Greg Stoller

Four Asian business trends happening in real time

CHANGING MARKET: Company briefing in business incubator and accelerator in the heart of Hong Kong (Photo by Gregory Stoller).

By GREGORY STOLLER
@GregoryStoller

Multiple times a year for nearly the past two decades, I’ve been fortunate to bring MBAs or undergrad business students to Asia to either meet with different companies about their business practices, or consult with them on strategic planning projects. In my latest trip, we visited more than 10 companies in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in industries ranging from financial services, food and beverage, manufacturing to health care.

Different trends emerge every year and 2017 didn’t disappoint: Many of the firms are ditching long-term strategic planning in favor of speed and agility, in order to obtain short-term profits and keep competitors at bay. This is a departure from prior years where many companies sacrificed market share and earnings, provided they were positioning themselves for long-term strategic planning success.

Asian business used to have a unique, homegrown approach, often shrouded behind formidable cultural cloaks. Deals had long lead times to closure and required elaborate support mechanisms, such as formal company dinners, golf outings and drinking parties. Although many of these legacy cultural norms are still in play, I was struck by how many firms had instead become transaction focused: needing to close the deal and collect the money, rather than paying homage to supporting the long-term relationship.

We formed these conclusions after our 20-person delegation got to know each company extremely well. Before departing from Boston University, and to prepare for each visit, the students worked in teams. They pulled five or more articles on each of the companies and their competitors, presented in-class strategic overviews and then wrote one-page summaries that we then we brought along to Asia. At the end of each day, we collectively debriefed on the various visits, and then after coming back to the United States, each student completed a 10-page research paper analyzing a single company’s strategy. Here are some lessons we learned:

  • People needing money are price agnostic: One of the hottest startups on our docket was a peer-to-peer lending company in China. They operate a de-facto online marketplace matching lenders and borrowers, and get paid through commissions and fees. People who need immediate money to pay for cars, business expansion or seasonal loans are willing to pay interest rates in the mid 20s. By comparison, a state-owned enterprise could obtain financing in the single digits, but with reams of required paperwork. The lending firm concedes its offerings are nearly identical to competitors, so the only differentiators are honesty and volume. Their brand needs to be trustworthy and regulatory compliant, to avoid incurring the wrath of government minders. Its loans are measured in months, rather than years, thus their avoidance to focus on long-term planning. During Q&A, our host was actually unable to articulate where he predicted the firm would be 12-18 months from now, except to say likely in rapid growth mode. Well outside of the corporate boardroom, and to the customers needing money, the funds were only a few clicks away.
  • Ask for the deal terms you need: No longer are firms pursuing a one size fits all strategy, in order to maintain parity with other clients. A startup credit hedge fund in Hong Kong has doubled its assets under management in less than 12 months, and since inception three years prior, has returned a CAGR in excess of 10 percent. Its business model is through either secondary lending or bond placements, with deal flow sourced throughout the Pacific Rim. None of the 50-plus lending deals they’ve completed has been standard. The only commonality has been thorough due diligence and expedited closings. On the investor side, they utilize the same nimbleness, operating an open-ended fund with contractual, on-demand funding from their limited partners. They’re willing to sacrifice consistency provided profitable deals get completed and meet their hurdle rates.
  • Executives are now evaluated through what they actually get done: A global U.S. food company with operations in Shanghai is willing to profitably operate in a handful of Chinese cities, rather than checking off the box that it has a comprehensive presence throughout China’s entire eastern seaboard. For them, short-term accomplishments often beat execution against a longer-term vision and they now tether this approach with executive compensation. Though they acknowledge this might give international competitors and/or local Chinese companies a toehold in the locations they’ve passed on, at least they can better understand the cause-and-effect of their own expansion efforts. In another departure from letting the strategic tail wag the dog regarding the development of a customized, long-term “China strategy,” this firm has imported existing data analytics from similar product rollouts in Europe and Latin America to benchmark its success locally. No longer do they consider China a work in process requiring a different set of metrics; it’s treated like anywhere else.
  • Watch today’s cents in order to manage tomorrow’s dollars: A multinational manufacturer in Shanghai now reviews cell-based production techniques on a weekly basis, as carefully as an asset manager might study her prior day’s stock trades. They meet as a team in a bunker adjacent to the shop floor, not only to discuss the prior week’s runs but also to make immediate changes for the following week. Except the personnel around the table aren’t just highly paid supervisory executives; they’re the hourly laborers themselves. The company translates into Chinese renowned publications on techniques such as 6-Sigma, and offers courses on manufacturing theory free of charge to each team. They return some of the achieved cost savings almost immediately to the groups that developed them. The implemented techniques are kept in a database so they can be tweaked on a weekly basis, and benchmarked against other production cells companywide. This is in stark contrast with U.S. firms, which review their manufacturing quarterly or annually, when headquarters staff visits Asia.

Classic strategic planning is, of course, still important for long-term business success. Not everything can or should be solely viewed through a compressed time-frame lens. However, the world has become a smaller place. My students were shocked how quickly “new” concepts they had studied in BU’s Questrom School of Business as early as last semester were already being fully implemented at our visit sites in Hong Kong and Shanghai. It’s so easy to forget that with only a few keystrokes online, everyone now has access to global best practices. Coupled with the need for immediate gratification by the millennial generation, companies are willing to put these into instantaneous practice, even as unique test cases.

Additionally, we noticed that gone are the days of corporate denizens barricading themselves in ornate conference rooms, while being myopically focused on executing against five-year plans adroitly developed by highly paid, external management consultants. The conference rooms we used were open air and brightly lighted, while the executives were warm and welcoming. This is yet another example of positive change in the Asian business climate and stories of success based on thoughtful, short-term execution. With nearly 20 years of past company visits and consulting engagements under my belt, seeing these changes concurrently unfold across so many diverse industries, and through such newfound, agile pragmatism was extremely refreshing.


Greg Stoller is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He is also an entrepreneur and co-founder and host of the Language of Business ®, an independently produced weekly news magazine.

The lost art of business training

The Boston University Questrom School of Business recently held a local Venture Capital Investment Competition where 15 MBAs squared off to be named to the five-person regional team representing BU in February 2017. 


By GREG STOLLER
@LanguageofBiz

Business training is provided far less than it should be, often with excuses of constrained time, money and resources. But this means of “cost savings” isn’t recommended. Executives respond well when they receive ongoing, practical business assistance: colleagues or superiors challenging their thought processes, blocking off time for them to practice key presentations and the chance to receive an outside (and apolitical) analytical perspective.

Once business grads are conferred their MBA degrees, most companies assume they’re ready to produce and add value from the get-go, despite a lack of gray hair and minimal battle scars. Although some large corporations might offer rotational management training programs, smaller companies and start-ups are pretty much on their own. And well beyond skills training, no one provides guidance about career planning, supervising others and how to manage up.

Over the past two months, my academic role has been expanded to include mentorship, and I’ve been fortunate to work shoulder-to-shoulder, helping multiple teams of business students prepare for analytical case competitions on campus, across the United States and around the world. These have included the Venture Capital Investment Competition, at the global and local levels, and our Global Ethics Case Competition. Some of the students’ success, of course, relates to the old adage of practice makes perfect. But much of it is due to expanded viewpoints. People external to their peer circle bring with them fresh perspectives.

Outside of the business world, this is an institutionalized, standard operating procedure. In those industries, the conferred degree might be the admission ticket, but its value is obtained through learning at the foot of the master. Newly minted physicians go through residency and receive hours of on-the-job training from their attending brethren. Larger law firms pull from a bench of specialized skill sets depending on the cases involved. In both instances, although the younger members might get stuck doing most of the low-level work, they benefit from the ongoing guidance of more seasoned colleagues and senior associates. Depending on the state where they’re practicing, ongoing continuing educational credits (CEUs) are often required annually in both industries.

The corollary to the argument of “who cares about training” is due to the diverse viewpoints business naturally offers. Unlike medicine or law, we regularly employ cross-functional teams. Pundits will cite that viewpoints are more robust from inception, since everyone around the planning table hasn’t been trained in the same fashion. More simply, variety is the spice of business life.

Not necessarily, as there’s some irony here. Outside of business rotations, bona fide training was phased out in the ’90s, except in highly regulated fields where executives continue to take a battery of tests to demonstrate compliance and competence. If a business executive doesn’t understand the nuances of a task, they’re often expected to partner with an internal mentor, take additional classes, attend seminars, or buy their own resources. A cross- functional team might lead to better decision-making but not personal improvement or growth.

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Unless required as part of our job, we’re likely too busy to provide ongoing guidance to each other, anyway. Especially amongst peers or direct reports, many are also often fearful of sealing their own promotional fate, by giving away coveted tricks-of-the-trade to potential workplace rivals. The end result becomes a lack of productivity. Eventually, with enough experience (in the same industry) an executive will amass the requisite knowledge to succeed and learn how and when to make better decisions. But after how much lost time in the process?

The best companies employ ongoing training as a ‘must have’ in every job description and recognize the following:

Business success is a team sport

Spending time together sharing knowledge, exchanging viewpoints and challenging one another is a bonding experience, and positively exposes personality idiosyncrasies. Use these to your collective and individual advantage. The chemistry will be stronger and the team will be more productive. You’ll actually get to know one another. The uncomfortable edge when correcting someone becomes a lot less pronounced when you’re at ease with the people around you.

Training time shouldn’t be confined to the office

I have been working with two consulting clients for more than five years apiece. In addition to our brainstorming, strategic planning and white board sessions, we schedule golf outings, dinner with our spouses and time to hang out. Some of the best knowledge tidbits I learn are given and received well outside of the corporate boardroom. You also become attuned to what motivates everyone in the company—the senior executives, your direct reports and clients—and discuss strategies on how to best manage them.

Knowledge is power

My business students aren’t succeeding in the competitions they’re preparing for due to my superior mentorship. They’re instead channeling their preparation and making better conceptual connections. They’re also amassing more knowledge than most other teams, practicing how and when to analytically apply their findings, and better anticipating the Q&A. Some of those hard skills also require negotiating different time zones and dealing with language barriers. Neither the receipt of awards nor a guaranteed win can ever be taken for granted but the hard-nosed, recurring practice often improves their chances of doing well. They also hone their presentation skills and by watching everyone at different levels interact, learn some valuable management lessons.

In conclusion, manage the training process proactively instead of just reacting to the individual pieces that go awry. You’ll have left valuable knowledge acquisition and management potential on the table.

  • Invest in your team before a project commences, and when it’s complete give everyone specific feedback—even in the face of poor results.
  • Help people to do better the next time around and never take any prior knowledge for granted.
  • Don’t succumb to inaction, fearing you’ll insult your colleagues by ‘restating the obvious’ in advance, or when you debrief. Doing nothing will pale in comparison to receiving a vapid look (or shrugging shoulders) due to business ignorance, and then it’s too late.

Greg Stoller is a senior lecturer and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He is also the co-founder and host of the Language of Business ®, an independently produced weekly news magazine which mixes in-studio and on-location interviews with entrepreneurs. The Language of Business airs on Saturday and Sunday mornings on WBIN-TV, Verizon channel 506 and Comcast channel 811 (in Massachusetts). Always available online, too, at: www.languageofbusiness.biz.

 

 

Using global ethics as strategic advantage

By GREG STOLLER
The Language of Business

Executives often treat global ethics defensively— they follow internationally accepted rules of engagement to allow themselves to sleep better at night and as insurance against a prison sentence. Or they go through periodic ethics training to check off the box of completion.

When applied proactively, however, ethics also proves strategically effective and profitable.

The benefit emerges from closely tying global ethics to a broad-based social responsibility program—in short, analyzing a business holistically to see how every aspect of its operations, from services in the HR benefits office to shop-floor uniforms, can be optimized for strategic gain.

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One of my BU colleagues often uses a simple ballpoint pen to drive this point home. She’ll ask me: Who produces the ink and do those workers receive a living wage? If portions of the pen are imported, does each country subscribe to OSHA-quality international employment conventions? Is the pen’s mechanical assembly fully recyclable?

Though I’m the first to concede that viewing a company’s operations through a social responsibility lens originally took some getting used to, for a Millennial, it’s as commonplace as carrying a cellphone. Their demographic even takes this one step further—a good lesson for the rest of us—and goes out of their way to frequent and support companies whose operations practice what they ethically preach. This is far removed from boycotts based on Apartheid in the ’90s or consumer boycotts in the ’00s, and is actually far closer to brand management and the lifetime value of a customer.

Even when making a good faith effort to make ethical decisions across global boundaries, though, leaders must be sensitive to potential conflicts between borders. Business practices are a function of the environment in which they’re practiced and are heavily influenced by national and, at times, local culture. This may put even the best thought-out worldwide social responsibility plans at loggerheads with their domestic goals, through no malicious intent.

For example, a multinational company doing business in a developing economy might consider contributing school uniforms to children in its local community as a means of engaging in helpful “charitable work.” This is a no-brainer, right? Not necessarily. The company was totally surprised when it received massive backlash because its donations upset the small tailors and street sellers in the area who suddenly had no income. Additionally, because the uniforms were not following dress code specs, the children were prevented from starting school on time. “Good” work takes cultural collaboration and often is more complicated than it appears at first glance.

It’s also an unwritten rule in some countries that beyond gifts, courtesies will be offered to members of your contact’s extended family, whether through college application letters, job hiring recommendations or otherwise. Failure to play along, even if patently outside of the bounds of your business dealings, or for people whom you’ve never met, might suddenly sour an otherwise solid relationship.

On the other hand, success stories abound.  When a U.S.-based, international nonprofit received positive visibility because of its contributions to a small, struggling school, based on a deep understanding of that institution’s needs, in-kind donations exponentially increased stateside. There are countless stories of U.S. executives donating time in their respective professions during periods of crisis or natural disasters, rather than just sending unneeded supplies. This type of thoughtful contribution offers not only significant visibility to the needs of survivors and people in poverty, but also paves the way for appropriate future resource allocation.

Here are some specific ways that using ethics in a strategic manner in the global sphere can serve as a strategic advantage:

  • Companywide operational review: Companies that view their engagement with stakeholders as a strategic element of their mission are more likely to ensure that their total operations are ethically fair and balanced. As part of a review of all stakeholder relationships and processes that involve them, it’s a good excuse to put everything on the table, even processes that haven’t been changed (or challenged) in years. After completing such a review, one of my Asian consulting clients unexpectedly reduced their overall COGS by 2 percent, by improving antiquated systems.
  • Unique PR opportunities: Effective implementation of a global ethics strategy will provide a unique opportunity to highlight different portions of your company, which normally wouldn’t receive traditional PR. A nonprofit organization I volunteer for found out they could increase employee participation in their retirement plan by translating basic materials into Haitian Creole. Had they not completed a social responsibility audit, they wouldn’t have discovered how many members felt frustrated trying to decode routine company literature using their Pidgin English.
  • Connection with customers: More so than any time in recent business history, customers long to have a personal relationship with their vendors. For example, I take great pride that I’ve been a cardholder with the same credit card for more than 25 years. In the past few months, this company has begun rewarding my loyalty by offering me promotions based on my specific charging history and even reached out with a personal phone call. Similar connections are possible through associated social strategy programs, because they provide an opportunity to connect with customers beyond the traditional service or product being sold. And, exactly like the credit card vendor did for me, it provides another reason customers will want to be loyal.

Don’t simplify ethics to an arm’s length audit of how much you’re in compliance with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or chastising employees for accepting a golf invitation overseas. Ethical conduct is only one part of a much broader social responsibility approach and when done right, one that will positively contribute toward employee morale, a strong esprit de corps with customers and a higher EPS over time.


Greg Stoller is a Senior Lecturer, and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Teamwork: The Power of Won

By GREG STOLLER

In corporate America, to actually get something done, you need a strong team. In startups, the problem is even more acute, given staffing constraints. Consistent forward progress is the goal, and an individual can’t ever do it all. Whether in a boardroom or an incubator, business success is a team sport.

The textbooks go one step further, touting the merits of being cross-functional, in order to be high performing. Conspicuously absent from this logic, however, is the personnel composition. The best teams have one person tapped as the ultimate leader, but then move to highly specialized roles in order to better achieve implementation. This is where quarterbacks add value beyond just leadership: knowing how to staff a group, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

When assembling a team, I blend doers and thinkers. Doers focus on business development, with an eye toward implementation; the people who pound the pavement, bringing ideas from concept to fruition. Their peers are thinkers—executives who maintain a strong vision and blend the different parts of a company together strategically. One personality type isn’t better or worse than the other. It’s surrounding yourself with people who are unlike you, to create management chemistry.

Strong team leaders always hire people smarter and more diverse than themselves, to achieve better long-term results. In the past month alone, I’ve run two projects employing this model. The first was for executives currently running a business, while the second was for MBA students looking to build skill sets, either to work in finance or to launch their own companies in the future.

Executive education

To prepare teams of Asian executives running existing companies for a U.S. business plan competition, I assembled a three-person advisory panel of specialists (thinkers) to work with them over two weeks. One member of my team analyzed the business merits of their pitches, while the second reviewed their written submissions. The third helped to perfect their delivery techniques. Within just a few days, the Asian executives (the doers) improved dramatically in terms of framing their respective value propositions and making the pitches exciting to potential investors.

Our specialist team worked effectively because we checked our egos at the door. For example, even though I love writing and would have enjoyed helping the executives improve their written scripts, it’s not my strongest area of expertise. The person I recruited writes professionally for business and teaches on the side. Similarly, while I love using technology, I know my own limitations here, too. For the expert I brought in, it’s second nature to optimize audio levels, shoot in the correct light and fluently run through post-production.

MBA competition

We used a similar approach for MBA students, preparing them for a worldwide competition. By comparison, here the graduate students assumed the role of venture capitalists, and we assembled a nine-person preparatory team. Of these mentors, one-third were entrepreneurs, one-third were practicing financiers and the remaining were intellectual property law specialists. As opposed to framing value propositions, the MBAs were led through successive 60-minute practice sessions to hone their analytical and negotiating skills.

An advisory team, rather than single specialist, created a different dynamic, given the wide range of perspectives around the table. Having more people on hand also enabled us to do more accurate role-playing, and mimic what might happen in real time. This proved particularly effective, as some of the exact scenarios we practiced actually came up during the competition.

Whether for an existing business or future executive development, it’s not a matter of skill-set building, but rather blending the right personalities and attitudes. I want people who enjoy sharing both the responsibility and the glory of success. If a team is going to work well, people have to respect what each member does and they have to be willing to support each member.

Who should be on your next team? This should be a part of your networking. You should be on the lookout for people who can augment what you do and bring to the table what you don’t have, so you can offer more. Energetically blend doers and thinkers as necessary, too.

It’s also vital to take detailed notes on both the personnel and the process, in terms of what’s working and what might need to be tweaked, and to share them openly.

Finally, the best teams should be focused, and positioned for consistent, long-term success, and not bothered by any early stumbles encountered.


Greg Stoller is a senior lecturer, and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Overcome these 3 common business struggles

By GREG STOLLER

TV shows and movies love to portray entrepreneurs who stay true to their principles, are determined and soldier on, and ultimately succeed in the face of immense struggles. Think you can do the same or are these stories only possible on Hollywood sound stages?

Hire with confidence

Let’s begin with hiring. How secure are you in your company? Conventional wisdom dictates that hiring smarter people beneath you propels an organization forward and improves the perception of your work group. This is vital in all businesses, and especially in startups, where time is of the essence. But can you do this? Can you consistently pull that personnel trigger without fearing you’ll be left behind?

One of my European clients had a problem with this on a companywide level. Given the level of unemployment, everyone was worried about externally protecting their jobs and internally their home turf, so they hired progressively weaker performers down to the front line. Eventually, the volume of customer complaints simply became unbearable. Executives didn’t alter their practices, even when the positions were so far down the food chain that their scope of influence wouldn’t affect the new recruits. Regardless of hiring practices, sometimes employees making the lowest hourly wages and having the least political capital will be the ones servicing customers, but it’s quite another matter to intentionally stack the deck.

Survive and advance

Although your hiring process might be secure, can you go it alone as an executive in your firm, even when your corporate cheerleader, protector or advocate decides to leave? Not only are you losing your mentor, but also one who ardently represented you with the company’s top decision-makers. Do you immediately try to form a new alliance before the dust settles or maintain a low profile, and adopt a wait-and-see approach?

One of my former students (and a Boston executive I mentor) figured she had it made with 15 years of a stellar track record at her firm, a wonderful work ethic and a rock-solid company reputation. “Beloved” didn’t do justice to her impresario. But suddenly, her boss made an unexpected, and shall we say, involuntary departure. Everyone assured her that of all of the people in her group, nothing would change for her, especially given her impressive tenure and rainmaking ability. So, she did nothing … until fewer than four months passed and she, too, was let go. The CEO simply chose to support a different set of lieutenants, even though her group was the most profitable in the entire company.

Stand up for customers

Companies do well when they live by the principle that the customer is always right. Can you abide by that even when it’s not “cool” internally? One of my Asian clients traveling in a large U.S. city was stranded in the middle of the night with engine problems. Despite his organization’s 24-hour auto service contract, the tow company left him marooned due to what they described as a lack of “available evening equipment.” Although the executive finally reached his hotel, the company’s consistent replies the following day still singing the party line made a bad situation even worse. When the secretary to the CEO ultimately fielded the customer’s irate phone call, she used her direct access, cut across the corporate silos and spoke up using plain logic. The customer received a full refund, and more importantly, a proper apology.

Let’s resolve ourselves to consistently making our actions count, checking personality insecurity and fear of retribution at the door. Always do the right thing, even if unpopular or unconventional, as correct actions will ultimately be rewarded … even if not on our timeline, a Hollywood stage or following the exact lessons from an entrepreneurship textbook. Life isn’t fair, and neither is corporate politics, but in the end, crème should continue to rise to the top of the food chain.


Greg Stoller is a Senior Lecturer, and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.