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Bonus Incentive Plans for Employees: What’s the Point?

When we ask business owners about the possibility of installing an employee incentive plan, we often hear one of two responses:

  • “I would like to do something to reward my key employees for their performance.”

OR

  • “You know, one of my best employees left last week for a company for more money. I think I’d better do something to stay competitive in the marketplace. ”

May I suggest that these two motives are not nearly self-serving enough? The purpose of installing a bonus plan for your employees is to motivate them to help you pursue your goals.

While owners differ about when they want to leave or how they wish to leave, or even whether they want to leave their companies, the underlying goal is consistent: whatever the ultimate departure – be sure to leave in style. No matter what type of employee incentive plan you create, it should be designed to support your fundamental goals by motivating your key employees to stay with your company and help build its value.

Consider the following realities:

  • Some owners may rarely take an extended vacation much less cut back on their ongoing involvement without leaving capable management in place to run the business.
  • A sophisticated buyer may not seriously consider your company if it lacks a good management team;
  • You may, at some point, entertain the idea of selling the company to key employees; and
  • Transferring a business to children can be especially risky in the absence of key employees who will remain with the new owners.

Whether your goal is to sell to a third party, transfer the business to children or to employees, or to retain ownership long-term, the success of your strategy may depend on the presence of motivated, high-performing key employees.

We measure the effectiveness of an employee incentive plan in part by how well it motivates key employees to increase the value of a business. Effective plans necessarily reward employees as they increase the value of the business.

Usually, this means that owners must develop an incentive formula that links increases in the key performance indicators of the business to the employees’ rewards. In its simplest form the incentive plan gives the key employee a bonus. In designing a strong incentive plan, consider the timing of the bonus that creates the best incentive.  You may want to consider designing a bonus program with an additional incentive for key people to stay with your company – a “handcuff” of sorts.

Let’s look at how one owner set up his company’s incentive plan.

After meeting with his advisors, Mel Houston decided to give two of his key employees 30 percent of the company’s pre-tax income above $100,000 (the company’s historic performance level). After Mel installed this plan, the company’s pre-tax income increased to $300,000 so his key employees shared 30 percent of the excess income ($200,000) or $60,000.

Because Mel wanted to retain his key employees over a long period of time, he decided to pay half of this bonus after the company’s year end, and subject the other half to a non-qualified deferred compensation plan with vesting over several years.

Mel’s plan (like yours should) provides that as the cash flow of his business increases (and thus the value of the business increases), he rewards his key employees accordingly. In doing so, both he and his key employees attain their goals.

Notice that Mel does not have to reach into his own pocket to pay the bonus.  Instead, he is merely sharing a portion of the growth that they create.  You may also notice that Mel benefits in two ways from the increase in income.  First, he shares in the increased income and cash flow.  Second, the value of his ownership interest most likely increases by some multiple of increased cash flow.

Keep in mind that the formula you create for your company can and should reflect the specific characteristics of your business. The head of the sales department might be rewarded for increasing the adjusted gross profit margin. A chef in a restaurant might be rewarded for reducing food costs (without affecting the quality of the meals served). Whatever factor you identify as a key to increasing the value of your company can be incorporated into your key employee incentive planning.

If you would like to discuss your options for installing employee incentive plans to support your goals, please contact us.  We can collaborate with you and your other advisors to develop a customized incentive plan tailored to your business and your future.


The information contained in this article is general in nature and is not legal, tax or financial advice. For information regarding your particular situation, contact an attorney or a tax or financial advisor. The information in this newsletter is provided with the understanding that it does not render legal, accounting, tax or financial advice. In specific cases, clients should consult their legal, accounting, tax or financial advisor. This article is not intended to give advice or to represent our firm as being qualified to give advice in all areas of professional services. Exit Planning is a discipline that typically requires the collaboration of multiple professional advisors. To the extent that our firm does not have the expertise required on a particular matter, we will always work closely with you to help you gain
access to the resources and professional advice that you need.
The example provided is hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only. It includes fictitious names and does not represent any particular person or entity.
Jason No Comments

Keep Calm and Step Forward

A good friend, Sherman Doll, related the following story. Sherman has been a two-line sport kite flier for years. While not a pro, he has learned a few tricks from observing the flying behavior of these kites. He told me that one of the most difficult skills for beginners to master is what to do when their kite starts to plunge earthward.

The natural, panicky impulse is to yank backward on the lines. However, this action only accelerates the kite’s death spiral. The effective, kite-saving technique is to calmly step forward and thrust out your arms. This causes the kite’s downward acceleration to stop, allowing you to regain control and end its plunge. What does this have to do with investing?

2016’s Grim Beginning

As you may already have observed, 2016 got off to a bad start for equity markets around the globe. In fact, for the S&P 500 Index, the first five trading days were the worst-ever start to a year, with a loss of 6%.

Combined with the weak performance of global equities in 2015, and all the geopolitical turmoil in the world, the stomachs of many investors started to rumble, especially upon hearing pronouncements from market “gurus” forecasting doom and gloom.

For example, George Soros is predicting a crisis similar to the one we had in 2008, with problems in China being the trigger. And it certainly doesn’t help when respected investors such as Jeremy Grantham and Carl Icahn are proclaiming that the market is vastly overvalued.

Over the 20 years that I’ve been providing investment advice, I’ve learned that when we have situations like the one we’re in now, many investors begin to “catastrophize.” They begin to focus solely on the negative news—such as ignoring the 292,000 increase in employment, along with an upward revision of 50,000 to the prior month’s gains, reported on the fifth day of trading in 2016. These investors begin to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong, and end up in a loop of worry and anxiety that leads at best to indecisiveness and at worst to panicked selling.

Now, returning to my friend’s story about flying kites …

Just as when a kite starts to plunge earthward and the natural, panicky reaction is to yank backward on the lines, the natural, panicky reaction to a dive in your portfolio’s value is to pull back (sell). In both cases, pulling back is the wrong strategy. The right strategy is the less intuitive one. It involves the choice to remain calm and step forward (actually buying stocks to rebalance your portfolio back to your desired asset allocation).

Buffett’s Advice

Warren Buffett is probably the most highly regarded investor of our era. Read his statements carefully regarding efforts to time the market:

  • “Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior.”
  • “The only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune-tellers look good.”
  • “We continue to make more money when snoring than when active.”
  • “Our stay-put behavior reflects our view that the stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the patient.”

And finally, Buffett recommends that if you simply cannot resist the temptation to time the market, then you “should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”

While it is tempting to believe that there are those who can predict bear markets and, therefore, sell before they arrive, there is no evidence of the persistent ability to do so. On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that trying to time the markets is highly likely to lead to poor results.

For example, a study on the performance of 100 pension plans that engaged in tactical asset allocation (a fancy term for “market timing,” allowing the purveyors of such strategies to charge high fees) found that not one single plan benefited from their efforts. That is an amazing result, as even random chance would lead us to expect at least some to benefit.

Avoiding Investment Depression

If you’re prone to investment depression, one way to help avoid the downward spiral that many investors experience (which can lead to panicked selling) is to envision good outcomes.

To help you do just that, I have gone to my trusty videotape and come up with some data that should not only be of interest, but should also enable you to envision positive outcomes. My thanks to my colleague, Dan Campbell, for producing the data, which covers the 89-year period from 1926 through 2014.

  • There were 33 years (or 37% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first quarter. By the end of 18 of those years (or 55%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those 18 years, the highest return occurred in 1933, when the S&P 500 returned 54%. The best performance during the last three quarters in each of those years was also in 1933, when the S&P 500 returned 79.2%. The last time the first quarter ended in negative territory but full-year returns turned positive was just recently, when in 2009, the first quarter finished with a return of -11% and went on to recover for full-year gains of 26%.
  • There were 31 years (or 35% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first six months. By the end of 11 of those years (or 35%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those 11 years, the highest return occurred in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 21.4%. The best performance over the last half in each of those years was also in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 31.7%.
  • There were 24 years (or 27% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first nine months. By the end of four of those years (or 17%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those four years, the highest return occurred in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 4.0%. The best performance over the last quarter in each of those years occurred just recently, when in 2011, the S&P 500 returned 11.8% over the last three months.

Summary

Warren Buffett has accurately stated that “investing is simple, but not easy.” The simple part is that the winning strategy is to act like the lowly postage stamp, which adheres to its letter until it reaches its destination. Similarly, investors should stick to their asset allocation until they reach their financial goals.

The reason investing is hard is that it can be difficult for many individuals to control their emotions (greed and envy in bull markets, and fear and panic in bear markets). In fact, I’ve come to believe that bear markets are the mechanism by which assets are transferred from those with weak stomachs and without an investment plan to those with well-thought-out plans—meaning they anticipate bear markets—and the discipline to follow those plans.

A necessary condition for staying disciplined is to have a plan to which you can adhere. But that’s not sufficient. The sufficient condition is that you must be sure your plan avoids taking more risk than you have the ability, willingness and need to take. If you exceed any of those, you just might find your stomach taking over. The bottom line: If you don’t have a plan, develop one. If you do have one, and it’s well-thought-out, stick to it.


This commentary originally appeared January 13 on ETF.com

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Jason No Comments

Creating Value in Your Business to Get Top Dollar When You Leave it

Creating Value in Your Business to Get Top Dollar When You Leave It

Did you ever wonder why one business has buyers lined up willing to pay top dollar while another sits on the market for months, or even years? What do buyers look for in a prospective business acquisition?

There are many opinions about what attributes or characteristics buyers seek, but here’s what we know: the characteristics buyers seek must exist before the sale process even begins and it is your job as the owner to create value within your business prior to the sale. We call characteristics that impact value “Value Drivers.”

Walk A Mile In A Buyer’s Shoes

To get an idea of the importance of Value Drivers when preparing to sell your business, it is important to put on the buyer’s shoes for a minute. Let’s look at a hypothetical case study that illustrates how a buyer might compare two similar companies with a different emphasis on Value Drivers.

The A Factor Company has EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) of $2 million, an owner who runs the business and the systems and processes that create growth. The A Factor Company doesn’t have a real management team in place and the owner generates a majority of its sales. The owner is the center point of the company, holding both the CEO and CFO positions. With this level of responsibility, the owner is burning out quickly.

In comparison, The B Factor Company also has EBITDA of $2 million and a solid management team that runs the business, systems and processes. The management team creates efficiencies within the business and the owner vacations for six weeks a year.

If you were a buyer comparing these two companies, which would provide a more attractive business opportunity? How much more would you pay for a business with a strong management team (one of the most important Value Drivers)? Would you even be interested in buying a business whose management team (the owner) walks out when you walk in?

Investment bankers understand that companies that lack strong Value Drivers also lack a bevy of buyers. Those buyers that do come to the table do not arrive with pockets full of cash.

Let’s look at several of the more important Value Drivers common to all industries:

  • A stable and motivated management team. If you can wait a year to sell your business, we suggest that you consider an incentive compensation system, cash or stock-based, that rewards key employees as the company performs (usually measured by increases in pre-tax income). Sophisticated buyers know that with a solid management team in place, prospects are good for continued business success. Without a strong management team, it may be very difficult to sell your business to a third party or transfer it to an insider.
  • Operating systems that improve sustainability of cash flows. Operating systems include the computerized and manual procedures used in the business to generate its revenue and control expenses, (i.e. create cash flow), as well as the methods used to track how customers are identified and how products or services are delivered. The establishment and documentation of standard business procedures and systems demonstrate to a buyer that the business can be maintained profitably after the sale.
  • A solid, diversified customer base. Buyers typically look for a customer base in which no single client accounts for more than 10 percent of total sales. A diversified customer base helps insulate a company from the loss of any single customer. If the majority of your customer base is made up of only one or two good customers, consider reinvesting your profits into additional capacity that will make developing a broader customer base possible.
  • A realistic growth strategy. Buyers tend to pay premium prices for companies with realistic strategies for growth. Even if you expect to retire tomorrow, it makes sense to have a written plan describing future growth and how that growth will be achieved based on industry dynamics, increased demand for the company’s products, new product lines, market plans, growth through acquisition, and expansion through augmenting territory, product lines, manufacturing capacity, etc. It is this detailed growth plan, properly communicated, that helps to attract buyers.
  • Effective financial controls. Financial controls are not only a critical element of business management, but they also safeguard a company’s assets. Effective financial controls support the claim that a company is consistently profitable. The best way to document that your company has effective financial controls and that its historical financial statements are correct is through a certified audit or perhaps a verified financial statement by an established CPA firm.
  • Stable and improving cash flow. Ultimately, all Value Drivers contribute to stable and predictable cash flow. It is important, especially in the year or so preceding the sale of the business, that cash flow be substantial and on an upswing. You can begin increasing cash flow today by simply focusing on ways to operate your business more efficiently by increasing productivity and decreasing costs.

You can install these Value Drivers and better position your company to secure a premium price upon your exit with the help of a trained Exit Planning Advisor.

In future articles, we will look at the most common Value Drivers in more detail.

If you have any questions about increasing the value of your business prior to your exit, please contact us to discuss your particular situation. We can help you identify and strengthen the current Value Drivers in your business, install additional Value Drivers, and create a road map to meet your overall exit objectives. We also have additional resources that explain Value Drivers in more detail and help you apply these concepts to your business. 


The information contained in this article is general in nature and is not legal, tax or financial advice. For information regarding your particular situation, contact an attorney or a tax or financial advisor. The information in this newsletter is provided with the understanding that it does not render legal, accounting, tax or financial advice. In specific cases, clients should consult their legal, accounting, tax or financial advisor. This article is not intended to give advice or to represent our firm as being qualified to give advice in all areas of professional services. Exit Planning is a discipline that typically requires the collaboration of multiple professional advisors. To the extent that our firm does not have the expertise required on a particular matter, we will always work closely with you to help you gain access to the resources and professional advice that you need.

This is an opt-in newsletter published by Business Enterprise Institute, Inc., and presented to you by our firm.  We appreciate your interest.
The example provided is hypothetical and for illustrative purposes only. It includes fictitious names and does not represent any particular person or entity.