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The Two Levels of Strategy

Business strategy is best distinguished from corporate strategy by the different perspectives that business leaders and strategic planners must bring to bear.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

The word strategy has many modifiers in the business world: portfolio, diversification, differentiation, growth, market share, shareholder value, customer, brand, product, pricing, cost, manufacturing, supply chain, channel, distribution, sourcing, IT, digital, people, communications, investor relations, and M&A among them. All of these forms of strategy are variations of the two most fundamental types: corporate and business. Typically, corporate strategy is seen as being relevant to a company as a whole, whereas business strategy is reserved for the individual businesses within a company.


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But things get more complex when you consider the most fundamental questions that a strategy needs to answer:

1. Who is the target customer?

2. What is the value proposition for this target customer?

3. What are the essential capabilities required to deliver that value proposition?

In considering a company operating in multiple businesses (think Siemens, UBS, Unilever, Reliance, and Saudi Aramco), these questions are difficult to answer for the company as a whole — if not meaningless. They can only really be answered for each of the individual businesses within a company. Does this mean that a company’s corporate strategy is just a rollup and integration of the strategies for its individual businesses? No, not at all. A corporate strategy adds two more critical questions to the list:

4. What businesses should the company be in?

5. How should the company add value to those businesses?

Adding value to the businesses means contributing to the ability of each business to outperform its peers. In other words, the individual businesses should be able to draw on some distinctive capabilities that are available to all parts of the enterprise, and that give the businesses an edge in their own target markets. For PepsiCo, direct store delivery is one of these enterprise-wide capabilities; corporate sales and marketing is one for IBM; General Electric has a distinctive capability in developing general managers; and so on. Those enterprise-wide capabilities that are truly differentiating may reside in the corporate center or in particular businesses. Either way, to the degree that all the businesses are able to benefit from such capabilities, they create a “coherence premium”: the ability of a company to be worth more than its sum-of-parts valuation. Without a coherence premium, there is no economic rationale for the individual businesses to be under the same corporate roof and, thus, there is no raison d’être for the company itself.

A coherent corporate strategy results from an iterative approach to addressing questions 4 and 5. It must be iterative because the answers to these two questions depend a lot on each other. In other words, the businesses that should define a company’s shape depend in part on its capabilities and how they add value to the businesses’ performance. Likewise, how a company should add value to its businesses depends in part on which businesses make up — or could make up — its portfolio.

Unfortunately, most strategists hardly bother with how the company adds value to its businesses (question 5), much less give the question an honest answer. This is why the so-called conglomerate discount is so prevalent, even for companies operating in highly integrated businesses. It also explains why companies such as ConocoPhillips, Fortune Brands, Sara Lee, Kraft, McGraw-Hill, Tyco (again), and ITT (again) have begun to break up or divest businesses in recent years, with shareholders applauding.

Finally, an important nuance: For most large, complex companies, the questions of corporate strategy — questions 4 and 5 — are relevant at multiple levels, not just for the company overall. For example, a division with multiple businesses (consider consumer banking at Citi or GE’s industrials group) represents more of a corporate portfolio than a single business unit. In fact, most divisions, segments, groups, and even business units can be thought of as having a portfolio of smaller businesses within them, thus making the questions of both corporate and business strategy relevant to their strategies.

Business leaders, strategic planners, and even strategy consultants often confuse business and corporate strategy. You can keep them straight by being clear on the questions that are relevant at your level.

Author profile:

  • Ken Favaro is a senior partner with Booz & Company based in New York. He leads the firm’s work in enterprise strategy and finance.


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