LIFE IN THE FAST LANE:HOW TO SURVIVE AND PROSPERIN THIS
RAPIDLY CHANGING MARKETPLACE
By Dennis I. Simon (as told to Roger Angle)
These are the best of times, or at
least the wildest of times, to rephrase a line from Dickens. Exciting times, with the stock market riding high (as of this
writing, in June, 1999), productivity up, inflation under control and the cost of labor stable or falling.
But these are also
tumultuous times, with markets volatile and methods of doing business changing overnight with each new Internet invention.
Formerly sedentary businesses now have all the excitement of the Chicago Board of Trade, at least during periods of rapid
growth or during mergers and acquisitions.
The biggest new force, riding and partly driving the current wave of
prosperity, is of course the Internet. The influence of the Net, both in terms of e-commerce and other business communications,
is so pervasive that every type of enterprise must pay attention.
“No man is an island,” wrote
the poet John Donne, meaning that we are all connected, perhaps in spirit. Today, we are all connected through the World Wide
Web. What started as a techie’s paradise has turned out to be a powerful tool for sales and marketing as well as a powerful
engine driving a larger portion of the economy, including the stock market.
Web-based businesses are growing faster
than any other type of business in modern memory. We now see stock trading on the Web, retailing on the Web, publishing on
the Web, and even food and gardening on the Web.
The Web is attracting new businesses and entrepreneurs at an
unprecedented rate. Dollar flow from the Net is affecting everyone. Newer, Web based companies are using IPO dollars, which
are made so fast they seem almost like play money, to buy brick-and-mortar companies. Money made in months is buying businesses built
over generations, in a new form of leverage buyout.
In April, a four-year-old online auction company, EBay,
announced that it would buy a 134-year-old brick-and-mortar auction house, Butterfield & Butterfield, for $260 million
in EBay stock. EBay’s market capitalization was $25 billion, so the upstart online company was worth a hundred times
the older firm, based mostly on hope for future earnings.
That is like a rocket passing a tortoise. It is phenomenal
growth, in anybody’s book. It is not business as usual, in the traditional sense.
To take another example, the Net firm
America Online, with a stock value of $150 billion, was talking about buying CBS, which had a stock value of $32 billion.
Again, phenomenal growth based on future potential.
These heady gains — paper profits not backed by
assets or earnings — are frightening to some and attractive to others. The bubble may burst, but the economic energy
behind the bubble is real.
A new wave of businesses is building to help companies join the tide of e-commerce. Some
companies do nothing but facilitate relationships among new e-commerce firms. Some industries will become Web-dependent; in
a few years, if you aren’t on the Web (i.e., if you stick to business as usual), you won’t be doing business at
The Web is eliminating the middle-man in some industries, shorting the distance between manufacturers and consumers.
Many traditional businesses are already being left behind. Retailers are squeezing each nickel out of every
transaction and tracking information on every customer, trying to imitate the Web, which tracks every transaction, showing
who their customers are and what their customers want.
Web-businesses are fueled by unprecedented investment
through the stock market. This, in turn, is fueled by boundless hope. Investors seem to think there’s gold in anything
with “.com” after its name. Traditional retailers don’t have access to this confidence or this cash.
One answer to all this turmoil is for companies to merge with other firms that have complementary products, services
and markets. So, some of the current merger mania is fueled directly or indirectly by technology and the Web. Part of it is
fueled by knowledge: We know how to make these mega-mergers work, at least part of the time. Certain big mergers haven’t
produced the kind of synergy that some people had hoped. But mergers continue
to grow, both in number and in size. Mergers and acquisitions are now measured in tens of billions of dollars. Banks are merging,
oil companies are merging, and the European nations are merging, at least economically.
December, as noted by Mergers & Acquisitions Magazine, Exxon moved to buy Mobile for $87 billion. In January, Air Touch
Communications was reportedly bought by Vodafone Group for $58 billion. Also in 1998, the Travelers Group bought Citicorp
for $72 billion and change. To paraphrase what someone once said about the federal budget, fifty billion here, eighty billion
there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.
Again, this is not business as usual.
Speed is more and more a factor in today’s business. Again according to M&A Magazine, General
Electric Company was the most active acquirer last year, purchasing 47 different companies in 1998 alone. That’s almost
an acquisition a week.
We do business in a complex and rapidly changing world. The pace of change is significant
in itself. The great futurist Alvin Toffler said recently about his first and most famous book, “I'm not sure everybody
got the basic argument of Future Shock. We were not only saying that accelerating change is hard to adapt to, but that acceleration
itself has effects on the system.”
We are now in overdrive in hyperspace. Everything is changing, including
the language we use to discuss business. These changes affect work relationships, which are much more fluid today.
is harder to find and retain both good workers and top managers, and at the same time more work is being outsourced to freelance
contractors, hired guns, who often specialize in specific markets and provide high quality services without any thought to
While the workforce changes and company alliances change, the amount of information available
to us grows exponentially. The speed at which we can access that ever-growing pile of virtual books and magazines grows even
faster. We have more information coming at us at higher and higher velocities. The future was an oncoming train; now it is
a jet plane, and we are all in its path or rushing to catch up. Soon it will be a rocket.
The amount of technical
information in the world is doubling every six months. As a book called “Information Anxiety” says, “More new information
has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day,
and the total of all printed knowledge doubles every eight years.”
How do we survive and prosper in such
a rapidly changing and rapidly globalizing marketplace? One widely known consultant said a few years ago that it is useless
to plan. Is the market changing so rapidly that we should throw out all our traditional planning tools?
I don’t think
so. I believe the answer to rapid change is more rapid and intelligent adaptation to that change — more planning, more
communication within companies and among trading partners, more analyses of the market, more attention to new opportunities,
and a more pro-active approach to marketing and strategic planning.
To again quote Toffler, “There's a current of thinking today which says that because things are
changing so rapidly, it's impossible to have a strategy. All you need is to be agile and react to immediate change. That
is wrong. It allows someone else to determine the constraints under which you'll operate. Organizations with a strategy
will set the terms of competition.”
The smart companies are placing more emphasis on strategic planning.
Some are creating new planning positions and these companies are developing more and better products and ways to bring them
to the customer, to the client and to the end-user. The best leaders
are often the best visionaries, people who can synthesize information and trends from a dozen different sources and analyze
the forces that affect their business.
Using information technology in every
conceivable way, from modeling to forecasting to manufacture and design, we can keep up and even get ahead. This is not an
easy objective, but no great challenge ever is.
An old saying comes to mind: “Lead, follow, or get out
of the way.” It was popular in the go-go 80s, but now it needs to be changed: “Lead, find new profit centers and
new markets, find new ways of adapting to the marketplace, find ways to out-think your competition, or run the risk of being
In today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive marketplace, the company with the
most flexible, comprehensive, and executable strategic plan is the company that will win.
Like a basketball
team in the NBA, the winners will have multiple skills — talent, height, speed and a winning attitude. No one skill
or attribute is enough any more.
If Alvin and Heidi Toffler are right, the Third Wave, the Information Age,
is rushing us toward the future. We must stay on top of the rapidly building wave of knowledge; we will drown if we are stuck
in the past. We will drown if we stick to business as usual.