Luke Johnson: Work on your winners

Our serial entrepreneur says it's time to ditch the low performers in your business.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2011

A recurring conundrum for management: should business leaders focus on their problem units or their high performers? Human nature tends towards fixing imperfections, so we concentrate too much on the marginal operations - which will only ever irritate but never move the financial dial. Whereas more effort applied to the winners will almost always reap the greatest returns.

Virtually every chain of shops or restaurants I have owned has presented this challenge. It takes a disproportionate amount of executive time to try to turn around the poor sites and make them decently profitable. Moreover, such exercises can be demoralising, for usually there are fundamental reasons why transformation is impossible. The brutal but rational course of action is usually to decapitate the runts by closing or selling them; and then to redirect one's energies towards making the best even better.

But you need to explore every possibility before giving up. I remember when PwC prepared due diligence on Pizza Express for us before our takeover in 1992, and announced definitively that the largest branch in the group, the Golden Cross in Oxford, would never make a profit, despite being the most expensive opening the business had ever undertaken. Within three months of our assuming control it was the most profitable restaurant we owned.

I often take Addison Lee minicabs to work. Overall, they offer an excellent service - reliable, comfortable, with smart, friendly drivers - and their tariff is perhaps 20% lower than black cabs. Unfortunately, they are not permitted to compete properly by plying for business on the public highway - so allowing overpriced black cabs to continue their protectionist racket.

Frequently, I find London's legendary taxi drivers grumpier than ever. They sit in shorts and vest, talking on the phone, and if you recommend a preferred route they behave as if you have sworn at them. Our black cabs are probably the most expensive taxis in the world, but so often the levels of service provided to passengers are pitiful. It's no wonder that nowadays they get minimal tips.

Modern satellite navigation means the qualification to be a taxi driver, the Knowledge, is irrelevant - but the authorities persist with this arcane training, forcing would-be cabbies to study for years. This creates artificial barriers to entry, and gives existing black cab drivers a sense of entitlement to above-market pay. A high proportion of drivers are white, male and well over 50, and lots do not bother to work many days a week, thanks to years of lucrative earnings and adroit tax management. So a high proportion of black cabs are underused.

The entire system needs reinventing. More and cheaper vehicle models need licensing, so it is less expensive to own and repair them. Many more medallions need issuing, to provide more cabs on the streets. Old-fashioned training must be scrapped and replaced with satnav technology to encourage more diverse and younger recruits to the profession. And fares need slashing, so that more of London's citizens and tourists can afford to use taxis.

Our politicians and regulators are intimidated by lobby groups like the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, but the legislators should be bolder and seek wholesale reform. Consumers are being cheated by a poor-value monopoly, and the world's greatest city deserves better.

These are challenging times to find attractive places to invest your cash. Most asset classes - equities, bonds, commodities - look expensive. But one category where values really have collapsed is a home in the sun. In particular, I have been following the fortunes of residential real estate in Florida and southern Spain. I would say that, in both regions, apartment and house prices have fallen by as much as 50% from their highs of a few years ago. In many examples, a cash buyer can pay the same price as 10 years ago.

For buyers, Florida is perhaps the more interesting play, as, thanks to large numbers of bank foreclosures, there are many forced sellers. But in Spain most home owners and lenders seem to be in complete denial about the market, so transaction volumes are extremely low. Eventually, reality will assert itself in southern Spain and there will be massive and painful adjustment - but it seems not yet, on a large scale anyway.

Of course, just because prices are perhaps half of what they were, it doesn't mean that the property is cheap. But, in comparison to London prices, the figures are startling. You can buy a picturesque beachfront house in a pleasant Florida resort for 15% or less of the equivalent per-square-foot price of a prime London home. In Spain and Florida you really can buy a civilised apartment for less than £75,000.

On a usage basis, owning a holiday home rarely makes any economic sense. After you take taxes, insurance, transaction fees, wear and tear, and other running costs into account, it is almost always cheaper to rent than to buy. And, given the vast amount of inventory that must be sold in both Spain and Florida before prices truly recover, it may be dead money for several years.

But such purchases are always an emotional rather than an entirely rational decision. After all, you get little human pleasure out of a share or bond certificate. It is all about the pride of ownership. And if a little appreciation over the years covers the cost of owning the home, perhaps overall it's not a bad bet.

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