Article 18 – Think business, think margins

About 20 years ago, when Forbes started compiling a list of the richest Asian billionaires, many rumours spread. My favourite story involves a president M of a neighbouring country. He was known as the 10% president. Just make sure you budget a 10% margin for him if you want to participate in any infrastructure projects in his country.

After diligently amassing a tidy fortune over his long rule, president M was surprised when the new list from Forbes placed him a few places below another head of state from a neighbouring country. This head of state had only been in power for a few years so president M decided to make a state visit to learn the ultimate trade secret.

After a sumptuous dinner at the palace on a hill, the head of state led the president to the balcony with a great view. When asked for his secrets to such quick success, he asked the president, “Can you see that beautiful highway? And that long bridge across the river? And the power station next to it?”

Faced with a vast landscape of lush virgin forest and hills, the puzzled president said, “Sorry. There is nothing there but a forest in my view.” The beaming head of state explained patiently, “That’s my trade secret. I only take 100% margin!”

No, I am not asking you to make a 100% margin. Because you can’t. Unless you are a very powerful and corrupt politician or head of state. But it just shows that you will make money faster when your business enjoy high margins. Net profit is basically gross profit less expenses. The higher your gross profit (sales minus cost of goods), the faster you cover your expenses, the more you make as your sales increase. All because you have high gross margins.

No, I am not asking you to invest only in high margin business. If sales turnover is small, your net profit remains small. Sometimes high volume, low margin business provides a very high return on investment, like the Walmart hypermarket business. A 2% net profit on a turnover of US$400bil will net the shareholders a cool US$8bil (RM24bil) a year! Only Petronas makes more money than Walmart. And that’s because the abundant oil and gas from the sea bed is free!

But for entrepreneur wannabes who need to start on a small scale, I always recommend high margin business opportunities. You are under less pressure to achieve high sales volume and you need less working capital. You just have to watch your expenses and cover your opportunity cost of being employed.

High margins can be created through innovation, brand perception, necessity and scarcity.

In my pre-university days, I worked for 3M as a sales promoter. 3M is well known for its innovative research and development programme of developing next generation products. These are products that are sold at premium prices and fetch at least 70% margins across their 5,000 product lines! Once copycats flood the market and reduce their product margins, they just discard the product line and launch newer and more innovative products at higher prices.

Then you have Apple products which is at a premium to its competitors and they fetch higher margins through a combination of technological innovation and higher brand perception. Microsoft has been selling their so-called software diskette at an average of US$200 when their cost of production is US$2 per diskette. Out of necessity, your business computers must be installed with their operating system and Office application software. No prizes for guessing the reasons why these two companies are the most profitable in the world.

Why must you pay two times more for Gillette blades versus other blades when a shave is just a shave? Why must your wife pay RM5,000 for a plastic monogram bag when a full calf leather bag cost a mere RM500? And will a RM1,000 jar of cream make you look 10 years younger? If you have innovative products, make sure you hire the best marketing minds to create a superior brand perception, raise the prices and reap the rewards.

With a growing world population and depleting natural resources, we have seen continuous price increases in oil, minerals and agricultural products. What used to be cyclical in demand and supply, where prices fluctuate in 10-year cycles, have now become a continuous increase in demand versus depleting supply.

Compared with massive overcapacity in manufacturing of almost any conceivable product from consumer goods to ships to cars; it is a no brainer where the high margin business will be in the foreseeable future.

For entrepreneur wannabes, you should develop a competitive business model where you can charge a higher price for your goods or services. Be creative. Build yourself a superior brand image. Make sure your services or your products are a necessity.

A “must have” by all concerned. Embrace high margin mentality when you evaluate business opportunities. Then go forth and multiply.

This advice is free. But if you make your millions, just remember to send me a cheque for 10% of your earnings. Lest you forget that I do not have to be a crooked politician to earn my clean 100% margin.


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