Can it be fixed? What will it cost? Is it worth it?
by Giles Campbell, CEO of Red Pike Capital
I’m frequently asked by shareholders of failing companies to review them for their turnaround potential, seeking the answer to a few key questions: Can it be fixed? What will it cost? Is it worth it?
Assessing the company
The primary objective is to develop a hands-on understanding of every component part of the business as rapidly as possible. To identify the major liabilities and risks as well as the key assets from a business standpoint, rather than a cash-value standpoint. This knowledge will be used in the creative planning process as well as the final evaluation of risk vs reward.
Assessing the Industry
I cannot count the number of small-scale printing companies that I’ve been offered to buy. It’s a declining industry and unless you’ve got the cash to develop another moo.com, then you’re unlikely to make any real money. Assessing the industry of the business and the adjacent industries is going to uncover potential areas of opportunity for future profit as well as give an overall picture of the likely direction of the company.
Assessing the management team
Your assessment of the management team’s attitude, aptitude and skills is a critically important factor in the turnaround analysis and will influence the entire future of the business. Having the wrong people in the team (ceo included) is the core cause of companies failing.
The creative planning process involves assessing the “box of bits” that the company consists of in order to figure out what can be done with it to make money in the short and longer term. These two timeframes may generate different agendas, as short-term cash generative activities may not be sustainable or aligned well with the longer-term desired strong strategic market position, but both may be necessary in order to minimise the cash cost of turning around the business. For example, a manufacturing business that I turned around had a great core product range that was in need of revitalisation. This process of revitalisation was going to take several years of development work. In the short term there was a market opportunity in a fast-growing adjacent sector. The opportunity was likely to be short-lived as competition would heat up quickly but the rapid development of some carefully tailored products was perfectly practical and within 9 months 50% of the revenue of the company was coming from these products. Without them the company would not have survived, however, they were unlikely to be the long-term star product range either, due to their relatively simple, easy to copy design.
Turnaround financial estimates are difficult at best. Whilst some non-contributing costs may be cut, the transformation of the business is going to cost money and it is not something to scrimp on. If the transformation goes well then you may add hundreds of millions of pounds of value to the equity of the business. New product lines and new markets are difficult to predict precisely. This is an area where more detailed analysis is unlikely to deliver a better analysis. Big picture assessment is as accurate as you can get. Leave some room for the contingent liabilities that you’ve not identified. I’ve not run a turnaround yet where I identified where all the skeletons were buried in my pre-turnaround assessment of the company.
Turnaround Evaluation – the final assessment
In the final assessment, the question has to be: Is it worth it? Is it worth the cost, effort and risk of attempting a turnaround? What will the business potentially be worth to the shareholder that are considering funding the turnaround? What will it cost to get there? How long will it take and what are the risks? These are not going to be precise figures. At best they will be a rough estimate, as one thing is certain in turnarounds – they are messy and unpredictable. Ask the potential CEO what his gut feel is about the business. If he knows what he is doing then he can tell you, gut feel, if he can achieve the turnaround.
(c) copyright Giles Campbell 2015
Giles Campbell is a turnaround CEO who has led the successful turnaround of a wide range of companies, from retail fashion to electronics manufacturing, from £2m turnover to £100m. Awarded European Turnaround of the Year 2013 for recovering a central London Ad Agency, he is a speaker on turnaround leadership and advocate of hands-on company recovery.
Bankruptcy: My story
2nd March 2015
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I have been through bankruptcy myself a few years ago. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not something I’m proud of or boast about. It happened and my life has never been the same since.
It’s not my intention for this to turn into an autobiographical piece or to put myself forward as a potential guest on a well-known daytime TV show – I just feel that a little bit of background will add perspective.
My first “proper” job was working for a major high street bank. I spent 9 years gaining a wide array of experience and skills. It was toward the end of my time there that I got my first experience of sales and I loved it. Instead of being buried under a mountain of paperwork and reports, I was TALKING to people. I was helping to identify real needs and deliver a solution, and this interaction gave me huge job satisfaction that I had never felt before. I realised that it was time to move on as I wanted more of this.
Move forward a few years and things were going well. I was hitting all my targets at work and I had met someone and it looked like it was going to be serious. We decided to buy a house together (after only having been together a few short months) and if I’m honest, that’s probably the turning point. I found myself changing jobs for all the wrong reasons – fixing up a house is an expensive business and the criteria became all about the money, not the job satisfaction. A couple of years later, I found myself in a lovely 3 bed semi in Surrey and in a job I hated. The stress and pressure during this period had a dramatic effect on the relationship as well and we completely drifted apart.
As the relationship deteriorated further, communication with my fiancée all but ceased (apart from the occasional heated argument) and I moved into the spare room. At that point, I thought I’d hit rock bottom, but I still had a way to go.
I had a well-paying job by that time and I felt that if I could make that work, then perhaps everything else may come into focus and get better. The stark reality was that I was in a very bad place emotionally and mentally and my work was really suffering. After about a year in the spare room, I decided I had to leave in order to preserve my sanity. Unfortunately, this was too late to save my career and shortly thereafter, I was “invited to resign”.
I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling. When you build a life with someone, it’s like you have an entire future planned in your mind – when I thought of the future at that time, all I could see then was darkness as if my entire future had been robbed from me.
Looking at the mountain of personal debt I had accumulated in trying to sort out the old house, I realised I needed a job and quickly. Despite my best efforts, nobody seemed interested in employing the wreck of a man I had become by that time. With my banking experience (and with a second opinion just to be sure), I only had one option – to declare myself bankrupt.
With the realisation of the gravity of my situation slowly penetrating the fog of my consciousness, I think I went through just about every emotional response you can imagine. I was angry at myself for having “failed”, I felt a tremendous sorrow at the perceived loss of my future, and shame that I had no alternative but to go through bankruptcy – I couldn’t “fix” this one. As it sunk in, something unexpected happened – I felt hope.
I began to realise that I had not deliberately put myself in this situation, so why should I spend the rest of my life punishing myself? Don’t get me wrong, bankruptcy is a very serious process and not to be entered into lightly. I realised that a lot of the successful people I had admired for so long have all either been though bankruptcy or close to it, so I wasn’t alone. Sure, there was going to be a tough road ahead, but for the first time in a very long time, that road could lead to a positive outcome. It was time to dig deep and get it done.
I have to say the day in court was one of the most terrifying of my life. I had a mental image of being sat in a dock with two burly bailiffs gripping my shoulders tightly as the judge boomed “GUILTY …. TAKE HIM DOWN!”. The truth of the matter was entirely unexpected. The bankruptcy clerk did her job efficiently and quietly, and when I eventually found myself in front of the judge, I answered a couple of questions and the judge then stated she was happy to make the Order … and then as I was leaving, she smiled and wished me luck. By this time, I was shaking so much that I could barely put two words together – I gave her a weak smile and said “thank you” and left in a bewildered daze.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the rest of that day (I must say I didn’t end up in the pub though!). The next day, I sat at my kitchen table and picked up the phone to all my creditors to inform them of my bankruptcy. All were completely business-like and most even wished me the best of luck. All of a sudden, there was silence – my phone had been ringing a dozen or so times every day and now, nothing. I thought I’d gone deaf!
Something else happened that day. The only way I can describe it is to say it felt like an elephant getting off my chest that I didn’t know had been there. The stress I had been under for so long was finally over (I can’t help but think how close I may have been to a stress-induced heart attack, but I’ve learnt not to dwell on such things).
The next few months during my bankruptcy were a strange time as I felt in limbo (nobody was chasing me for money, but I felt I couldn’t get on with my life), but the final relief came 8 months later when I was officially discharged. I was finally free. When I looked at the future now, instead of darkness, all I could see was endless possibilities.
Today, I feel incredibly privileged to help others in financial difficulty. The despair when I arrive for the initial consultation slowly morphing into hope and expectation as solutions are discussed is something I treasure and a responsibility I feel honoured to shoulder. For me, there is no job satisfaction in the world like it.
If I have one piece of advice to anyone reading this who is experiencing debt problems is don’t procrastinate – the sooner you take action, the sooner you can get on with the rest of your life!