Key General Management Questions: Part Two

Key General Management Questions: Part Two

By Steve Ryan

Last month we discussed some of the tough financial questions you need to ask as a business owner. This month, the list of questions continues. Get out a pencil and paper, sit down and really ponder how your business is operating from a management perspective.

WHAT IS YOUR AVERAGE MARGIN ON A PROJECT (percent, actual number not estimated)

There is so much riding on the margins you achieve, it’s going to be hard to keep this brief.  Start by understanding what the word means.  Each job earns a margin.  The difference between what you earn to do a job (your sales) and what you spend specifically to do that work.  This is not your profit, because you typically have “fixed” expenses (rent, vehicle leases, insurance etc…) that must be paid whether or not you got the job.   An estimate, or gut feel won’t do much for you here, because success or failure in the construction business can hinge on one or two margin points.  If you don’t know how to calculate your margin, you need to learn.

WHAT IS YOUR “BREAK-EVEN” MARGIN ON A PROJECT (actual number not estimated)

Remember those “fixed” costs you still have to pay after the project work is paid for (rent, vehicle leases, YOUR SALARY).  We all know what it’s like to feel pressure on our pricing and it can be too easy to “sharpen our pencil” to get pricing down to where it needs to be to win work.  If we don’t know w here our limits are, we might accept a price that doesn’t leave enough to pay those “fixed” costs.  In the heat of pricing negotiations, you must be crystal clear on where to hold the line.  Builders who know their break-even margin and stick to it, are much less likely to price themselves out of existence.


It may be reassuring to know the point at which you will break-even.  But you’re not in business to break-even.  You are entitled to a reasonable profit, so incorporate that into you planning and into your pricing.  As we have already suggested, you will come closer to a target when you know what you’re aiming for.

We talked of financial “guideposts” that let you focus on the things that matter and your margin is one of those.  Most of what we mention up to now are one-time (or once a year) exercises.  They tell you what to look for so you can focus your energy where it has the greatest impact.  So now the question is:


This is where your planning and goal-setting meets hands-on management.  When you know the margin you need/want your projects to achieve, you can isolate the outliers.  For each of them, there is a reason for the miss (weak pricing, poor cost control, specific people dropped the ball).  There may also be jobs that came in above your target margin.  Find out which jobs they were, look for how it was achieved.  Adapt your operation to control the things that caused poor results and reinforce the practices that brought success.

Financial management is also about protecting the investment and a couple of key questions can keep you on top of that:

HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU OWE (Suppliers, Sub-trades, Bank, Credit card balance)

Most of us have an instinct that we shouldn’t owe more than we own.   But we have less instinct for how rapidly things can change.   You should always have an accurate knowledge of your debts and know what financial buffers you have available.  Most critically, you need to know what sources of funds are available to you on short notice.

Here’s why:

HOW MUCH MONEY IS OWED TO YOUR BUSINESS (unpaid receivables, loans you have made)

Most contractors, have major amounts tied up in ongoing project work.  You can be profitable but have no funds available because so much is invested in work in process, or tied up in unpaid customer invoices.  Your company may have money, but if it’s tied up and you can’t get at it, you may have to borrow money to pay your bills.  That on it’s own isn’t a bad thing, until things get out of balance.  Even companies that appear large and successful can fail when there is no cash in the bank for immediate expenses.

We can’t fully explain here all the principals that make these questions relevant.  All we hope to do is illustrate how some things that seem like abstract topics for another day, are actually critical to what you do today.  More importantly, they are vitally important to what you may achieve in the future.   When we put these questions to company owners we are less concerned with what facts they provide than we are with whether they see the point of the question.  As a business owner, you will be a lot more effective in making decisions, setting priorities and preparing for what comes next, when you have clear reference points that define your company and it capabilities. If you don’t know what “normal” looks like you won’t see “abnormal” coming.  More than this, you won’t be able to see what’s needed to become extraordinary.

Steve Ryan is a managing partner at MMI Professional Services.