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Business Advisors Help Companies Plan For The Future And Stay On Track For Success
By Susan E. Campbell
Glens Falls Business Journal - January 2009


John Crawford, president of JP Crawford Associates, is experienced in identifying strategies that will help a business owner stay focused on his or her core business.

Starting a company without a business plan is like an aviator taking off without a flight plan. You're flying by the seat of your pants.

Committing to paper the type of new business, its unique premise, markets and competition, a realistic budget, and at least a basic sales and marketing plan help the business owner keep focused on the task of getting a company off the ground and moving forward.

It shows the owner exactly where the business is headed and the mile markers it should pass along the way.

Business plans are not just for start-ups. They keep even veteran business owners on target when entering new markets or revising a strategy.

Often new owners only put together enough of a business plan to obtain financing and then forget about it.

"They get their money and never look at the business plan again, so it never gets re-calibrated," said Michael Cruz, president of Lighthouse Advisors.

Professional business advisors like Michael Cruz and John Crawford arc the co-pilots who help owners launch their dreams, take their businesses to the next level when conditions are right, and help them stay focused during times of economic turbulence.

As experts in the planning process, they can help create momentum so that it is easier to get the results the business owner desires.

John Crawford, president of JP Crawford Associates, makes sure the tools for growth are in place by using an intensive questioning process.

"Part-way through the process I usually hear the comment, 'I thought I knew my business and where I was going,'" said Crawford. "This process is a real eye-opener."

Crawford said the most important part of a business plan is the mission, or the purpose for being a company. He said that if it takes the owner five minutes to explain what the business is, "something's wrong."

"Many companies lose sight of their core business and get too diverse," he said. "Like peeling an onion, I keep asking questions until I can get down to the core."

Crawford cited one client, a contractor, who started to do siding and later branched into roofing and gutters. Soon he lost sight of what kind of a company he had.

"He had to get back to what he was best known for among customers to take his business to the next level," said Crawford.

Cruz said, "You have to think critically about what your strengths are, not based on what you think but on what the customers think."

Then, whatever decisions made along the way have to take the company toward its vision in some way, said Crawford, and the professional advisor is there to offer practical help during decision-making.

"Ask, what will this decision do for us?" he said. "Save money? Make us more productive?"

Cruz observed that the company mission has to have measurements attached to it to guide progress against stated goals, and absolutely must be written down.

"Writing down your business plan is a conscious act that forces visualization and commits the plan to memory," said Cruz. "There are no measurements in your head and it's also easy to erase."

Crawford has clients reduce the business plan to two pages and tack them up over the computer. And Cruz suggests documenting five things to accomplish before year-end and what issues the company might have to worry about.

If the business plan includes contingencies for a 10 percent or 20 percent drop in sales, for example, when hard times come the owner will be prepared to take the next step.

"When these contingencies are in writing. it helps keep the focus on what can be done now to prevent the worst from happening." said Crawford.

Some companies go through market shifts in which people simply aren't buying, or are buying less. A case in point is dry cleaners.

"People are dressing less formally at work and washing their chinos instead of dry cleaning their suits," said Cruz. "The industry had to do something different, like clean pillows, comforters and furnishings."

Printing is another such industry. With every business having its own computer and desktop printers, print shops are helping their clients do targeted and personalized direct marketing.

"You have to learn how to navigate," said Cruz.

Good and practical planning is critical during periods of economic downturn, and professional advisors can help guide business owners with difficult decisions.

"If you want to maintain the status quo in 2009, you may have to introduce new products or services, reduce people or add value somehow," said Crawford.

But do not cut advertising, said the experts.

It's the first thing to go with some businesses because the coats "stick out like a sore thumb," Crawford said.

"With a weak economy you still need to get the word out because people are still buying things," said Crawford. "One idea is to do joint advertising with a complementary company."

Cruz also recommends being resourceful about cutting down unit cost.

"You can always cut a deal with the sales guy," Cruz said, citing a liquor store that bought wine in bulk and brought selling prices down by half.

"The store ate market share from everyone else," he said.

Cruz said that in the Chinese language. the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity are exactly the same.

"Critical thinkers do well in market downturns," said Cruz. "It's not a matter of people buying, but of reaching them."

There are many ways to cut costs, from turning down the thermostat to laying off employees.

Crawford said the main thing business owners need to avoid during hard times is "doing nothing."

"If you have to cut back people, ask who and how. Or can you cut back hours so more people can keep their jobs," he said.

Answers depend largely on the skill sets the company needs.

"If you can't lay that skill off, the owner needs to have already thought through how to make it work," said Crawford. "Better to handle the hard decisions now rather than at the eleventh hour."

Cruz said employees often do not have a god sense of what success means to the business, "so they can't help you get there."

"Employees need to get involved in the business so they can keep their jobs," Crawford said.

Writing a business plan is an effort for some. There are software programs and online help, but Cruz cautions against those.

"They are focused on raising money rather than running a business," he said. "You can't buy the data that is in the business owner's head."

Business advisors can facilitate, of course, although they try to get the owner. Their greatest value of a professional advisor is in asking the tough questions that will ultimately shape the plan and modify it when necessary down the road.

Crawford and Cruz agree that if a company does not know where it is going with proper planning and realistic expectations it will never get there.

How well do you know your business? Do you have a plan for those times when things go beyond your control?

Would you like more sales, more cash or more time for yourself?

A professional business advisor is an invaluable resource for defining and achieving goals of all kinds.

For practical help with business planning, conflict resolution, interviewing and hiring, firing and severance, writing an employee handbook, and many other services, call John Crawford at 221-1487.

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