by Robin R. Mueller
What if you—a small-business owner or entrepreneur—could write a want ad like this?
WANTED: A small-business consultant who charges nothing during the time he gets to know my business. After exhaustive financial, sales and operational review, he not only writes a strategic plan to address my most crucial problems but also, hands-on, helps me implement each step.
This may include firing, hiring and training people; teaching me how to negotiate to my best advantage with vendors; meeting and helping close sales with the customers of my dreams; and increasing my profit margin while optimizing my operations.
My cost: Usually performance-based, a small percentage of new growth attained within six months to a year.
Too good to be true? Meet Mark Birsinger of St. Louis-based M.A. Birsinger & Co. He’s a 20-year veteran of sales, marketing and business management; a former small-business owner; and an experienced problem solver determined to help small-business owners who need to rescue their companies from the brink or take them to the next level.
“I’m a marketing and sales person by trade and an analytical person by nature,” says Birsinger. “I’m a problem solver. I know to read a P&L (profit and loss) statement; do the research to ferret out the sales, supply and operational problems; and help a small-business owner learn how to grow intelligently.”
He admits, “If I’m not sleeping, I’m working.” This obsession with his craft has created a varied career path. After starting in the cable industry, he eventually started a sales and marketing consulting firm, working with medium-sized clients nationwide.
By the time he was in his late 30s, his hectic travel schedule and health problems forced him to reconsider his work life. “My rest period lasted just two weeks,” he says with a laugh. “Through all these years of developing strategic plans for dozens of companies, I had one life quest: Why won’t people change? They know they need to change. Every indicator shows them they must change. Why won’t they do it? I thought, ‘Either I suck at research and strategic plans or it’s implementation.’ That’s when I decided to do business in this unique way. I wanted to make a real difference. I wanted to help owners change and experience the full potential of their business.”
Birsinger’s business grows by referrals from a network of bankers, accountants and attorneys who ask him to help their clients. The small businesses he works with have gross sales ranging from $200,000 to $10 million.
“Many owners are great engineers or chemists or technicians, but many are not great managers and businesspeople, so they need some help,” he says. “They’re doing so much of the day-to-day tasks in survival mode that they don’t see the underlying problems. Many owners grab whatever business they can get with little regard for true profitability, so they risk growing themselves out of business.”
Birsinger says 90% of businesses face common problems and root causes: sales issues (poor pricing, lack of expertise), too much overhead (too much spending, inventory control issues), wasteful marketing (lack of a plan, poor reporting and analysis), poor purchasing (poor negotiation skills) and improper sales channels (poor research and strategic planning).
He works directly with company owners. “They’re the sole decision makers. They have to trust me and be transparent, open all the books, let me interview all their employees top to bottom, discover all the sales obstacles hands-on, and let me get to the root of the problems.
“After I learn about their business, I write actionable two- or three-page plans. I document the numbers, cite problem areas and prioritize changes that will help turn around the business.
“A lot of people say, ‘You’ve oversimplified my business,’ and I answer: ‘You’ve overcomplicated it. Begin to make these changes, bit by bit, and give me six months to help you implement them. If they don’t work, payment is based on results.’”
In many cases, Birsinger writes up a contract for payment that is based on performance, tied to a percentage of the business growth attained within six months to a year. A 30-day clause allows either party to end the agreement “if they’re dissatisfied or uncomfortable.”
Birsinger has discovered that “many companies move a lot of money, but they’re not keeping enough of it to support future growth. Sales revenue is good, but better business-critical reporting and controls are necessary to preserve profits. Often, business owners are working with reporting information that’s 30 to 45 days old.”
A consumer products reseller, for example, carried more than 100 products from many manufacturers, all with different margins. The company was using a simple average margin, not the weighted margin necessary to show true gross profit, so in some cases it was selling products at a loss.
“We quickly identified this and corrected it by creating a report to deliver proper percentages across the board,” says Birsinger.
“Many small-business owners are squeezed from all sides—vendors, manufacturers, retailers. I’ve found that most people are weak in negotiation skills. I get the ball rolling. I get on the plane with them, talk to prospects and help make that sale.”
Birsinger also says many small businesses “spend a lot of money on marketing but have no idea if it’s paying off. Most owners have all the data but don’t know how to extract, configure or analyze it to increase operational efficiencies, evaluate expenditures and maximize margins.”
One manufacturer was turning away just-in-time orders because of production limits until Birsinger asked him to add up the costs of lost orders. “Those earnings would more than cost-justify a second shift. It’s always a problem when sales and operations don’t speak to each other,” Birsinger says.
He also has found that business owners rush to hire crack salespeople “who make two to three times what they are but who are plucking off just the low-hanging fruit.”
“They need to create a well-defined sales process with oversight, including how to price, sell and position their product. When you do that, your salespeople should reach their full potential.”
Fueled by a desire to see companies succeed and create positive change, Birsinger offers a unique approach that goes beyond the run-of-the-mill business consultant. “I go in and help with every step, model the change and show them how to turn things around. It’s a win-win. They’re going to see new profits and opportunities; I’m going to see my business recommendations implemented and working. It’s satisfying and gratifying for both of us.”
Robin R. Mueller, president of Write Direction, writes newsletters, brochures, direct mail letters, proposals and more for diverse corporate clients. Contact Robin at email@example.com.