenging a business owner’s perspective. When a good accountant anticipates that a client is about to make a mistake, he or she would be doing the client a disservice by not interjecting a solution.

What is the key to getting value from a relationship with an accountant?

Open communication is the most important factor for ensuring a successful relationship between a business owner and their accountant. The more open the communication, the better the service an accountant can provide.

The test of a good relationship is if there is an understanding that a business owner can call their accountant anytime. Business owners need to feel comfortable knowing their accountant is available to discuss whatever issues they’re facing. In order for that to happen, clients have to know their accountant is not going to charge them every time a call is made.

How can a business owner assess their relationship with an adviser?

Finding the right adviser is about fit and commitment. While a business owner needs a firm that has the right expertise and resources, it’s just as important to find an adviser who places high value in the relationship. Having an accountant with a high level of expertise doesn’t mean much if he or she doesn’t understand his or her client. It takes more than industry and technical knowledge to create a valuable relationship. It takes commitment and the willingness to invest the time to build understanding and trust.

Jerry Krause is an audit partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP. Reach him at (650) 358-9000 or jkrause@ssfllp.com.

Blog: For more market insights, visit the Sensiba San Filippo blog.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Sensiba San Filippo LLP

 

 

Business leaders often rely on intuition when making critical decisions, but according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, executives dramatically increase their chances of success when they bring facts and data into the decision-making process.

“Although beliefs and instincts help executives make expedient decisions, they aren’t always good decisions,” says Dr. Chongqi Wu, assistant professor of management for the College of Business & Economics at California State University, East Bay. “Business leaders become better decision makers when they take advantage of the facts derived from data analysis.”

Smart Business spoke with Wu about the benefits of incorporating big data and analytics into the decision-making process.

Why is fact-based decision making superior?

Although intuitive decision making is simplistic and quick, a lack of underlying data makes it hard for executives to diagnose and correct problems when something goes wrong. Instead of compounding the problem by making another bad decision, executives can drill down into the data to determine the cause of misfires and use factual analysis to set a new course. Actually, studies show that cumulative improvement is hard to obtain when executives react to problems instead of using facts to make prudent business decisions. And since most of your competitors are probably using data, companies that base decisions on gut feel or instinct are at a competitive disadvantage.

What types of decisions or problems are best solved by big data?

In general, data-driven decision making works better at an operational or tactical level since there are relatively fewer risks involved. In fact, when aided by technology, data makes it easy to automate rudimentary tasks and decisions.

Conversely, strategic decisions still require intuition and judgment, but injecting data analysis and modeling into the process can significantly improve the odds of success. Don’t think of gut-based and fact-based decision making as competing concepts because they actually complement each other. For instance, cross-functional teams often use data to project outcomes and validate the return on proposed programs or new products. It also helps diverse teams build consensus by using facts instead of politics and personal preferences to reach conclusions. Strategic decision making still requires risk taking, and success may hinge on market timing, execution and luck. Data just makes executives better gamblers.

What’s the best way to incorporate data into the decision-making process?

First, executives need to lead the way in supporting cultural change by acknowledging the importance of data in the decision-making process. Next, use data modeling to project probable outcomes and evaluate ideas, since facts and knowledge generated from analyzing big data provide a common ground on which ideas can be debated. Finally, force your team to analyze data by asking questions during the evaluation process so they learn how to marry facts and instincts.

Do executives need copious amounts of data to conduct modeling and analysis?

It’s hard to estimate, but simply put, gather as much relevant data as possible. However, there’s no reason to wait; start small and start immediately because there’s no need to invest in expensive systems or software. Purchase information from third parties, tap free sources to validate ideas, use economical cloud services and software as a service programs to analyze information, and begin collecting in-house data. Finally, run an experiment or test to see how much data you actually need to project the return on a small marketing project or idea.

How can executives gain the confidence to make data-backed decisions?

Even though great decisions don’t always produce great outcomes, you’ll gain confidence by realizing that great decision gives you the best chance to succeed. For example, it’s a great decision to have Kobe Bryant take the final shot when the Lakers are behind because, with a career field goal percentage of 45.4 percent, he gives the team the best chance to win. But data also shows he’ll miss about 55 percent of the time. Luck and timing still play a key role in determining success.

Dr. Chongqi Wu is assistant professor of management, College of Business & Economics, at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at (510) 885-3568 or chongqi.wu@csueastbay.edu.

Event: See a calendar of upcoming seminars hosted by the Department of Economics.

Insights Executive Education is brought to you by California State University, East Bay

 

Every entrepreneur dreams of the day  his or her fledgling startup becomes a going concern, but you could end up losing everything — including your house and your car — unless you take steps to separate and protect your personal assets.

“Owners should have limited liability for business debts and obligations,” says François G. Laugier, partner and director for Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC. “Incorporating sooner rather than later offers considerable protection with virtually no downside.”

Smart Business spoke with Laugier about the benefits of incorporating at the right time.

When is the right time to incorporate?

Owners expose themselves to liability for their company’s actions and debts the minute their venture becomes operational or starts hiring employees. So, it’s time to incorporate when your startup begins interacting with third parties or logs its first sale. Whether you manufacture food products or develop software, you could lose everything unless you form a legal business structure to safeguard your personal assets.

What are the advantages of incorporation?

Incorporating not only keeps creditors from attacking your own assets and employees from suing you personally, but it also increases a company’s credibility and raises the valuation you can expect to receive from a prospective acquirer. A corporation is always perceived as a safe and familiar recipient where a business can accumulate intellectual property and other assets such as patents, trademarks and copyrights to subsequently transfer them to a new owner or heir. And consumers, vendors and partners often prefer doing business with an incorporated company. Incorporated businesses can also offer stock options to employees and contractors, thereby attracting the best technical talent and, in turn, the most influential investors. And, history shows that buyers are willing to pay more for a business that is incorporated, has a well-maintained corporate book, complete with up-to-date annual records and government filings, and that has received guidance from reputable and competent lawyers, accountants and advisers.

What are the different legal vehicles available for incorporation?

Entrepreneurs of for-profit ventures usually consider a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation when selecting a legal entity. For budding companies, a LLC is often the preferred choice because its shareholders, called members, only pay taxes on profit distributions at the member’s personal income tax level, while profits are otherwise taxed at both the corporate and personal level when generated through the activities of a corporation. For the IRS, a LLC is known as a ‘disregarded entity,’ as its profits and losses essentially pass-through to the owners. But if you soon plan to raise venture capital or offer employees stock options, a corporation is the better vehicle. Get advice from your lawyers and accountants, but remember the conversion of a LLC into a corporation is a relatively simple legal process. Conversely, there will be a host of negative tax consequences if you convert a corporation into a LLC.

How can business owners limit their personal liability by incorporating?

If your budget is so tight that you can’t hire a lawyer, it’s tempting to incorporate on the Internet, but the lack of a formal business structure and legal guidance can leave you just as exposed as if you had not incorporated. To limit liability, you must ensure your company is sufficiently capitalized, has complied with securities regulations when issuing shares and soliciting investment, and you haven’t commingled personal and company funds. You must also record the proper documents on the federal, state and local levels and maintain a good record of all accounting transactions, meeting minutes and periodic filings so savvy creditors can’t attack your assets by piercing the corporate veil.

When shouldn’t a business incorporate?

It may not make sense for an independent consultant or a very small business to go through the incorporation process. Their limited exposure may not require the protection and cost of a corporate entity. But for everyone else, there’s no reason to link your personal assets to the company’s fate.

François G. Laugier is a partner and director at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC. Reach him at (650) 780-1691 or francois@rmkb.com.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC

 

 

It’s a good time to refinance a commercial real estate loan or purchase a property.

“The market has become more competitive. The big retraction of lender funds in 2008 and 2009 that resulted from increased reserve requirements and unfavorable market conditions has flipped. More banks, insurance companies and other financing sources are back in the mix and looking to lend as the economy continues to improve,” says Kimberly Rysyk, a senior vice president in the Real Estate Lending Division at Bridge Bank.

Smart Business spoke with Rysyk about the state of the lending market and opportunities that are available.

How is the current commercial real estate lending market?

It’s favorable for borrowers, as lending sources increase and interest rates remain low. Many banks have re-entered the market as their financial positions have increased along with the economy. The increase in sources has created competition, resulting in a decrease in spreads. This has translated into a drop in rates. The bottom line is that there are more lenders looking for the same deals.

What about lending for new projects?

Finding lending sources for new projects remains difficult but improved through the latter half of 2012. Cash equity of 25 to 35 percent is standard and projects with higher risk may approach 50 percent. Certain housing markets warrant new construction as demand for new housing and rents increase. Lenders are interested in those builders and developers who have been able to sustain themselves through the recession and have cash to invest. There is financing out there for speculative construction as well, provided the cash equity is sufficient and the buyer is financially strong.

For owner-occupied businesses it can make sense to find property that’s not necessarily in a top location, but in a place where they can have a brand new building suited to their specific needs that works based on debt coverage, cost of the project and cost of the land.

Is it a good time to invest in such properties?

Historically low interest rates and real estate prices still depressed from the Great Recession have created some opportunity. There has also been a slow but steady improvement in the labor market and a leveling of vacancies and rents, which are positive signs for the economy. This is a good time to invest in commercial properties if you know your market.

In San Francisco, for example, payroll tax incentives for businesses that relocate are making some areas attractive that previously were considered B-rated. This has led to big companies, such as Twitter, Zynga and Salesforce.com, to relocate to areas that were not considered desirable but are now looking up. Other companies or investors can take advantage of the depressed values here, refurbish or rebuild, and greatly affect the end value of the project. There are lenders out there who can recognize the end value and will lend on the resultant cash flow, rather than the current depressed value.

What should you consider when choosing a bank?

Strength and longevity are key. Has the bank been in the commercial real estate business through the downturn? Were they able to navigate changes in the market? An experienced banker will look at your past and future projections, uncover the pros and cons, and help you determine the best solution for your needs, whether it be building new, renovating an existing building or refinancing your current debt.

What concerns do you have for the future?

A significant swing in interest rates is concerning. Properties that were refinanced at extremely low rates may have difficulty finding refinancing sources at maturity. This concern would be heightened if the facility were not amortized or if property values do not rise sufficiently. The European financial crisis, for example, has had an effect on companies that do business on a global scale. This type of uncertainty affects the stock market, which has a strong bearing on the continued strength of the economy. Finally,  federal regulators are considering increasing the reserve requirement for real estate loans. A significant increase could chase many lenders out of the market once again.

Kimberly Rysyk is senior vice president, Real Estate Lending Division, at Bridge Bank. Reach her at (408) 556-8392 or kimberly.rysyk@bridgebank.com.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by Bridge Bank