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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


Growth through Focus: A Blueprint for Driving Profitable Expansion

Another potential trap in implementing growth through focus is neglecting or mismanaging the parts of the business that do not fall within the core focus areas. This is the “tail” of your business — products, brands, categories, and markets that do not make it to the priority list. Consider, for example, the brand portfolio. Most large companies have hundreds of brands, but only a few will make it to the priority list. So what should you do with the rest? Simply cutting off the tail can be disastrous, because the decline of the tail is often faster than the growth of the core. Further, the non-core businesses often have fixed costs that are linked to the core businesses. Finally, cutting and divesting can have a huge demoralizing effect, because people often have strong emotional ties to some of these businesses.

What you need is a clear plan to manage the tail. We find it helpful to cluster the non-core businesses into two buckets — “milk or divest” and “local jewels.” The two buckets need very different management approaches. The first category includes businesses that do not make money and have no hope of making money, despite repeated promises of future turnarounds. These need to be divested over a defined time frame. Fonterra Brands exited markets such as Mexico and Egypt where the business had not performed well for some time, which freed valuable resources that could be redeployed to grow the core businesses. Local jewels are successful local businesses that can be retained in the portfolio but managed at arm’s length by local teams, leaving the global teams to focus on the core businesses. At Kraft Foods, the company found a number of such jewels that are now managed locally, but still help to provide scale in manufacturing and distribution. These businesses should be left to determine their own destiny but should be held accountable for revenues, margins, and cash flow.

Too often, when companies rationalize and focus, they slash expenses across the board. Two areas that take the brunt of cost cutting are people-related expenses (recruitment, training, travel) and brand advertising. However, talent and brands are the two most valuable assets for driving growth. We recommend increasing investments in hiring and developing talent, even ahead of the company’s needs. We also recommend increasing investments in building brands. The good news is that the growth-through-focus approach yields significant cost savings through elimination of management layers, reduction of overhead, and elimination of marginal businesses. Focus frees up resources that can be used to invest in the future.

Once a strategic direction has been established, it is important to stay the course until the strategy has been fully implemented. We find that large companies suffer from “corporate attention deficit disorder” — they tend to search for new strategies every few years, particularly after a change in leadership. But growth through focus requires patience and perseverance. In our experience, the transformation process takes as long as five years to play out. Leaders should resist the temptation to go for the “next big thing” in strategy peddled by management consulting firms and management gurus. Change for the sake of change merely produces a loss of momentum.

Finally, keeping a positive tone is vital to the success of growth through focus. It is very easy to slip into a negative spiral that can destroy morale and derail the transformation initiative. Although you do need to face the facts and make the difficult decisions, it is important to keep a positive tone and to promote a can-do attitude among employees. The energy that comes from winning is infectious. It inspires people to achieve goals that they have never before considered possible. Leaders should act as evangelists and cheerleaders, spreading the positive energy and making sure the teams are having fun at winning.

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  1. Irene Rosenfeld et al., “Inside the Kraft Foods Transformation,” s+b, Autumn 2009: A roundtable discussion of Kraft Foods’ overall corporate reorganization.

  2. Mohanbir Sawhney, Sridhar Balasubramanian, and Vish V. Krishnan, “Creating Growth with Services,” MIT Sloan Management Review, January 15, 2004: Perspectives on how companies can drive organic growth through services.

  3. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:

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