ISBN 9781578512300 Published Feb. 2001
Harvard Business School Press
See all formats
Posted March 6, 2012 7:55 a.m. by sally-haldorson
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
We've spent a lot of time with Chris Zook. Not the man himself, but his work. When we were prepping the material for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, Jack and Todd were still unsure of what the exact construction of the book would look like, but we were sure of one thing: Chris Zook had to be included in the book.
I edited that review (trimming it, regrettably) numerous times during the year we worked on The 100 Best. But we posted that first version of Todd's Zook review, which Todd referred to as "the 1637 word extended entry to read what will be my forever, unpublished masterpiece/love letter to the works of Chris Zook," on our blog in 2009.
Ultimately it was Beyond the Core (which Todd described as "the one that provides the most insight for a company focused on expanding its reach") that made the cut (watch this video for why) as one of the 100 best business books of all time. Here is an excerpt from Todd's review of Beyond the Core explaining a common conundrum faced by many companies that Zook's work ultimately provides the answer for.
Market leadership feels good. The company grows. Employees are having fun. Shareholders are happy. At some point though, the growth curve flattens. The search for the next source of growth begins--and this is where the mistakes occur.
Consider the numbers. Only one in three new product introductions is successful. The odds of creating growth through acquisitions are about the same. And finding partners and forming joint ventures only succeeds 20 percent of the time.
The key to successful growth for Zook? "Business adjacencies [areas of expansion] are growth opportunities that allow a company to extend the boundaries of its core business by drawing on skills that already exist."
Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change, addresses how this can be done. For ten years they "looked at the three ways that companies grow (or fail to do so.)" And as they watched, they deduced "that simplicity, focus, and mastering the art of continuous change nearly always trump strategies of radical change or constant reinvention." In basic terms, get really, really good at something very, very simple. Then, repeat this refined process in an adjacent endeavor. The three principles of achieving this repeatability are developing a clear, repeatable well-differentiated core business; establishing a succinct set of "nonnegotiable" principles that drive every business decision; and integrating closed-loop learning into the strategy plan.
While the first two principles are about establishing standards, the third is about the necessity for retaining some adaptability. "Many well-documented studies by business historians reveal how successful business models can breed the seeds of their own rigidity, lack of learning, and eventual decline through complacency, hubris, a lack of willingness to question basic assumptions, and other human foibles." So it becomes imperative to set up a system immediately for receiving feedback from customers and frontline employees. It's a no-brainer, Zook and Allen say, but this process is often missing from most strategic plans.
In one sense, the idea that methods to monitor and adjust the key elements of strategy of a business sounds so obvious as to be unnecessary to state. Yet our collective fifty years of doing strategy consulting has proved to us the opposite. It is the rare business that insists that every newly developed strategy includes explicit methods to monitor, test, evaluate, response, and adapt.
Doing so, Zook and Allen assure, will improve the speed of your reaction time to the changing business landscape as well as to the competition.
The authors end Repeatability with a list of 10 "conclusions" that are both provocative and pragmatic, as well as several appendices. The appendix that summarizes the Top Thirty Case Studies included in the book--these companies span a wide range from the frequently lauded IKEA, Nike, and Berkshire Hathaway, to the less commonly referenced Danaher and DaVita, as well as international brands like Li & Fung and Olam--is nearly worth the price of the book itself.
As with all of Zook's books, he and Allen stay close to message in the same way he advises business to focus on what it is that they do best. And in fact, Zook and Allen state this intention about 40 pages into the book. "This book has a simple structure and an even simpler message. Hopefully, it is a metaphor for our topic of the power of simplicity in a world of escalating complexity, the silent killer of sustained and profitable growth." And that's exactly what they did with great success. Repeatability once again proves what a productive pleasure it is to spend some time with Chris Zook.
The Core Trilogy
Posted Jan. 7, 2009 1:28 a.m. by todd-sattersten
In Uncategorized - 800 CEO Read Blog
I am a big fan of Chris Zook's work. He is a partner at Bain & Company and he has spent alot of time researching what companies should do from a strategic point of view to be successful.
Zook offers sobering statistics for the success of new ventures and equally inspiring numbers for the power that market leaders have in their industries. If you are not the market leader, you are hobbled by smaller margins and return on capital.
His answer is simple: Focus.
As I mentioned yesterday, this is one of the sadder stories for me. Zook wrote three books - Profit From The Core, Beyond The Core and Unstoppable and I decided early on in the writing of the book to tackle all three and write an ode to the trilogy.
I spent probably two weeks researching and writing it. And when I turned it into Sally, our editor here at 800-CEO-READ, I got the "This is great, but it is way too long."
The ode exceeded 2000 words and all the other reviews we had written to that point had fallen somewhere between 500-650 words. We tried to do some editing, but the piece lost its punch. I couldn't justify three spots on The 100 Best for the trilogy. So, we shelved the review and decided to return to it later.
Later turned out to be several months later and four weeks before our manuscript due date. It was getting down to crunch time. We needed to get all of the reviews nailed down and this Zook review was still an open question.
We decided to focus on one book, Beyond The Core, and the best fit for the book at that point was in our Takeaways chapter. The books in that section delivered immediate impact to the reader and Beyond The Core was perfect as the representative for our earlier Strategy chapter. The trouble was these were even shorter reviews, each book got one page with information about the author, the book, and a short quote from the book itself.
My 2000 word stately ode became a 200 word pop riff.
I hope you'll click through to the 1637 word extended entry to read what will be my forever, unpublished masterpiece/love letter to the works of Chris Zook.
The Core Trilogy by Chris Zook
(Profit From the Core, Beyond The Core, and Unstoppable)
Reviewed by Todd
You are a witness to strategy playing out all around you. When the local newspaper runs its yearly story about which restaurants have closed, it is really reporting on failed strategies. Every one of those restaurants felt they could draw a sufficient number of customers to sustain a business…and they were all wrong. Our publisher, Portfolio, in deciding to publish this book, made a strategic decision, one based on the belief that this book could compete with others on the retail shelves. Strategy is not some arcane methodology limited to discussions around a boardroom table. Strategy is about competition and determining a course of action based on the realities of the market.
There are a nearly infinite number of choices when it comes to determining strategy for a company, department or even PTA. The bad news is that once a leader decides on a course of action, there is only a one-in-four chance that action will be successful. That is a sobering statistic and explains just why so many restaurants close within the first year of business. So, what if you could get a hint about which action might be more apt to succeed? What if there was some trustworthy information that could improve your odds?
Chris Zook, head of Bain's Global Strategy practice, has been looking at where growth comes from for over seven years and he has written three books that detail his work. The first, Profit from the Core, summarizes ten year's worth of research and proves that successful growth comes from focusing, not diversifying. Beyond the Core takes the next step, and in it, Zook argues for companies to make adjacent strategic moves leveraging their core for growth. Unstoppable explains how the need to redefine a company's core strategy may be the only option and how to make the transition successfully.
These three books can be read together or individually. A specific problem may lead you to read a specific title. The key insights appear in all of the books, but receive varying degrees of emphasis. Let's start by getting you excited about what Zook has to say.
The Reality of Growth (Say No to the Status Quo)
Companies have to grow: Competitors are in a constant battle to steal customers and their precious dollars; Inflation eats away at steady profits; Investors expect better-than-bond returns. Growth metrics indicate the health of a business and its strategy.
In Profit from the Core, Zook and his team defined reasonable growth levels (at least 5.5 percent growth rate in both sales and earnings) and analyzed market data to determine how many companies meet the criteria. Only one in eight companies met the growth criteria over a ten-year period. It gets worse: a study of strategic planning processes showed 90% of companies believed they would.
To explain the disconnection between strategic hopes and market realities, Zook examined over 160 reports on the topic of growth and found these sober statistics:
- The success rate for new products is about 30%.
- The success rate for startups is below 10%.
- The success rate for joint ventures is about 20%.
- The success rate for related acquisitions is about 30%.
These numbers could be a strong argument to embrace the status quo, but taking no action at all can be just as dangerous. One-third of the top 500 companies did not survive the 1990's, disappearing through acquisition or bankruptcy. Of the 350 companies which did survive, nearly one-half changed their primary business strategy. Taken together, six out of ten companies faced significant challenges to their core business and only half of them survived the ordeal.
King of the Hill
Let's revisit those companies who did manage to grow significantly over that ten-year period. They showed an interesting commonality: almost 80% had a single-focused core business. Zook believes defining and distilling a company's core is the key to long-term growth.
There was something else interesting in the growth group: these companies were all market leaders in their industries. Market leadership brings with it enviable benefits:
- In a typical multi-firm industry, the top player captures 70 percent of the profits.
- Market leaders earned a return on capital twice that of parity players and three times that of followers.
- Market leaders' market-to-book values are double that of followers.
Zook calls this phenomenon "leadership economics." This incredible leverage means that market leaders can reinvest at a rate significantly higher than their competitors. (Zook found a nearly 2X difference.) This strengthens the market leader's position by lowering costs and further improving margins.
Big Fish in a Big Pond
There is no benefit in market leadership if there is no money to be gained. Industry market size is unimportant, says Zook. Locating and properly estimating the size of profit pools within the industry is the key. These funds are what competitors are really fighting for. These profit pools can shift among competitors, flow amid steps in an industry's value chain, or even disappear completely with step-function changes in technology.
Profit pools bring clarity to strategic discussions. Does our core exist in a market position that has a sufficient profit pool? Do other potential strategic moves have larger profit pools? Can we use our market leadership to draw profits from other pools along the value chain?
To summarize what we have learned thus far: you want to be a big fish growing in a big pond.
Who Am I? (Who Are We?)
Finding the core of your business is relatively easy—identify the customers and products that generate the most economic profit. From there it gets much more difficult. What about all the product lines that are not making any money? What about the planned distribution center in Omaha? The budding partnership with your material vendor to bring a whole new quality level to the industry?
Defining the boundaries of your core is not made much easier by reading Zook's work. This is no fault of the author. It is simply the reality of strategic thought. The ever-changing realities of suppliers, competitors, customers, and technologies make this the most difficult part of the process. These boundaries need to be questioned and challenged regularly.
Settling on a definition for the core is followed by a round of action. Executives surveyed said they only exploit 50 percent of the business opportunities within their cores. Every action should be taken to establish and/or maintain market leadership, influence the industry's reinvestment rate (re: make others not want to enter), and possibly shape and capture a larger portion of the profit from the extended industry (e.g., what Intel and Microsoft do in the PC market).
Right Next Door
Market leadership feels good. The company grows. Shareholders, employees, and shareholders are all happy. It is time to find the next source of growth. This is where most mistakes occur. Look back at those failure rates.
For this reason, Zook spends an entire book, Beyond the Core, discussing business expansion. Zook calls these "adjacencies" and is one of the themes that appears in all three books. His thinking and the data he shares evolves with each book, but the definition never changed. Business adjacencies are growth opportunities that allow a company to extend the boundaries of its core business through drawing on skills that already exist.
Zook's research again helps us make better decisions about our strategic future. His research identified five dimensions (customers, competitors, cost structure, distribution and brand) to consider when planning an adjacent move. When a company uses the strengths it already possesses, the odds of success improve and the insight here is to make small moves. Changing only one of the dimensions in an adjacent move showed a 37% of success, better than most failure rates quoted earlier. Changing two dimensions shows a familiar 28% chance of success. With three dimensions changes, the success rate drops to below 10%.
Every adjacent move should be one made toward robust profit pools, and, in those profit pools, companies want to leverage leadership economics. Expansion requires reinvestment and market leadership is the only way to ensure profits needed.
Six in ten companies are going to have to redefine their core business in the next ten years because their profit pool is going to shift, be redistributed, or collapse completely. Our company faced a profit pool collapse in 1996 when Amazon entered the book business. Our robust catalog business evaporated and 1/3 of our total business disappeared in six months.
Unstoppable captures Zook's thoughts on core renewal. The book is the broadest and most ambitious of the three. Starting over isn't something companies do well, but Zook believes there are hidden assets in all companies that can be the basis for redefining their cores. New customer insights can reveal previously unseen habits and behaviors. New markets can appear when the company's capabilities are identified and applied differently. Small peripheral businesses can act as a new center for a struggling core. While not all companies have these starting points, Zook stresses the importance of looking for hidden assets before abandoning everything for a new industry.
Some Help and a Head Start
No matter what stage your business is at (defining a core, growing from that core, or needing to find a new core), Zook's research offers clear direction¬: search for profit pools, market leadership delivers the needed profits, and small, repeatable moves improve odds of success. If you can clearly identify where your organization appears in Zook's trilogy, certainly pick up the appropriate book for your needs. However, if you are looking for broad-spectrum knowledge, at the end of Unstoppable, Zook provides a road map for how to read the trilogy together, directing the reader to the strongest material in each of the books. I am certain that reading Zook will also improve your odds of success.
Todd's Favorite Business Books of 2008
Posted Dec. 28, 2008 4:34 a.m. by todd-sattersten
In Leadership - 800 CEO Read Blog
I get paid to read business books. Some would consider this a tortured existence, but I can't think of a better job in the world.
The job does have certain requirements. You have to love the pursuit of commerce. You have to believe that business is much more art than science. The job requires endless curiosity. And you need patience given the hundreds of books that arrive in our offices each year.
One of my favorite parts of my job is to go back each year and remind
readers what stands above the rest. Here are my five selections of 2008, with a page number to get you started and show that each book is worth reading in its entirety.
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by Daniel H. Pink
Start on page one. Dan Pink has written an unconventional career guide. The wildly popular Japanese manga comic format and the ass-kicking career genie named Diana are two great reasons to read Pink's guide. Audiences of all stripes will enjoy joining Johnny on this fast-paced quest to find a satisfying career and build a fulfilling life.
Visual thinking was an en vogue concept for 2008. A number of books described different ways to communicate complex ideas using pictures, drawings and charts. Dan Roam uniquely delivers on the how. The decoder ring on page 141 shows the answers to the six basic questions of who/what, how much, where, when, how and why. This alone is worth the price of two books (one for you, the other for a friend).
The Breakthrough Imperative: How the Best Managers Get Outstanding Results by Mark Gottfredson and Steve Schaubert
I am a fan of the business thought of the management consulting group
Bain & Company, with Chris Zook's "focus on the core" philosophy and Fred Reichheld's Net Promoter Score leading the parade. The Breakthrough Imperative builds and expands on the work of Zook and Reichheld. Mark Gottfredson and Steve Schaubert show that some strategy paths are better than others. On page 125, the authors elegantly simplify customer segmentation to three groups: those who buy on price, those who buy for quality and service, and those who buy for the prestige of owning the brand. In business, the path you choose always depends on where you are starting from.
This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women Edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
National Public Radio originally ran this series in the 1950s, and this is the second compilation of the renewed series. These seventy-five personal manifestos reveal deep motivations and their origins. Some individuals you'll recognize; all of them you will remember, whether it is banjoist Bela Fleck's obsession with perfection (page 79), comic book artist Frank Miller's love for the American Flag, or Amy Lyles Wilson writing about her mother pumping her first tank of gas after her husband passed away.
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin
Tribes is Seth's best book since Purple Cow. In his world, leadership is about change, risk, hope, fear and faith. I could pick almost any page for a clever insight given his riff-based style of writing. My recommended riff on page 126 is a list because everyone likes lists—in this case, Seth's seven elements of leadership.
Jack Covert Selects - The Breakthrough Imperative
Posted Sept. 12, 2008 5:39 a.m. by 800-ceo-read
The Breakthrough Imperative: How the Best Managers Get Outstanding Results by Mark Gottfredson and Steve Schaubert, Collins, 367pages, $26.95, Hardcover, March 2008, ISBN 9780061358142
Bain & Company have produced some of the best books coming out of consulting industry over the last decade. Chris Zook's trilogy--Profit from the Core, Beyond the Core, and Unstoppable--is a treatise on the benefits of strategic focus in any organization. Fred Reichheld simplified customer surveying and satisfaction metrics with The Ultimate Question, and Chairman Orit Gadiesh shared experiences from Bain Capital in Lessons from Private Equity Any Company Can Use. Somehow, though, we missed one.
In March, Collins Business published The Breakthrough Imperative by Bain partners Mark Gottfredson & Steve Schaubert. The neutral title and lack of media attention caused most (including ourselves) to miss this book and this review is our way of going back and rectifying that.
The authors believe there are four laws that great managers use to diagnose a business and plot a successful course. The first law, "Costs and Prices Always Decline," is a lesson familiar from college economics classes, but not one you normally associate with management. "Competitive Position Determines Your Options" is reminscint of Porter's Five Forces but goes further to define the realistic options for a company given its place in the market. The third law is a cornerstone Bain concept, "Customer and Profit Pools Don't Stand Still," stressing the emphasis on net income potential versus indiscriminately capturing sales and gaining market share.
The final law is the most surprising: "Simplicity Gets Results." "Keep it simple" is a message we appreciate in the communications and manufacturing processes, but often overlook in corporate strategy. The temptation is to offer whatever customization the customer requests. Bain's research finds that this is a mistake. Looking at industries ranging from aerospace to fast-food, Bain found the companies with the least complex offerings (i.e. less items on the restaurant menu) grew 30% to 50% faster than the average and 80% to 100% faster than the companies with the most complex offerings.
The Breakthrough Imperative reads like a mainstream business book with writing that is clear and concise, but the described analysis you'll find plays to the MBA crowd. The book is best read by managers with profit and loss responsibilities (or those soon hope to obtain those responsibilities). But, we are reviewing The Breakthrough Imperative to encourage others to take a chance and expose themselves to new ideas that will help them compete and grow business.
Unstoppable Interview with Chris Zook
Posted Aug. 10, 2007 6:42 a.m. by todd-sattersten
In Audio - 800 CEO Read Blog
After a summer hiatus, we return with a great interview.
In this podcast, I talk with Chris Zook, author of Unstoppable: How to Identify Hidden Assets, Redefine the Core, and Fuel Future Growth. This book is the final in a business trilogy of sorts. Profit From the Core and Beyond the Core were his prior titles from Harvard Business School Press.
We cover a group of topics that Zook has explored in all of his books: focus, leadership economics, and profit pools. We also talk specifically about the challenges of redefining a business core and whether these same issues apply to small businesses.