“My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention. My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives…”
(Hedley (not Hedy) Lamarr in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”.)
Extra points if you knew who said that as well as who uttered the response.
I seem to have costs on my mind (as well as a lot of other things, apparently) these days. I didn’t know what I wanted to address in this posting: Cost Reduction, Business Cases, Business Predictability all seemed to have been foremost in my mind among the possible group of posting topics. It seemed like the best thing to do was get started and see where it went. It went to “Blazing Saddles”. I don’t know if it is recoverable from there, but I will try.
Since this is nominally a Business Blog, and I did at least tangentially address cost reduction as one of the primary growth industries in business in my last posting, I think that I will head over into business cases. However, do not lament the transition away from cost reduction entirely, as costs do play an important role in the creation of any good business case.
It appears that creating or generating a really good business case is becoming a lost art. Coming up with an idea, specifying the investment parameters, analyzing the markets and demands, and ultimately defining the returns and value to the company are some of the building blocks of a successful business. It is a rigorous process (and it should be) because it deals with the lifeblood of the business – money.
This is not going to be some sort of a “how to” do a business case primer. It’s more about what they are and why they’re needed. Simply put, a business case is the justification package that you put together when you want the company or organization to invest in something. This is a very high level definition. The “something” to be invested in can be almost anything: research and development for new products, production automation equipment to reduce the labor component associated with manufacturing, additional sales people in an effort to expand the addressable market and grow sales, are just a few of the fun ones that come to mind.
Business cases are all about what the company should invest in. Investing is all about money, specifically when you spend it, how much of it you spend, when you get it back and how much more of it you get back. Businesses are in business to make money. Like every good investor, when money is spent or invested, a return is expected on that money or investment. If that does not seem to be the case, then the business case process has probably broken down.
I do not claim to be a business case guru. I have put several of them together and have found a few topics that I look for in every good business case. If you want to find out all that should be included in a business case, just Google “Business Case Template”. I think you will get a little more than eight million results.
In my experience, every good business case should have the following three major components:
What is it that is wanted?
What are you asking for and how much is it going to cost? Every business case is about asking for money. In the examples I cited above you would be asking for a specific amount of money for either research and development (people, lab space, lab equipment, etc.), money for manufacturing equipment for automated production, or money for salaries for incremental sales people. This amount is known as the investment.
What is it that you get for the money?
Why would the organization or business want to give you this money? What are they going to get in return? If it is for research and development, what products are they going to get and how will they positively affect the growth of the company. If it is for an automated production line, how much are production costs going to be decreased. If it is for additional sales people, how much are sales going to increase.
When do they get their money back?
No, the organization is not “giving” you money. Think of it as a loan. Every loan needs to be paid back, with interest. This interest is usually in the form of increased profits for the company, either in the form of margins from increased sales or reduced costs. If you don’t believe me on this repayment with interest thing, just ask the bank or financing company the next time you want to invest in a car or house. I think they will be quite specific regarding the interest you will be paying on the loan and the expected repayment schedule that they will require you to comply with. This money that is given back to the company is known as the return on investment.
Business Case Tip #1.
One of the guiding principles of a good business case is that the return on investment should be greater than the investment itself was.
I don’t think there are many (any?) other business case tips that can be given that have the same importance as this one. A proper business case requests a specific amount of money. It defines what the money will be used for (spent on). It specifies what will be produced (new products, cost reductions, increased sales, etc.). It also forecasts when and how much the returns will be. It is all about the numbers.
It is this last part which is especially important. When are they going to get their money back. It is during this discussion when you may hear a term such as “pay-back”. Pay-back is when they get all of their original investment back. This is the break-even point. After this, everything that is returned to the company is a benefit or profit.
Business Case Tip #2
No matter how soon or how quickly the business case hits the “pay-back” point, it will not be soon enough.
Contrary to what some may believe, money in a company is not free. A company must pay for its money, one way or the other. A company can fund a business case investment via either debt or equity financing. In debt financing it is the interest and overheads that it must pay on the loan (debt) it takes out to get the money. In equity financing it is the relative risk and return it must pay in the form of stock appreciation or dividends to the equity investor in order to attract them. This is called “the cost of capital”. It is in effect the interest or discount rate that the company must use in the business case when it looks at the future returns on its investment.
The longer it takes to reach pay back to the company, the more the amount of discount that is applied to the return. The greater the discount, the more difficult it should be to make the business case work.
Remember that there is a limited amount of investment money that is available to any company. There is only so much that the company can borrow before the financial position of the company is adversely affected by its debt position and only so much stock that can be issued before the market adversely affects the equity price and expectation for the stock.
There are also other businesses and organizations within the company that would like to invest in their opportunities as well. That will create a competition for those investment funds. So how should the company decide where to invest?
There are usually two instances where a company will invest. One of the easiest is to invest only in those business cases that provide the greatest return on the investment. That would be those opportunities that have the best business cases. You have just seen above what should be expected at a high level for a good business case.
The second place that a company usually invests is in those strategic initiatives that may not provide the best return but are required for the long term health of the company. What are these strategic initiatives you may ask? That’s a good question. I have found business cases to try to define themselves as a strategic initiative when they contain a request for funding that does not show a reasonable return on the requested investment.
That’s probably not entirely true. There are investments for things such as core technologies that other products are built from that could be defined as strategic (among the many others of this type) as well as initiatives outside of the financially definable realm such as the reduction of carbon footprints or diversity that may not contribute directly to the financial well being of the company, but should be done none the less for the greater good of the company.
Companies expect and need to make money. Otherwise they normally do not get to remain companies for very long. I think a great deal of any company’s success can probably be attributed to how strong their business case process is, and how well they adhere to it. Having people who understand what a good business case is can go a long way to attaining that success.