Get ready to change, says Chamber speaker

Chamber speaker urges businesses, people to have Plan B

Do you have a Plan B?

Ravi Kulkarni knows a bit about needing to be able to reinvent yourself.

An engineer by training, he owns two factories in India and one in this country. Then he got into the graphic arts supply business until he saw problems ahead in the printing industry. So Kulkarni — the father of a 30-year-old daughter who’s already had to reinvent her career four times and a 26-year-old daughter who’s recreated hers three times — became a business and executive coach.

“Whether you’re an individual or a business, you have to reinvent yourself” in this ever-changing world, Kulkarni told a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast gathering Friday in Greenfield.

So you’d better plan, and have another plan or two if the first plan goes kablooey.

That’s what Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did, and that’s likely why he succeeded in reaching the South Pole and then returning a century ago, whereas Robert Scott’s British expedition a month later perished, Kulkarni said.

“Amundsen always had a Plan B. How many businesses have a Plan B?” asked Kulkarni, whose Belchertown-based Clear Vision Alliance will lead a four-part workshop sponsored by the chamber beginning March 7. “Even in life, you start having Plan A, and if Plan A doesn’t work, you start looking for Plan B.

“He kept on going, even whether the weather was bad,” Kulkarni said of Amundsen’s positive mindset. “I hear that in business: ‘The economy’s bad, the politics is bad. We can’t do anything; Let’s wait ’til the politicians start changing things.’ Are you going to wait until then?”

Why does one business, or city, or person survive while another with similar conditions fails? Kulkarni asked. And why do some businesses stop growing?

He pointed to one manufacturer in the region who invested $6 million in producing parts for F-35 fighter jets to sell to NATO. But then NATO, Canada and Brazil canceled their orders.

“What’s your plan B?” asked Kulkarni. “People are so driven by growth that they don’t see what’s happening behind them.”

In contrast, he pointed to Applied Dynamics, the Greenfield business that began by serving the paper-making industry but has adapted to diversify, most recently moving into manufacture of wind turbines.

A “business roundtable” series that Kulkarni leads with his wife, representing about 40 businesses ranging in size from $2 million to $200 million in sales, came up with some insightful answers to the question of why some businesses and organizations grow while others fail.

Those business leaders said they’re “too busy fighting daily chores and they don’t have time to see what’s happening around them that are already making their current efforts obsolete.”

They said that with only so many hours in the day they’re focused on what’s not happening,, but need instead to focus on “something new that can work.”

They said they’re “firefighting” on their daily tasks, “so we don’t prioritize working on the business.”

They said they depend too much on past experience and intuition, and lack “a data-driven, analytical process to make good decisions.”

Finally, said Kulkarni, growth may not be a priority. He said 70 percent of the time business owners report that they’re doing fine but aren’t growing, he said, “Life on a business is on an incline: You’re either going up or down. If you say, ‘I’m stagnant and happy,’ you’re going down,” while others are moving upward in your place.

It’s the same in careers, Kulkarni told the gathering: “If you haven’t upgraded your knowledge and your qualifications, you’re left behind.”

Michael Fleming, whose Chicopee-based emergency medical equipment business has been working with Kulkarni for nearly two years, told the Chamber group that his family-owned operation “hit the wall” in 2010 and got help looking at the “tough questions” that came up in the roundtable discussions.

“When your current plan doesn’t hit the marks you want it to hit, what are you going to do?” he asked. “There’s that thing called luck. Things come together and just click, but then they run out. What do we do next? ...We have to keep learning what’s coming next.”

Kulkarni said he’s found that many people and businesses are unable to recognize or accept the need to change, and many are unwilling “to adapt and stay ahead of change.”

He pointed to Kodak, which defined itself as being a film business before going into bankruptcy, Blackberry which has seen its market share decline from over 50 percent of the market in 2007 to under 11 percent today, and Blockbuster, which believed that doing away with penalties for late DVD rentals and teaming up with Domino’s Pizza would save them from getting rolled over by Netflix.

“Why didn’t they see change coming? Why were there blinders on?” he asked.

Even Microsoft got blindsided, Kulkarni said, by staying “married to its mission of a computer in every home.” Its CEO told the board of directors in 2007, that cellphones and tablets would never overtake computers.

“The entire operation focused on developing computer-based software, even though they had Windows for cellphone,” said Kulkarni, who said he offers the same advice to nonprofit organizations: “You get so married to your mission that you don’t realize the world around you has changed and you’re already in decline. A mission is a way to get to a purpose. Your purpose doesn’t change, your purpose is your heart. Mission should change.”

As success stories, Kulkarni pointed to Chobani, the $1 billion company that did marketing studies and saw the rising popularity of Greek yogurt before it appeared in Europe, then analyzed pricing and packaging to focus on supermarket sales rather than high-priced specialty stores.

Amazon, which popularized online book sales and branched out into other merchandise, now expects $1 billion in revenue in its Amazon Web Services technology platform offered to other online businesses.

At the nexus of all this adaptation, Kulkarni stresses, is the need for companies, institutions, organizations and yes, individuals, to keep ahead of the ever-changing curve.

“Organizations stop growing when their leadership stops growing,” he said.

The Chamber’s “Rethinking Growth” series includes workshops March 7 and 21, April 4 and 18 on remaining relevant and ahead of the changing times, managing and leading in changing times, planning for sustainability and growth and developing effective strategy to execution.

Further information is available from the Chamber.

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