Mark Richardson: Your business as an apple orchard

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Your future healthy profits will need to come from doing more than just squeezing an extra nickel out of a dollar.

May 07, 2012

Most of us have heard the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I once heard that a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.

It was in this spirit that years ago I saw the changing business environment and began using the apple orchard as a business metaphor to help people understand what was required in this new economy and new market.

Five to 10 years ago there was an abundance of business, an abundance of leads. It was like being at an apple orchard where there are so many apples, you simply grab a basket and just scoop apples off the ground.

Then, as market conditions began to detioriorate, the apples were not just falling under their own weight; we needed to get a ladder to reach up in the tree to pick the ripe apples.

Over time you needed to climb higher and enlist the help of others to harvest the apples that were much higher and tougher to reach. It took a team effort. This simple metaphor helps most of us understand not only how an environment can get more difficult, but also how new strategies are essential for succeess.

Picking apples in today’s market

While we may want to find some new metaphors to describe today’s business conditions, I think the apple orchard metaphor still applies.

We have gotten rid of the less-fit pickers who could only scoop the apples off the ground. We have invested in a few ladders — namely marketing tools — to reach higher by necessity. We have been pushing our top pickers, our “A players,” to do what two people did in the past. As we begin to see some positive signs in the economy and the phones are ringing on their own in most businesses, we need to position the business and team appropriately.

Using the apple orchard metaphor, there are some good lessons to help guide our thinking.

If you are beginning to see the blossoms come back on the lower-hanging branches, then you may want to bring back the right people to supplement your top performers, or let the top performers take advantage of some easier picking. That’s an important part of keeping those top performers from burning out.

USA Today did a survey that found that about 30 percent of your team members will leave you when the economy gets better. The loss of top performers would really set you back. You may also want to begin to celebrate your upticks a little more too. Make sure your team knows it is getting better.

Harvesting growth

While the sweat and hard work has paid off with your company’s survival, now you need new ideas and strategies to grow. Most businesses have made some profit in the last few years primarily from cutting costs, not growing revenue.

Your future healthy profits will need to come from doing more than just squeezing an extra nickel out of a dollar. I am not advocating getting sloppy. On the contrary, I believe strongly in investing more time into training and blocking and tackling. But I do believe now is the time make your apple orchard strong so it can soon provide a stronger crop.

There have been many lessons over the last few years. Some of these lessons have been strong wake-up calls.

It is important, however that you do not stay in the mode of operating in scarcity. This can be just as dangerous as not reacting quickly enough to trim your business five years ago. If you position for appropriate growth and you monitor your progress tightly you will not only be more profitable but you will also sleep better at night.

In closing, try to find the metaphor that helps you understand. With the apple orchard, we not only understand what happened with the drought, but we also can understand what we need to do in the recovery.

Mark Richardson, CR, is co-chairman of Case Design Remodeling and the Case Institute of Remodeling. He is a member of the NAHB Remodeling Hall of Fame and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Richardson is the author of the best-selling book, “How Fit is Your Business,” and a forthcoming book, “Business Themes to Live By,” to be published this year.

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