How OLC Went From R50 Million to R130 Million in 2 Years
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PLAYERS: Lisa Cohen, Jerome Cohen, Garon Bloom and Artwell Nwaila
COMPANY: OLC Experiential
WHAT THEY DO: Experiential agency
TURNOVER (2017): R104 million, projected to be R130 million in 2018
Always look for the next opportunity. Never take for granted that what you have today will be there tomorrow. This is the mantra that Offlimit Communications’ (OLC) owners live by, and it’s one they’ve earned the hard way.
In February 2015, Jerome Cohen, Garon Bloom and Lisa Cohen called their 40-strong employees into the boardroom to have the toughest conversation of their lives. The business was losing R500 000 a month, and it was time for serious and radical changes, beginning with salary cuts.
“We’d gone from a R500 000 profit in December 2014 to haemorrhaging money in January,” says Jerome. “70% of our business came from one big client, and their strategy had changed. The result was a major dip in cash flow while they restructured and a new team took over, but we still had overheads and salaries to pay.
It was a huge wake up call. The business was in trouble, and we had allowed it to get to that point because we’d become reliant on one big client.” Jerome, Lisa and Garon hadn’t been blind to the dangers of so much of their business resting with one client. They’d seen what could happen, and had started strategising around it, but not quickly enough.
Suddenly the realities were there, and they needed to be adressed. “There was no time for overthinking it,” recalls Lisa. “We needed to make decisions and run with them; it was time for action. We had to address our situation.” And so, the partners scrutinised every aspect of the business, evaluating where they were losing money, where they could make money, and where they could save money.
With a ten-point profitability plan in hand, they called the entire company in to share what was happening in the business, and what it would take to turn things around. “We felt like we were going into battle, and we asked our team to go into battle with us,” says Lisa. “That’s really what it was.”
THE LONG-TERM VIEW
“We laid everything out; all the reasons why we were losing money for the first time since the business launched in 2003,” says Jerome. “Then we unpacked all the points that would get us back on track. And we were honest. We knew it was a scary situation, and we said so, but it was also the best thing that could have happened to us.
“It opened our eyes to all the danger areas in the business. So many businesses fail after ten years, and often it’s because they don’t get that opportunity. We did, and it meant we could fix things.” At the time, OLC had been growing steadily for just over a decade.
Just before the business started suffering losses, turnover was R50 million. For four months OLC sustained heavy cash-flow losses, but the turnaround strategy that Jerome, Garon and Lisa put in place not only allowed them to claw back those losses by July, but double the company’s turnover the following year.
“Not only did we have a much more sustainable business,” says Garon, “but we were actually positioned for massive growth when the rest of the country was battling through one of South Africa’s worst years in economic history.” The turnaround wasn’t without its casualties.
Jerome’s message to his team was simple: Trust us, get on board and go through this ride with us, and you will benefit from it, because we will make it to the other side stronger than we are today. The team was scared, but most agreed to the temporary salary cuts, which OLC paid back six months later once the business had turned the corner.
“We cut everything,” says Garon. “We even stopped buying tea and coffee at one point.” The business lost some good people, which was unfortunate, but business is often about making difficult but necessary decisions, as Garon, Lisa and Jerome know all too well.
LOOKING BACK TO MOVE FORWARDS
So, what went wrong? “First, we were far too dependent on one big client which accounted for 70% of our turnover. Today this client accounts for 30%.” OLC’s relationship with their anchor growth client remains excellent, but being too dependent on their business taught the team a hard lesson.
The second problem was that, like so many businesses, OLC had lost its culture. “We had always been an agile, streamlined business, and somewhere along the way this ethos had changed,” says Lisa. “We’d grown into an agency like so many others in our industry, with layers of staff. We’d started focusing on retainers, which had never been our culture, and we had heavy overheads.”
“We bought into the notion that we were this big agency and we had an ego to match,” says Garon. “As a result our expenses were running away with us. We had too many employees, our premises were too big and we weren’t paying enough attention to the details.”
In a nutshell, OLC was too heavy, and needed to go back to basics to move forwards. The business needed to be streamlined, and even though it lost people in the process, this made the business nimbler. It wasn’t easy, but the rewards have been exponential.
For Lisa, Jerome and Garon, their biggest post-turnaround challenge has been sustaining their growth. “You need to get into the detail,” says Lisa. “If you don’t know your numbers and exactly what’s happening in your business, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your strategy is. Success lies in how well you execute that strategy.”
The team’s goal is to be the top experiential agency in Africa, and to achieve this goal, they have a number of key strategies in place, starting with people. “The number one strategy of the business and our core KPI is having the right people on board,” says Jerome.
“We want to sleep at night as much as our clients, and the ability to do so begins with our people. The old cliché stands — if you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur. When we started our turnaround three and half years ago, this was a critical component for us: Less people, better people, more business.”
“Right from the start, we developed an entrepreneurial mindset,” explains Lisa. “Our ‘employees’ are our partners. Everyone in the business takes ownership of their role. They receive equity and we have a profit sharing model. Our business, is their business.” “We’re quite disruptive because we have a flat structure,” adds Garon.
“Everyone needs to be well-rounded and able to lead clients and production. We avoid having too many parts in the process. We ask a lot, but the result is a high-performance culture and quick turnarounds. A well-rounded person can turn things around quickly because they can sit in a client meeting and not need to refer to other people.
“They don’t need to speak to a production person, or a client service person to be able to answer questions — they do everything themselves.” The ideal of multifaceted roles begins at the top. “As a leadership team we work actively with our clients,” says Lisa.
“We’re involved with every new client to continually grow the business. That’s the secret formula. When you’ve got clients, give them the best, and you will naturally start to grow them (and your business).”
Lisa, Jerome and Garon are all big believers in the powerful impact of positive energy. “We see this with our clients every day, and we want to make sure that our people bring that same essence to every interaction, both with each other and our clients.
The more positive you are and the higher your energy, the more you’ll attract people to you. We keep this philosophy top of mind in every interaction, everyday. “We have an ethos of care and this continually helps us grow. It’s much better to keep and grow existing clients than to constantly seek new clients.
Staff who care about clients and each other, and who bring an attitude of gratitude and generosity to everything they do, naturally nurture growth — in themselves, the business and our clients. People know when they’re working with suppliers who care about them. Staff who don’t stay at OLC generally don’t have that feeling of care for clients.”
This ethos means that cultural fit is important. If you’re reliant on your team’s focus, abilities and attitude, you need to make sure you have the right people in the organisation — particularly if there is equity and profit share. As most entrepreneurs know, this is easier said than done, but the OLC team has fine-tuned their hiring process over the years, and the results bear testimony to this.
THE POWER OF PEOPLE
“We always employ smart people who are on top of their game,” says Lisa. “These types of individuals can learn anything. Smartness is an attitude; a mind set.” OLC’s industry is small enough for them to keep track of who is good, and whose career trajectories they want to monitor.
“LinkedIn is really useful,” says Lisa. “You identify who you want to potentially work with and trace their trajectory.” Gut feel also plays a role. “After thousands of interviews we’ve learnt to trust our instincts about who will and won’t work well within our environment,” says Jerome.
“The important thing is to be involved in all new hires ourselves. You can’t delegate the final decision of a new hire. It’s a critical component of the business and as the custodians of the company’s vision, it’s up to us to find good cultural matches.” That said, the team is aware that interviewing candidates isn’t enough. “In the past we’ve employed people with high IQs who don’t deliver in the role, so we need to test cultural fit, attitude and how people work,” says Garon.
Every new team member at OLC begins on a two-month probationary contract. “We need to see if you can walk your talk,” says Lisa. “We’re upfront and clear about our terms and expectations. This is essential. Everyone needs to know where they stand. We’ve built up a great client base, which attracts talented people to our organisation. They want to work with the best brands, and they know that we are at the top of our game.
“It’s up to us to highlight the chemistry, culture and agency spirit of OLC, and to be clear on why these are so important to us. Once these foundations are laid, we can then review and say, ‘this isn’t working out, and this is why’.”
“You can’t know a person’s skills until you see them in action. Titles are given too easily, and our benchmark for roles is higher than many others in this industry,” adds Garon. “We don’t take anything on face value.”
“We want people to take charge and be proactive,” says Jerome. “We’re not interested in people with glass ceilings. People who can stretch and scale themselves and want to be well-rounded work well in our environment.
“We are also very clear on deliverables. For example, we are clear on what an account director position involves and what the individual’s deliverables are. These need to be clear and non-negotiable. You’re only at that level if you’re delivering on those KPIs.”
OLC believes in playing to people’s strengths. If a hire hasn’t worked out as planned because the skills to deliver on the entire role aren’t in place, a freelance contract is offered, giving the individual an opportunity to work within their skill zone, and to give them time to find another full-time position.
“The common denominator between all of us is that we’re always looking for the next opportunity,” says Garon.
“You can’t take it for granted that what you have today will be there tomorrow. We’re always identifying new assets, where we can leverage our current offerings into new territories or verticals and where we can add value.”
“We put together a plan to develop a horizontal structure, with different divisions to maximise our offering. Each division has its own strategy, manager, budget and incentives,” says Jerome.
“We started by looking at the business in its entirety. What was profitable? What should we focus on? And how could we work from our core but offer more to the market? We scale off our core,” says Lisa.
“We focus on one innovation a year. Last year it was building our PR and Influencer division. The year before it was all about our asset rentals — building up our asset base so that we could rent our own assets to clients instead of contracting out the business — this year it’s been our expansion into Africa, and next year we will focus on digital innovation. When you have verticals, you can upsell by offering your clients what they need. It’s win-win for everyone.”
Developing a promo division, an assets and warehousing division and the PR and Influencer division is all about owning the value chain. “We realised it made more sense for us to invest in these assets than to continue renting.”
This resulted in a short-term loss while they were purchasing the assets for a long-term gain, but today most of these costs have been recovered and have generated more value.
“We also embarked on an aggressive new play for business. The entire organisation is responsible for new business. Everyone is incentivised to bring in new clients or upsell them,” says Garon. “This brings in new business, but it also keeps everyone focused on building relationships and delivering top-quality service.
“If you make a client’s life easier, if you take some of the pressure off them, they will not only appreciate you, but they’ll always want to do business with you. We have many clients who started off at one company, moved and wanted to continue working with us, thereby adding a new client to our portfolio.”
“The relationships we form are crucial, and this goes back to who you employ,” agrees Lisa. “We dont exist without our clients, neither do we exist without each other, and because we understand this everyone at OLC is expected to go the extra mile and really put care into what we do as a business, both for our clients and the world in which we operate.”
OLC’s 6-POINT PROFITABILITY PLAN
When faced with losses for the first time in 15 years, Jerome, Lisa and Garon put a simple 6-point profitability plan into action. The plan was unpacked to the entire team, and progress was monitored hourly and daily.
“The difference between success and failure is a sense of urgency.” — Tony Robbins
1. OLC developed a clear profitability plan by auditing where the business was most inefficient and where the team could build more profitability in obvious ways. We scrutinised every area of the business, and every client, throughout the value chain, right down to tea and coffee spend. We looked at where we could do more, where we could work smarter and where we could improve profit margins.
2. Staff headcount was lowered to achieve higher recovery against billings. We trimmed our resources by putting together a simple strategy: Less people but of a higher calibre skill-set that can problem-solve, drive many projects at once and apply strong thinking to push the boundaries.
This created a streamlined structure allowing for major output in comparison with the size of the team, lower duplication and use of our field managers as account executives for specific campaigns. This allows us to attract the right talent without increasing monthly salary expenses, as these resource costs are factored into the budget.
3. OLC’s shareholders put their pride aside and moved from their fancy office to a smaller one, cutting their high rental costs. We put our ego aside and downscaled our offices, creating a very small senior and experienced team to drive the return to growth.
4. Every person in the business was involved in reaching daily growth targets. We created a culture of partnership, not staff, where everyone benefits from the growth and profitability of the business. We stayed transparent and brought the team in to help us turn things around.
5. OLC embarked on an aggressive new client acquisition strategy. Our focus was to diversify revenue with additional clients to offset the risk of clients that were dominating our revenue. We kept our focus through daily management sessions on new business action. Business development became a daily task for the whole management team, acting with a challenger start-up mindset and ringing a bell every time we won a new piece of business to drive competitive spirit.
This included a PR plan, a new website, social media, cold calling, growing our client base, making sure we retained clients and becoming more selective in the briefs we pitch for. We even put together ‘pitch guidelines’ and rules to stop wasting time, money and resources on pitches that are just procurement exercises.
6. An asset rental division was created. We bought all the elements we had been renting to increase profitability. The idea was to own the value chain and pursue new divisional innovations.
1. You need innovation, anticipation and resilience. Innovation is all about looking ahead, but you also need to push your brain into the negative to prepare for anything. You must learn to anticipate what could go wrong and prepare for it. A certain amount of stress and having your back against a wall drives you.
We need more of that if we want to achieve greatness, not less. Resilience is the mindset that can turn a negative into a positive. That’s been a huge life lesson for me. My number one mantra is to always look for a way to turn a negative situation into a positive. That’s where our biggest opportunities lie. — Jerome
2. Top leadership teams are balanced. Lisa is a top strategist, Garon is a production and logistics guru, Jerome is a quintessential entrepreneur, and their fourth shareholder and partner, Artwell Nwaila is a top-level creative. In OLC’s start-up days Jerome did everything, but while you can build a successful start-up like that, growth requires a balance of skills and expertise. You can’t build a high-impact business if you’re doing everything.
3. Be a caring organisation. Although we’ve always had a high-performing culture and can have tough conversations around delivery, we also genuinely care about our team. We make sure we’re perceptive and pay attention to everyone’s personal lives as well. You can’t expect your team to care about clients if you don’t care about them. — Lisa
4. Cross-border growth should be done strategically. Over the last year OLC has penetrated markets in Nigeria, Angola, Zambia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana. We identified our key growth areas, potential partners on the ground and which clients to farm in those areas before we made a move.
Now we’re focused on getting all the great campaigns we are running to the rest of the continent through one point of contact project manager. There’s local follow-through, and our clients know that we have one view over everything. Quality and consistency are key. We can activate in five different African markets, but everything is coming from a central point. — Garon
5. Be quick and agile, but comprehensive as well. There’s no more space for companies that are small. If you want to make an impact in your market you need to be able to give a 360-degree offering to clients. This doesn’t mean you should lose focus. Stick to your space, but cover everything within that space.
You also need to be able to make quick decisions that teams can immediately action. Whatsapp has been a game-changer for us. We don’t wait for diaries to clear to hold long meetings — if someone has an idea it’s sent out, opinions are offered, decisions are made and we hit the ground running.