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3 Ways Finance Can Help Improve Operating Margins

One of the challenges facing today’s finance executives is improving operating margins for the business. Top-line growth is very slow, inflationary pressures are causing higher input costs, and customers are pushing for innovative new products and services, albeit at discounted prices. All these factors, among others, are significantly squeezing company margins left, right and centre.

Uncertainty is the norm today, rendering tried and tested ways of creating value unfit for purpose. Thus, finance executives and their teams have to come up with new innovative and agile ways of capturing value and striving in this environment, while at the same time keeping costs down. Look no further than the number of profit warnings, earnings miss and business closure announcements by companies of all types and sizes. This just shows how the pressures on margins are considerably increasing, and also not expected to abate anytime soon.

When it comes to improving operating margins, many finance executives normally make one of these common mistakes. Implement across the board cost-cutting initiatives (mostly focused on reducing employment costs), raise products/services prices, or offer steep pricing discounts with the hope that the discounting will boost revenues and translate into higher operating margins. The problem with these approaches is that they fail to take into consideration the value-add to the customer.

So what must finance do?

Think and Act Differently

Most of the time the finance executive’s focus is on improving specific elements of the Income Statement, instead of the entire business. This in turn results in the finance organization embarking on one-off cost reduction initiatives, that fail to differentiate and understand the difference between good and bad cost.

Instead of focusing on cost reduction, heavy discounting and price increases, the CFO and the team must apply innovative, non-traditional thinking to margin management. They need to have a deeper understanding of the forces (both internal and external) driving the business margins. Many finance executives are aware of the factors influencing their margins. But, do they really know the significant drivers at granular levels for each product, channel, geography, segment, market, or business unit?

Thinking differently and making use of ABC/M, Customer Life-cycle Value and Customer/Product Profitability Analysis techniques can help CFOs understand their organization’s costs and their drivers. It also helps them to think beyond historical top-line focus and current constraints, and focus on doing the right things. For example, the CFO will be able to ask and answer the following questions:

  • What does our customers value most?
  • Is our current value proposition delivering customer value?
  • Do we need to change our current business operating model?
  • Should we sell all the under-performing assets or not?
  • Should we exit all the under-performing businesses, brands, markets or channels?

In order to improve operating margins, it is critical that executives consistently apply margin management to the entire business. You need to manage margin the end to end processes of the entire value chain, and find a more integrated way of driving overall results as opposed to one element of the income statement or business. This helps eliminate waste and also leads to more transparent and informed decision making.

Make Insight-Driven Decisions

Although information systems have improved significantly, many organizations are still struggling to benefit from their use. For instance, there is an organization class that is still reliant on primitive systems that are no longer fit for purpose in today’s data driven-economy. Then there is another class of organizations who have implemented modern technologies to enhance decision making but are struggling to integrate these with existing systems or have experienced dismal implementations with far-reaching consequences.

The modern finance organization must leverage data and analytics to inform margin decision-making. For instance, CFOs can make use of advanced predictive modelling and simulation tools to identify drivers of margin, calculate margins under different scenarios and evaluate ways of improving the margins.

Care must be taken that you do not embark on a data-hoarding spree without first understanding why you need that specific data. You need to make sure that you are collecting the right data to analyse and extract meaning from, otherwise you will end up wasting your time, energy and resources analyzing wrong data and generating ineffective insights. Information is only as valuable as the decisions it drives.

Wrong data collection often results in ineffective analysis and generation of misleading insights which ultimately leads to slow and ineffective decision making. This also causes the business to react slowly to new opportunities and threats. Instead of being proactive, overall decision-making is mostly reactive.

When margin decisions are made based on insights, more emphasis is placed on adding value to the customer and not on quick fixes such as slashing more costs. You can cut costs only up to a certain extent, long-term this is not sustainable. Hence the need to find alternative ways of boosting margins. Evidenced-based decision making also enables executives to develop a more detailed understanding of the full set of profitability drivers for the company.

Cultivate a Margin-Focused Culture

Delivering improved margins also requires the organization to develop a common understanding of the meaning of margin management and why this is crucial.  This is necessary to promote accountability, drive the right behaviours across the organization and ensure that margin optimization remains a key priority.

Successful fostering of this culture depends on senior management buy-in and involvement. If the drive is coming from the very top, it becomes easier to embed the culture into the business and make margin improvement an everyday part of the decision making processes. Senior executives have to therefore show a commitment to margin improvement otherwise the middle and lower level employees will also not be committed.

CFOs are better placed to drive this culture because of their constant engagement with the business – Sales, Marketing, Operations, R&D etc. By collaboratively working with other business units, finance executives can provide them with the information and the tools they need to make decisions that support profitability goals. They can also help put in place metrics that are not focused on volume alone but also drive the right behaviours and stimulate growth.

Furthermore, CFOs have to ensure that they are consistently reporting and reviewing margin performance across all brands, product categories, channels, segments and markets on a monthly basis. This will enable margin management to get embedded in the fabric of the business, and also be fully integrated with the broader strategy of the business.

Improving operating margins is not the responsibility of the finance organization only. It should be everyone’s concern. However, finance must lead the conversation. The CFO must ensure that the right operating model and capabilities have been developed to identify areas of margin leakage and define improvement actions.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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