You’ve trimmed all the visible fat from your operations and improved efficiency as much as you can. Yet your bottom line still isn’t where you want it to be. So now you’re thinking about diversifying into a new market or product to improve your bottom line. Not a bad idea. Done right, diversification can be a lifesaver. Done wrong, however, it can be, at the very least, a letdown and, at the very worst, a quick path to disaster.
“Business owners diversify for many reasons, such as to gain a competitive advantage, minimize risks from concentrating too heavily on a particular market, or as a method to adapt to customers’ needs,” says Steve Williams, managing partner at HMWC CPAs & Business Advisors in Tustin. “Branching out to new lines of business, markets and suppliers may seem like a good idea, but, without a careful strategy, adequate resources and realistic expectations, it could turn out to be a bad one. We help our clients to be successful from the initial stages.”
Smart Business spoke with Williams about the best path to diversification.
What are some typical strategies for diversifying?
Diversification can take on many forms. You can take advantage of new market opportunities through introduction of a product developed through research and development. You may want to expand a product or service line to gain additional customers. Another alternative is to take on an entirely new area of business through a merger or acquisition.
Sometimes it makes sense to buy another company for economies of scale, reduced supply-line costs or other economic reasons. One type of diversification is horizontal integration, which involves expansion into the same industry and/or a similar product area. For instance, a vehicle dealership could buy another dealership.
Another type of diversification is vertical integration, in which a company moves into a different level of the supply chain. Usually each subsidiary, owned by the parent company, combines together to form a more efficient and cost-effective supply chain. For example, a manufacturing company might purchase a distributor or retailer. Some businesses use vertical integration strategies to eliminate the middleman — such as wholesalers and retailers — and keep the profits in-house.
These diversification strategies typically require significant capital expenditures. In most cases, you’ll have to pay (i.e., acquisition costs, time, operational changes and other resources) before you can reap the benefits, which may take time to materialize.
What are some easier, less-costly strategies?
There are several less-expensive methods to enhance your product lines and service offerings and provide the best value for your customers while maximizing your business’s growth over time. Some strategies to consider:
- Ramp up sales. If you don’t have an outside sales team, consider hiring salespeople (or contracting with independent sales reps) to prospect for customers. Your distribution channels, which are in contact with a diverse customer base, can also be instrumental in finding new business.
- Add the extras. You can compete nationally and globally by offering value-added services to your customers. For instance, don’t just sell a product; offer a complete package that includes warranties, preventive maintenance contracts, educational and training offerings, and any other services that will make the product more attractive.
- Know your customer. Get to know your customers’ businesses and the changes they’re making, such as an increase in production capacity or new packaging for a product. Offer to support their new business goals by customizing products, services and other offerings to fit their needs. This will convey your value to them, help develop a new business opportunity and keep your customers satisfied.
- Seek smaller fish. Many companies rely heavily on large-volume customers who make up a significant portion of their sales base. Consider diversifying your customer base to lessen the impact should a major customer decide to depart.
Is a business plan needed?
Adding successful products or services, for example, isn’t as simple as just buying equipment and finding building space. Develop a business plan that encompasses goals, production, human resources, financial and marketing issues. Goals, for example, may include increasing sales, gaining a broader product line, and having greater control over quality and delivery. Make sure that the plan identifies important details, such as capital costs, incurring additional debt, time commitment to manage the new product line, etc. Calculate the potential profitability by projecting an income statement that considers all the additional revenue and expense (both fixed and variable costs) factors. Consider how your projected balance sheet and income statement might affect relationships with banks or investors. These are just some of the issues that should be addressed in your business plan.
What about ‘barriers to entry’?
When you expand into new markets, there are ‘barriers to entry,’ which can include capital investment costs, branding, government regulations, taxes and permits, unions, heavily entrenched competitors and a wide array of other factors. For example, when you look to get into new markets you’ll likely be up against many established relationships, so you’ll need to identify solid reasons for customers to jump ship.
Barriers to entry should be fully analyzed, especially the financial factors, before committing to a diversification plan. Consider your company’s strengths (such as a highly skilled work force or any specialized equipment you can bring to the table) as well as its weaknesses (i.e., poor cash flow at the moment). Be objective, honest and realistic in this assessment.
Steve Williams, CPA, is the managing partner of HMWC CPAs & Business Advisors (www.hmwccpa.com) in Tustin. He also heads the firm’s Healthcare Practice and has served healthcare clients for more than 25 years. He can be reached at (714) 505-9000.