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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Planning for Profit

If truth be told, most of us plan our vacations more

precisely than we plan our business. We figure out where we’ll be

at each time segment; know exactly how much each day will cost; and

organize various side trips to expand fun, conditions permitting.

We go, have a grand time, and then return to business as usual, taking

one day just as the next, and wonder why the economic downturn seems

to be carrying over into the new year.

Sponsored by the Mercer Chapter of the New Jersey Association of Women

Business Owners, (NJAWBO), "Small Business Planning for the New

Year" takes place on Thursday, January 9, at 6 p.m. at the Harrison

Conference Center on the Merrill Lynch campus on Scudders Mill Road.

Cost: $35, including dinner. Call 609-924-7975. Speakers Margarite

Mount and Sherise Ritter of the Mount Ritter Group work through

a step-at-a-time program for businesses to define goals and plan strategies.

Raised in Hamilton, Ritter earned an accounting degree and a CPA and

joined the Hamilton-based accounting firm of Lee & Sexton. Mount joined

the firm soon after. "Back in the early-1980s, we had several

clients who didn’t even want to listen to us because we were women,"

recalls Ritter. "We got awfully tired of riding that train to

New York to service other peoples’ clients." Gradually, during

this commute, the women decided that working for themselves was a

better option. Within a little more than eight years, they bought

out the firm’s owners and founded the Mount Ritter Group. Today they

and their 12 employees act as advisory accountants for an ever-growing

clientele, guiding them on issues ranging from acquisitions to humanizing

the workplace.

"Oddly, most businesses are afraid to plan," says Mount. Planning

invariably involves change, and change invariably is difficult." However,

both Mount and Ritter feel that without a defined line of attack,

a company is setting itself adrift and almost assuring its own demise.

Planning, as they teach it, is an ongoing process that blends through

all levels of the workplace and through the daily business process.

Gather your strengths. Any good plan starts from the ground

up and involves a total re-thinking of your entire company. To decide

that the company produced 10,000 units last quarter and this quarter

will raise that to 12,000 is not a plan. It’s a quota. The Mount Ritter

team insists that planning comes from bringing all your company’s

marketable skills to the table and molding them into a profitable

enterprise. "You literally need to itemize what skills and assets

lie within your firm," says Ritter, "then decide what you

can do with them. There will doubtless be some surprises, but the

plan becomes a natural outgrowth of these assets."

Blueprint your implementation. Once goals are established,

the managers must hash out, then prioritize, the steps toward implementation.

Ideally, figuring this pathway should involve input from every level

and even every individual. It is a sifting process where the entire

team must feel they are on a sensible track and be aware why each

step has been so ordered.

Employing plans piecemeal invariably fragments potential success into

bewilderment and frustration. Many firms conduct grand marketing surveys,

identifying a specifically defined solution to a consumer need, which

is sent off to production before executives realize they can’t capitalize

on it. Or perhaps the sales force cannot sell what the ads are promising.

Such glitches can be avoided through a combined team effort while

the plan is still on paper.

Decision factors. With this path to profit neatly documented,

one must come down to reality and face the obstacles and ramifications.

Most companies, for example, figure where the competition lies before

going into another line, but often some of the subtler factors go

unnoticed. How will this new move shift the company’s tax status?

Will it affect the pension system? If this expansion requires an acquisition,

no matter how small, what is the business culture of the acquired

company?

Flexibility. A business plan should always be written

on paper, but it should never be written in stone. Interestingly,

some of the least flexible plans exist in the mind of the company’s

owner, who has never shared his vision with anyone. "Simply put,"

says Mount, "a plan should never be a rule. It is a pathway to

success that can be overridden as conditions change."

"We had one client," adds Ritter, "who had it fixed in

her mind that she was going to retail home decor items right here,

in this location. When encouraged to be more flexible, she ended up

refocusing on her clients needs with a line of personal accessories."

This slight shift proved most profitable. How much flex should you

add to your business recipe? The Mount Ritter team agrees that the

further in the future you move — from a one to a five to a 20-year

plan, for example — the more flexible you must become.

On the downside. Alas, not every business plan can be

generated from wish lists alone. There comes a time to pull in our

horns and downsize a bit. Here again, a planned, orderly retreat prevents

a disorganized disaster. When sales droop, letting inventory run low

may prove a short term solution. "Personnel belt tightening,"

Ritter notes, "can frequently be achieved with a little creativity.

Instead of outright firing, workers can shift down to a 35-hour week,

or overtime can be eliminated."

Probably no business tool is more obvious, yet more generally ignored,

than pragmatic planning. When it arises from a democratic groundswell,

it becomes the greatest morale and productivity booster a company

can adopt.

— Bart Jackson


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