Spotting Winners From the Front of the Room

I have given a lot of speeches in my time. In years past, it was not uncommon for me to give 40 to 50 speeches a year, which was in addition to my normal work flow of economic research, writing and running our offices.

But I didn’t mind.

Yes, the travel wore on me and my family from time to time, but I became good enough at speaking that I was able to turnrn the situation into a learnrning experience for both the audience and myself.

Typically when people speak, they’re nervous. They spend a lot of time going over their notes, prepping exact phrases and transitions, and fiddling with their presentation slides. From the front of the room they read their notes, read their slides, or simply regurgitate what they’ve committed to memory.

I don’t do any of that…


I’ve spoken so often that my only anxiety is potentially tripping on the way up the riser to the stage.

And prep?

We do so much research that I have a hard time paring down presentations. There are no transitions memorized or lengthy paragraphs to read. Instead, my preparation for a speech is all about the audience.

Who are they?

What can I bring to them that will be most useful?

How can I relate our research to their businesses and lives?

What questions can I ask of them to further our research and shed even more light on where we stand in our economy today? It’s the last bit that really lights up a room.

Lately I’ve been asked to speak in front of a number of business groups, typically 50 to 100 people from various industries. As I gear up for these presentations I have a sense of what people want to know – that is, when will things turnrn around?

Some businesses are seeing increased traffic and rising sales, but it’s not anywhere near what it used to be. As a recent business owner quipped, “Business is good, there’s just not as much of it.”

People want to know when things will be like they were. They also want to know about interest rates, possible inflation, and what is most likely to happen to their customer base.

This is where I start asking questions of my own…

What terms are your banks offering for financing?

Is your average sale still around 75% of what it used to be?

Are terms from your suppliers still tight?

Are your clients more interested in servicing old than buying new?

Are your clients fearful?

And the answers I get keep leading me to the same conclusions. First, the Economic Winter season is not over. As I’ve said before, we are simply used to the new, lower level of activity. Second – and this is more to the point – many of the people in the room are the shakeout season winners, they just don’t know it yet. They don’t feel like it, and they would never describe themselves that way, but the people I speak to are the ones who have been through the fire of the downturnrn and lived to fight another day. This is what surviving a shakeout looks like.

I recently spoke to a group I’ve seen several times over the years. As we talked – the presentation was over three hours – the questions were circling around the notion of how their businesses might grow in the years to come.

At one point I said to a gentleman in the room, “Let me guess… your business has rotated to more service than sales, as clients keep existing equipment longer, and you’ve rearranged your business to do more work with less people… is that accurate?” When he agreed, I said, “Welcome to the future.”

Shakeout winners are those businesses that have adapted to their new level of sales by adjusting what they make or provide so it is profitable today. These companies are not holding out hope that the business model of yesterday will suddenly work again. They recognized the need to change or die.

As I make these presentations and talk with business owners, I’m always struck by the same theme: they’ve been through the tough period where you have to fire good people… they’ve adjusted their sales by adjusting their head count… after firing the dead weight, then firing the marginally productive, they’ve fired good people who are competent and hard workers. There is nothing fun about it.

The good news is that this economic season, this cold Economic Winter, doesn’t last forever.

We are five years into a 10-12 year stretch. The companies that are winners, those that have remained flexible and adjusted their offerings to match their sales, are poised to grow dramatically in the next economic phase, which we call the Maturity Boom.

I look forward to giving more speeches in the years to come, and hearing from audiences about how their cautious ways in the downturnrn set them up for decades of prosperity as the economy turnrns back toward growth.

Even better, I know I’ll have examples to share with them about how people like you were able to survive and prosper during the tough years… and came out wiser and richer at the end of it.




Ahead of the Curve with Adam O’Dell

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