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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: How to Create the Best Strategies for Your Business

By Tom Zollar

Sometimes it is a challenge to write a column about our monthly theme that enhances a reader’s take-away from the issue. Not because there are not a lot of good things to add to a discussion about any important aspect of our businesses, but because a heck of a lot of it has already been said.

This month’s theme of Internet Strategy is particularly challenging because in the past three years I have written three articles dedicated to this subject. In addition, I believe that various aspects of what should be in your internet strategy plan have been addressed or at least mentioned in virtually every column I have produced. The Internet and how you use it is so critical to your business today that it becomes a part of almost any discussion about what you are doing to win the battle for customers in your market. Its impact spreads throughout your organization, touching marketing, sales, merchandising and operations.

My main focus here is normally on the front end of your business: sales, marketing and merchandising. A core element of that effort has been directed at helping the reader to become a better manager and more effective leader of their business. To that end, we have put forward many ideas and recommendations about ways to improve your management team’s efforts and to help you make better decisions for your company. As a result, several columns have specifically given the reader direction on either creating an internet strategic plan or at least some elements one should contain.

Last year’s September column presented some ideas about using your staff and customers to help you make decisions for your company. It talks about forming cross functional teams to study each area and make recommendations that management could include in any strategic plan for the company. This would certainly include researching and brainstorming about how to better utilize the many opportunities provided by the internet.

As I considered what to write about this month, I thought it might be beneficial to focus again on the strategic planning process itself, so the information could be helpful not only for your internet plan, but also for any other area. My thoughts went back to my own experience with this process at places I worked and how much it varied from organization to organization. Some of this was due to cultural differences between them (democracy vs. dictatorship models), but a lot was mainly a result of size variances (big companies have more people to throw at a problem or process). In my 45 plus business years, I have worked for or with some of the largest manufactures and retailers in our industry. I have also had the opportunity to work at or with some very small operations. Just like people, the personality of each company was different at each stop.

So, what was the difference between companies that consistently created great strategic plans and those that did not? To be honest, there were a lot of factors, but by and large, the bigger companies were able to be more organized and focused in their approach. They also had the distinct advantage of being able to put more heads around the table when brainstorming, developing and finalizing the plans. They could create multiple teams to focus on each area and aspect of the plan, so nothing got missed.

The larger corporations usually had an even bigger advantage over smaller ones. They had a board of directors, made up of successful executives from other companies who could provide a critical element to the process – an expert final analysis of the plan using experience and insight not present within the company. They were appointed and paid to ask pointed questions that insiders might not ask and provide insight which insiders might not possess. Depending on the quality of the board, the end result was almost always a much better thought out strategy and a more solid plan to execute it.

Smaller companies, on the other hand, needed to have one or more very high-quality individuals at the top, with experience in all aspects of the business, to create a good plan. Smart ones often hired outside consultants to guide and direct the process, plus provide the outside insight needed to stretch the talents of the management team. Those that did it on their own had to rely on the owner’s gut feeling and a little bit of luck. In many cases, a lot of luck!

Home Furnishings Business Magazine, as it says on the cover of every issue, focuses on providing “Strategy for the Furniture Industry”. The company that owns it, Impact Consulting Services, has been providing strategic planning research and consulting services to the furniture industry for over 35 years. I can tell you that having the right data that allows you to ask the right questions is absolutely critical. Knowing where your company is at and where it has the opportunity to go, is equally important. Creating a strategic plan is then the process of laying out the journey to the targeted result. There are many others that provide this type of assistance, including some accounting firms. Most of them can help their clients improve their planning process.

A great many companies have found help from membership in a buying group. One of the best things I have seen in the last decade or so is the evolution of these associations from mainly product focused purchasing and marketing advisors to full service support organizations, providing assistance to their members in almost all areas of their business. Their meetings, symposiums and other programs offer members fantastic opportunities to seek input to solve problems and find help with creating plans for their business. I highly recommend that every retailer finds one that is a good fit and takes advantage of all they have to offer.

Apart from the obvious benefits to your management process of hiring a dedicated professional consultant or taking advantage of the support offered by a buying group, there is one other opportunity for an owner that truly wants to take their business to the next level and beyond. It not only offers access to information, data and ideas to help improve your results, it also provides the opportunity to have a virtual “Board of Directors” to help better understand your business realities, create higher quality strategic plans and know what you need to focus on to succeed. It can also help hold you accountable to do what you said you would.

I am talking about a concept that began in the Auto Industry, probably thirty years ago, when a major manufacturer realized that the owners of its dealerships could learn more from each other than they could from in-house advisors, outside consultants and even other family members. So, they created what they called “20 Groups” that brought roughly twenty owners of similar dealerships together on a regular basis to visit a member’s operation, provide feedback for improvement, discuss what was working for each one, share best ideas, review each other’s financial statements, set goals and hold each other accountable from meeting to meeting.

Twenty-five years ago, the Charter Group was formed as the first Performance Group of this type for the furniture industry. The next year the Premier Group was born. Those two are still flourishing, with some of the founding members and many of the original companies still participating. Others have followed, serving retailers from under five million dollars of volume to those in the top 100. They normally meet three times a year and a major part of each meeting deals with strategic planning for all aspects of their businesses.

For the past dozen or so years, it has been my distinct privilege to facilitate the meetings for several of our groups. Internet strategy, a topic that is discussed at every meeting, led me to focus on them in this month’s column as a great way to help create better strategic plans. One of the biggest benefits of being a member in a performance group is the twenty or so heads around the table, helping each other solve the problems they all face owning and managing a retail furniture store in today’s marketplace. They help create strategies/plans for improvement. The amazing thing is how much smarter ten or twenty people are than one or two. They truly function as a “board of directors” for each other. In addition, members develop great and lasting friendships, along with a deep dedication to helping everyone succeed.

We are not the only company that provides this service. A few of the buying groups, some of the major systems providers and a couple of consulting firms also have similar programs available. It is by far the most rewarding experience I have had in my business career and I highly recommend that anyone out there wandering alone in the “business jungle”, that wants help, guidance and supportive friendship, look into joining one. “Strength in numbers” was never truer than with the performance group experience.

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