Best Practices, Really?

A business following “best practices” or trying to match industry “benchmarks” is a good thing, right? I mean, why wouldn’t you compare yourself to others, make sure that you are doing things like everyone else in your industry? That lets you know you are on the right track. Seriously?

I recently left an industry that was full of best practices and benchmarking and all kinds of other comparisons to others in the industry. I think the feeling is that as long as you are at least as good as others in the industry then you must be doing it right.

There are several problems with this line of thinking. Here are a few of them:

  1. You really don’t have all the information on how the other company does things. They may have a different cost structure, they may classify things differently, or they may just not be accurate in the way they account for things.
  2. When you look at best practices you are setting a benchmark that says to your team: “if we hit this, then we are doing good”. Unfortunately, this may set the bar for your company too low and your team may quit seeking ways to be better, faster, or more in tune with your customers.

The only reason to look at best practice is to come up with a better practice. Don’t do it like they do. Do it better.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t be in tune with what is going on in your industry. But, “benchmarks” are what is left after those not good enough to get into the game get up off the bench, and “best practices” are what you are left to remember after you lost a game in which you were never a competitor. “Man, we had some really good practices”. Don’t let happen in your business

Instead of worrying about best practices and benchmarks try the following:

  1. Establish a baseline(s) where you are currently. These baselines can be Profitability (it better be one), Revenue, Production efficiency, etc.
  2. Identify the key dynamics that have gotten you there, or are keeping you there. These may be things like a declining market share, cost increases due to a finite supply of raw materials, excessive downtime, the city won’t let you expand, exceptional (or poor) customer service, better (or inferior) products, etc. This is NOT an exercise in discovering what is happening, you already know that, or you should. This is an exercise in discovering why it is happening and separating excuses from real dynamics that are impacting your business. You may be surprised to find out what these really are. You are after the root cause.
  3. Working with your team, and this is the key, set SMART goals (for the business as well as the individual components of your business) based on your discussions on how to overcome these dynamics. If you want  $1 million in EBITDA at the end of the year, and you were at, let’s say $100,00 last year, you better be able to uncover what has to change to make that a real possibility.  Break down these things that have to change into short-term (within the next month), medium-term (with two-six months) and long-term (seven-ten months). If you are wondering why there is nothing after the tenth month it is because if you have to do something that late in the year to make a difference you are in serious jeopardy of missing your mark.

When creating the action plan for your team, after you have determined what has to change, make sure you work with your team by asking the following types of questions: “what do we need to change to get our production efficiency to this number? What can we do in the next ninety days that will impact our collections enough to get to this number? We have to achieve this sales level by July, what is it that we need to do to get us to that number and still maintain our pricing levels?

You will notice that you are not just telling your team what you want to happen. You are having a very frank discussion about what is expected, and what needs to happen to meet those expectations, and if, those expectations need to be modified in terms of duration or quantitatively. The first answer is sometimes that “it can’t be done”, or “sure, we can do it but it is going to cost a lot, or it will be too hard, or…”. Don’t let that be the last answer. Sometimes, you have to apply kid logic. Just keep asking why after every answer until you get an answer that makes sense. Ok, as a kid you never got there, you just got “because I said so”. I am presuming no one on your team will try that approach.






Co-worker Dynamics: “my co-worker is a monster”

Let’s face it. We have all had the experience of working with someone who is difficult. You know the one. The Bully, The Do Nothing, The Obnoxious Loudmouth, the Negative Nancy, The Trouble Maker and The Know It All. Maybe you were one of these at one time. Actually, it is easy to fall into these traps without even really knowing it.  These employees can be toxic.

The other day I received an email from a friend that was having a problem with a co-worker. Now, this co-worker fits into a couple of these categories. My friend, whom we will call Pamela, is very much non-confrontational and struggles from time to time with seeing her own value.

The co-worker whom we will call Natalie continually asks Pamela to clock her in, or clock her out in the remote office in which they work. Pamela has refused to violate the most sacred of company policies and to her knowledge, no other person that she works with has either. To add to the issue, the company has recently begun using a software program that some of the employees have been reluctant to adopt. Pamela has implemented the new software which Natalie objects to. Natalie has been quite negative and even belligerent with Pamela because of this. She also comments to Pamela ” you are making us look bad because you are doing too much”.

I believe that many of you will say “Rat” her out to the manager”. And you would not be wrong.  After all, she is creating a hostile work environment. You would also not be right. These situations rarely are as straightforward for the employee as I have painted in this case. In this particular case, with the manager being remote, simply informing on the employee could paint Pamela as the one who is negative. Natalie, in the past, has always had good reviews from her past managers, her male managers. Some of these managers who are in the same office stop by sometimes to “chat” with Natalie. According to Pamela, Natalie flirts and is always “happy” when she gets these visits. So, it might not be as straightforward as just telling their current manager.

Pamela would be quite content just doing her job, regardless of what Natalie does or doesn’t do if she would just leave her alone. There is a negative impact on the group because of Natalie’s activity but Pamela is willing to trust management to eventually deal with that. Unfortunately, and I hate to tell my friend this, a lot of managers aren’t as smart, or on top of things and you think that they are, especially when they are working remotely.

So, what should Pamela do in this situation? I have some things that can be done, things that shouldn’t be done, and some things that might be done. I am sure that many of you will have ideas as well and I look forward to your comments.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Relax. This situation is “probably” correctible for everyone without a lot of pain for anyone.
  2. Plan to have a conversation with them. Unless you are willing to start with “scorched earth” and tell your supervisor what your issues are with the person you are going to have to initiate a conversation. Remember, unless you have tried to talk to them, you might be the one who gets scorched. I recommend the following prep for your conversation:
    1. Write down what your issues are and make sure you understand how to address them. Two or three issues tops. You don’t want to overwhelm them.
    2. Ask them if they have some time to talk.
    3. Address the issues one at a time. Ask passive questions Can you help me understand, can you explain why you think this way, do you realize that what you are doing is making you look bad to the company?
    4. Make sure that you let them explain what they are feeling, thinking about the issues. If you start feeling nervous, angry, etc, try using Mel Robbins “5-Second Rule” It is a pretty good technique for gaining control of your behavior.
    5. Be sure you explain what your issue with the behavior is. How it makes you feel, how it affects you, etc.
    6. Another tact, that will require less interaction, might be this: Write down the supervisors phone number and email address on a sticky-note or a piece of paper. Hand it to the employee and politely say: ” You are obviously having issues with what we are being asked to do. I can’t help you but here is the contact information for a person you really need to talk to”
  3. Make sure that you understand what is going on with the person. They may be having issues at home, health issues, etc. Even the best of us can let these outside issues influence our performance. That is not an excuse but an otherwise good coworker may be struggling.
  4. If the conversation doesn’t go as you expect, or your co-worker gets defensive then apologize and let them know that you appreciate their time. Let them know that you hope things can change.
  5. If this plan of action doesn’t work then you will have to resort to plan B. That is going to require that you talk to your manager. If the manager asks if you have talked to the offending co-worker you will be able to answer in the affirmative.

A note of caution: If you feel uncomfortable or feel threatened to have the discussion with your co-worker then don’t. This has to be an open and frank discussion and that won’t happen if you feel like you can’t speak your mind. If this is the case you will either have to put up with the situation or go straight to plan B… Telling you your manager.

If you are the manager and you know of or are informed of such a situation what you should do is very straightforward. Act, Act now and Act decisively or you risk putting your job and the company’s future in jeopardy!


Success at Last

We all want to be able to say that, right? Very few things in life sound as good. Maybe, you say it after trying to open that jar of pickles for what seems like hours and finally get it. Or, maybe it was on the camping trip when you just couldn’t get the fire going. We have all had those instances.

For the business owner, that aha moment often comes when the strategy or the product/service they were counting on finally starts to provide the revenues they had hoped for. But many business owners find these aha moments are rare and don’t provide the revenue stream they were counting on. Often times the issue isn’t the strategy, or product or service. It turns out to be a problem with execution. As a CFO that works with small and medium business entities (what the Gov’t calls SME’s) in the Louisville Kentucky Metro area I see that the difference between success and frustration is often a matter the plan not being executed properly.

Thomas Edison once said, ” vision without execution is just hallucination”.  This is so very true. It isn’t your idea that was the problem, it what how you acted on it or didn’t act on it. This was the very reason that I formed Conceptualized Dynamics. In talking to, and working with business owners and managers for the last thirty years I have heard too many of these sad stories.

I am one of the new breed of CFO’s (see What is a CFO ) that is focused on working with small and medium business owners. We are known by various titles, Part-Time CFO, Fractional CFO, On-Demand CFO, etc. I prefer to just be known as your CFO. I work with a business for a few hours a month or a few hours a week. I operate, if that is the need, just like a CFO for a large business. I can oversee the accounting function, help with developing strategy, develop reporting that is timely and accurate, help craft succession plans, exit strategies, etc.  I can even help you craft a turn-around plan if your business has gotten to that point.

Below are some things that Part-time CFO’s can help with:

  • Finance and Accounting -cashflow forecasting and analysis, ensuring financial statements are timely, A/R, A/P, etc. debt review, banking relationships, etc.
  • Insurance Related – Review policies to ensure proper coverage, make sure policies are competitively priced, write insurance RFQ’s if desired
  • Human Resources – Benefits review, succession planning, compensation reviews, policies & procedures (reviews, revisions, writing), etc.
  • Operations – production planning reviews, purchasing procedures, vendor negotiations, etc.
  • Strategy – growth strategies, marketing strategies, production strategies, turn around strategies, and/or exit strategies.

Not all businesses need all these services that this is not an all-encompassing list of things that I may be able to help with. There is simply no secret formula, no one size fits all engagement, no cookie cutter approach of “this is what you need”. I do have a process that I use to get to discover the help that you want or need. We decide together what the priorities are and we go to work. It is work, sometimes uncomfortable, but always rewarding when we get results.

You are inundated with information every day.  Information without transformation is just word-salad.

My name is Patrick Cowan and I work with you in a manner that you can afford, that makes sense for your business, and provides results, without and contracts. If you’re frustrated with the results you are getting from your business, not sure about the future, or are contemplating and exit from your business, let’s talk. As they say, talk is cheap and the initial consultation is free.


What is a CFO? A lighthearted look at this mythical beast

To many, a CFO is a mythical creature. Rarely seen outside the hallowed grounds of big business. They are sometimes perceived as evil beings that sell their services to the highest bidder. And while the perception is not really accurate, I understand this perception. Afterall, they ARE rarely seen outside the halls of big business. Most of them are actually pretty nice guys

Who are these mythical beasts? From a historical perspective, CFO’s are descendants of the early accountants, a beast commonly known as “bean counters”, which was not really an accurate name for the species but was derived from a very small subset, the genus: Homo-Beancounterus, who were, in fact, responsible for counting beans. Accountants (Homo-accounticus) like the subspecies beancounterus, are generally solitary creatures, preferring to spend time alone, especially during the period from January 1st through April 15th. Some other subspecies like to be alone at other times of the year as well.

The skills of CFO’s (accounticus-CFO) developed at an accelerated rate and they became less likely to spend time alone. Their ability to spend time around, and work closely with, those with other business specialties developed much faster than their accounting brethren. While they retained their accounting skills they took on new skills. In fact, they were the first to give up their pocket protectors, sleeve guards, eye shades and office cubicles in favor of the executive suites. But these highly developed beings, while accepted by big business, have not always been accepted by the SME business community.  This is most like because of two things.

  1. Little is known about the benefits these beasts bring to the SME business.
  2. Until recently is simply cost too much to feed these beasts because once you placed them on your team you had to feed them every day. Accouticus-CFO is a ravenous beast. If they couldn’t be fed enough they simply left.

This is changing rapidly now. There is a new species of CFO (Accounticus-CFO-partimicus). These are not simply CFO’s who have fallen from the grace of big business. They have developed a taste for working with SME’s and the special set of skills required.

This new breed is comfortable in the land of IT (no, not Stephen Kings Pennywise’s land), Human Resources, Legal, Risk Management as well as Accounting and Finance. While they do not create software programs, are not lawyers, HR managers or loss prevention specialists, they have become adept at folding these areas of business into the strategic fabric of the business overall. They have seen much in their travels in the land of big business so they can teach much in the land of SME’s. They work exclusively at the behest of the owner, the boards of directors, CEO or presidents of these companies.

So what do they do, these mythical beasts? They come in and help an owner, or manager of business get more out of that business. They will coach, or dissect, or even manage parts of the business if that is what is needed. They will find areas that can be improved and they will help the business to develop processes that allow that to happen. And yes, they will still make sure the accounting is correct, that financials are timely and make sure that you always know what your cash position is and is expected to be. These beasts don’t look back, They see no real value in what happened yesterday. Your accountants can do that.

Beware however of the imposters. Those accountants that are CFO’s in name only. How can you tell if they are imposters?

  1. They have no experience working as the senior level accountant (CFO, VP of Finance, Division Controller in some cases) with large business
  2. In many cases they have no practical business experience, having never worked in industry but rather only in public accounting. I am a CPA and I love my profession. However, I left public accounting many years ago. I did not learn all of what I know from working on tax returns and performing audits. That is not to say there are not exceptions to this rule. Just beware.
  3. They have little or no strategic planning experience
  4.  They will only tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear in order the keep you as a client. They will often talk in generalities, not specifics.
  5. They use all the current buzz words without knowing the real meaning behind them.
  6. They do not get to know your needs before they share their’s (often in the form of an invoice)

What are the characteristics of CFO-Partimicus?

  1. They should be honest. Even to the point of delivering the cold hard truth. Even if it is uncomfortable.
  2. These are ethical creatures, or should be. They should not be comfortable letting you do something that is wrong simply to keep you as a client.
  3. They are strategic thinkers who have an eye on your future as much as on their own.
  4. They have worked as the Senior Financial Manager in big businesses (CFO, VP of Finance, Divisional Controller in some cases). All of their experience need not have been in big business and in many cases, experience working with SME businesses is a strong advantage. But, this should not be all of their experience. They really need to have spent time up where the dragons are to understand how to get the fire.
  5. They are adept at working with Human Resources, Legal, Operations, IT, as well as other parts of the business. In many cases, they have had the responsibility for managing these areas. Some of us have been the COO’s for the business as well as the CFO.
  6. And, dare I say, some of them like me have a sense of humor, albeit strange at times.

If you need them or want to see if they can help you, CFO-partimicus is around.

I am Patrick Cowan and this has been a humorous look at the Part-Time CFO. If you would like to learn more about CFO’s, Conceptualized Dynamics or would simply like to let me know what you think of this article please reach out to me.






Your Business Priorities for 2018

Even as we are going through the final rush of this Christmas season, it is time for us to determine our priorities for 2018. In a recent article from CFO magazine, they listed the top priorities of six CFO’s for some fairly large companies. Each of the companies was in a different industry ((the full article is here).

As I was read the article I began to have this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. It came from my realization that even smaller businesses are faced with these same issues but they may not have a CFO to help them. Here are the priorities of CFO’s from some large companies that are helping flush out the plans of their companies. You may not have a CFO to help you, but you should have some priorities. Have you thought about your priorities for 2018? How will you execute them?

How do the priorities for these larger companies translate to smaller local or independent businesses? Below are the priorities from the article. I have tried to distill the meat of the article to a few words followed by my thoughts and some suggestions for the smaller business owners or managers:

Here are the priorities of those CFO’s:

A) Survive Disruption – they were specifically referring to the “Amazon effect” and balancing the disruption that comes with growing against just keeping the lights on.

My thoughts: If you are able to read this, and by that, I mean alive and breathing, then you have experienced the “Amazon Effect”. Lower priced, quicker delivery times, and yes disrupting markets to the point of competitors, large and small alike, closing down. Before Amazon, it was the Walmart effect. The truth is that small and medium businesses have struggles that some large businesses do not. So, keeping the lights, making payroll, etc. are challenges that always have to be weighed against “possible” growth plans.


  • create a culture where your customer enjoys shopping your business more than surfing Amazon’s website. It is convenient to surf so you have to compete.
  • be unique in your product offering, your service, and the shopping experience you create.
  • make sure they know you are here, what you offer and why you are a better option.
  • create a better shopping experience for them.

Do Not:

  • give up.
  • assume this is a marketing problem. It is much more than that.
  • assume that you can’t compete.
  • Assume that there is nothing unique about your business, or unique enough about your business to make a difference.

B) Raise Prices –  This is self-explanatory

My thoughts: this should be a priority every year. Price increases go straight to the bottom line (a point they make in the article as well).  Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, not so fast. It doesn’t matter what type of business you are in, your prices are in direct competition with your customers/ clients common sense. If what you raise your prices to is so much that their common sense alarm goes off, your customers are off to surf the web regardless of the customer experience in your business.


  • raise prices if you can.
  • price “main” products and “supporting” products differently. Go easy on the main, and squeeze a little more out of the supporting products.
  • research what your competitors are charging.
  • keep prices within reason of your competitor’s known prices unless your service is that much better and adds value.

Do not:

  • raise prices across-the-board
  • cave to the pressure at the first complaint that your prices are too high
  • attempt to “gouge” on any items. Your customers will forgive getting charged a little more than your competitor but they will not forgive pricing abuse.
  • keep prices the same year after year.
  • assume that you can bomb a price and make it up in volume.

C)Drive a “Culture of Data” – the essence of the article is referring to leveraging data to create growth.

My Thoughts: This is hard for some businesses or at least part of it is. In this context I want data to be synonymous with information. You can never have too much information unless it paralyzes you. You should make it a point to know your business/market.


  • be sure that you have systems in place to make sure that you have the information to make informed decisions in your business.
  • make sure you are getting timely and accurate financial statements, including a cash flow forecast.
  • make sure that you stay up on latest trends in your industry
  • make sure that you know what your competitors are doing
  • make sure you know the source of your customers
  • use technology to gain an edge/stay relevant in your industry

Do not: 

  • buy anything that you do not need. In some cases, information can be acquired without investing in technology. Technology can be costly
  • go out and buy the latest in software without doing the proper research
  • buy all the options in software at the outset unless they are absolutely needed and can’t be added later.
  • don’t try to manage the implementation of an IT project by yourself. Your job is running the business, don’t take your eyes off that ball.


D) Execute Crisply – what this CFO is talking about is making decisions quickly. They don’t think it is necessary to wait for every fact or figure to make a decision… they are focused on moving away from the paralysis of analysis.

My Thoughts: Every business can learn this. Get the best information available and make the decision. You do not have to have every little tidbit of information, just the important stuff. This company had also pushed decision making down to its senior managers, along with the accountability for those decisions.


  • get the necessary information to make decisions
  • make decisions timely and decisively
  • make managers responsible for decisions that are consistent with their job titles and capabilities.

Do Not:

  • wait for every little bit of information to come in
  • procrastinate when making decisions
  • spend more time second-guessing decisions than you spend working on execution

E) Increase Margins – this CFO is looking at increasing revenue by introducing different products to her customers.

My Thoughts: Increasing margins is always a great thought. As you know there are two parts to this equation… Revenue and Costs. You may already be focused on this. Or, as I see sometimes, you may be locked into a “we are as tight as we can be” attitude. You might be, but then again, isn’t it worth taking a second look.


  • increase prices as the market will allow
  • review all vendor relationships, things change and there may be a better option for supply
  • focus on productivity
  • Incentivise your team for productivity gains with shorter-term incentives based on measurable output and/or cost reduction

Do Not:

  • try to simply squeeze the workforce for more productivity.
  • start and stop incentive plans. Have a clear timetable for the beginning and end of incentive plans.
  • change supplies based solely on price. Make sure that you examine the value proposition for all suppliers
  • change prices flatly across the board.
  • make wholesale cuts in cost (usually translated as headcount) without thorough investigation and a well thought out plan

F) Invest for Growth – this CFO is talking about reinvesting in the business in areas that improve their capabilities. They are only willing to do that if they are able to maintain their margins within a targeted range. This kind of a strategy often requires a thorough look at your processes.

My Thoughts: To really invest in growth you have to know your business. Specifically, you need to know what is driving profitability or what is stealing from your profitability.  If you have this luxury, let your managers manage the day to day operations, with some oversight of course. It is hard to have a vision for the future if you cant see out of the foxhole.


  • examine your business for opportunities to grow.
  • examine processes with an eye toward making changes that can lead to better productivity
  • examine your processes for ways to improve the customer experience
  • invest in those things that will lead to the growth of your customer base or existing customer purchases
  • thorough research before investing. I have seen many examples in my career where simply asking the right questions could have saved a lot of money and remorse.

Do Not:

  • invest without doing the proper analysis – ROI, cash flow projections, etc.
  • simply rely on the justification that managers provide – their view can be influenced by their beliefs
  • not throw money at a problem and expect it to be miraculously fixed.
  • invest in growth that will take you beyond your capabilities. This will lead to disaster
  • INVEST IN GROWTH WITHOUT A NEAR, SHORT AND LONG-TERM PLAN. I think of this as a “One-Three-Five” plan, viewed in terms of years.

As a final note to business owners: It is Ok to ask for help. There are a number professionals that are focused on providing CFO help to small and medium businesses. I know quite a few of them. They may have even shared this blog with you. Make sure you understand how they work, what the cost might be, and what the deliverables are going to be. They should be someone that you feel comfortable sharing important and sometimes personal information.

I hope that you will find this information useful. However, this is not a how-to guide on how to do these things. Many of them you will be able to do on your own if you can make time. The effect of not doing them because you don’t have time is the same as every other reason for not taking action. It can be devastating to your business. Some of you may want to get some help with flushing out these priorities.  A good CFO should be able to help you with these and will give you value that exceeds their cost. CFO’s with a reasonable amount of experience will be able to help with numerous facets of your business. Financial issues for sure but did you know that many CFO’s can shed light on productivity, insurance costs, legal costs, H/R issues, etc.

Feel free to reach out to me at with questions or comments. Due to the number of responses, it may not be possible to answer all of them individually but they may be incorporated in a future blog.