I hear this often from other advisers and business owners, “I thought you were an accountant. I didn’t realize you did all of this other stuff.” What they mean when they say “other stuff ” is the people, the process and the messiness of emotions that go far beyond the business.
In looking up the phrase, “it’s just business,” I learned that it was coined by Otto Berman as he used it regularly as he laid out the situation to those who came before him. Berman was an accountant for the mob in the 1930s, a business where distancing yourself from the human impact was a pretty imperative requirement.
As they took the month’s protection money or dealt punishment to those who’d misstepped, Berman would say it — “it’s just business, nothing personal.”
It didn’t come from some high-level executive or ultra-successful mogul, but rather a petty criminal who had no problem taking whatever he could from whomever he could. It’s not just numbers and figures we need to consider, but people and place, hearts and minds.
For business owners who want to turn their business around, to grow their business and/or to exit their business, it’s definitely more than “just business.” In fact, the “just business” side is the easy part when trying to fix things. The impactful and most difficult part is all the “other stuff.” There always is a personal component. When a business owner is struggling, it’s usually not just because they are having a hard time figuring their numbers, but rather it’s what people or process issues are driving these numbers and what to do about it. This does not always apply to just a struggling business owner, but a business owner whose business is growing and/or someone exiting a business.
There are times when we would all like to say, “It’s just business.” However, that response not only exonerates the deliverer of that statement but doesn’t address the real issue or issues that are going on.
For example, let’s look at a business owner whose business has been struggling the past several years. The business owner has been relatively hands-off from the business, operating remotely, and had put in place a general manager that was supposed to be driving the business and the business culture.
In reality, the business owner had not been doing what he should have been doing to drive profitability and didn’t hold accountabilities with the general manager or other managers within the organization. Now, he’s at a point that the bank has required him to get some assistance to improve the performance.
One of the first moves he made was to release the general manager. As he said, “it’s not personal, it’s just business.”
Yet, the general manager probably doesn’t feel the same. This business owner wasn’t accountable, nor did he hold his managers accountable for performing. Yes, the business wasn’t generating the results it needed to, but the managers were also not performing, and were allowed not to perform for an extended period. This lack of accountability resulted in poor performance, which now has the business owner in an urgent situation to turn things around.
However, his interest in turning things around is purely focused on the numbers. He asked about doing a high-level review of the numbers.
Looking at the numbers isn’t going to change the numbers. However, looking at the structure, the processes and the people will. The numbers are the outflow of everything else working, they’re our measure of whether we’re doing the right things.
In addition, he is wanting things to turn around immediately. However, this business owner didn’t get here overnight, so getting out of here overnight isn’t going to happen. The cause is the people, process and structure, it’s not “just business.” When you don’t address the personal you don’t get sustainable change.
Jayne McQuillan, CPA, MBA, CEPA is a strategic management consultant, certified exit planning adviser, and owner of Journey Consulting LLC.