If You Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, It May Come Back to Haunt You

Do you remember that book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: And Everything in Life is the Small Stuff?

I can appreciate the life philosophy, I really can, but let me tell you: in business, everything that’s small could become big if you don’t pay attention. If I have a cut on my finger and I ignore it and don’t put Neosporin and a Band-Aid on it, my finger could get infected and need amputating (gross). I’m not saying it’s common, but it could happen.

A leader, especially in hard times, needs to make sure he doesn’t overlook the small stuff.

Once, I was installed as CEO of a company, and I relied quite heavily on the CFO who’d been with the company a long time. I listened to his assumptions and projections. However, I never checked up on his assumptions or double checked the formulas in his spreadsheets. It just all seemed like little stuff.

Unfortunately, midway through the turnaround, the numbers headed south and the bankers got upset. As it turned out, the CFO knew about these mistakes and what was likely to happen.

Making mistakes is not a problem. Not admitting one’s mistakes and sharing this kind of knowledge with me is a problem. When I found out the CFO had known about these mistakes and never raised his hand, I fired him immediately. These were small things whose impact could have been mitigated a few months earlier, but at this point, I had to go crawling to the bank for an extra million dollars. Fortunately, they were pleased with my decision to fire the CFO.

The controller who had actually been prevented from checking the numbers earlier became the new CFO, and we emerged from bankruptcy.

As a CEO you have to rely on people, but you also have to trust your instincts, question assumptions and double check the world around you. It’s hard to rely on one person. I did so because it was the quickest way to move forward, but I learned from my mistake, and now I go through budgets line by line and question all assumptions, projections and spreadsheets. I take care of the small stuff (without sweating it) in order to keep it from turning into big stuff.

Many CEOs blindly listen to others without question because they need answers and they need them fast, but as a CEO it’s your job to ask twice and then thrice. Take care of your business by taking care of everything, big and small.

I Want to Introduce You to a New Friend

What do you think of when I say, “The IRS?”

Does your stomach clench up a bit? Does your forehead get warm? Maybe the physiological reaction isn’t so dramatic, but I imagine that your mental associations with the Internal Revenue Service of the United States are anything but positive. Fair to say?

Maybe you got off to a rough start, but perhaps that was due more to schoolyard rumors than anything else. It’s possible, too, that you’ve hit a rough spot in your relationship. But I want you to get reacquainted with the IRS and think about the way you two could be friends.

Certainly the thoughts of being friends with someone taking anywhere from 25% to 50% of your hard-earned dough on an annual basis might seem distasteful. I don’t like the Tax Man any more than the next guy, but as long as you accept that the IRS is taking some of your money every year – and you really come to terms with the fact – you may want to get better acquainted.

There are only two business people who should be concerned by the IRS:

1. Those whose accounting is so terrible that an audit would be an unbearable nightmare, and

2. Those who are trying to cheat and break the law.

If you don’t fall into either of those categories (and a lot of my clients, I unfortunately discover, do), then consider what the IRS can do for you. Remember, the government is going to take a nice bite out of your income, but the size of the bite and the ferocity with which it’s taken might be more variable than you’d otherwise imagined, particularly if you are a business owner, CEO, president or CFO.

And I want to be very clear here that everything I am suggesting you do is 100% legal. Do NOT do anything illegal. It’s not worth it, and you will be caught. They’re always caught. Trust me. I’ve seen more fraud than you can imagine.

You might be saying right now, of course there are ways of paying taxes “better” – that’s why I have a CPA. And I bet you have a wonderful CPA, but I assure you he won’t mind you doing a little leg work yourself to figure out how to save your company some money.

An obvious way to save money is to take advantage of the Bonus Depreciation and Increased Section 179 Deduction under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allows you to fully depreciate a wide variety of assets. That’s right. No schedules this year if you don’t want them. And the IRS is happy to let you do it.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, and the only way you’re going to figure out all of the ways that you could more advantageously be classifying your expenses and spending your money is if you explore www.IRS.gov. Use the search bar in the top right hand corner and start getting acquainted with the IRS. You guys could be better friends than you think.

WARNING: Obviously you shouldn’t go reorganizing your business’s books for 2011, confusing your CPA/account/bookkeeper and doing anything funny. However, since you’re bound to be meeting with your accountant again soon, you should think about all the ways you spend money – consider terms like “petty cash,” “entertainment” and “meals” for starters – and start looking them up. Go to your accountant with a list of questions, suggestions and links, and see if s/he can’t continue steering you in great directions to get, use and save more money in 2012 than you may have in 2011.

If you notice any particularly good tidbits while you’re looking around, share them with us in the comments section below. Happy hunting!

Giving Back During Tough Economic Times, Part 6

We’ve discussed a lot of different ways over the past few weeks that you can give back during tough economic times. This one happens to be a little trickier, because its effects are – hopefully – not immediate. However, at some point it’s sure to have a big impact.

Write a bequest in your Will to one or multiple charitable organizations or institutions that you value.

You can designate a specific amount or a percentage of your net estate, which, after taxes, probably won’t drastically affect your family’s inheritance. A particularly good idea is to get your children and spouse involved in the decision, so they can learn from your generosity and support your wishes.

The last thing anyone wants while grieving for a loved one – in this case, you – is to have a struggle over where money is going, particularly if that struggle is with a charitable organization.

If you or your children are concerned that an organization may not be what it once was when you pass and leave it money, you could set parameters. For instance, the organization may currently return 90% of all donations directly to those it’s helping (that is, less than 10% of donations are used for administrative purposes). However, you might stipulate that if the organization has gotten sloppy at the time of the bequest – say, using 25% or more of donations for administration – then the donation is canceled. I’m not saying you should do these things (who knows why the circumstances might be what they are), but there may be ways to temper your family’s concerns and potential objections.

One of the most valuable lessons and immediate impacts in the “giving back during tough economic times” sense is the lessons this will teach your family. If your family members see and understand your desires and decisions and the generosity with which you lived your life, they are that much more likely to become charitable people themselves.

I remember once as the CFO of a non-profit business, we were having cash flow issues and couldn’t even make payroll that week. A bequest suddenly appeared that allowed me to make payroll, and it made the biggest difference to the business and every one of its employees because some anonymous donor who had recently passed – at some point in his life – changed his will to add a donation to this organization that he considered worthy. You never know how the timing will help, but in this case the impact was tremendous and integral to the survival of this non-profit.

Have you written charitable organizations into your will? Do you have a comparable way of achieving these ends?

My Most Interesting Case of Fraud to Date – a Guest Post by Vic Taglia

Lee has some amazing fraud stories that never cease to crack me up. To emphasize his consistent advice to watch the back door and other openings for theft, I want to share that store of the most interesting fraud I’ve ever uncovered.

A General Feeling of Unease

I was working at a company at which we needed to replace the retiring finance director of our English subsidiary. It was a small company with about a dozen employees.

Our auditing firm recommended an experienced finance executive from one of their other clients. He was well-regarded, active in his church, married with two children and had a stable work history and good references. The interview went well, and he spent a few days with our retiring finance director to get acclimated to our business.

Over the next few months, the managing director (MD) mentioned some specific minor problems to me regarding the parent company’s CFO, as well as a general feeling of unease. I investigated the specific problems on my next quarterly trip and confirmed that there was something just a little bit off. I reiterated our policies and requirements with the new hire, and the MD and I agreed to watch our new finance director closely over the next few months.

Champagne’s On Us!

Our new guy took a long weekend the next week, and his phone calls were covered by our receptionist. When she got a call from a liquor store asking about payment for a case of champagne, she went to the MD and asked what was going on.  (The company was running on the ragged edge of profitability and had reduced spending significantly in the past year. Thus, cash was at the top of every conversation I had with the MD, and we were not buying champagne.)

On his return, the finance director told the MD that he had bought the champagne through the company so he could avoid VAT. The MD told him to reimburse the company the full amount, including VAT, and to go home pending further notice. The MD called me and we scoped out an investigation plan for him to start while I flew to England.

Sophisticated Theft for Sophisticated Parts

In addition to trying to get the company to pay for a case of champagne, we found that he had paid personal bills with company funds (charging inactive vendor balances) and even directed a customer to pay the balance they owed to his personal American Express bill.

Our criminal finance director picked his targets very carefully: inactive accounts, unsophisticated customers, etc. In total, he stole about ₤20,000 in less than three months.

We had him arrested and pursued through the courts for theft and other charges. Upon his conviction, the judge was about to send him to jail for several years when suddenly his lawyer provided doctors’ notes specifying that his client had stolen from us in order to pay his out-of-pocket costs for a sex change operation.

While National Health Service paid most of the costs of the operation, our finance executive needed money to set up a household separate from his wife and children.

Mercifully, the judge ordered merely restitution (which would take about 50 years, without interest) – and no jail.

We didn’t even get the champagne.

Ever seen any strange cases of theft or fraud? Care to share in the comments below?

Want to read about preventing fraud in your business? Click HERE.

It’s Always the President’s Fault, a guest post by Vic Taglia

As managing partner of GGG and the Turnaround Authority, I get the pleasure of providing guest posts by our other partners. The following post is by our newest Partner, Vic Taglia.


No, I’m not talking about Mr. Obama.

Twenty-five years ago I got my first CFO job with a $50 million manufacturer/distributor of electrical products. Howard, the company’s president, had enjoyed over 15 years of success with two shareholders. A public company based in California owned 20%, and a family-controlled equity fund owned the remaining 80%.

Things Went South

But the last year had been difficult for Howard. A large competitor had awakened from his slumber and began aggressively competing in Howard’s market. Another competitor had fine-tuned his operation and began capturing Howard’s business.

Howard’s management team, three sales/marketing types, the old CFO and the VP of operations were in conflict. The company was running out of stock and missing delivery dates.

The operations staff blamed the sales and marketing team for bad forecasts, and the sales and marketing team blamed operations for not manufacturing to the plan – and each other for bad marketing or bad sales.  The VP of operations was hit by a rental car bus at the airport and was unable to work. The CFO quit.  Howard’s strength was sales, and he treated the VP marketing as the heir apparent who could do no wrong.

After my first week on the job, the California company declared it wanted to sell its share of the business. The family fund responded that it would encourage a management-led leveraged buyout (none of these folks thought to mention any of this during my recruitment, of course.)  Howard saw this potential liquidity event as an opportunity to control his company.

No One to Blame But the Boss

Unfortunately, recent events and management turmoil precluded the finding of necessary financing. After three months of searching for financing, the family fund terminated Howard. I asked the company’s chairman why he let Howard go after 15 successful years and one not-so-good year. He replied that his only regret was that he didn’t fire Howard earlier.

He explained that a company’s president is responsible for everything at the company. Howard should have been prepared for the big competitor’s attacking the market. He should have anticipated the smaller competitor getting better.  He should never have played favorites.

I asked how it could be Howard’s fault that the VP of operations was hit by a bus. He said Howard should have ensured that there was adequate staff at lower levels.

In all successful organizations, leaders who do not deliver the results are fired. Baseball managers who lose games, generals who lose battles, captains who lose boats and business managers who lose money are all fired.

Or at least they should be.

In World War II, it was expected that American generals who lost battles lost their commands. What you saw in movies, such as Patton and Twelve O’clock High, was based in truth. There were no lucky or unlucky generals, only winners and losers. And the losers were relieved and sent home.

When your business is in trouble, you need to replace management.  If you don’t, the next owner will.

Want to learn about good management so you can avoid being like Howard. Then click HERE.

What are your experiences with failing management?

Life’s Lessons and Surprises: 18 Months at Life University

Life is full of surprises, and as a business leader, you can’t let those surprises turn your business upside down. If you learn to manage them as part of your business, expecting that they will be there and creating contingencies for them like emergency cash, a fully stocked resume and interview line should you need some fast hires, good networking, a solid relationship with your banker and so on, then you will likely survive when they surprise.

In 2003/4, I did a turnaround for Life University, the award-winning chiropractic institution in Atlanta, GA. Life had a lot of lessons about the power of surprises.

Life’s Problem

After achieving an all-time high enrollment rate and setting the standard of excellence in contemporary health for its chiropractic undergraduate and masters degree programs, Life University was challenged with a loss of accreditation and defaulted on $35 million in secured bond debt.

Our Solution

Upon becoming the Director of Refinancing and CFO, we redid the budget based on declining attendance and negotiated a forbearance agreement with the Trustee and Bondholders. We also sold assets and refinanced others while the board searched for a new president.

The Outcome?

Within 18 months Life University’s cash flow was stabilized, accreditation was granted and the bond debt was refinanced. As part of the long-term plan, the school retained a President and Chief Financial Officer from a competing school. Victory was ours, and we won the Non-profit Turnaround of the Year Award in 2004 from the Atlanta Chapter of the Turnaround Management Association (TMA).

What I Learned from Life?

Professionals need to hire consultants and advisors who have different skill sets than their own. When professionals go outside their sweet spots they often make mistakes or don’t consider all the issues. Business is not the forte of all professionals – and it doesn’t have to be. Bring in business people to do business.

Life Always Has Surprises!

There are always surprises and things you didn’t account for. At Life, the CFO had a heart attack and bypass surgery, and without him we couldn’t find all of the documentation or understand the cash flow budget.

This created issues with the bondholders because a key member of the management team had been changed. Then, six months in, the president was gone, too.

A new president and a new CFO do not breed confidence to lenders.

What You Can Learn from Life

Be prepared for unfortunate events: heart attacks, death, personal tragedy, community strife. These things are part of life, and as a business leader, you have to have contingency plans in place to know how you would operate should the unthinkable occur.

Ultimately, in this case – and many others – communication solved these problems. Through extensive meetings, we got support in a forbearance agreement, which gave us time to hire a new president and to show results from fund-raising efforts.

Always have open communication.

The spirit of the chiropractic staff was great. They were committed to their university and seeing it survive. Anything I needed from them I got. Being part of a team that believes in the cause is a great thing, and in a crisis it’s very important to return to core values and purpose and to be able to lean on them.

Parting Words of Wisdom

This was a wonderful, award-winning turnaround. In turnaround management – as in business – there are always surprises. It’s your job not to let those surprises undermine your goals, but to deal with them as part of a business day.

What surprises have you encountered in business? How did you deal with them?

For Fraud Prevention Month, Prevent Some Fraud

March is Fraud Prevention Month, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a great thing to spread awareness about.

I see fraud all the time. Here’s one of my more recent forays.

So Much Fraud. So Little Time.

In my experience, 75% of fraud is committed by people who have never been caught before. That means the person or people in your business who are likely to commit fraud are not going to come up when you do criminal background checks.

Oh, and don’t forget about family. Family members commit fraud all the time. When you employ family, resentment could lead to stealing, and there’s always a certain sense of entitlement that facilitates matters.

I’ve even seen a CFO who was stealing methodically, and when I looked back I saw that his father had been the previous CFO who was stealing methodically in the exact same way.

Stupid Fraud

Most of the fraud I see is idiotic.

I’ve seen people with folders on their desktops that may as well have been labeled fraud. When I opened the folder there was a spreadsheet inside with every single perpetration.

I’ve seen a CEO who had the account statements from his bank in the Grand Cayman Islands sent right to the office.

I’ve seen a woman who everybody loved and who worked as the payroll processor at a company for 25 years check out of the hospital 24 hours after a heart attack only to process payroll and return to the hospital hours later. She never missed a payroll in 25 years. And as it turns out, neither did the three fake employees she had on the books whose social security cards and accounts she controlled.

And people love to spill the beans. I’ve had people shove USB keys filled with data and file folders and so much more under the door of my hotel room in the middle of the night.

How Do You Minimize and Catch Fraud

Be out of the ordinary.

Fraud happens when complacency abounds. People steal a little, maybe even by accident, and realize that no one was looking, noticed, said anything or seemed to care. So they took a little more. And then a little more. So mix things up.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, I once caught a multi-million dollar fraud by holding a BBQ at 1 a.m. for a 24 hour overnight crew. A guy came up and just told me about something that didn’t make a lot of sense to him. I only caught the fraud by doing something out of the ordinary. When’s your next late night BBQ scheduled for?

Always force your CFO to take an annual two week vacation in which he’s not allowed in the building and he’s cut off from business email. Sit at his desk and do his job, and you’ll be amazed at what you find.

Fraud also happens by working outside the known bounds of your auditors’ checks. If auditors only look at transactions above the set limit of $5000, then once every few months check everything below $5000 also – that’s where all of the fraudulent checks will be. You’ll discover that you’re still paying for leased equipment you’ve long since sold or that you’re paying rent on property you no longer own.

You’ll find all kinds of things. Just do what’s out of the ordinary.

Help prevent fraud in your company and raise awareness of fraud during Fraud Prevention Month and every month hereafter.

What kind of fraud have you found?

P.S. If the answer was none, you’re not looking hard enough.