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By Jerry schuitema

Moneyweb: Journalist

Lessons from company gunslingers

Content may deliver results for traders and speculators, but context more important to longer-term value investments.

Jimmy Furstenburg was a company gunslinger. It was a term frequently heard in the frenzied days of organisational ‘re-engineering’ some decades ago, when structure was seen to be the most fundamental feature of company strength and which gave rise to the ‘gunslingers’, ‘hit-men’, or the formal description of turnaround consultants.

They would come in on contracts of a few years as ‘interim managers’; turn the company, site or plant around and restore or improve profitability. They would then move on to the next one and like the old gunslingers of the American West, reputation would open new doors and determine the lucrativeness of the next contract. Specialised knowledge and experience of their clients was far less of an issue than their ability to massage metrics, manpower and other resources to ensure that at the end of their term they had restored the site to maximum profitability.

One of the better known in South Africa was Coleman Andrews, an American importcontracted to restore South Africa’s national airline SAA to profitability. [The aim was that] after 20 months at the helm, the company could report a profit of R350 million. However, Andrews left with a pay-out of R220 million, 14 months before his contract was to expire, stripping assets such as aircraft, and outsourcing internal functions to the lowest bidder. Even a superficial glance at the performance figures would have revealed that without the sale of aircraft, SAA was still running at a substantial loss, which returned within months of Coleman’s departure.

Despite many turnaround specialists probably having done laudable work, it’s a moot point whether these efforts on balance caused more harm than good. It was more than coincidence that in the wake of the re-engineering fad, we saw the birth of another called ‘sustainability’, still a major force in organisational strategy today. The era of re-engineering – and with it the ugly sisters of containment, rationalisation, restructuring, reconstruction, deconstruction, and similar terms in consultant-speak – came on the back of a fundamental shift in the 1970s to short-term thinking and maximum returns in the shortest possible time. This was not only witnessed in company strategy but also in individual behaviour.

Despite rigorous efforts to ensure sustainability, including King III, good governance prescriptions, sustainability reports and even legislation, short-termism is still firmly entrenched, exacerbated greatly by executive rewards based on dubious criteria, shareholder pressure for immediate returns and the frenetic pace of trading in financial instruments. Turnaround specialists and interim managers by the nature of their briefs, simply fit into this mould.

It was an epiphany Furstenburg had on one of his last assignments that gives an important insight into this behaviour. He told me that despite many successful ventures, he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with what he was doing. It dawned on him that he was constantly working with content and very little with context. It was during this time that he came across my work and publications and decided to change his career course. He has collaborated with me on two recent books and is taking the concepts further in practical application in the marketplace.

Content is simply working with the factors mentioned earlier: financials, manpower deployment and resource allocation.

Context relates to the company’s relations with its outside environment, with its purpose and with factors such as markets, customers, innovation and those things that give all involved a sense of purpose and making a difference to others.

It’s an important insight that can easily be lost as one squeezes company operations for maximum returns in the shortest possible time. At the same time it gives a valuable tool for assessing a company from a variety of perspectives, including sustainability and investment. An emphasis on content may deliver results for traders and speculators, but context is far more important to longer-term value investments.

A company’s focus on content or context can easily be identified simply by seeing what company leadership is pre-occupied with; what excites the CEO and his team; and what grabs the attention of the board. There are many examples apart from the SAA debacle, which illustrate how an exclusive emphasis on content can lead to disastrous long-term consequences. Yet, for many it seems to be the more important of the two. A more recent example, of course, is MTN’s run-in with the Nigerian authorities. A focus on income (content) overrode regulatory requirements (context).

The distinction is equally important in many other areas of our lives. The most obvious is our working environment. I can recall a number of articles I have written about this, albeit from a different perspective. For most, the daily working routine is simply about content: about tasks, deadlines, deliverables, time clocked and the routine pay check. The broader context of making a difference to others’ lives is lost, although it can be easily found simply by making the link between those tasks and the common purpose of all in the company in serving its market.

There is a well-known anecdote that illustrates this: the one where a sweeper at NASA was asked what he was doing and he replied: ‘Helping to put a man into space’. The same distinction can fruitfully be applied in assessing our personal lives: how much is related to routine, forgettable content and how much to elevating and empowering context.

Content is about means; context is about meaning. Content is about living; context is about life.

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