Life in the Real World; Hoisted by My Own Petard

I’ve had the luxury, over the last couple of years, to be able to dispense advice and commentary from the relative safety of an observer’s perch. Suddenly and, amazingly, of my own choosing, I’ve given up a perfectly comfortable life style to reenter the snowboard management fray. I must be out of my mind.

I’ve done this at a time when the snowboard industry consolidation, if measured by the number of companies, is probably entering its final year. But we’ve become part of the winter sports industry. That industry is going through some hard times, and the continued scurry to embrace snowboarding as its savior is perpetuating some tough and irrational competitive conditions that aren’t going away quickly.
 
When I last sat in the management chair, in the early 90s, industry conditions were, well, just a bit different. Remember when we could sell everything we could get made, there weren’t enough factories to go around, and raising prices ten percent each season was a no brainer? Ah, those were the days.
 
Since that move from management to consulting, I’ve dispensed a bunch of advice in this space. I trust it was at least worth what you paid for it. Four ideas have stuck with me.
 
·       Protect Your Brand Name
·       Know Your Numbers
·       Find a Niche
·       Don’t Kid Yourself
 
How has the relevance of these ideas changed as the industry has involved? Maybe more interestingly, am I taking my own advice? Let’s see.
 
Protect Your Brand Name; It’s All You’ve Got
 
I’m there. I get an “A.” Maximizing sales isn’t the goal. Increasing sales at a respectable rate, selling out every year and earning a profit is. Growing too quickly can mean lower margins and higher short term working capital requirements. Who needs that? The best advertising and promotion that can be done is the kind where the retailers says, “Say, I sold it all at full margin, and when I called to order more, they were all out!” Next ordering season the poor sales rep, with any luck at all, will find himself faced with having to control the increases requested by the shops to make sure they sell out again. And you didn’t spend a single marketing dollar to get that.
 
Then there’s the issue of gray market sales. Avoid them, I’ve said. It’s not that simple. Your distribution can get better year by year, but it will never be pristine. The impact on sales if you arbitrarily cut off all the sales that might be gray market could be too severe. Every snowboard brand has some gray market sales. Everybody. And I think most of us know where they are. When the boards are going to somewhere Hitler and Stalin fought a tank battle, it’s pretty clear they aren’t staying there.
 
Four or five years ago, brand name hardly seemed to be an issue. If it was a snowboard, it sold. With hindsight, it looks obvious that those who succeeded managed to grow while controlling their distribution and bringing some brand equity to their name. It was a fine line to walk. One the one hand, you had to get out of the awkward “tweens,” that level of sales between, say, five and fifteen million dollars where you needed to act like a larger company, but couldn’t afford to. On the other hand, if you tried to push sales too hard, your credibility as a brand suffered. To put it succinctly, you had to perform and grow according to the market’s expectations, but no faster. Too slow or too fast and you were toast.
 
So building your brand was just as important, and difficult, as it is now. It just didn’t seem quite so urgent.   
 
Know Your Numbers; Cash Flow is Everything
 
Opps- so far, I’m only a Cplus to B minus on this one. I’ve got the numbers thanks to some good systems and people. In fact, even as I write this they’re sitting on the desk next to me waiting to be studied, analyzed and dissected (“Crunch me, crunch me!” I hear them whispering). But I’m finding that management issues during the first month or so have left me with precious little time to spend the consecutive hours required to really get into them. I can wing it pretty well because I already know the financial model of a snowboard company, but that’s no excuse.
 
They are also not “my” numbers yet. They’re somebody else’s. Cash flow, I’ve said, is a living, breathing thing. By creating your own model, working with it and thereby internalizing it, you develop certain instincts for how the money moves through a business. In a highly seasonal business like snowboarding, there’s probably nothing more important than the dance of the cash flow. I’m prepared to give myself something of a break on this issue, because I haven’t really been at it long enough to have the necessary gut instinct for this particular company’s cash flow.
 
At a time when everybody is struggling to make a profit, and so few are succeeding, knowing and managing by your numbers should be at the top of everybody’s management priorities. It always should have been there. Five years ago, however, flush with high margins, soaring sales, Japanese prepayments and COD terms to retailers, knowing and working with your numbers didn’t seem quite so compelling. In truth, it wasn’t. You didn’t have to invest as much money, and you got it back sooner. Boy I miss the good old days, where various management miscues could be hidden behind ravenous product demand.
 
 Find a Niche; Know Your Customers and How You Compete
 
I can console myself on this one by remembering that when I gave the advice, I acknowledged that it was not a trivial thing to do. In fact, I said it was time consuming, detail oriented, hard work to really figure out who your customer is. I know the market niche and the basis of the company’s competitive advantage. But as far as what kind of consumers are actually buying the stuff, I haven’t even gotten around to asking the question. Let’s give me an incomplete.
 
And let’s acknowledge that it will always be an incomplete. The process will always be never ending, unless the market stops changing.
 
A niche, it turns out, is a necessary survival mechanism. The hundreds of companies who didn’t have one, or the basis for creating it, aren’t with us any more. Creating a niche is a long term process, and it was five or more years ago, when it didn’t seem to matter, that you had to have begun the process if you wanted a niche you could defend in current business conditions. Some companies found theirs, then lost it in the struggle between growth and credibility I described above. Some stumbled on it, and kept it in spite of themselves.
 
Don’t Kid Yourself; Make the Hard Decisions
 
The rumors are always worse than the truth. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Change is easier when you make it before you have no choice. Bullshit is inevitably dysfunctional to an organization. Etcetera.
 
We kidded ourselves as an industry for a long time. Sure there was going to be a consolidation, but it would be somebody else who would be the consolidatee. We were brainwashed by the wonder years. No hard decisions required. We couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that snowboarding was just another industry, as susceptible to competitive trends as any other.
 
Guilty. Along with most of you. In my first snowboard management incarnation I was a believer. Even though I knew better from my experience in other industries. The excitement was contagious, the opportunity apparently endless. The bullshit smelled great.
 
Never again. I’ll have fun, but I won’t lose my perspective and objectivity. May I suggest that you shouldn’t either?
 
Well, I guess these four ideas have held up pretty well. They weren’t any more or less valid five or seven years ago then they are now. The irony is that in the past they were easier to ignore, but paying attention to them then might have made consolidation a little more manageable for some companies. Like compounding interest, little changes can have a big impact given the advantage of time.