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Analytics in the Middle Market

“The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.”

William Gibson

Overview

The question of analytics, or more specifically how to deploy the tools and capabilities now broadly available for analyzing large data sets, distill actionable insights from that analysis, validate insights and implement the changes necessary to realize the potential that the analysis has uncovered, is a pressing one for the middle market. This question is pressing because the middle market is awash in data. However, the middle market lags far behind other segments of the economy in taking concerted action to seize the opportunity that analytics presents.

In 2021, analytics represents something truly rare: a broadly available but individually distinctive opportunity to improve the operations and enhance the strategic positioning of nearly every company in the middle market.

Multiple Points of Equilibrium

Experienced business transformation professionals know that organizations exist in a world of multiple points of equilibrium. A successful business transformation can be fairly described as the process of migrating an organization from one point of equilibrium to another, with the condition that the new point of equilibrium will possess superior return characteristics. Essentially, a successful business transformation results in an upward shift of the efficient frontier for a company. In 2021, analytics represents something truly rare: a broadly available but individually distinctive opportunity to improve the operations and enhance the strategic positioning of nearly every company in the middle market.

A successful business transformation requires identifying, refining, and applying levers to a business model in order to generate an outsized degree of positive change relative to the resources employed. Every business era has a go-to set of tools and capabilities to which the gaze of leaders inevitably drifts as they search for such a lever. In 2021, analytics is near the top of the list. Consequently, the development of an in-house analytics capability should be a focus for every middle market leadership team focused on value creation.

Implementation is the Goal

A depressingly easy way to stump a data scientist candidate is to ask them to map out a path from identifying a prospective avenue of inquiry through to the realization of measurable business improvement.

Generally, there is a grudging acceptance that time will be spent on data wrangling, or the process of cleaning and reformatting data for ease of analysis. There is a marked level of excitement in the discussion of the tools and techniques that can then be applied to the cleaned and reformatted data. Enthusiasm then dips when discussing the presentation of insights to those outside the data science sphere, although there may be a slight uptick when discussing data visualization.

Any discussion of the fate of analytics insights beyond the presentation stage represents something of a chasm among analytics professionals. On one side are the majority who are uninterested and unenthusiastic (they did their part), and on the other are the small minority who understand that insight without implementation has little value. This latter group works to become not just excellent technicians but able communicators and translators, helping to bridge gaps in understanding and foster the development of implementation paths for insights generated by the analytics team.

Analytics as a Lever

Marshalling the full potential of analytics in driving a successful business transformation requires a clear understanding of not only the potential but also the limits of these tools and capabilities and the organizational bottlenecks that inevitably manifest as middle market companies seek to fully exploit them. This challenge is further compounded in the middle market by resource constraints, a deficit of analytics savvy among management and leadership, and the communication challenges that are sadly persistent between analytics teams and all other members of a company.

The discrete steps that allow companies to best mitigate these challenges can be broken down into two groups: 1) Define the Problem, and 2) Path to Realization.

The challenge is that, while analysis scales, implementation does not. And results, not multivariate regressions, are the goal.

Define the Problem

Many impressive quotes have been attributed to Albert Einstein, but my favorite, perhaps, is this one: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Modern analytics tools and techniques are incredibly powerful, and when deployed against the right data sets, with a clear understanding of the goal, they can and will produce impressive results in terms of insights. However, ensuring that an analytics capability results in not only insights but measurable business improvement requires the discipline to more rigorously define the problem, not only in its technical elements but the business problem as well, and to act only then, having taken the necessary steps to maximize the expected outcome of your efforts.

Data Mastery

The necessary condition for the development of an effective in-house analytics capability is a mastery of an organization’s own data. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” has never been more apt than it is in our analytics age. The simplicity of this point belies just how profound it is. Nimble startups designed with a high level of data savvy and enormous multinational companies able to devote immense sums to digital transformation initiatives may have clear paths to data mastery, but for middle market companies, the path is anything but clear.

Target Selection

The tools now available and in wide use by data analytics staff and consultants create an illusory sense of boundless possibility when choosing targets. The challenge is that, while analysis scales, implementation does not. And results, not multivariate regressions, are the goal. The scalability of analytics tools has a tendency to blind even senior level data science practitioners to the many difficulties of implementation. The application of brute force algorithms to large data sets as a path to insights will inevitably yield results that are underwhelming. Choosing avenues of inquiry with care is essential, especially when seeking quick wins to build internal support for an in-house analytics team. Effective target selection requires that the analytics team not be siloed but be integrated into business operations. This can be as simple as including data analysts in key meetings and involving the analytics team in reviews of business unit performance. In the end, an analytics capability is meant to confer a business advantage for a company, and this will only happen if the analytics team is not walled off from the rest of the business.

 

Define the Question

After defining the data source(s) and target for an analysis, it is vital to define the question. This step is crucial in that it requires a nuanced understanding of the business. By investing the time necessary in defining the question, an analytics effort increases the likelihood that any insights generated will have a clear path to implementation.

Analysis is cheap, and implementation is a bottleneck. It is far easier, and cheaper, to test and refine the algorithms rigorously than it is to prematurely move ahead with the implementation of real-world changes in the business necessary to realize projected efficiencies.

Scrutinize

For middle market companies seeking to build an analytics capability, it can be easy to be lulled into complacency once there is a clear path to the generation of insights. This is a trap. Insights are not the proper endpoint of an effective analytics capability. Rather, insights are a stop along the way. A properly integrated analytics team will not only generate, but rigorously test and screen insights, with only the most promising being passed along for further investigation. Analysis is cheap, and implementation is a bottleneck. It is far easier, and cheaper, to test and refine the algorithms rigorously than it is to prematurely move ahead with the implementation of real-world changes in the business necessary to realize projected efficiencies.

 

Integrate

Insights that have been thoroughly vetted should be presented to leadership for review, with cross-functional implementation teams then formed to validate their real-world potential. Each insight becomes a project, with its own staffing requirements, timeline, and ROI characteristics. Resource constraints will necessitate that only the most promising insights will be acted on initially. This will ensure that only the most only high-return prospects are acted upon. Additionally, through detailed review of a targeted set of insights, company leadership will give itself much needed time to begin to integrate consideration of insights from the analytics team into the existing rhythms of company decision making, or change those rhythms, as appropriate.

 

Implement

Effective implementation will require a high level of communication between the analytics, business unit, and functional leaders in a company. This level of integration will initially feel awkward and forced for all parties, but over time it will become apparent that the returns to the company of the analytics staff having a direct line of communication with key decision makers will foster a higher level of business understanding in the initial stages of analysis, and a higher level of analytics understanding in insight review, yielding a virtuous cycle of improvement in the company’s ability to successfully transmute insights into enhanced business performance.

Conclusion

The middle market is traditionally a segment that is at best a fast follower of technology trends, and at worst a reluctant adopter of them. 2021 represents a crucible year, with broad opportunities and challenges for many middle market companies. There are few broadly applicable, high-return investment opportunities available for middle market companies, but investment in an analytics capability is one of them. Properly executed, such an investment can reset a company’s equilibrium point, permanently raising its level of profitability, with all the attendant value creation that such a shift implies. Like all business transformation opportunities, realizing this potential will not be easy, but the middle market companies that successfully pursue this path will find themselves richly rewarded.

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies.  David is also a recognized thought leader on the topics of business transformation, change management, interim leadership, restructuring, turnaround, and value creation.  He can be contacted at: david@abraxasgp.com.

Maximizing Profit in the Middle Market

Overview

The literal definition of margin in business is that it is an accounting metric that measures financial health. The profit margin is a ratio of profits earned to total sales over a defined period.  An internal operator of a business uses this statistic to determine financial and operational efficiency. She analyzes margin on a gross or a net basis, determining at different operating levels whether her employer is delivering goods or services economically. An outsider analyzes profit and loss statement similarly but also incorporates a broader industry analysis. This perspective can be helpful to management with determining what levers can be pulled to influence margins and what can be attributed to external market forces. When a middle market company falls under increasing scrutiny as a result of of declining or negative profits, leadership should consider bringing on an interim partner to review the business and to implement a business transformation.

Every industry will have specific dynamics impacting profitability, but in the end fixed and variable costs affect profitability whether the company in question is an airline or a metals fabricator. Understanding how each the key drivers of a business impact profitability is a crucial insight that must be present for any successful business transformation effort.

For middle market companies struggling with profitability challenges, the right interim leader, focused on driving a business transformation, is a key partner in this situation. Such a partner can serve as the catalyst a leadership team needs to foster understanding of the internal and external pressures that can lead to margin erosion while simultaneously leading the charge to develop a plan of attack to address them.

Change is Possible

Too often middle market companies view themselves as being subject to the whims of broader market forces, but even the smallest companies can develop and execute strategies to hit back at the persistent drivers of underperformance.

Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder) famously quipped: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” This is certainly the case when seeking to execute a business transformation. Middle market change practitioners understand that versatility and the humility to seek out solutions that work, irrespective of authorship, are exactly the traits necessary to drive home a successful transformation initiative.

Identifying the drivers of weak or declining (or both) profitability requires a rigorous assessment of the present situation as well as the recent past. This process is focused on answering the questions 1) What is the situation now? 2) What is the near-term forecast? 3) What constraints is the company facing (financial, operational, supply chain, employee morale, etc.)? 4) What are the most promising avenues of change for the company? and 5) What is that impact of those change levers if the plan works?

Based on the understanding gained from a rigorous but expedited objective assessment, the focus will turn to implementation.

Value Creation Partnership

A faltering company presents a timing challenge, particularly in the middle market. The analogy of a melting ice cube is used frequently, and for good reason. Preventing value destruction relies not only on skill but also speed and focus. Turnaround specialists can implement a plan that focuses on driving profitability during good times and stopping cash bleed to stave insolvency during bad times. Affixing this financial management plan to a company dashboard can be part of a departing interim executive’s legacy.

Middle Market companies in distress are companies in dire need of partnership. Building the right advisory team, headed by a seasoned interim executive, gives shape and structure to a nascent business transformation.

Conclusion

Most companies will experience profit challenges at some point in their lifecycle. Persistent unprofitability, however, is a symptom of a larger problem, and often requires the expert help of an expert well versed in business transformation. The right partner will not only work in tandem with incumbent leadership to identify the root cause of a company’s profit challenges, but design and implement a comprehensive business transformation which will allow the company to address those persistent drags on performance and thereby enhance the level of profitability the company is capable of generating. For middle market companies struggling with profitability challenges, the right partner serves the role of teacher, mentor, and colleague, all in the service of creating value.

About the Author

Brett Ladendorf is a Managing Director at Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  He can be contacted at: brett@abraxasgp.com.

Failure to Recognize the Obvious

This article originally appeared in Business Insider

I had a chance to see “Page One” this weekend, the documentary on the troubles facing the New York Times.  Many have opined on the issues facing the New York Times, notably Henry Blodget here at Business Insider, but this documentary illustrated for me how well and truly screwed NYT may be.

A turnaround situation requires, more than anything else, honesty about the nature of the problem and at least a sense of what success looks like.  With revenues down over 24 percent from FY 2008 – LTM, the situation at NYT is clearly a turnaround situation.  And yet, over the course of a very well executed if muddled documentary, I was left with the strong impression that too few of NYT’s own people have a sense of how this ends, other than hoping that each round of layoffs will be the last, or patting themselves on the back for the admittedly impressive breadth and depth of their news coverage.

Death is Not the End

It was interesting in watching “Page One” to hear the vitriolic comments of NYT employees regarding a January 2009 Atlantic article written by Michael Hirschorn.  In the article, Hirschorn outlines the serious financial troubles facing NYT and suggests that the world might soon find the company consigned to the dustbin of history.  Hirschorn’s boldest prediction, that NYT could fail in 2009, has clearly been proven false, but on rereading the piece I am struck by just how much of his analysis remains relevant.

Hirschorn makes a number of fantastic points, notably:

  • “journalistic outlets will discover that the Web allows (okay, forces) them to concentrate on developing expertise in a narrower set of issues and interests, while helping journalists from other places and publications find new audiences.”
  • “over the long run, a world in which journalism is no longer weighed down by the need to fold an omnibus news product into a larger lifestyle-tastic package might turn out to be one in which actual reportage could make the case for why it matters, and why it might even be worth paying for. The best journalists will survive, and eventually thrive.”

Facing Up to the Challenge

As a public company valued at not quite 5.4x LTM EBITDA, the markets are telling NYT that something needs to change.  A quick look at the numbers suggests that the low-hanging fruit has already been consumed (see exhibits on key financial ratios, there is just not much left there) and it is time for serious discussion of the types of unpalatable options that make executives nauseous but have a tendency to save struggling companies.

Say Goodbye to the Past: Man, the 70s were great for the major papers.  NYT had the Pentagon Papers, Washington Post had Watergate, and journalism was on the march.  A lot has changed and it is time to get over it.

You Are Not a Public Trust; You are a Corporate Governance Basket Case: I am not a shareholder in NYT, but to hear Bill Keller, the Executive Editor at the time of Page One’s filming, explain that all options had been considered; including running the company as a nonprofit, made my blood run cold.  This is a publicly traded company, and regardless of the dual-class structure every investor who is not a Sulzberger has a reasonable expectation that management is focusing on turning this ship around, not turning it into a megalithic non-profit dedicated to the idea of its own greatness.

Adopt a Bold Strategy and Hunker Down: This is not a call to buy something.  Rather, divest everything that is non-core, put together a clear-eyed view of where this company will be in five years, and then execute.  The people at NYT are an erudite lot: think Fabian strategy, think the Siege of Constantinople in 626, think Stamford Bridge.

Revolution is Not a Tea Party, and Neither is Business

Sam Zell got kicked around briefly in “Page One”, and I think somewhat unfairly, when a clip was shown of him at a meeting with Tribube employees exhorting them to change the company.  Yes, Tribune became a fabulous mess, but Zell was right: in the end a company must be able to afford its cost structure, or else reduce it.  This basic law of business does not include a special dispensation for newspapers with foreign offices and numerous Pulitzer Prize winners.

About the Author

David Johnson (@TurnaroundDavid) is Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies.  David is also a recognized thought leader on the topics of business transformation, change management, interim leadership, restructuring, turnaround, and value creation.  He can be contacted at: david@abraxasgp.com.