When ROI Isn’t the Right Measure – Investing in the Future

October 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm Leave a comment

Most managers are intimately familiar with the concept of return on investment (ROI) since most of them have been judged based on that most fundamental of measurements. Sometimes, however, a short term ROI is absolutely the wrong tool to measure success:

Many business schools teach executives and entrepreneurs that business is about profit maximization. I don’t believe that. I believe business is about making a profit that sustains the business and enriches the owners but is not maximized in any period (month, quarter, year). I believe the goal of a business is sustainability so that all the stakeholders (customers, employees, owners, suppliers, etc) can rely on the business for the long term.

Let’s use an example. You own a business that operates on the web. You are a leading supplier of ecommerce to a vertical market. You generate $50mm in annual revenues and make a profit of $5mm a year. You see the launch of the iPhone and Android and think that your customers are going to want to connect to your business via their mobile phones. You ask your VP Product to scope out what it would take to build a comprehensive set of mobile apps that will allow this. She tells you it will take an investment of $5mm over two years to complete this project. You gulp. That is going to reduce your profits by $2.5mm a year in each of the next two years. What do you do? You make the investment because you must invest in the long term success of the business even though that is not a profit maximizing event. It may simply get you back to the $5mm per year of profits you were making before. There may be no ROI on this investment in a positive sense. It may simply be a defensive investment. You still need to make it to ensure you will be around for the long run.

Clay Christensen talks about this kind of thing all the time. Big company executives are asked to calculate an return on investment (ROI) on the investments they want to make. If the ROI isn’t greater than some minimum hurdle, the company doesn’t make the investment. And so along comes a smaller competitor who makes the investment and they eat the big company’s lunch.

So how does this apply to managing an apartment community? When you’re considering upgraded technology or capital improvements are two instances that come immediately to mind, but any time you’re considering the impact of an expenditure on your ROI you also need to consider the long-term impact of not acting.  It might just be penny wise and pound foolish.

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Entry filed under: Management, Operations. Tags: , .

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