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« Modelo, ABI and US beer distributors | Main | MillerCoors, Chesbay, Reyes and an industry in play »

Are employees an asset or an expense?

Before we begin the post let’s think one more time about Iran and Israel and what it might mean for your business.  Some pundits think the US presidential election is going to drive the timing/decision of a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear activities.  Their thinking is…

  • If the Israelis think Romney is going to win, they will delay their attack since they believe the Romney administration will be more supportive than the present one.
  • If the Israelis think Obama is going to win, they will attack before the election since they believe Obama will be forced politically to be more supportive than after beginning a second term.

Right now the polls have the presidential race as pretty much a toss-up… what do you think?  If you were the Israelis how much certainty would you need before deciding?  If in their position what would you risk?  If the Israelis attack (and they certainly believe the threats coming from Iran about wiping them off the face of the earth) it could unleash who knows what.  Fuel prices will certainly spike… but for how long?  How high?  What about the rest of the economy?  It all depends what happens after the attack.  Do the Iranians retaliate but not directly or do they unleash the dogs of war?  How will the other countries in the region respond?  There is of course the schism between the Arabs and Persians and the Shiites and Sunnis… is their animosity towards Israel greater than their animosity towards the other?  Do they really want to join the fight or do they instead focus on their own issues?  Will the governments decide or will the mobs?  Or do they see this as the opportunity to once and for all push the Israelis into the sea?  If so, who knows how it all turns out.  Not much you or I can do about it anyway but it could significantly impact your operations.  If the Israelis go before the election, it will probably happen sooner rather than later.  Just something to think about.

And now the post…

Now I don’t want to get too cerebral for you… and for me it is a journey to a far-away land ;-) but think about that, are your employees an asset or an expense?  Are they simply a cost of doing business?  Are they not too different from your electrical or propane costs?  Necessary costs of doing business but just that… in which case you should attempt to minimize these costs just as you would any other business expense.

Or are employees an asset?  The Free Dictionary describes asset as:

  • A useful or valuable quality, person, or thing; an advantage or resource.
  • A valuable item that is owned.
  • Assets - Accounting.  The entries on a balance sheet showing all properties, both tangible and intangible, and claims against others that may be applied to cover the liabilities of a person or business. Assets can include cash, stock, inventories, property rights, and goodwill.

Some have taken the thinking to an extreme and asked if employees are truly an asset, then why aren’t they listed somewhere on the balance sheet?  If you consider the last two definitions the answer to this is rather straightforward… that type of physical asset can be sold or turned into other tangible things of value… since you don’t own your employees you can’t sell them (dang it!), thus they are aren’t a balance sheet item.

But back to the main question, are they assets or expenses?  This question is not as straight forward as one might thing.  In our warm and fuzzy world our quick response is OF COURSE our employees are valuable assets.  But if that is truly the case then why would you want to automate your warehouse?  Why would you get rid of the full-time receptionist and instead install an automated phone system?  Why would you do any action which reduces head count?  Having $10,000 in cash (an asset) is “better” than having only $10.  Having a building worth $10M is “better” than having a building worth only $100K.  If employees are an asset then why isn’t it the same with them? 

First a side note on why I am asking this… I have heard a similar story from multiple sources on multiple occasions regarding the top folks at ABI (and this experience has been repeated multiple times across the country)… and the story goes something like this… one of the big dogs from ABI was visiting a distributor’s warehouse.  The distributor was proud of his operations and his people and put on a dog-and-pony show for this exec.  He showcased all of his beer folks… good ol’ Jim has been with us 45 years… Bill has 30 years’ experience in the beer business… Sue has 25 years, etc. etc.  In all this company has over 200 years (or some such number) of beer knowledge.  After the dog-and-pony the owner and the exec where walking out to the exec’s car… the exec (just in passing) noted that the owner should get rid of all those old employees, they cost too much.  So are employees an asset or an expense?

I am told there aren’t too many folks in St. Louis that are over 30 years old these days.  I think there is just one “old” senior AB guy left.  Assets or expenses?  Since the InBev acquisition ABI has had their share of production issues… assets or expenses?

Actually I think the entire question is wrong… just because we have the ability to construct a sentence doesn’t mean that sentence has any validity… any existence in the real world.  Long ago I had a great management professor who described the evolution of management thought as follows…

First was the Hands theory of management.  Employees where simply hands… and these hand were used to accomplish certain tasks.  And when the hands couldn’t do it anymore, you simply threw them away and got another set of hands.  This time period was the early industrial revolution where the vast majority of employees were involved in physical labor to some degree or another.  This was also the time of the growth in unions (quite rightly in many situations).  But as time went by it became more and more obvious that employees where more than a set of hands and that attempting to manage them as such was simply not effective (we’ll leave the morality out of it for now).

Then after World War II the technological revolution began in earnest.  It was a time of great scientific and industrial advancement… the time of Sputnik and the race to the moon.  Here we evolved into the Head theory of management.  Employees were logical creatures and if we simply presented the logic of our goals/desires, they would happily get in line.  At its core this thinking implied employees where much like the character Spock on the old TV show Star Trek… driven by pure logic.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) people are not like this at all.

Thus bringing on the third phase, the Heart theory of management.  Now the time is the 70’s where the entire culture was undergoing a transformation.  The Heart theory was based on the premise that if we simply all held hands, stared into each other’s eyes and sang Kumbaya all would be well.  Employees and owners would all magically be on the same page as the entire organization marched happily toward success for all.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) people are much more than simply heart… and not all hearts are remotely alike nor carry the love for all.

My management professor’s point was that each was right and wrong at the same time… employees (people) ARE hands… but they are heads too… and they are hearts too.  And to be an effective manager you need to address your employees as such, a complete integrated person where each part is equally important.  Sure some folks are more head than heart; then manage them as such.  Some are more heart than head; then again, manage them as such, etc., etc.

So what does this have to do with the initial question?  It too is both right and wrong at the same time.  Of course employees are assets… trying delivering beer without them.  Of course employees are expenses, they aren’t free and the more you have the more costs you incur… and not all employees are the same.  The very best of the best is worth more than one who can barely meet minimum standards… and please note I state this from a business perspective, not a moral one.  Not to get too Kumbaya on you – as you well know, I am a very sensitive fellow ;-) but from a moral viewpoint, each and every human is just as valuable as the next.  God can sort it out from there.

But from a business perspective not every employee/position has the same asset value as all others.  I have a personal bias (because I think it is the correct choice) that I would rather have fewer but better.  If I am going into battle I’d rather have 50 highly trained, highly motivated soldiers than 150 draftees who would much rather be somewhere else. 

I think the same about business.  There is only so much payroll available… I’d rather have a few less employees but have all top performers.  And yes, top performers get top compensation.  That’s the way the world works.  The employment market is much like a very large auction, you are bidding on a set of skills against other bidders.  If the market price for these skills is $X, you cannot expect to purchase these skills for much less than $X.  You can try, but other than a few “lucky” ones, it ain’t going to happen.  So if you want the best (again, not a moral statement), then you have to pay for the best.  Now you can of course overpay for these skills (a mistake made by far too many), just like you can overpay at the auction, but you cannot consistently underpay.

And these top performers should be across the company.  I want the best warehouse folks I can find… I want the best office staff I can find… I want every employee to be the best I can find.  I have yet to see a business (of any nature) grow and succeed by hiring the least qualified (cheapest) employees they can find, whether it’s flipping burgers or working a truck or writing computer software.  But that’s my bias.

In addition, a business is an integrated system; it is a living breathing organism where each part affects the other… the entire concept of one functional piece being more important than another is simply wrong.  As I have noted before, the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after takeoff killing all on board.  It was a truly amazing system, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.  The cause of the catastrophic explosion?  The failure of a part which costs $5.00.  Ask those dead astronauts what the most important part of the space shuttle was.  Don’t think a quality receptionist is important?  Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a company which has a lousy one?  Everything is important.

So yes, employees are an asset AND an expense… all at the exact same time.  Is the ABI advice correct?  Get rid of those old guys ‘cause they cost too much.  Again, it depends.  If you are simply paying them big dollars because they can still fog a mirror, then you are making a mistake.  If you are paying them big dollars because of the value they bring, then you are making a wise choice (and remember the auction, ultimately you don’t get to determine compensation anyhow, the marketplace does that).  And of course you can never forget that your employees are watching everything.  Loyalty is a door which swings both ways… if you want your employees to be loyal to you, you must be loyal to them… are you listening ABI and MC?

As an example, I had a client who had an older employee who didn’t add that much value to the org.  He might have been a hard charger at one time but he simply wasn’t bringing it to the table anymore.  Everyone knew this… the owner, the management team, the employees.  He was overpaid for what he did.  But years ago this same employee risked his life in fighting a fire at the warehouse.  Without his single actions the warehouse would have burned to the ground.  He risked his life for his boss (as I have noted before, the average person is a magnificent creature).  Guess what, that guy stayed on and retired from that company and EVERY employee knew why he remained around.  And guess what, these employees, new and old alike, knew that this owner took loyalty to heart.  And they gave loyalty in return.  That’s the way the world works.  An asset AND an expense, indeed.

Now that’s the way I look at the world but not all agree… and many have made a ton of money treating employees like an expense, like the Hands theory of management.  For a private business which plans on existing for years and years, I don’t think the expense-thinking can lead to long-term success.  But large public companies are a different matter altogether… professional managers who have no long-term allegiance to anyone or anything (other than perhaps their immediate supervisors)… in 5 or 10 years they might be long gone.  They are much more likely to treat employees like an expense.  That’s one of the reasons I like privately held businesses… I like their natural evolution, bottom-line accountability and flexible operations much more than the public world.

So considering ABI’s production issues, was their house cleaning a good idea or a bad one?  You could ask the same thing over the past few years as Miller and Coors tried to merge their organizations.  Again let us take a side trip to a thing called institutional knowledge.  Institutional knowledge is all the knowledge an organization has that isn’t written down anywhere… it exists in employee’s heads.  To truly understand institutional knowledge it helps to expand one’s thinking to include the 4th dimension, the dimension of time… ‘cause that is ultimately where this knowledge resides… in the heads of folks as they flow through time.  From one to another to another, across years or decades or even farther.  Think of certain children’s songs.  These songs aren’t really written down yet an incredibly high percentage of 6 year olds (or whatever age) know the songs.  It’s as if the songs exist in space/time – now we’re really getting wild! – and 6 year olds simple pass through this point and learn the institutional knowledge from other kids who have already “been there”.  Then they move on as other 6 year olds flow into this space.  If you think about it, not that long ago basically ALL knowledge was institutional knowledge… from when to plant the corn to what herbs to eat to help an upset stomach.  The development of language is another example.  No one directed it.  No one wrote it down.  No one controlled it, yet the language developed and evolved and was shared by all of its speakers.

As an example from this industry, think back to the days of driver-sales.  Generally the driver loaded their truck (or at least directed how it was to be loaded).  He knew how to load it because the guy before him knew how to load it and taught him, etc. etc.  Nowhere was it written how to properly load a truck (putting certain packages curb side or what not to put over the wheels or a hundred other things).  This knowledge existed in employee’s heads.  And it wasn’t written in stone.  One person might find that doing X or Y was an improvement, and if it truly was, that would be added to the institutional knowledge.  A common complaint by delivery drivers in pre-sell organizations (especially early ones) was that the warehouse didn’t know how to properly load a truck.  And they were right, they didn’t.  They didn’t have this institutional knowledge.  It was never imparted to them… although I know of a few situations where the frustrated driver did attempt to impart this knowledge, usually behind the warehouse with more than a little violence. 

Your organization is FILLED with institutional knowledge, much more than you can probably imagine.  Thus when a major organization like ABI cleans house, a great deal of institutional knowledge walks out the door.  And if morale in the organization is poor (which during downsizing it almost always is), many folks who have valuable institutional knowledge simply refuse to share it.  Basically a “screw you” type attitude.  And if the employees choose not to share this institutional knowledge, it is as good as lost.

So are some of ABI’s production (and other) problems caused by this exodus of institutional knowledge?  Of course, it is a certainty.  MillerCoors has experienced it, so did Pabst and Stroh and Heileman and a hundred other businesses.  Although for ABI and MillerCoors, it is obvious the benefits of these moves have FAR outweighed the negatives.  And think about MillerCoors.  How would they like to be competing against ABI as Miller and Coors.  ABI would eat their lunch.

Many of the young craft brewers will discover the importance of institutional knowledge when a key person moves one.  Organizations will generally rediscover and recreate this knowledge, it just takes a while.  Why?  Because it is the truth… there really is a better way to load a truck to make it easier to work on the street.  There really is a better way to do almost everything.  If one can discover it, then one will be more successful.

Which circles us back to the original question… are employees an asset or an expense.  The answer is yes. 

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Comments

I agree with your views. Yes, experience is important. Years back I worked as a Hydrogeologist on USAID projects overseas. We were assigned 'counterparts' to train with the expectation they would take-over the projects in their countries. The old USGS team leader I worked under would say; 'I can't teach 20 years experience in 2 years.' Another view is; Experience is not knowing how to solve a problem, experience is knowing what to do BEFORE there is a problem. 'Old' employees (that can change with the times) are definitely an assest.

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