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Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. A former Madison, WI resident, Kay now resides in San Diego, CA. The views on her blog are not those of her employer, IBM.

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February 2nd, 2012

Do you have a strong portfolio of business models?

The news has gone from bad to worse.

How strong – from today's and tomorrow's perspective – is your portfolio of business models?

The bad news: Kodak, the company that fueled the growth of the photography industry is selling its patents. Not the patents for intellectual property related to film photography, but its more than 1,000 patents for capturing, storing, organizing and sharing digital images, according to the Wall Street Journal.

And the really bad news? Kodak has filed for bankruptcy.

Yes, Kodak was that hard up for cash and did not find it. Its leaders failed one of the most important tests of strategic leadership – building a balanced portfolio of business models.  Kodak invested in new business models too late. As film stopped delivering the riches, the printer/cartridge business model demanded too much cash for too many quarters, creating an unsustainable situation.

A company can be viewed as a portfolio of different business models, each using resources specific to the model as well as resources shared by other (and perhaps all) business models. How do you know a strong business model portfolio from a weak one?

First, the business models should be focused on attractive customer segments, where there is an opportunity for the company to either be the lowest cost (and therefore win on price) or offer benefits that are hard for competitors to copy (and therefore earn price premiums). Too often, leaders segment markets on too macro a level, not realizing there are pockets in even the most staid markets that are fast-growth. You want your share of those segments. McKinsey & Company research shows market selection is more important to growth than share gain within served markets.

Second, the business models are synergistic as they leverage solution, process and resource platforms. It is through leveraging these platforms that each business gains distinctive advantages and efficiencies not available to competitors. At the same time, each business should continually contribute ideas and practices to these central platforms, creating further distinctive advantages and efficiencies for the company as a whole.

Third, the portfolio should be diversified, much as we diversify personal investments. Ideally, you will have a mix of mature, growing, and emerging business models.

  • Mature businesses generate most of today’s profits and cash. If you can’t re-imagine them through business model innovation, manage them for cash, or exit that segment.
  • Growing businesses are typically smaller than mature businesses but with higher growth rates and higher margins and often need more investment than mature businesses. If you don’t nurture their growth, you’ll find yourself stuck without alternatives when your mature businesses are being commoditized or disappear, creating your own Kodak moment.
  • Emerging businesses are experimental in nature, stemming from new innovations and new market opportunities. These do not generate much current revenue and require net investment. A healthy pipeline of emerging business opportunities is essential to secure the future of the company.

Finally, the portfolio should be aligned with external trends. Phillip Morris had a great portfolio until the truth about the health issues associated with smoking became apparent.

Like Sears executives supposedly “surprised” by Walmart, Kodak executives claimed to have miscalculated the speed of digital photography’s disruption. For both Sears and Kodak the error was the same: leaders riding the easy horse while delivering their Wall Street numbers and avoiding the far harder task of squeezing today’s cash cow businesses to build tomorrow’s growth engines.

The root cause behind this error: the most powerful voices at the table are the leaders running the current cash cow businesses. They threaten huge market share and cash declines if their spending budgets are cut. Smart CEOs challenge these leaders instead to innovate their mature business or divest them.

Admittedly, the Kodak situation was made doubly hard by cell phones quickly absorbing part of the digital camera market. Kodak’s nemesis, Fuji, was much smarter. It branched into niche non-photo markets, including skin care that leveraged its patents. The company is faring well today. Kodak hired an HP leader, who took the company (surprise, surprise) into the printer market, another commodity market. Were there any synergies between printers and Kodak, Kodak’s board would have been wiser to sell the company to HP.

I view AT&T as next on the block for coming up short when it comes to a healthy portfolio of business models. How do I know? Like big-pharma and banks in the past, AT&T hoped a T-Mobile acquisition would keep its shareholder price from falling. Consolidation delays the moment of truth for commodity-like companies, and makes a pathway to profitable revenue growth that much harder to come by.

How strong is your portfolio of business models?

5 comments to Do you have a strong portfolio of business models?

  • Kay, I love your commentary. There’s a lot to learn from iconic brands like Kodak and Sears that have lost their way. At the end of the day, it does come down to leadership, doesn’t it? But, smart leaders like Apple and IBM are able to make those tough decisions. They remain focused on their deeper business purpose. They have the foresight and courage to build tomorrow’s growth engines while intelligently using their cash cow businesses to fuel that growth. Thanks for all of your great insights.
    Jay Olson´s last [type] ..The era of Relationship Marketing. It’s about the human element.

  • Thanks Jay. The challenge of leadership is managing the short term demands while not losing site of the long term aim and game plan. Some like Amazon’s leaders do this by basically ignoring Wall Street, but others fall victim to demands for quarterly earnings. I would love to survey business unit leaders at Fortune 500 companies about the incidence of decisions to “make the numbers” that compromise long-term success. Milking businesses with high growth potential would be high on this list.

    I admire those leaders who manage the delicate balance between short term and long term with grace and success, although market conditions often help them do this. Some argue that the rapid movement of photos from film to digital cameras to phones and iPads would have challenged even the best leaders the US offers.

    Our nation sure needs some tough decisions right now. My greatest worry is that no one is really diagnosing the situation holistically. Great strategy requires a solid diagnosis, which helps leaders make the right tough calls.

  • Catwoman

    Such an informative article! I really like your point on the importance of the reactions to the market. You’re right, Kodak made a big mistake with their slow reaction. And I totally agree, that it must be the fault of the management. The true visionaries, the natural born leaders, like Steve Jobs had got so strong and good intuitions, which allowed them not only to rect very fast for the changes of the market, but they also marked the new directions for the market. And that’s the real big thing I think.
    Catwoman´s last [type] ..fogfehérítés

  • Dan

    As always, a fascinating analysis, Kay. It always seems to me that like individuals who become defensive when their personal strengths are under attack, the same is true for corporations whose old success formula no longer really works. Too often in the realtime exchange among the executives, this is exactly the case: the executives’ personal reputations and investments are as much on the line as the threats to share and cash that come from evolving markets. In fact, you probably can’t tear these elements apart. The unstated mix of ego with strategy then creates the conditions for loss. While I know nothing of what it has been like at Kodak, I’ve certainly watched in other cases where the changes are happening at a rapid pace, the room divides into those favoring action are met with equal energy by those with an attachment to the status quo that is rapidly becoming the past. The resulting conflict stalls the decisions that need to be made in order not to alienate some of the players … and time runs out. There’s the business analysis, and then there’s the team analysis, and the leadership required to create a breakthrough.
    Dan´s last [type] ..Anatomy of a Conflict

  • Your comments are very insightful Dan. You cannot separate the business decisions and the interpersonal decisions as they do become intertwined. This reminds me of earlier discussion that we had — why are strategy and organizational development two distinct fields when they come together in the same person and team? How can the fields work together to create holistic solutions?

    I always learn from you Dan.

    And Catwoman you are right–takes a real leader to cut through the challenging conflict that Dan articulates so well.
    Kay Plantes´s last [type] ..Business model lesson in Komen’s public relations disaster

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