Monday, June 18, 2007

The Big Trip: One Year Off 2002

In 2002, my wife and I took one year off work, pulled the kids out of school, bought a trailer and spent the next 8 1/2 months driving around North America. It was without a doubt one of the best years of my life and something that we talk about years later. Here's a link to a google map I'm constructing on the trip.,-117.13623&spn=7.33247,14.80957&z=6&om=1

Friday, June 15, 2007

Is Your Business in Trouble

Is your Business in trouble?

by Greg Fjetland

from Profit magazine

There are lots of obvious warning signs that a business may be in trouble. But how does your business fare with this checklist of less obvious trouble signs?

  1. Do you find your employee turn-over increasing, even among stalwarts who have helped grow the business from scratch?
  2. Do you find your banker increasingly cautious, and less receptive to increasing your access to credit?
  3. Do you find yourself spending less than you should on scheduled equipment and property maintenance, in effect robbing the future to pay for the present?
  4. Have you prepared a financial blueprint for the year and perform a variance analysis every month to make sure you’re on track, or do you find it increasingly impossible to work within its guidelines?
  5. Do you have a system in place to monitor customer satisfaction, or have you lost several key accounts lately and really have no idea why?
  6. Is your business so successful that you may have trouble meeting orders and paying for required additional materials, or have you implemented an Accounts Receivable system to reward customers for prompt payment?
  7. Do you re-evaluate your business assets annually, or do you risk having unrealistic evaluations on your balance sheet, disguising the reality of how healthy your business is?
  8. Have your stock levels grown, revealing that you’re not in touch with which products are in demand and which need updating, or do you assume that time and changing customer demand will take care of your overstock situation?
  9. Are you being forced to cut into your margins more and more by dropping prices, or are you able to increase sales by better positioning your products?
  10. If your customer complaints have increased, have you responded by calling them, holding focus groups and then acting on their feedback?
  11. Have you grown the company out of the range of your expertise and capability but find yourself resisting hiring the talent necessary to maintain the company at its peak performance?
  12. Do you dread coming to work in the morning and have you noticed a corresponding lack of enthusiasm in your employees?
  13. Has the loss of more than 5 percent market share per quarter in two consecutive quarters, and if so, have you determined why and taken remedial action?
  14. Have you found your business increasingly reliant on just one or two key customers and suppliers instead of being well-connected to numerous business partners?Has your business lost focus and broadened to include anything you can make a buck on, instead of zeroing in on its core products and services

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quiz: How well are you looking after your Finances?

Quiz: How well are you looking after your Finances?

from Profit magazine

If there is one lesson for us all to remember from the dot bomb implosion, it's the need to be prudent and vigilant in safeguarding our personal capital. All too regularly, the best laid plans do go astray, so planning for the worst case scenario is always a wise recourse. Financial planning need not be an expensive or time-consuming exercise, but it does need to be looked after, and the sooner, the better. Trying to plan for likely contingencies requires knowledge and foresight, so here's a quick quiz to give you a head start.

1. Have you increased the risk to your personal finances by investing all of your equity in your business, or is your portfolio safely diversified into other opportunities?

2. Have you remained current on business insurance options such as Segregated Funds, Key Person Insurance and Overhead Insurance that help to guarantee your business's continuing viability in the event of an unexpected crisis? MEANING YOU SHOULD INVESTIGATE, BUT NOT NECESSARILY BUY THESE PRODUCTS? I’m suggesting some of these options are relatively new and I think the question suggests these are good ideas for a business owner to consider. A rewrite that contains the answer is: Do you hold business insurance options such as Segregated Funds, Key Person Insurance and Overhead Insurance or are you willing to risk your business's continuing viability in the event of an unexpected crisis?

3. Have your planned a tax-efficient exit strategy for your eventual retirement, or will Revenue Canada be the chief beneficiary?

4. What measures have you taken, such as incorporation or spousal ownership of equity and capital, to minimize your personal liability in case of business bankruptcy?

5. Do you take maximum advantage every year of all tax-saving vehicles available to you such as RRSP and RESP?

6. Have you engaged the services of a certified financial planner to review your personal finances and provide the best advice on how to manage your investments?

7. Have you provided any personal guarantees for company loans, potentially placing your home and other assets at risk in the event of business bankruptcy.

8. Have you provided an adequate salary for yourself and your family commensurate with your level of responsibility and hours spent on the job?

9. Have you ignored the potentially tax saving tools of an Individual Pension Plan (IPP) or Retirement Compensation Arrangement (RCA) for both retirement and succession planning for you and your business?

10. Do you increase your savings as your takehome pay increases by following a budget, or do you spend all of your paycheque (and often more?)

Bonus question!

11. Do you practice sensible money management by automatic payroll deductions from your paycheque to a savings and/or retirement account, paying off your monthly credit card balances, and setting money aside for large purchases?

Alexandra Babbel:

Super Voice, Super Mom, Superwoman

By Greg Fjetland

Kelowna’s Alexandra Babbel finds perfect harmony in parenting and performing

Last fall Alexandra Babbel of Kelowna made an emotional return to her ancestral village in Ukraine. Accompanied by three family members, she visited her mother’s now empty house and searched the woods for the old bunker that sheltered her family during World War II. Alexandra’s journey has led her full circle from the Okanagan back to Ukraine. “Part of me felt like I really belonged there. The atmosphere was so familiar,” recollects Alexandra. Alexandra is a compassionate, articulate, spiritually fulfilled mother of three who balances a no nonsense approach to life with an infectious sense of humour. An acclaimed opera performer, she is a sterling example of the world class talent that the Okanagan Valley draws from around the globe.
This story really begins back in 1943, where crouched in their crude bunker in the woods, Anton Kosachuk and his family listened to the distant pounding of the artillery. When Russian and German forces collided in Ukraine during WWII, the Kosachuks and other terrified citizens of the village of Salomka fled the conflagration. After three months of living in their crude shelter, they left and headed straight towards Germany. On their incredible journey they overcame the many hardships of wartime, including hunger and crossing through a minefield.
En route, isolated from his family and apprehended by the Russian Army, Anton was thrown into a prison and scheduled for execution. He despaired. An old man who shared his cell asked him, ‘How can you give up hope. I am old yet I’m still full of hope.” Anton found the bars of his cell were rusted and he broke free that night. Later in a refugee camp, he met his future bride with whom he would one day emigrate to America.
After World War II, the Kosachuks settled in what was to become East Germany. Eighteen years later, the family came to the United States to live in Michigan. Little Alexandra was their sixth child. From an early age she loved to sing accompaniment with her father. When she was 17 she began private voice lessons and subsequently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Music.
In 1983 she moved to Edmonton to take her Master of Music. There she met John Babbel, an Okanagan resident. They married and moved to Chicago where Alexandra began her illustrious performing career, including her role in the world premiere of a major new opera. She sang with a variety of companies including the Lincoln Opera and Milwaukee Opera.
Additionally she sang with many symphonies as a featured soloist and toured extensively through the States, Europe and Russia. With her deepening experience and knowledge, Alexandra began to teach at universities in the United States and Canada. Her voice teaching produced several young singers who have gone on to enjoy careers in music. Meanwhile, her own career was taking off like a rocket.
But just before the birth of their first child, a new realization set in. “There are many performers to play the role of Mimi (in Puccini’s La Boheme) but only one person to be my kid’s mom,” says Alexandra. The young family moved straight to Kelowna from Chicago in 1991, a homecoming for her husband John and a new life for Alexandra. They now have three children.
Today, Alexandra balances her busy family life with an equally demanding professional schedule. She practices about two hours per day. “A Mozart a day keeps laryngitis away,” she laughs. She manages a reduced tour schedule. Trans World Radio International sponsored her recent trip to eastern Europe where she made 15 appearances in 11 days but still managed to visit her former family home in Ukraine. She professes to a deep love for eastern Europe. “The people own so little but they’re so happy,” she says. “Materialism and leisure are the two big kings here but they never satisfy our spiritual hunger.”
Alexandra continues to embody her father’s hopes for a future: “It is so important to maintain hope and do your best in pursuing your vision. While one must remain within one’s ability and resources, it is vital to listen to the dream inside. My parents never gave up in the pursuit of freedom. Nor shall I give up in pursuing what is in my heart for the young artists of this city.”

Competiive Intelligence

Competitive Intelligence Quiz

first appeared in Profit magazine

One of the business catchphrases over the past few years has been Competitive Intelligence: the process that transforms information into relevant, accurate and usable strategic knowledge about competitors, position, performance, capabilities and intentions. CI, as it’s broadly known, doesn’t use illegal methods to accomplish its goals. Rather, CI uses publicly available databases to figure out your present and future business environment. Rate your Competitive Intelligence with the following quiz:

Have you assigned an employee - and given him or her a budget - for collecting and analyzing competitive intelligence?

Are your CI data collection efforts focused primarily on gathering historical competitive information from secondary sources, or are they mostly concentrated on soliciting future-oriented information from a well-developed network of internal and external sources?

Do you monitor the internet for blogs or other websites that may be posting disinformation that is injurious to your company’s reputation?

Do you confuse competitor watching - collecting data on your competition - with real CI i.e., developing an external focus that provides strategic early warnings about market shifts and risk control, and also to uncover new opportunities?

Does your CI team examine all aspects of your business: sales, marketing, product development, and strategic planning, or is it selectively focused to the exclusion of other areas of equal importance?

Is your CI distributed selectively and appropriately throughout the company such by email or intranet, or does the information languish on someone’s desktop?

Do you only rely on traditional CI or do you look at in broader market intelligence such as regulatory changes, technology trends, and other strategic scenarios within your industry?

Does your company waste time and money because your company lacks an enterprise-wide coordinated CI effort and so different departments are collecting the same information?

Are your CI efforts focused on growth opportunities of high interest to management, offering the best margins or growth potential? For example, is your CI group working with your market research group to identify customer segments that have high demand for your products or services and a limited choice of competitive offerings from which to choose?

When your CI group finishes collecting information, does it simply organize the information, or does the group generate value-added content, such as judgments, opinions, hypotheses, predictions, implications for your company, and strategic recommendations?

Does your CI group meet regularly with your senior executives to gather their intelligence needs and feedback on how it can improve the intelligence process and deliverables for these executives?

Are You Doing Enough to Prevent Internal Theft and Fraud?

Are You Doing Enough to Prevent Internal Theft and Fraud?
by Greg Fjetland

first appeared in Profit magazine

Employees steal from businesses more than shoplifters. Internal theft and fraud is widespread throughout every industry and represents a major challenge for business owners. Employee theft continues to be a source of bankruptcy and business failure. Take this quiz to see if you’re doing enough to safeguard your business.
1. Given that gambling and drug addiction is a major cause for employee theft, have you contracted with the services of a professional counselling agency and made their services available at no charge to your employees?
2. Since the best way to avoid employing a thief is not to hire him or her in the first place, do you conduct extensive pre-employment background checks that include examining of criminal records and calling references, and do you hire an external agency to do this if you’re too busy?
3. Do you tell new employee during orientation how important loss management is to the company and let new employees know that the company's theft prevention measures are tools to protect employees from false accusation.
4. Do you make company policies on theft, pilfering and misuse of company electronic resources - private emails, online games - well-known to all employees?
5. Do you develop a "culture of honesty" to preventing internal theft by building awareness about inventory shrinkage and theft issues, and do you provide a means for employees who observe illegal or inappropriate behaviour a way to report them?
6. Do you employ active loss prevention measures such as closed circuit cameras, and passive measures such as restricting access to certain areas and information?
7. Does your loss awareness and monitoring apply equally and appropriately to all employees, from casual employees to senior management?
8. Do you password protect your company computers and telephone accounts <<< TELEPHONE ACCOUNTS? CAN YOU TELL ME THE UNDERLYING RATIONALE HERE? (E.G., DO YOU WANT TO STOP PEOPLE FROM MAKING CALLS TO AUSTRALIA, OR LISTEN TO OTHERS’ VOICE MAILS? and have them changed frequently? Rationale is that hackers broke into my wife’s workplace 1-800 phone system (some workers hadn’t password protected their accounts and ran up thousands in long-distance bills. After the line was disconnected, phone calls came in for days afterward at the rate of two or three a minute.)
9. Do you monitor for “time theft” by noting times of arrival and departure, private telephone conversations, length of breaks and other sources of work loss?
10. Have you considered hiring a private investigator to deal with internal thefts instead of calling the police to minimize public disclosure?
11. Do you empty cash registers often so that there’s never more than sufficient cash in the till to cover purchases and have a drop safe system for depositing cash?
12. Because many thefts are done by ex-employees, do you have a key and alarm code control system that includes no-copy keys to allow for employee turn-over?
13. Do you require two signatures on all cheques, one of which is from a senior partner or officer?
14. Have you set up a system of internal controls that will deal with both receipts and payments to and from the company, such as having a senior company officer reconcile the bank statement monthly but somebody else sign the cheques?
15. Do you have your books audited annually by a certified accountant?

Master of the Accordion: Remi Picco

I wrote this story about my accordion instructor for the defunct Showcase magazine.

Remi Picco: Master of the Squeezebox

Christmas has come early for 76-year old Remi Picco. The Kelowna resident eagerly displays his new 10-track digital recording equipment. “It writes straight to CD,” he says in his studio, the walls lined with speakers, amplifiers, mixing board and a tremendous variety of electronics. Not surprisingly, a security system blinks in the corner of the room. Clearly at ease with this complex musical equipment, Remi says with confidence and a gentle smile, “It offers me unlimited musical possibilities.“
The heart of the equipment sits gleaming on a shelf. Gloss black and bejewelled in rhinestones, it’s a top-of-the-line, state of the art ”Petosa” accordion. Custom built in Italy, the 16-channel Petosa connects the studio equipment together as an electronic ensemble.
You could call Remi the Okanagan Grand Master of the Accordion, the Maestro of the Squeezebox, or a Virtuoso of Harmony. Trophies crowd a shelf in his studio; he has won an award every year he has competed at the famous Kimberley International Old Time Accordion Competition. This year he won the Diamond award, the first time its been offered. On another wall are signed photos of past and present giants of the accordion world. Remi knows each of them. “They’re all friends of mine,” he says.
Formerly much maligned as the instrument of schmaltz and geriatric waltz, the accordion has experienced a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years. Remi’s schedule is evidence of this growing appreciation; he’s playing 17 events this holiday season. “It’s my busiest ever, “ he says, “I’m already booking into next year.
The accordion is a difficult instrument to play well. The musician can see neither hand, and both hands must play independently to provide melody, harmony and rhythm. Though a keyboard is part of the instrument, the accordion, Remi points out, is really a wind instrument. The subtle skill of controlling the bellows breathes life into musical pieces. “When you wear the instrument, it becomes part of you, “ he says, “When you play a Strauss waltz, its your own expression.”
Remi is known throughout Kelowna for his many appearances. He plays at ethnic society dances, such as the German club, the Italian club, and the Sons of Norway. He also performs at innumerable weddings, banquets, anniversaries and events like OUC’s Career Fair. His success stems from his love of connecting with his audience through his toe-tapping dance music.
Remi remains a popular favourite at senior care homes such as Hawthorne Park and Three Links. At such venues his audience is often younger than he, something he attributes to his love of the accordion. “It’s bestowed the gift of youth on me, “ he professes. His youthfulness is apparent in the swift sureness of his strong fingers over the keyboard. “At 76 I’m playing better than when I was 25,” he says.
Remi only began playing in his teens after he immigrated to Canada from Italy. Living outside Cranbrook, he taught himself to play by ear on a model that he and his dad purchased for thirty dollars out of the Eaton’s catalogue.
After a variety of jobs in the resource industries, Remi attended teacher college in Victoria before returning to the Kootenays to teach. Later in Vancouver he ran began taking accordion lessons. He was 28 years old and his teacher “made me start from scratch.” In later years he moved to Kelowna and pursued the accordion fulltime. He now teaches, plays gigs and arranges music.
Remi’s life is full with other pursuits too. Earlier this year he played the role of a strolling accordionist in a CBC-TV French production. As well, he adjudicated a competition and conducted a 52-piece ensemble. And in July he and his daughter flew to Brazil where they drove to a remote countryside spiritual centre. “It was an enlightening unforgettable experience,” he.
Music remains his enduring passion. He plays hundreds of selections from memory and has a repertoire of thousands from written music. His cabinets hold uncounted volumes of accordion books and reams of sheet music. His collection of accordion music is outstanding, possibly the largest in Canada. “Oh, gee, I’ve got music coming out of the walls “ he says, “A fellow came from back east just to buy some from me.”
Remi’s musical range encompasses the range of his library. He easily demonstrates his musical virtuosity, playing the same piece in a variety of styles. His musical comfort zone extends from east European polka and waltz to Latin tango and rumba, from Scandinavian schottische to Italian tarantella, just to scratch the surface. Recently, says Remi, “I’ve become more interested in semi-classical music.
His knowledge of music theory is no less encyclopaedic. He discusses with ease the nuances of minor and major keys, discords, and intervals. “It makes me a better player,” he says. For Remi Picco, music constitutes part of his life, and the cultural life of the Okanagan is the richer for it.