Apocalypse Soon

Why you should sweat the really big stuff.

Risk — big, disruptive risk — is the theme of the day. It’s manifest in public concerns about terrorist attacks, nuclear proliferation, global warming, the end of oil, the trade deficit, the budget deficit, and the housing bubble. It’s rife in Corporate America, where large industries are tottering, the pension system is wobbling, and health-care costs are soaring. The summer’s top movie is about an alien invasion of Earth; apocalypse is in the air.

So it’s not surprising that some people are recommending that CFOs look up from their ledgers and start worrying about big, external risks. Greg Hackett, president of MergerShop, a management think tank in Bath, Ohio, says finance executives should be on the lookout for “the meteors that can kill your company.” Likewise, Adrian Slywotzky, a managing director at Mercer Management Consulting in Boston, says it’s time for the CFO to become the chief sentinel for strategic risk — defined as threatening external trends and events — which he calls “the biggest risk of all.”

Ditch the green eyeshades, grab the binoculars, and start scanning the skies. Many businesses fail to appreciate just how vulnerable they are, says Hackett. Sixty percent of publicly traded companies are in some form of decline, he says; either their growth has leveled off, or they can’t grow internally. Taking a longer view, he points out that only 15 percent of the companies on the S&P 500 in 1957 were still on the list in 1997. Meanwhile, Slywotzky notes that from 1993 through 2003, more than a third of the companies on the Fortune 1,000 lost at least 60 percent of their value in one year.

What kinds of risk cause companies to fail? Slywotzky cites seven types of strategic risk: industry, technology, brand, competitor, customer, project, and stagnation. A company’s products, for instance, may be commoditized, or its industry may be deregulated. Its brand could erode. An important project could fail, customers could suddenly change preferences, a dominant new competitor could appear, or a new technology could prove disruptive.

Hackett offers a 12-fold taxonomy of external changes that can sap growth and shareholder value (see “12 Sources of Risk” at the end of this article). When big changes occur in one area — whether demographics, or channels, or product life cycles, or loyalty (customer, supplier, or employee) — other areas can be affected in turn, like dominoes falling. Some changes can happen virtually overnight; others may take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to gather force, says Hackett.

No matter how such risks are classified, both consultants urge companies to acknowledge the danger and start managing the risks — and put the CFO in charge of doing so.

A Sense of Objectivity

The concept of strategic risk is not new. Recall, for example, Intel chairman Andy Grove’s famous motto in the 1990s: “Only the paranoid survive.” Public companies routinely discuss threats to their businesses in their annual reports. But strategic risk management is still a fledgling discipline, and not many companies practice it.

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