Tag Archives: cash flow

Better Way to Think About Leadership

In “Colin’s Kaizen Corner”–a 26-part learning series, I explain the principles of kaizen, lean manufacturing and respect for people — each a cornerstone for transforming a culture, improving productivity and implementing a continuous improvement program.

In addition, each week I’ll digest a principle of kaizen to achieve these outcomes, explain what we’re doing today, what happens when we get it wrong, what happens when we do it better and why it matters today more than ever, to stay on a continuous journey of improvement.

The value of a new corporate improvement or strategic acquisition is easily estimated for most investors. Calculating future anticipated cash flows, measured over a specific period in today’s dollars, yields the improvement’s net present value.

But leadership isn’t so easily measured, nor is the future value that an effective or ineffective leader begets.

Sure, tools like return on investment (ROI) and earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) help us measure whether executives are investing money wisely to maximize dollars that may sustain the future of the company. But the tools are based solely on what we know, not what we don’t. Of course, there’s no way to value something you don’t know exists; that is, until someone discovers it does.

Valuing human productivity and the intrinsic satisfaction employees receive from being able to do their jobs well doesn’t show up anywhere on even the most complex of income statements. Neither does the value created or destroyed from a lifetime of leaders who either nurtured man’s most important attributes, or ruined them altogether.

The problem is that ROI, EBIT and similar tools do nothing to help place a value on, and encourage, man’s discovery of the unknown. To identify and fix that which isn’t broken. To look outside the box.

It is this intrinsic curiosity-our yearning for learning-that makes us unique within the mammalian class. We aren’t just members of a “clade of endothermic amniotes distinguished from reptiles and birds by the possession of hair, three middle ear bones, mammary glands and a neocortex” (as Wikipedia defines mammals). Nor do we just survive on instinct as other mammals do.

We’re provided with daily opportunities to detect and correct errors in our thinking. Our intrinsic yearning for learning constantly encourages us to explore that which we think we understand.

Man has the choice to continuously improve upon his own knowledge base, or demand that others accept pre-determined answers-a radical difference in leadership style between those who lead by kaizen and those who lead by control.

Like scientific discovery, effective leadership creates for the curious a culturally acceptable and true belief in the ignorance of experts.

But man’s creativity and curiosity still don’t show up as direct value or loss through the eyes of a customer. And they’re certainly not measurable; that is, without the proper tools.

And that’s why ROI and EBIT — the preferred tools for modern investing and modern valuation — are precisely the wrong tools for measuring human productivity, the value of an acquisition and the value of a business itself.

For if human capacity is assumed to be x, and man’s true capacity is actually y, without regular corporate and personal discovery neither man nor machine gets its best chance at material improvement.

Using ROI and EBIT, we’ve created a culture of mind-numbed business robots. Really smart children, teenagers and adults, being robbed of their intrinsic motivation because of diminishing human valuations. It’s as if they were rusting old farm equipment, with just a few years of straight line depreciation left on an otherwise highly appreciable asset.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People have exponential value.

Years of poor parenting, leadership, primary education systems and business school professors have finally brought our chickens home to roost. In fact, as Dr. W. Edwards Deming said nearly 50 years ago, if the U.S. wanted to destroy a country, then all it had to do was export its business management and leadership practices.

Today, we know the enemy even better, and it is still us.

An enemy where large lots of wasteful activities exist, yet few executives are visible to help employees improve; an enemy where waste prevents employees from doing their jobs with purpose, joy, accuracy and speed.

Sadly, more executives today than ever before are searching for value within a spreadsheet or income statement. We fail one another when we refuse to look for loss at the precise location where value is created and where crimes of waste are most frequently reported.

To create a better opportunity for human development and true personal productivity, let’s turn to respect. Because respect leads productivity by a long shot as the single most important aspect of man’s institutional existence.

Let’s provide an institutional daily dose of improvement that is eloquently simple: Continuously help me change, and always help me make it for the better. Because good change nurtures and replenishes my mind, heart, body and soul‘s constant need for continuous improvement.

By appreciating systems thinking and human psychology-only two parts of a four-part system, but integral components nonetheless-we can easily find opportunities for mankind to improve.

An entirely new system, which identifies what value means to customers rather than stakeholders, can easily bring about a different culture. A culture that even our most seasoned leaders currently don’t believe in, currently can’t measure and clearly don’t currently understand. A culture that should be helping everyone improve that which we cannot see or measure.

Zenefits’ Problems Are Real but Not Fatal

Zenefits has hit a rough patch. Given the insults the company’s CEO, Parker Conrad, has heaped on brokers, the schadenfreude percolating through the broker community is understandable. Yet declarations of Zenefits’ demise are premature.

Zenefits raised $500 million in May at a valuation of $4.5 billion. At the time, Conrad claimed the company was “on track to hit annual recurring revenue of $100 million by January 2016.” That was then.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Zenefits is falling short of its earlier revenue projection. According to the Journal and Business Insider, through August Zenefits’ revenue came in closer to $45 million, and the $100 million annual revenue figure is likely out of reach. In response, Zenefits is reportedly instituting a hiring freeze and imposing pay cuts. The latter step is cited as a reason at least eight executives left Zenefits.

In light of the news, in August or September Fidelity Investments reduced the value of its Zenefits investment by 48%, estimating the company was now worth about $2.34 billion. That’s a seismic event: In May, Fidelity thought Zenefits was worth $4.5 billion. Just five months, later Fidelity thinks this was being a tad optimistic… if by “a tad” we mean “$2.16 billion.”

In an interview with Business Insider, Conrad admits Zenefits is unlikely to keep his promise of $100 million of recurring revenue this year. However, he claims Zenefits continues to hire (although not as fast as in the past) and is happy with its revenue growth — “more than $80 million of revenue under contract” (which, it should be noted, is not the same as saying “we’ve taken in $80 million so far this year,” but maybe that’s what he meant). Conrad also asserts that Zenefits is getting “closer and closer” to being cash flow-positive, although he doesn’t expect it to get there until 2017 at the earliest.

Missing his $100 million commitment and having to address the subsequent fallout is no doubt adding to Conrad’s stress levels. Because Conrad went out of his way to insult community-based benefit brokers on Zenefits’ way up, the joy that brokers are taking in his discomfort now is to be expected — and is arguably earned.

Should brokers assume Zenefits is no longer a threat, however? No. It is still bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. According to what I’ve heard, only about 60% of this revenue comes from commissions. An ever-increasing portion of Zenefits’ revenue flows from fees earned by selling third-party services or its own non-commission services. Zenefits launched its own payroll service, so its non-commission revenue will continue to climb. Zenefits may not be valued at $4.5 billion any more, but it is still valued at more than $2 billion. And while no CEO is happy when a serious investor marks down his company by nearly 50%, Conrad says Zenefits won’t be out raising money anytime soon. As a practical matter, the impact of the devaluation on Zenefits is minimal.

In short, Zenefits is sticking around.

But I predict Zenefits is in for a rough time. Direct competitors like Namely and Gusto are raising money and stepping up. Community-based brokers are increasingly leveraging technology. (Full disclosure: Im co-founder of the company launching NextAgency, software that will help brokers level the playing field against Zenefits, so I’m delighted to point out this trend.)

While new initiatives like the payroll offering will create revenue streams for Zenefits, they also carry significant risk. Current partners will view Zenefits as a potential competitor. Management will be distracted from the company’s core business. New skills and expertise need to be acquired. There’s something to be said for focus, and Zenefits may be losing its.

Schadenfreude is German for deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others. That Zenefits’ current problems generate this impulse in the brokers they’ve insulted should surprise no one. That Zenefits will face challenges, problems and setbacks moving forward is inevitable. That community-based brokers should continue to take the threat Zenefits represents seriously is wise.

What Is The Difference Between Intrinsic Value And Market Value Of Insurance Agencies?

I have been valuing insurance agencies for a long time. I have been valuing them using both the Intrinsic Value and Market Value methods most of the time. For anyone interested in reading a brilliant description of these two methods, I suggest reading the article, “Musings on Markets” (September 7, 2011), by Professor Aswath Damodaran of the NYU Stern School of Business.

Intrinsic value is usually determined using one of several versions of the discounted cash flows method (the exact definition of cash flow varies, but all are intrinsic). This method states a firm's value is determined by the firm's future expected cash flow, discounted for time and risk.

In theory, market value also emphasizes cash flow. However, my experience is that most practitioners, especially when applied by agency owners but also some consultants, so inadequately account for cash flow and the risk that something will go wrong so that for all practical purposes, cash flows are disregarded. This makes market value agency appraisals purely speculative. Sometimes the result is an under valuation. More often the result is a value exceeding reasonability. Sometimes market value and intrinsic value are materially the same. After all, a broken clock is correct twice a day and 730 times a year. Most people would say being right 730 times a year is an awesome record.

A good example is the real estate boom and bust. The intrinsic value of the real estate never supported the market value. Many analysts and promoters became quite innovative in their development of “intrinsic” metrics that supported the market values, but the basic cash flow never supported the market value. The real estate investment only made sense if one could flip the investment at an adequately higher price before the market crashed.

The same force occurred in the market for insurance agencies. Very few agencies have an intrinsic value exceeding two times today or five years ago or ten years ago. If a business appraiser or a business broker sees someone who wants to believe an agency is worth more, the list of rationalizations, justifications, fictitious economies of scale, insightful product diversification strategies, and capital plays (interesting since capital is arguably free in some forms today) are infinite. If someone shoots holes in all these arguments, then ultimately the business broker will play their ultimate card: “We're so much smarter that we can make this work.”

The fact is the intrinsic value did not justify the price paid by many agency buyers five years ago. The strategies that caused the buyers to believe the values were justified were mirages of wishful thinking. The market was overheated and for whatever reasons, if buyers wanted to be in it, they had to pay a high price. There is and was nothing else to it.

The fascinating difference between intrinsic and market value for insurance agencies is that the intrinsic value should remain in a rather narrow band because:

1. Profitability in a well-managed agency is stable. By well-managed, I am excluding firms that are 100% or more dependent upon contingencies for their profits. In these agencies, profitability will vary wildly depending on their contingencies. Otherwise, expenses do not vary much year-to-year in well-managed agencies and therefore, profitability is stable.

2. Sustainable growth is humble. When you read about an agency growing 10% to 25% annually, ask, “How many annuals?” In other words, how long have they truly achieved such significant growth? Also, what risks are they taking? The Property & Casualty industry grows at approximately the same rate as the U.S. economy because the Property & Casualty industry insures America's economy. That rate is approximately 3% annually.

The Property & Casualty industry is not a growth industry and it has not been one for decades. To pretend otherwise is like an older model choosing the right makeup, the right lighting, and the optimum angle to look ten years younger. In fact, the evidence is strong that firms who grow multiple times faster than average have a higher than normal probability of cheating. Often the cheating is not malevolent, but it is still cheating.

3. Risk is comparatively moderate. The insurance agency business is one of the least risky businesses. It may feel risky, but compared to most other businesses, it is quite safe.

These three factors combine to create periodic value fluctuations, but within a rather narrow band on an intrinsic basis. This is why owning an agency is a great business in tough times while maybe less appealing in great times. So why is the fluctuation so much more on a market value basis? Speculators. The speculators may be banks, brokers, private equity, other agencies, but they are speculating. This creates some issues because speculators use market value plus twenty percent or so for their values. They have a tendency to build price without adequate regard for supporting cash flow or risk. This is why a boom takes years to build and the resulting bust can take just a few weeks.

The fact that speculators pay too little attention to cash flow and risk has two significant consequences. The first is that speculators value good agencies and bad agencies too similarly. The result is they pay too much for bad agencies and sometimes fail to purchase the best agencies because they're not willing to pay an adequate premium for quality. Now, some really smart speculators have learned that certain kinds of supposedly bad agencies do not actually have post acquisition bad results. One should not confuse these two situations.

The second consequence is when inadequate attention is paid to cash flow and risk upon acquisition, speculators eventually cannot or do not pay enough attention to building the people and systems necessary for organic growth. This is readily apparent in some brokers' results today.

Whether you should or should not emphasize market value over intrinsic value depends on your position and the market cycle. As a seller in good times, the market value will usually be your best deal because this industry has blessed sellers with an infinite supply of irrational buyers. Their numbers grow and constrict with the seasons, but rarely are they in short supply for long. The only exception to this is the really good agency. A market value may rarely adequately capture the true value of these agencies' cash flows and risk. Internal perpetuation is almost always the best course for maximizing their value.

If you are a buyer, a brutally honest intrinsic valuation is the best way to manage your risk. Market value should be entirely secondary. Always remember that no acquisition is better than a bad acquisition and since roughly every study ever done shows that 75% of acquisitions are failures when truly tested, this rule is worth cementing in your brain. The exception is that if the buyer has such a bad situation that a bad acquisition can hide their current dilemma, then maybe make the bad acquisition.