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Should we kill off unproductive companies?

The out-of-business business.

Closing down. Photograph: Getty Images

The out-of-business business has done a roaring trade this month, as a walk down any high street will testify.  But the staff of one closed store using their empty shop window to advertise themselves as available for work was a heartbreakingly public illustration of what each redundancy actually represents. Stories like that one have been painful to read, but it was both right and necessary that the media (including this newspaper) made space for the victims of these events.

Amid the concern for the newly-jobless, however, has come new talk around an old idea: the notion that some insolvencies can actually promote recovery in the economy. The theory is that labour and capital can be released from fundamentally unproductive companies, to re-enter the system in some more productive context.

For that to hold true in practice, however, the conditions must be in place for capital and labour to be reabsorbed into the economy. That means strong growth – assets find a market, staff find new jobs, creditors can offset loss. But an economy which is currently only adding new jobs at the rate of a few thousand a month will struggle to place the newly-redundant back into work. Therefore, one must sound a note of caution before we decide that unproductive companies should all be killed off.  If the current rash of large-scale insolvencies was indeed a side-effect of the recovery, there would be no cause to worry, but that is clearly not the case.  The economy is simply not adding enough jobs to re-employ those left without work.

By the time a business enters administration, it is generally beyond all help, but the end should not come as a surprise to those in charge. One reason that it might, is that the means used to measure productivity within companies are often inadequate, and provide an incomplete picture at best.  It’s fairly easy for the leader of a small business to look around his or her office and, from the ringing of the phone alone, gain a fairly clear grasp of the productivity of their company.  It’s far harder for the management of a retail chain with hundreds of locations and thousands of employees. That’s a major problem because, if business leaders cannot analyse productivity effectively, then many of their decisions will be based on little more than guesswork.

When attempting to arrest a slide in revenue, or a loss of market share, it ought to be relatively simple to identify the points at which productivity and effectiveness can be improved.  These might include things like closer centralised control of planned absences like holidays, to reduce reliance on costly agency staff; another might be better assessment of the peaks and troughs of customer demand.  Indicators like these allow a much clearer insight into whether problems are internal or external, and whether internal reforms, or more radical measures, are required to return the organisation to health. 

Similarly, the measurement (and projection) of customer loyalty is often left to the most basic analysis, while the factors affecting it are multifarious and complex. No business’s cashflow is immune from the impact of customer loyalty, whether positive or negative, and any kind of long-term planning demands some means to accurately predict what will motivate customers to keep spending.  Indeed, research suggests business leaders are not doing enough to impress their customers: less than half of UK consumers say they are satisfied with the service they receive from organisations including retailers, banks and phone companies.

Of course, some firms do fall victim to truly exogenic factors, and not all businesses can succeed, but those are largely the exception rather than the rule.  Bosses should not be spared blame if they do not do all they can to identify and fix inefficiencies within their business or, indeed, if they pretend to be surprised when their creditors finally run out of patience.

One of the most horrid features of the recent series of bankruptcies was the extent to which staff were kept in ignorance of the state of the company.  At the shop mentioned previously, employees only found out that the company had folded when a journalist phoned the store to ask for comment. That’s unforgiveable – when the writing is on the wall, executives should recognise it, and seek to wind up their company in an orderly fashion. 

Equally unforgivable is if they never made an effort to read that writing in the first place. Business leaders carry an inherent responsibility for those that work for them, ensuring that they stay productive and that the business keeps competing. That entails a duty to make mature decisions about the future of the business, and a duty to do so in full possession of the facts.

Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.