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4 family money lessons from top companies

Especially for those who start out in a deep financial hole, getting your finances in order can seem impossible.

If it's any consolation, so can starting a successful business, says Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School.

"There are something like 3 million businesses incorporated in America each year. The overwhelming majority of those won't live past their first birthday," Koehn says.

But whether a business leader is building a startup into a global powerhouse or turning around a company that's fallen on hard times, there are some common threads between successful companies, Koehn says.

What does that have to do with your money? Potentially plenty, says Sue Hunt, director of housing counseling at CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling service.

"Individuals, with their personal finances, can sometimes learn a lot from emulating corporate practices," Hunt says.

Here are some of the best money lessons for families from America's biggest companies.

Have a compelling vision

Know what you want to accomplish with your personal finances.

All companies are in business to make money. But what distinguishes the best firms from all the others is the compelling vision of their leaders for what they want to accomplish, Koehn says.

"'What is the destination? What is the mission? Where are we all going?' are critically important (questions)," Koehn says.

Koehn cites the example of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who turned the company around by renewing his company's focus on "(coffee) as you want it and a compelling experience for you," Koehn says. Earnings at the company rose from $312 million in 2008, the year Schultz returned as CEO, to $1.38 billion in 2012.

That same need for a concrete, compelling vision translates into getting your personal finances on the right track as well, Hunt says.

"It needs to be more than ... 'I want to improve my finances,'" she says. "Why do you want to improve your finances? What do you want to attain in the short term or the long term?"

Whether it's enjoying a comfortable retirement with your spouse in Florida or trading in your junk heap of a car, a concrete goal will help you stay focused, Hunt says.

"Changing the way you handle your finances is almost inherently uncomfortable and sometimes very difficult," Hunt says. "You have to see what the value is to it in the short term and the long term to continue to motivate you to make that happen."

Pursue efficiency (not just cost cutting)

Efficiency is a preoccupation of many of the most successful CEOs in history, but great companies are rarely made through cost cutting, Koehn says.

"Inattention to wasteful practices constitutes an important form of inefficiency, but the idea that cost control is some kind of mantra for success is as big a fallacy," she says.

Research, experimentation and attracting great employees are integral to a business' success, Koehn says, but, "All of those things, when you're on the train of 'cost control, cost control,' can get cut and can eat at the seed corn, the DNA -- the essence of a company's competitive advantage."

Koehn cites the example of Albert Dunlap, who laid off half of the workforce of Sunbeam Corp. in the 1990s in an attempt to turn it around, earning the nickname "Chainsaw Al," only to see the company slide into bankruptcy in 2001.


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