Essential Mechanics of a World-Class Business

As a Realtor, investing in your future business needs may seem silly to some when all you really want is the phone to ring and the leads to convert to sales. However, without a proper foundation it’s difficult to fully capitalize on all the marketing and lead generation that’s being done or to grow a sustainable business.Many years ago when I was founding TMC, I read the book “The EMyth Revisited” by Michael Gerber, which totally changed the way I thought about business. I learned that no matter how big my transaction coordinator team got, the only way it would be successful is if I looked at it from the eyes of an entrepreneur, not a transaction coordinator.Early on it wasn’t easy, but I learned that investing in creating the essential mechanics for our business will ensure that we are getting the most out of our time and dollars.Here are some of the common mistakes that can derail success and the solution to get on track to having what you want in a business:

Lack of clarity – Not knowing where we’re going will get us nowhere fast! You can’t take a client out to see a house without having directions on how to get there. Likewise you can’t create a successful, sustainable business without knowing where you want to get to. Solution: Get clear about what you want to achieve, document it, review it, and crystallize your vision.

Fighting Fires Instead of Building Empires – If you’re constantly running from one emergency to another, you’re not able to build your business to work for you. Not to mention the mental and physical fatigue that comes from running on adrenaline non-stop. Solution: Develop systems to help you be proactive, as well as to enable you to delegate or eliminate some of the work.

No Plan – “He who fails to plan, plans to fail”. This proverb says it all. Without a plan, we are not in charge of our destiny. Solution: Spend time daily planning your activities that are both a part of your daily to-do tasks, as well as those that help you work on your goals.

No Accountability – Having no one to keep us accountable to our goals makes it difficult to achieve them. While we may have loads of desire and ambition, when things get tough we need someone to hold us to the wall, maybe even hold our hand, and help us get past the hurdle. Solution: join a mastermind group, find a coach or get a partner to help hold you accountable.

Poor Time Management – There are only 24 hours in a day, no matter who we are, we can’t have more. To get more done, we have to do more with the time we have. Solution: Learn to prioritize the most important tasks and do them first. Invest in a time management system and use it. I like to plan my goals and projects as well as appointments in Google Calendar.

Trying To Do It All – There is a myth in the real estate world that you can do AND have it all, alone. When we believe in this myth we become frustrated, exhausted and eventually burnt out. Solution: Get some help, hire an administrative assistant, a Transaction Coordinator or someone to help you build your business while allowing you time for a life outside of it.

Sometimes a simple strategy session with a mentor or coach can get you on track with a clear actionable plan. Other times a regular mastermind group can help you stay accountable and get input from fellow entrepreneurs. Over the years I’ve benefited immensely from many mentors and coaches.


While being helpful and mentoring someone feels great, I believe being a mentor is also a way to hold us accountable to our dreams. When we share what we’ve learned with others, it helps to remind us of the “things” we’re suppose to be doing to create the business and life of our dreams.Remember, nothing great was ever accomplished alone. Surround yourself with people who can help support you in reaching your goals. Keep following your dreams, you’ve got something special within you and no one else can offer that special something the way you can. Stick with it and stay focused, the world needs that special gift you’ve got!

How Does My Defined Benefit Pension Plan Work?

The Defined Benefit Plan used to be the standard for pension plans. Over the last 10 years, many companies have been phasing out these plans in favour of Defined Contribution Plans. Some companies may give you the option of switching between them as well, or converting from one type to another. This article is focused on the Defined Benefit Plan. If you start working for a company today, you will most likely be offered a Defined Contribution Plan unless you work for the public sector, a unionized environment, or a company with a long standing defined benefit plan.

How do I know the difference between the two plans? See the definitions below. The words in bold are terminology you will often see in the discussion of defined benefit pension plans.

Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans Defined

A defined benefit plan is a pension plan where the future payout in retirement is defined by a set formula when you join the company. It is a calculation that usually includes your highest average salary, time working in the company, and how much money was contributed by you and the employer. The money is invested on your behalf and the firm is responsible for risk if something goes wrong. There is usually an implied rate of return that is guaranteed by your employer each year, which is the investment rate of return your money would earn if you could see your pension plan in a bank account.

A defined contribution plan is where the money you pay into the plan is defined: the amount contributed either by you or on your behalf by the company. It is a set dollar amount based on your salary in the year that you are working. You can think of it as the company (and sometimes you and the company) contributing to your pension account. This is similar to a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) account, except that it is locked in. Locked in means that the money is in your name and you are entitled to the money, but cannot withdraw it unless there is a very exceptional circumstance. (i.e. this is the only money I have and I need to pay my bills). Also like an RRSP Account, you get to choose the investments in the defined contribution scenario, and you are taking the risks. If you invest in a fund and it loses money, you must deal with the consequences. It is for this reason that it is good to have a plan. If you are in a situation where you have a defined contribution account, you will have to make the decisions.

I know that I have a Defined Benefit Plan, What Now?

The good news is that defined benefit plans tend to work without many decisions being made on your part. This article is designed to make you aware of how they work so that you can be aware of potential changes and make decisions such as benefits changes, whether to stay at your employer a certain number of years, whether to transfer your pension to another institution, or convert to another type of plan (i.e. The Defined Contribution Plan). You may also be given warning if the promises that were made to you when you joined the pension plan get changed by the time you actually receive payment in retirement.

How Does It Work?

A defined benefit pension plan is basically a giant bank account, covering retirement for many employees in an organization over a long period of time. The employees and the employer contribute money every year, and this money is collected in this account. The entity that manages this bank account is called the plan sponsor. This account is typically run separately from the company operations, or from the institution it represents. For example, the GM pension plan is a separate entity from GM the corporation. The only relationship the pension plan and the underlying company should have is for company contributions, adding money to increase funding of the plan, or removing money over and above the projected amount needed to pay the present and future pensioners. If there is any other money transfer between the pension plan and the company, this should be monitored as it may signal funding problems, or a permanent change in the structure of the pension plan (for example company mergers, amalgamations or division split off from the parent company).

Once money is deposited into this bank account, it is invested for a long period of time to ensure that there is enough money to pay the future obligation. The amount of money promised to future pensioners is tabulated, and this amount is discounted back to the present, using an interest rate called a discount rate. This means that an equivalent amount of money invested in the current year is calculated to equal this expected future obligation. The calculation of the future obligation determines an expected rate of return which is the return necessary for the money sitting in the bank account to pay the future obligation and operate the pension plan. How do they know how much they will have to pay? This is where the actuary comes in. The actuary estimates how long people will contribute and withdraw money from the pension plan based on life expectancy, economic conditions, expenses of running the plan, the investment returns and inflation among other things to come up with a projected benefit obligation. The current health of the plan overall is measured using an asset-liability study, which is exactly what it sounds like – a study of the assets (money expected to be generated by the plan) and the liabilities (money that is expected to be paid out by the plan), or the funding situation of the pension plan. There can different versions of this calculation due to varying assumptions. If you are very keen, you can find the assumptions in the financial reports of your pension plan and see what the variations are. Since these calculations are projecting way out into the future, a small change in an assumption will mean a big change in the result. Keep an eye on this over the years to see what trends may be impacting the numbers. This asset-liability study also determines whether there is a surplus in the plan, or it isoverfunded (more money in the plan that the most current estimate requires to cover the future obligation) or a deficit in the plan, or it is underfunded (less money in the plan than the most current estimate requires to cover the future obligation). If a deficit becomes too large and stays there for a period of time, the plan may become insolvent. This is very similar to a company that goes insolvent because it ran out of cash and couldn’t sustain its business any longer. If this happens, the government may bail out the plan, but this depends on the jurisdiction, funds available and willingness of the government. The alternative is to wind up the planand whatever money is left over is divided among the stakeholders (the pensioners, contributors and entities that operate the plan). This is similar to a bankruptcy proceeding for a corporation.

Contributions

Contributions represent the money put into the pension plan by you and your employer. The contribution amount is usually based on a percentage of salary, and consequently the payout in retirement is also based on your salary. The specific calculation of the payout will vary for each plan – this should be checked with your employer. The retirement calculators provided at your workplace are very handy for figuring out your projected retirement monthly payout. Since the numbers are projecting well out into the future, unless you are within 5 years of your retirement, the numbers will likely change by the time you actually receive payments. The ratio of money you are contributing versus the employer will vary by plan and over time. Generally, the less you contribute, the better off you are if you receive the same benefits. Check your pay stub to make sure that the amount deducted equals the amount that should be deducted. If it is not, ask why. There may be some additional deductions or changes to the percentages that you may not be aware of. In some plans, you don’t see what the employer contributes – you only see what you have contributed. If you know the percentages of both parties, you can figure out how much you are actually getting. Also, for tax purposes, the company will reflect contributions from both parties on your tax slips, as the total dollar amount will impact RRSP contribution room and tax planning. Changes to contributions and benefits are usually reflected after union contract negotiations, or after asset-liability studies are carried out which determine how much money the plan will need to pay the pensioners, and how much you the contributor will need to pay.

Vesting

“Vesting” or “Vesting Period”is the time after which you are entitled to benefits or payment, either now or in the future. When you first join a pension plan, the first vesting period is the time when you are entitled to the employer contributions. It could be your first day of employment, or months and years out into the future from your first day of employment. There may be other vesting periods – times at which you are entitled to pension payments, or health benefits as well as pension payouts. Many defined benefit pension plans will include access to health insurance, and how much is covered is typically what you receive when you are working – but this varies and must be verified with your employer. There may be a vesting period for when you can take early retirement. This is usually called early retirement rather than vesting, but the idea is the same. If you stop contributing to the pension plan, you will lose anything that is not vested. Note that you may leave the company and return to the company but continue contributing in your absence. Whatever is vested can either be taken with you, or received as a deferred payment in the future. The tabulations that are done with the retirement calculators always assume you will contribute all the way up to your retirement without interruption. If you leave earlier, you need to calculate a deferred payment, where you input the start and stop date of your contributions, and how much money you put in over this period. If you are familiar with the concept of an annuity, this is very similar.

Indexing

When most pension calculations are done, it is assumed that there is no inflation in the numbers. If you see the term “real rate of return”, this interest rate would include inflation, and would equal the nominal rate of return, or typical interest rate that is quoted, minus the inflation rate. As an example, if you received a 5% return on your mutual fund last year, and the inflation rate was 2%, your real rate of return would be 5%-2% or 3%. Why does this matter? Typically pension payments are fixed – once a payment is calculated upon reaching retirement, it stays the same throughout retirement. The problem is that when you retire, you are supposed to have enough money to pay your expenses with this pension payout. If the rate of inflation is 2% every year up to your retirement, this is like saying you can buy 2% less stuff every year. If the promised pension payment is $2000 per month today, and you retire in 20 years, this 2% inflation rate would reduce the amount of stuff you can buy by 40% (2% x 20 years). If this continues while you are retired, say another 20 years, this money will now buy 80% less stuff than today. Imagine paying bills with 80% less money! Indexing raises the payout calculations by the amount of the inflation rate to prevent this erosion of monetary value from happening. Inflation is actually a very personal thing – the price increases of the stuff you personally spend your money on, is what will impact you the most. The pension plans assume that you buy the same quantity of stuff and in the same proportions as the average, or quoted inflation rate. This is likely not true, but it is better than no indexing at all. Some pension plans also have a maximum amount that they will index, or will not fully index but only partially. Check with your employer for the calculation to verify.

Early Retirement Special Features

Most plans have an option to retire early. They will usually combine how long you have worked there, or years of service with your age and determine a threshold for qualification for early retirement. If you retire early, the rules may change. They may give you a reduced pension for a period of time, or some other benefit. This is highly specific to your employer, so do the homework on this one. These features also change over time. The more the employer wants you to retire, the better an offer they will provide. Another indicator is that the more money the pension plan has, or the better the funding situation, the lower the contributions will be and the better the early retirement terms will be. The closer you are to retirement, the more these features will impact you. Retiring early is a very personal decision, as it will affect your retirement plan, tax status, income and employability. Make sure you plan carefully if you are offered early retirement, and do what is best for your needs.

RRSP Effect

The government views all of your pension accounts together when it comes to contribution room. The RRSP room that you are allowed will include defined benefit pension plan room, as well as all other types of retirement accounts. As an example, if you are allowed $12000 worth of RRSP room, and the defined benefit plan contributes $10000 in the relevant tax year (note that this includes your contributions and those of the company), you would have $2000 left for additional contributions to another type of retirement account.

What About the CPP?

The CPP contributions are also accounted for with your defined pension plan. The employer will account for the CPP limits when calculating your defined pension contributions. When you retire, the pension calculator that you use to determine how much money you receive in retirement accounts for CPP entitlements as well. How this accounting is done will depend on your salary and the CPP contribution calculations for the year in question. This would be another question for your employer. When you are retired, you would receive the CPP Payment and the Defined Benefit Pension payment separately, and the Old Age Supplement (OAS) if applicable.

What if I Leave the Company?

If you leave the company and you are vested, you can leave the money with your former employer, or take it with you to another institution. If you leave it with your employer, you will be able to receive it when you reach retirement age – this is called a “deferred payment”. It may also mean a series of payments over time – this is something I would ask the employer, especially if you will be retiring in the next 10 years. Since it is a pension plan, it will remain locked in until you are of retirement age. It would be kept separate from other non-locked in assets that you might have – like RRSPs, Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) or non-registered (cash) accounts. There are situations when you can combine locked in accounts from different employers into a single account. This should also be discussed with your current employer.

You can also combine defined contribution and defined benefit plans together in certain situations – if your current employer has a way of calculating the value of the contributions between the two (or more) types of plans. This is also possible between defined benefit plans of different types. Please ask your employer for the rules of their pension plan upon arriving or leaving a job to make sure you have all of the options open. You can also manage pension money yourself once you leave the employer. The money would go into a Locked in Retirement Account (LIRA), which can be managed by the same financial institutions that manage RRSP accounts. You can also turn this money over to a financial planner or broker if you believe they can manage your money more effectively than you can. There are usually time restrictions on making these transfers, and rules of protocol to follow, so please ask your company when you leave the firm and get the proper procedure so you can implement this strategy if you want to.

What If I Am Not Vested Yet?

If you leave the company before the vesting date – your funds will be returned to you but employer contributions will be kept by the company. For information purposes, keep track of how much you and the company contribute from when you joined the plan in the event of mistakes. As an aside, always keep your statements and print out hard copies of your records in case of issues with accessing your internet based accounts or loss of history. At the very least, have the records stored in your personal hard drive so they can be accessed without restriction. This is also a good idea for tax purposes. You want to be able to recreate your account situation from start to finish without relying on the internet, or any other parties to supply you with information.

In summation, the defined benefit pension plan is an integral part of your retirement. Even though it is managed by your employer, you should know what is going on and make decisions when appropriate.

 

Four Reasons Why Small Business Fail To Plan and Why They Need To Think Again

It is so widely acknowledged that a robust business plan is one of the key ingredients in small business success, it seems remarkable that anyone serious about their business could considerable it optional. For example, Business Link say, “It is essential to have a realistic, working business plan when you’re starting up a business”. A recent survey showed that small businesses were twice as likely to be successful with a written business plan as compared with those without one. The Times in their annual round up of 100 up and coming UK businesses suggest that “poor business planning” is a key reason for failure. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to find an authority that would advocate the opposite idea, a clear signal that this idea is accepted wisdom. Despite this, a recent survey shows that two thirds of small business owners run their businesses on gut instinct alone.

I had a very interesting discussion about this a couple of days ago with a good friend of mine who has run several successful small businesses in which he posited the idea of a “planning gene”. He felt that the only possible explanation for the lack of proper planning in small business was genetic.

According to his theory, the majority of people are born without the “planning gene” and this explains why so many people don’t have any written business plan, despite the overwhelming evidence of a high correlation between a robust and vigorously implemented business plan and business success. The majority of us are simply not biologically and genetically wired to plan.

This is certainly one explanation, although I have to say I have a few reservations as to the validity of his theory. I talk with small business owners about planning every day. I’m part of a small business myself. I’ve owned several small businesses over the last ten years each with varying degrees of success. In all those conversations and all that experience, this was the first (semi) serious discussion I’d had about the planning gene.

If I was to aggregate the results of the conversations I have had with actual and prospective customers on this topic, four distinctive strands emerge explaining why small business owners fail to plan. Whilst I have heard a few other explanations for the lack of effective small business planning, I am treating these as outliers and focusing on the most significant.

I’m Too Busy To Plan – More often than not, the small business owners we talk to tell us that proper planning is a luxury that only big business can afford. For them, business planning, if done at all, was a one-time event that produced a document for a bank manager or investor which is now gathering dust in the furthest recesses of some rarely opened filing cabinet. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and if forced to choose, they would do the real, physical work and leave the mental work undone, which seems to be the poor relation at best, if it is even dignified with the status of work at all.

Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work – The “I’m too busy to plan” excuse is often supplemented with this one. I’ve heard the stories of the most legendary construction overrun of all time, The Sydney Opera House, originally estimated to be completed in 1963 for $7 million, and finally completed in 1973 for $102 million, more times than I can remember. Sometimes, this idea is backed up with some actual research, such as the fascinating study by several eminent psychologists of what has been called the “planning fallacy”. It seems that some small business owners genuinely believe that mental work and planning is a bit of a con with no traction on physical reality.

My Business Is Doing Fine Without Detailed Planning – A minority of small business owners we speak to are in the privileged position of being able to say they’ve done pretty well without a plan. Why should they invest time and resources into something they don’t appear to have missed?

Planning Is Futile In A Chaotic World – Every once in a while, we hear how deluded we are to believe that the world can be shaped by our hopes and actions. This philosophical objection to planning is perhaps my favourite. It takes ammunition from a serious debate about the fundamental nature of the universe and uses it to defend what almost always is either uncertainty about how to plan effectively or simple pessimism. This is different from the idea that planning doesn’t work as these business owners have never even tried to form a coherent plan, but have just decided to do the best they can and hope that they get lucky as they are knocked hither and thither like a steel ball in the pinball machine of life.

As with all of the most dangerous excuses, there is a kernel of truth in each of these ideas and I sympathise with those who have allowed themselves to be seduced into either abandoning or failing to adopt the habit of business planning. Most small business owners feel the same dread in relation to business planning as they do to visits to the dentist, so it’s unsurprising that so many simply don’t bother. However, by turning their backs completely on planning, they are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taking each idea outlined above in turn, I’ll attempt to show why business planning is critical, not just despite that reason but precisely because of that reason.

I’m Too Busy Not To Plan – Time is the scarcest resource we have and it is natural that we would want to spend it doing those things that we believe will have the greatest impact. Of course, we want to spend most of our time producing, but we should also invest at least some time into developing our productive capacity. As Stephen Covey pointed out in his seminal work, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, we should never be too busy sawing to sharpen a blunted saw. Planning is one of the highest leverage activities we can engage in, as when done effectively it enhances the productive capacity of small businesses, enabling them to do more with less. Nothing could be a bigger waste of precious time than to find out too late that we have been using blunt tools in pursuit of our business goals.

If we as small business owners weren’t so busy and time wasn’t so scarce, then we wouldn’t have to make choices about what we did with our time and resources. We could simply pursue every opportunity which presented itself. However, for the busy entrepreneur, the decision to do one thing always has the opportunity cost of not being able to do something else. How can we be certain that our business is going where we want it to go without pausing regularly, scanning the horizon and making sure not only that we are on track but also making sure that we still want to get to where we are heading? I believe more time is wasted in the single-minded pursuit of opportunities that are not right than is wasted by over thinking the opportunity of a lifetime.

In short, small business owners are extremely busy and their time is precious. So much so that to waste it doing the wrong things with the wrong tools would be tragic. Small business owners that cannot afford the luxury of making expensive mistakes simply must regularly sharpen the saw through continuous business planning.

Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work, So We Need a New Approach That Does – There are some fairly large question marks over the effectiveness of traditional business planning techniques. In an age where business models are becoming obsolete in months rather than years, a business plan projecting five years into the future cannot be viewed as gospel. Nobody has a crystal ball and if they did, they probably wouldn’t be writing business plans but using their remarkable predictive powers to some more profitable end.

Dwight D Eisenhower said “plans are useless, but planning is essential”. Whilst producing a document called a business plan is far from useless, the real value lies in the process by which the plan is created in the first place. If this process can be kept alive in a business then the dangers associated with traditional planning can be minimised or avoided all together. In an environment of continuous business planning, small businesses can be flexible and adaptive to the inevitable changes and challenges they will face. Rather than quickly becoming obsolete, their plan will simply evolve with the changing circumstances.

Accepting that the plan is a living thing that will evolve necessitates a change of approach to business planning. An effective business plan is the response to the repeated asking of the questions what, why, how, who and how much. It is not a 20 – 30 page form to fill in for the benefit of a bank manager or some venture capitalist, who will probably never fully read it. A business plan should help you, not hinder you, in doing business. If traditional business planning doesn’t work for you, it’s time to embrace the new paradigm of continuous business planning.

My Business Could Do Even Better With Effective Planning – If you are one of the lucky few whose business has thrived despite an absence of traditional business planning, then I say a sincere well done. I hope that you can say the same thing in five years time.

Business life expectancy in Britain and across Europe and indeed the world are in rapid decline. A study done at the end of the eighties and then again as we marched into the new Millennium showed that life expectancy had more than halved for British businesses in those ten years, from an average of 9.7 years to 4.1 years. Just because a company once enjoyed market leadership does not mean that its future is assured. Many high street institutions have fallen victim to the recent recession. Five years ago it was inconceivable that UK retail institutions like Clinton Cards, Game, Borders, Barratts, T J Hughes, Habitat, Focus DIY, Oddbins, Ethel Austin, Principles, Allied Carpets, Woolworths, MFI and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore would all be either out of business or teetering on the brink of oblivion in 2012. Yet that is exactly what has transpired.

Any business from the smallest to the greatest is not impervious to the winds of change. A new competitor, a technological breakthrough, new laws or simply changes in fashion and consumer preference can all re-write the future of a company regardless of how bright that future once seemed. It is precisely because these risks exist that business planning is critical. To survive in business is extremely hard, but failing to effectively plan for the future or adapt to current realities surely makes it impossible and failure inevitable.

Of course, it is not necessarily the absence of plans that did for these companies but the quality of their plans and most especially the quality of their implementation. Even a poor plan vigorously executed is preferable to the finest planning and research left to rot in a drawer. Continuous business planning is effective business planning because it emphasizes implementation and regular reviews of real results as part of what should be a continual process of improving company performance rather than simply attempting to predict the future and wringing our hands when our prophecy fails to come true. We believe, like Peter Drucker, that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Planning Is Essential In A Chaotic World – We sometimes feel small and insignificant as we try against all odds to translate our dreams into business reality. It’s easy to feel all at sea when we consider some of the challenges we face. However, whilst it is true that we cannot control the direction of the wind, we can adjust our sails and change the direction of the rudder. Difficult and challenging circumstances may come in our lives, but we can control the outcome of these circumstances by choosing which path to take.

The truth is that we are fundamentally achievement orientated as human beings. When this is taken away, we lose much of the energy and motivation that propels us forward. There have been numerous studies carried out on life expectancy rates after retirement, which show that when clearly defined goals and daily action moving in the direction of those goals are removed from our lives, the result is literally fatal. The individuals studied who failed to replace their career goals with a new focus for their retirement simply shriveled up and died. The implications for small business owners are clear. Those business owners with clear goals who take action daily that propels them in the direction of their goals are far more likely to thrive and survive than those who take any old goal that comes along or move from day to day with no defined objective other than survival.

It seems to me that precisely because life is so chaotic and challenging that effective planning is essential. Without continuous business planning, our businesses and the small business owners that work in them may find that bit by bit they are atrophying and on their way to becoming another business failure statistic.

There undoubtedly exists an antipathy for business planning felt by many small business owners. Clearly, this cannot be fully explained by the lack of a “planning gene”, but it equally cannot be fully justified by the reasons most commonly put forward by small business owners to not engage in the business planning process. These reasons must be critically re-evaluated and a commitment made to a continual and never ending process of improving the condition of their small businesses. Without such a commitment, the future for small businesses in the UK is uncertain.