Prepare today for the upturn

Downturns always present opportunities for business owners, who must do what they are there to do -- lead, writes Leslie Kossoff.

The economic news is bad. In fact, it's brutal. Life is tough. Get over it. You're the leader of your organisation. You don't have time to waste - and it is waste - bemoaning how bad things are. Or how much worse things might get. Or which developer has laid off more people. Or which council is reducing its investment in green space.

You can spend all your time talking about what's going on now, but if you are, you're talking and thinking about the wrong things. It's time to change the conversation.

Downturns as opportunities

What the majority of people forget during a downturn - especially during its earliest stages - is that they are a natural part of the cycle. Downturns occur because they were preceded by an up-cycle. It wasn't long ago that there was a lot more money coming into your coffers. Give it a couple of years and there will be once again - because every downturn is succeeded by an up-cycle.

That's why you have to spend your time thinking and talking - to yourself, your suppliers, your employees, your partners, even customers you want but don't yet have - about what's new and what's next. Because the best of breed of them all - and you want to be one of them - are planning now how to get there as quickly as the up-cycle starts to show itself.

Downturns present opportunities like no other times in the business cycle. Unfortunate but true, someone else's bad decision is your chance to move in and take steps that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to take. Have a near neighbour with land that he or she can't support any longer? Sorry. That's bad news. But you'll make it easier for them by offering a fair market price for the land. You may even want them to continue growing on it. Or you can do a joint venture where you put some money in to keep them afloat, take a piece of the ownership - and its management - and expand your own operation.

Garden retailers - have you started pushing home-grown edibles gardens yet? Whether from seed or in pre-planted bags, people want their own food - mostly because they're scared they won't be able to afford supermarket prices for much longer. Also, it's cheaper for them not to have to take their car to the shop. Why not just pick whatever they need for the day from their own garden?

Better yet, if your staff have the training to do the growing, you can set up and maintain the gardens for your customers. Maybe they don't want to do it. Maybe the idea of "locally grown food" is really appealing, but they're convinced that they'll get it wrong, grow too much or lose interest. Frankly, their reasons for not doing so don't matter as much as your ability to make the case for your people coming in - at a price - and doing the work for them.

Even better, if you grow enough that your home-based customers don't need, why not add to their - and your - income by doing a deal with a local farmers' market? Local is local and this is as fresh as it can get. No carbon footprint, either.

What about local landscaping firms? What kinds of relationships do you have with them - not as a supplier of product but of service? If you don't have a landscaping service in your centre because you don't want to create competition for yourself, why not assign some of your well-trained, capable staff to assist local landscapers as they design and develop gardens that do not just look beautiful but grow crops too.

If you've got the capability and the staff availability (and let's face it, they're not going to have as much on-site customer interface as they once did - for a while, at least), why not find a way to create new revenue streams for them in this new economic landscape?

It's all about expansion. It's all about opportunity. But it requires that you change the conversation.

Making new and better use of your resources

When you look at your property, you see a garden centre or fields of plants, flowers or crops. That's what you do, but that's not what you are. You're a property with resources that are being used in a very specific way right now and which has served you well.

It's time to start questioning whether there are more and better things that you could do with the space you have.

If you were looking at buying a property, you would be looking at the cost per square metre. So you should take that same measure and turn it around. Figure out exactly - and I mean exactly - how much you are making from every square metre that is under your stewardship.

Grower or retailer, it's easy. Look at what's selling and how much it's costing you to create and maintain that sale. Look at what else is needed in the marketplace - existing or different customers - and figure out who's making the big bucks during the downturn.

There's money out there to be made. You just have to have the brains and courage to make it. If you're a garden centre - whether stand-alone or as part of your own growing operation - you see yourself as a garden centre. It's time to change the conversation. In fact, you're a retail establishment that happens to sell all things plants, flowers, gardening, gifts, pets and more.

If you've got a cafe in your centre, what are you doing to promote it? Have you put in free WiFi? Do the local colleges and universities know that you've got a destination for them?

What about local groups that need a place to meet? Whether it's the local Rotary or the WI, you've got a great location in lovely surroundings with healthy, breathable air just right for their get-togethers. You might even want to give your local council an opportunity to change its venue to a place that will open up people's thinking as a result of the beautiful surroundings.

Not only will you have created a destination and meeting place, you'll have got more traffic in - people who now know what else you have to offer.

On the growing side, it's even easier. If you have a gate, you're losing growing land. If the retailers aren't paying you adequately for your crops, switch to crops that will make you money. Make every centimetre count.

This is no time to be shy. Look at what you've got and make the best use of it - even if it's different from what you've done before.

Investing in your human capital

Given that business leaders and economists all seem to be in agreement that the downturn is going to last until 2010, that gives you 18 months to build a new version of your existing organisation. Training and development are hallmarks of best-of-breed organisations during a downturn. Lay-offs are for organisations that didn't plan well from the start. You're not one of those, are you?

Frankly, the worst thing you can do is let people go. Sure, there may be a need to cut back - but cut back hours before you cut back personnel. Some of your people may decide that they can't afford to keep working for you, and that's a shame, but do everything that you can to keep them. Because they're your brain power.

Public or private sector, big business, family business, old and established or newbie, the given across your employee base is that they're scared. They're hearing and reading the same reports you read. They know what the economy looks like. But they're in worse shape than you because they don't have the decision-making power that you have. They're dependent upon you - and, wonderful leader that you may be, right now they're not so sure they can entrust their lives into your hands.

Make them sure. Sit them down. Have an all-hands meeting. Talk with them about the state of the organisation. Be honest. Put it in the context of the economy - from local to global. Tell them what you're doing and where you see your organisation going. Grower or retailer. Edibles or ornamentals. It doesn't matter. People are people and they respond positively when they're given reason to. Give them that reason to trust you.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Because they'll need it - and so do you.

What you'll get in return is a greater level of commitment and higher morale than you've ever experienced before. It's an amazing thing to see but when leaders actually lead, their people will gladly follow. In fact, they'll do even more. They'll help you determine more and better ways to make money.

After all, everything is in it for them. They don't want to lose their jobs. They want you to succeed. More than that, they need you to succeed - so get them to help you do so.

Simultaneously, invest in them. Over the next two years a lot of things will be changing. From planning processes to climate to EU regulation and more, the given is that the business your customers - new and old - have accessed over time, as well as in your next-generation version, is not the same as the business you're running now.

Make sure your employees know everything they need to know - and more - about those changes. Train them so that they're equipped to deal with the challenges that are on the horizon. That horizon will be here soon enough - and if you've not prepared them beforehand, they're going to be playing catch-up. So will you - and so will your business - which means that some other smart business owner will have taken up the slack and overtaken your opportunity to succeed. This is no time to waste time.

Get involved

During a downturn, you need to make sure your needs are being met by the entities that haven't supported you - or supported you well enough - up until now. You're a business leader. Act like one. Not just in your own organisation but in the industry that you support - and that supports you.

How loud is your voice in the industry? What other business leaders do you regularly contact - whether on a friendly level or to discuss the state of the world?

To what professional and trade organisations do you belong? Of those, how many are lobbying groups? Which are educational? Which support and are funded by the Government?

Do you attend local council meetings? Or meet regularly - if at all - with your local councillors, regional planning officers, MP?

Make yourself known. Use the time you've got to get your face and voice out there. Build a consensus with others who are facing the same problems you are facing. The given is that within and outside the sector every business is in the same boat because you're all dealing with the same economy.

Do your research. Find out who's doing what out there with their resources and then figure out how to make best use of local - or longer-distance - connections. Then, once you have a plan, do deals. Build consortia. Create economies of scale.

Loud voices win a lot more than whisperers. Build that voice with others who will share in the gains you identify and jointly create.

This is a time that requires nerves of steel. You have to take risks that you may not be comfortable taking but, realistically, what's the alternative? If you stay where you are, you're going to be left behind. You may make it through the downturn, but what you'll be left with won't be worth much for much longer. This is the time to do what you're there to do: lead.

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