ABSENTEEISM

Absenteeism is the term generally used to refer to unscheduled employee absences from the workplace. Many causes of absenteeism are legitimate—personal illness or family issues, for example—but absenteeism also can often be traced to other factors such as a poor work environment or workers who are not committed to their jobs. If such absences become excessive, they can have a seriously adverse impact on a business's operations and, ultimately, its profitability.

COSTS OF ABSENTEEISM

"Unscheduled absences hurt," wrote M. Michael Markowich in a summary of an article he wrote for the September 1993 issue of Small Business Reports. "Most sick leave policies foster a 'use it or lose it' mind-set, and employees feel entitled to a certain number of sick days." Markowich went on to note that a survey of 5,000 companies conducted by Commerce Clearing House Inc. (CCH Inc.) found that unscheduled absences cost small businesses, at that time, $62,636 a year, on average, in lost productivity, sick time, and replacement costs.

Indeed, absenteeism can take a financial toll on a small business (or a multinational company, for that matter) in several different respects. The most obvious cost is in the area of sick leave benefits—provided that the business offers such benefits—but there are significant hidden costs as well. The SOHO Guidebook cites the following as notable hidden cost factors associated with absenteeism:

* Lost productivity of the absent employee
* Overtime for other employees to fill in
* Decreased overall productivity of those employees
* Any temporary help costs incurred
* Possible loss of business or dissatisfied customers
* Problems with employee morale

Indeed, Attacking Absenteeism author Lynn Tylczak contended that excessive absenteeism, if left unchecked, can wear on a company in numerous ways. "[Absenteeism] forces managers to deal with problems of morale, discipline, job dissatisfaction, job stress, team spirit, productivity, turnover, production quality, additional administration, and overhead. To summarize: You don't have an absentee problem. You have a profit problem."

DEVELOPING AN ABSENCE POLICY

Many small business owners do not establish absenteeism policies for their companies. Some owners have only a few employees, and do not feel that it is worth the trouble. Others operate businesses in which "sick pay" is not provided to employees. Workers in such firms thus have a significant incentive to show up for work; if they do not, their paycheck suffers. And others simply feel that absenteeism is not a significant problem, so they see no need to institute new policies or make any changes to the few existing rules that might already be in place.

But many small business consultants counsel entrepreneurs and business owners to consider establishing formal written policies that mesh with state and federal laws. Written policies can give employers added legal protection from employees who have been fired or disciplined for excessive absenteeism, provided that those policies explicitly state the allowable number of absences, the consequences of excessive absenteeism, and other relevant aspects of the policy. Moreover, noted The SOHO Guidebook, "a formal, detailed policy that addresses absences, tardiness, failure to call in, and leaving early can serve to prevent misconceptions about acceptable behavior, inconsistent discipline, complaints of favoritism, morale problems, and charges of illegal discrimination. General statements that excessive absenteeism will be a cause for discipline may be insufficient and may lead to problems."

Other steps that have been touted as effective in reducing absenteeism concern making changes in company culture and policy. CCH Incorporated, for instance, has noted that workplace flexibility can dramatically cut incidents of unscheduled absenteeism. Many small businesses that have introduced flextime, compressed work weeks, job sharing, and telecommuting options to their workforce have seen absenteeism fall significantly, for these policies provide employees with much greater leeway to strike a balance between office and home that works for them (and the employer).

ABSENTEEISM POLICIES

Most employees are conscientious workers with good attendance records (or even if they are forced to miss significant amounts of work, the reasons are legitimate). But as Markowich noted, "every company has a small number of abusers—about 3 percent of the workforce—who exploit the system by taking more than their allotted sick time or more days than they actually need. And when they begin calling in sick on too many Monday or Friday mornings, who picks up the slack and handles the extra work? More important, who responds to customer requests?"

To address absenteeism, then, many small businesses that employ workers have established one of two absenteeism policies. The first of these is a traditional absenteeism policy that distinguishes between excused and unexcused absences. Under such policies, employees are provided with a set number of sick days (also sometimes called "personal" days in recognition that employees occasionally need to take time off to attend to personal/family matters) and a set number of vacation days. Workers who are absent from work after exhausting their sick days are required to use vacation days under this system. Absences that take place after both sick and vacation days have been exhausted are subject to disciplinary action. The second policy alternative, commonly known as a "no-fault" system, permits each employee a specified number of absences (either days or "occurrences," in which multiple days of continuous absence are counted as a single occurrence) annually and does not consider the reason for the employee's absence. As with traditional absence policies, once the employee's days have been used up, he or she is subject to disciplinary action.

"USE IT OR LOSE IT" Some companies do not allow employees to carry sick days over from year to year. The benefits and disadvantages of this policy continue to be debated in businesses across the country. Some analysts contend that most employees do not require large numbers of sick days, and that systems that allow carryovers are more likely to be abused by poor employees than appropriately utilized by good employees, who, if struck down by a long-term illness, often have disability alternatives. But Markowich warns that "today, most employees feel entitled to a specified number of sick days. And if they don't take those days, they feel that they are losing a promised benefit. Your company may be inadvertently reinforcing this 'use it or lose it' attitude by establishing policies under which employees 'lose' their sick time if it is not used by the end of the year."

ESTABLISHING A SYSTEM FOR TRACKING ABSENCES

Absenteeism policies are useless if the business does not also implement and maintain an effective system for tracking employee attendance. Some companies are able to track absenteeism through existing payroll systems, but for those who do not have this option, they need to make certain that they put together a system that can: 1) keep an accurate count of individual employee absences; 2) tabulate company wide absenteeism totals; 3) calculate the financial impact that these absences have on the business; 4) detect periods when absences are particularly high; and 5) differentiate between various types of absences.

ACCELERATED COST RECOVERY SYSTEM (ACRS)

The Accelerated Cost Recovery System (ACRS) is a method of depreciating property for tax purposes that allows individuals and businesses to write off capitalized assets in an accelerated manner. Adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1981 as part of the Economic Recovery Tax Act, ACRS assigns assets to one of eight recovery classes—ranging from 3 to 19 years—depending on their useful lives. These recovery classes are used as the basis for depreciation of the assets.

The idea behind ACRS was to increase the tax deduction for depreciation of property and thus increase the cash flow available to individuals and businesses for investment. It was put in place during an economic recession and "unleashed a torrential flow of corporate cash," according to Elizabeth Kaplan in Dun's Business Month. In fact, at the time it was enacted, ACRS was expected to add between $50 and $100 billion to the incomes of individuals and businesses over a 10-year period.

Proponents of ACRS claimed that this depreciation method and related tax law changes led to a huge increase in investment that helped the U.S. economy recover. But other people criticized ACRS for making reported business earnings look better than they actually were. "The dangers of treating depreciation as merely an accounting convention—and not a real economic cost that provides for the eventual replacement of plant and equipment—were exacerbated by ACRS, which allowed companies to take ultrarapid depreciation on capital-intensive assets," Kaplan explained. "By reducing corporate tax bills, ACRS also exaggerated the disparity between cash flow and reported earnings…. The cash generated by a company's operations is being hailed as a far more reliable barometer of financial health than the more traditional earnings yardstick, which …can be skewed by accounting conventions."

Perhaps the most dangerous trend to grow out of the favorable tax treatment of capitalized assets was a large number of hostile takeovers. "ACRS inadvertently unleashed a potent weapon for corporate raiders who specialize in leveraging the assets of the target company to finance their attacks," Kaplan noted.

Responding to criticism, the U.S. Congress revised the ACRS as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. The new depreciation method for tangible property put in use after 1986 is called the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS). The main difference between ACRS and MACRS is that the latter method uses longer recovery periods and thus reduces the annual depreciation deductions granted for residential and nonresidential real estate.

Some people expressed concern that the change would spur consumption at the expense of investment and thus end the period of economic recovery and growth. Others worried that the frequency of changes would unnecessarily complicate the tax code. After all, taxpayers were required to use the useful life method to depreciate property put in service prior to 1981, the ACRS method for property put in use between 1981 and 1986, and the MACRS method for property put in use after 1986.

MACRS actually encompasses two different depreciation methods, called the General Depreciation System (GDS) and the Alternative Depreciation System (ADS). GDS is used for most types of property. ADS applies only to certain types of property—that which is used for business purposes 50 percent of the time or less, is used predominantly outside the United States, or is used for tax-exempt purposes, for example—but can also be used if the taxpayer so chooses.

ACCOUNTING

Accounting has been defined as "the language of business" because it is the basic tool for recording, reporting, and evaluating economic events and transactions that affect business enterprises. Accounting processes document all aspects of a business's financial performance, from payroll costs, capital expenditures, and other obligations to sales revenue and owners' equity. An understanding of the financial data contained in accounting documents, then, is regarded as essential to reaching an accurate picture of a business's true financial well-being. Armed with such knowledge, businesses can make appropriate financial and strategic decisions about their future; conversely, incomplete or inaccurate accounting data can cripple a company, no matter its size or orientation. Accounting's importance as a barometer of business health—past, present, and future—and tool of business navigation is reflected in the words of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which defined accounting as a "service activity." Accounting, said the AICPA, is intended "to provide quantitative information, primarily financial in nature, about economic activities that is intended to be useful in making economic decisions—making reasoned choices among alternative courses of action."

A business's accounting system contains information potentially relevent to a wide range of people. In addition to business owners, who rely on accounting data to gauge their enterprise's financial progress, accounting data can communicate relevant information to investors, creditors, managers, and others who interact with the business in question. As a result, accounting is sometimes divided into two distinct subsets—financial accounting and management accounting—that reflect the different information needs of these end users. Financial accounting is a branch of accounting that provides people outside the business—such as investors or loan officers—with qualitative information regarding an enterprise's economic resources, obligations, financial performance, and cash flow. Management accounting, on the other hand, refers to accounting data used by business owners, supervisors, and other employees of a business to gauge their enterprises's health and operating trends.

GENERALLY ACCEPTED ACCOUNTING PRINCIPLES

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are the guidelines, rules, and procedures used in recording and reporting accounting information in audited financial statements. Various organizations have influenced the development of modern-day accounting principles. Among these are the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The first two are private sector organizations; the SEC is a federal government agency.

The AICPA played a major role in the development of accounting standards. In 1937 the AICPA created the Committee on Accounting Procedures (CAP), which issued a series of Accounting Research Bulletins (ARB) with the purpose of standardizing accounting practices. This committee was replaced by the Accounting Principles Board (APB) in 1959. The APB maintained the ARB series, but it also began to publish a new set of pronouncements, referred to as Opinions of the Accounting Principles Board. In mid-1973, an independent private board called the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) replaced the APB and assumed responsibility for the issuance of financial accounting standards. The FASB remains the primary determiner of financial accounting standards in the United States. Comprised of seven members who serve full-time and receive compensation for their service, the FASB identifies financial accounting issues, conducts research related to these issues, and is charged with resolving the issues. A super-majority vote (i.e., at least five to two) is required before an addition or change to the Statements of Financial Accounting Standards is issued.

The Financial Accounting Foundation is the parent organization to FASB. The foundation is governed by a 16-member Board of Trustees appointed from the memberships of eight organizations: AICPA, Financial Executives Institute, Institute of Management Accountants, Financial Analysts Federation, American Accounting Association, Securities Industry Association, Government Finance Officers Association, and National Association of State Auditors. A Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council (approximately 30 members) advises the FASB. In addition, an Emerging Issues Task Force (EITF) was established in 1984 to provide timely guidance to the FASB on new accounting issues.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, an agency of the federal government, has the legal authority to prescribe accounting principles and reporting practices for all companies issuing publicly traded securities. The SEC has seldom used this authority, however, although it has intervened or expressed its views on accounting issues from time to time. U.S. law requires that companies subject to the jurisdiction of the SEC make reports to the SEC giving detailed information about their operations. The SEC has broad powers to require public disclosure in a fair and accurate manner in financial statements and to protect investors. The SEC establishes accounting principles with respect to the information contained within reports it requires of registered companies. These reports include: Form S-X, a registration statement; Form 1O-K, an annual report; Form 1O-Q, a quarterly report of operations; Form S-K, a report used to describe significant events that may affect the company; and Proxy Statements, which are used when management requests the right to vote through proxies for shareholders.

ACCOUNTING SYSTEM

An accounting system is a management information system that is responsible for the collection and processing of data useful to decision-makers in planning and controlling the activities of a business organization. The data processing cycle of an accounting system encompasses the total structure of five activities associated with tracking financial information: collection or recording of data; classification of data; processing (including calculating and summarizing) of data; maintenance or storage of results; and reporting of results. The primary—but not sole—means by which these final results are disseminated to both internal and external users (such as creditors and investors) is the financial statement.

The elements of accounting are the building blocks from which financial statements are constructed. According to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the primary financial elements that are directly related to measuring performance and the financial position of a business enterprise are as follows:

* Assets—probable future economic benefits obtained or controlled by a particular entity as a result of past transactions or events.
* Comprehensive Income—the change in equity (net assets) of an entity during a given period as a result of transactions and other events and circumstances from nonowner sources. Comprehensive income includes all changes in equity during a period except those resulting from investments by owners and distributions to owners.
* Distributions to Owners—decreases in equity (net assets) of a particular enterprise as a result of transferring assets, rendering services, or incurring liabilities to owners.
* Equity—the residual interest in the assets of an entity that remain after deducting liabilities. In a business entity, equity is the ownership interest.
* Expenses—events that expend assets or incur liabilities during a period from delivering or providing goods or services and carrying out other activities that constitute the entity's ongoing major or central operation.
* Gains—increases in equity (net assets) from peripheral or incidental transactions. Gains also come from other transactions, events, and circumstances affecting the entity during a period except those that result from revenues or investments by owners. Investments by owners are increases in net assets resulting from transfers of valuables from other entities to obtain or increase ownership interests (or equity) in it.
* Liabilities—probable future sacrifices of economic benefits arising from present obligations to transfer assets or provide services to other entities in the future as a result of past transactions or events.
* Losses—decreases in equity (net assets) from peripheral or incidental transactions of an entity and from all other transactions, events, and circumstances affecting the entity during a period. Losses do not include equity drops that result from expenses or distributions to owners.
* Revenues—inflows or other enhancements of assets, settlements of liabilities, or a combination of both during a period from delivering or producing goods, rendering services, or conducting other activities that constitute the entity's ongoing major or central operations.

FINANCIAL STATEMENTS

Financial statements are the most comprehensive way of communicating financial information about a business enterprise, and a wide array of users—from investors and creditors to budget directors—use the data it contains to guide their actions and business decisions. Financial statements generally include the following information:

* Balance sheet (or statement of financial position)—summarizes the financial position of an accounting entity at a particular point in time as represented by its economic resources (assets), economic obligations (liabilities), and equity.
* Income statement—summarizes the results of operations for a given period of time.
* Statement of cash flows—summarizes the impact of an enterprise's cash flows on its operating, financing, and investing activities over a given period of time.
* Statement of retained earnings—shows the increases and decreases in earnings retained by the company over a given period of time.
* Statement of changes in stockholders' equity—discloses the changes in the separate stockholders'equity account of an entity, including investments by distributions to owners during the period.

Notes to financial statements are considered an integral part of a complete set of financial statements. Notes typically provide additional information at the end of the statement and concern such matters as depreciation and inventory methods used in the statements, details of long-term debt, pensions, leases, income taxes, contingent liabilities, methods of consolidation, and other matters. Significant accounting policies are usually disclosed as the initial note or as a summary preceding the notes to the financial statements.

ACCOUNTING PROFESSION

There are two primary kinds of accountants: private accountants, who are employed by a business enterprise to perform accounting services exclusively for that business, and public accountants, who function as independent experts and perform accounting services for a wide variety of clients. Some public accountants operate their own businesses, while others are employed by accounting firms to attend to the accounting needs of the firm's clients.

A certified public accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has 1) fulfilled certain educational and experience requirements established by state law for the practice of public accounting and 2) garnered an acceptable score on a rigorous three-day national examination. Such people become licensed to practice public accounting in a particular state. These licensing requirements are widely credited with maintaining the integrity of the accounting service industry, but in recent years this licensing process has drawn criticism from legislators and others who favor deregulation of the profession. Some segments of the business community have expressed concern that the quality of accounting would suffer if such changes were implemented, and analysts indicate that small businesses without major in-house accounting departments would be particularly impacted.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is the national professional organization of CPAs, but numerous organizations within the accounting profession exist to address the specific needs of various subgroups of accounting professionals. These groups range from the American Accounting Association, an organization composed primarily of accounting educators, to the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants.

ACCOUNTING AND THE SMALL BUSINESS OWNER

"A good accountant is the most important outside advisor the small business owner has," according to the Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor. "The services of a lawyer and consultant are vital during specific periods in the development of a small business or in times of trouble, but it is the accountant who, on a continuing basis, has the greatest impact on the ultimate success or failure of a small business."

When starting a business, many entrepreneurs consult an accounting professional to learn about the various tax laws that affect them, and to familiarize themselves with the variety of financial records that they will need to maintain. Such consultations are especially recommended for would-be business owners who: anticipate buying a business or franchise; plan to invest a substantial amount of money in the business; anticipate holding money or property for clients; or plan to incorporate.

If a business owner decides to enlist the services of an accountant to incorporate, he/she should make certain that the accountant has experience dealing with small corporations, for incorporation brings with it a flurry of new financial forms and requirements. A knowledgeable accountant can provide valuable information on various aspects of the start-up phase.

Similarly, when investigating the possible purchase or licensing of a business, a would-be buyer should enlist the assistance of an accountant to look over the financial statements of the licenser-seller. Examination of financial statements and other financial data should enable the accountant to determine whether the business is a viable investment. If a prospective buyer decides not to use an accountant to review the licenser-seller's financial statements, he/she should at least make sure that the financial statements that have been offered have been properly audited (a CPA will not stamp or sign a financial statement that has not been properly audited and certified).

Once in business, the business owner will have to weigh revenue, rate of expansion, capital expenditures, and myriad other factors in deciding whether to secure an in-house accountant, an accounting service, or a year-end accounting and tax preparation service. Sole proprietorships and partnerships are less likely to have need of an accountant; in some cases, they will be able to address their business's modest accounting needs without utilizing outside help. If a business owner declines to seek professional help from an accountant on financial matters, pertinent accounting information can be found in books, seminars, government agencies such as the Small Business Administration, and other sources.

Even if a small business owner decides against securing an accountant, however, he/she will find it much easier to attend to the business's accounting requirements if he/she adheres to a few basic bookkeeping principles, such as maintaining a strict division betwen personal and business records; maintaining separate accounting systems for all business transactions; establishing separate checking accounts for personal and business; and keeping all business records, such as invoices and receipts.

CHOOSING AN ACCOUNTANT

While some small businesses are able to manage their accounting needs without benefit of in-house accounting personnel or a professional accounting outfit, the majority choose to enlist the help of accounting professionals. There are many factors for the small business owner to consider when seeking an accountant, including personality, services rendered, reputation in the business community, and expense.

The nature of the business in question is also a consideration in choosing an accountant. Owners of small businesses who do not anticipate expanding rapidly have little need of a national accounting firm, but business ventures that require investors or call for a public stock offering can benefit from association with an established accounting firm. Many owners of growing companies select an accountant by interviewing several prospective accounting firms and requesting proposals which will, ideally, detail the firm's public offering experience within the industry, describe the accountants who will be handling the account, and estimate fees for auditing and other proposed services.

Finally, a business that utilizes a professional accountant to attend to accounting matters is often better equipped to devote time to other aspects of the enterprise. Time is a precious resource for small businesses and their owners, and according to the Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor, "Accountants help business owners comply with a number of laws and regulations affecting their record-keeping practices. If you spend your time trying to find answers to the many questions that accountants can answer more efficiently, you will not have the time to manage your business properly. Spend your time doing what you do best, and let accountants do what they do best."

The small business owner can, of course, make matters much easier both for his/her company and the accountant by maintaining proper accounting records throughout the year. Well-maintained and complete records of assets, depreciation, income and expense, inventory, and capital gains and losses are all necessary for the accountant to conclude his work; gaps in a business's financial record only add to the accountant's time (and to his or her's fee for services rendered).

Such attitudes also reflect an ignorance of the potential management insights that can be gleaned from accurate and complete accounting information. Many small businesses, noted Ian Duncan in CMA Magazine, see accounting primarily as a "paperwork burden. It is often delegated to the firm's external accountant, and it is designed primarily to meet government reporting and taxation requirements." But Duncan and many others contend that small firms should recognize that accounting information can be a valuable component of a company's management and decision-making systems, for financial data provide the ultimate indicator of the failure or success of a business's strategic and philosophical direction.

ACCOUNTING METHODS

Accounting methods refer to the basic rules and guidelines under which businesses keep their financial records and prepare their financial reports. There are two main accounting methods used for record-keeping: the cash basis and the accrual basis. Small business owners must decide which method to use depending on the legal form of the business, its sales volume, whether it extends credit to customers, and the tax requirements set forth by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Some form of record-keeping is required by law and for tax purposes, but the resulting information can also be useful to managers in assessing the company's financial situation and making decisions. It is possible to change accounting methods later, but the process can be complicated. Therefore it is important for small business owners to decide which method to use up front, based on what will be most suitable for their particular business.

CASH VS. ACCRUAL BASIS

Accounting records prepared using the cash basis recognize income and expenses according to real-time cash flow. Income is recorded upon receipt of funds, rather than based upon when it is actually earned, and expenses are recorded as they are paid, rather than as they are actually incurred. Under this accounting method, therefore, it is possible to defer taxable income by delaying billing so that payment is not received in the current year. Likewise, it is possible to accelerate expenses by paying them as soon as the bills are received, in advance of the due date. The cash method offers several advantages: it is simpler than the accrual method; it provides a more accurate picture of cash flow; and income is not subject to taxation until the money is actually received.

Since the recognition of revenues and expenses under the cash method depends upon the timing of various cash receipts and disbursements, however, it can sometimes provide a misleading picture of a company's financial situation. For example, say that a company pays its annual rent of $12,000 in January, rather than paying $1,000 per month for the year. The cash basis would recognize a rent expense for January of $12,000, since that is when the money was paid, and a rent expense of zero for the remainder of the year. Similarly, if the company sold $5,000 worth of merchandise in January, but only collected $1,000 from customers, then only $1,000 would appear as revenue that month, and the remainder of the revenue would be held over until payment was received.

In contrast, the accrual basis makes a greater effort to recognize income and expenses in the period to which they apply, regardless of whether or not money has changed hands. Under this system, revenue is recorded when it is earned, rather than when payment is received, and expenses recorded when they are incurred, rather than when payment is made. For example, say that a contractor performs all of the work required by a contract during the month of May, and presents his client with an invoice on June 1. The contractor would still recognize the income from the contract in May, because that is when it was earned, even though the payment will not be received for some time. The main advantage of the accrual method is that it provides a more accurate picture of how a business is performing over the long-term than the cash method. The main disadvantages are that it is more complex than the cash basis, and that income taxes may be owed on revenue before payment is actually received.

Under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the accrual basis of accounting is required for all businesses that handle inventory, from small retailers to large manufacturers. It is also required for corporations and partnerships that have gross sales over $5 million per year, though there are exceptions for farming businesses and qualified personal service corporations—such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and consultants. A business that chooses to use the accrual basis must use it consistently for all financial reporting and for credit purposes. For anyone who runs two or more businesses, however, it is permissible to use different accounting methods for each.

CHANGING ACCOUNTING METHODS

In some cases, businesses find it desirable to change from one accounting method to another. Changing accounting methods requires formal approval of the IRS, but new guidelines adopted in 1997 make the procedure much easier for businesses. A company wanting to make a change must file Form 3115 in duplicate and pay a fee. A copy should be attached to the taxpayer's income tax return and the other copy must be sent to the IRS Commissioners.

Any company that is not currently under examination by the IRS is permitted to file for approval to make a change. Applications can be made at any time during the tax year, but the IRS recommends filing as early as possible. Taxpayers are granted automatic six-month extensions provided they file income taxes on time for the year in which the change is requested. The amended tax returns using the new accounting method must also be filed within the six-month extension period. In considering whether to approve a request for a change in accounting methods, the IRS looks at whether the new method will accurately reflect income and whether it will create or shift profits and losses between businesses.

Changes in accounting methods generally result in adjustments to taxable income, either positive or negative. For example, say a business wants to change from the cash basis to the accrual basis. It has accounts receivable (income earned but not yet received, so not recognized under the cash basis) of $15,000, and accounts payable (expenses incurred but not paid, so not recognized under the cash basis) of $20,000. Thus the change in accounting method would require a negative adjustment to income of $5,000. It is important to note that changing accounting methods does not permanently change the business's long-term taxable income, but only changes the way that income is recognized over time.

If the total amount of the change is less than $25,000, the business can elect to make the entire adjustment during the year of change. Otherwise, the IRS permits the adjustment to be spread out over four tax years. Obviously, most businesses would find it preferable for tax purposes to make a negative adjustment in the current year and spread a positive adjustment over subsequent years. If the accounting change is required by the IRS because the method originally chosen did not clearly reflect income, however, the business must make the resulting adjustment during the current tax year. This provides businesses with an incentive to change accounting methods on their own if they realize that there is a problem.

ACCOUNTS PAYABLE

Accounts payable is the term used to describe the amounts owed by a company to its creditors. It is, along with accounts receivable, a major component of a business's cash flow. Aside from materials and supplies from outside vendors, accounts payable might include such expenses as taxes, insurance, rent (or mortgage) payments, utilities, and loan payments and interest.

For many small businesses, the significance of every overdue payment can often be greatly magnified. For this reason, it is absolutely essential for entrepreneurs and small business owners to deal with the accounts payable side of the business ledger in an effective manner. Bills that are unpaid or addressed in a less than timely manner can snowball into major credit problems, which can easily cripple a business's ability to function.

By making informed projections and sensible provisions in advance, the small business can head off many credit problems before they get too big. Obligations to creditors, ideally, should be paid off concurrently with the collections of accounts receivable. Payment checks should also be dated no earlier than when the bills are actually due. In addition, many small companies will find that their business fortunes will take on a cyclical character, and they will need to plan for accounts payable obligations accordingly. For instance, a small grocery store that is located near a major factory or mill may experience surges in customer traffic in the day or two immediately following the days in which paychecks are disbursed at that facility. Conversely, the store may see a measurable drop in customer traffic during weeks in which the factory or mill is not distributing paychecks to employees. The canny shop owner will learn to recognize these trends and address the accounts payable portion of his or her business accordingly.

Generally, not all bills will need to be paid at once. Expenses such as payroll, federal, and local taxes, loan installment payments, and obligations to vendors will, in all likelihood, be due at various times of the month, and some—such as taxes—may only be due on a quarterly or annual basis (tax payments should always be made on schedule, even if it means delaying payment to vendors; it is far better to dispute a tax bill after it's been paid than to run the risk of being charged with costly fines). It is important, then, for small business owners to prioritize their accounts payable obligations.

PRIORITIZING AND MONITORING

This is especially true for fledgling business owners who are often stretched pretty tightly financially. Entrepreneurs who find themselves struggling to meet their accounts payable obligations have a couple of different options of varying levels of attractiveness. One option is to "rest" bills for a short period in order to satisfy short-term cash flow problems. This basically amounts to waiting to pay off debts until the business's financial situation has improved. There are obvious perils associated with such a stance: delays can strain relations with vendors and other institutions that are owed money, and over-reliance on future good business fortunes can easily launch entrepreneurs down the slippery slope into bankruptcy. Another option that is perhaps more palatable is to make partial payments to vendors and other creditors. This good-faith approach shows that an effort is being made to meet financial obligations, and it can help keep interest penalties from raging out of control. Partial payments should be set up and agreed to as soon as payment problems are forecast, or as early as possible. It is also a good idea to try to pay off debts to smaller vendors in full whenever possible, unless there is some clear benefit to be had in making installment payments to them.

Usually, signs of cash flow problems will start to show up well before the company's financial fortunes become truly desperate. One key concern is aged payables. Bills should never be allowed to "ripen" more than 45 to 60 days beyond the due date, unless a special payment arrangement has been made with the vendor in advance. At 60 days, a company's credit rating could be jeopardized, and this could make it harder to deal with other vendors and/or loaning institutions in the future.

Outstanding balances can drive interest penalties way up, and this trend is obviously compounded if many bills are overdue at the same time. Such excessive interest payments can seriously damage a business's bottom line. Business owners should keep in mind, however, that it is in the best interest of vendors and other creditors to keep the fledgling business solvent as well. Explaining current problems and their planned solutions to creditors can deflect ill feelings and buy more time. Some—though by no means all—creditors may be willing to waive, or at least reduce, growing interest charges, or make other changes to the payment schedule.

It is crucial to the success of a small business that accounts payable be monitored closely. Ideally, this aspect of the firm's operations would be supervised by a financial expert (either inside or outside the company) who is not only able to see the company's financial "big picture," but is able to analyze and act upon fluctuations in the company's cash flow. This also requires detailed record keeping of outstanding payables. Reports ought to be checked on a weekly basis, and when payments are made, copies should be filed along with the original invoices and other relevant paperwork. Any hidden costs, such as interest charges, should also be noted in the report. Over a period of time, these reports will start to paint an accurate cash flow picture.

Effective monitoring practices not only ensure that payments are made to vendors in a complete and timely fashion, but also serve to protect businesses against accidental overpayment. These overpayments, which often take the form of overpayment of sales and use taxes, can be caused by any number of factors, including internal miscommunication, encoding errors, sloppy or inadequate recordkeeping practices, or ignorance of current tax codes. Internal audits of accounts payable practices can be an effective method of addressing this issue, especially for expanding companies. "As companies grow, owners tend to become less involved in day-to-day operations and relinquish control of some functions to staff," stated Cindy McFerrin in Colorado Business Magazine. "Set up systems and procedures in your company that encourage communication, provide for staying current with tax codes, and lessen the risk of multiple payments and other mistakes. Laying the groundwork for accuracy today can keep you profitable and in control tomorrow."

ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE

Accounts receivable describes the amount of cash, goods, or services owed to a business by a client or customer. The manner in which the collection of outstanding bills are handled, especially in a small business, can be a pivotal factor in determining a company's profitability. Getting the sale is the first step of the cash flow process, but all the sales in the world are of little use if monetary compensation is not forthcoming. Moreover, when a business has trouble collecting what it is owed, it also often has trouble paying off the bills (accounts payable) it owes to others.

MAKING COLLECTIONS Just as there's an art of the sale, there is an art of the collection. In an ideal world, a company's accounts receivable collections would coincide with the firm's accounts payable schedule. But there are many outside factors working against timely payments, some of which are beyond the control of even the most efficient of collection systems. Seasonal demands, vendor shortages, stock market fluctuations, and other economic indicators can all contribute to a client's inability to pay bills in a timely fashion. Recognizing those factors, and learning to make business plans with them in mind, can make a big difference in establishing a solid accounts receivable system for your business.

By looking at receipts from past billing cycles, it is often possible to detect recurring cash flow problems with some clients, and to plan accordingly. Small business owners need to examine clients on a case-by-case basis, of course. In some instances, the debtor company may simply have an inattentive sales force or accounts payable department that needs repeated prodding to make its payment obligations. But in other cases, the debtor company may simply need a little more time to make good on its financial obligations. In many instances, it is in the best interests of the creditor company to cut such establishments a little slack. After all, a business that is owed money by a company that files for bankruptcy protection is likely to see very little of it, whereas a well-managed business that is given the chance to grow and prosper can develop into a valued long-term client.

METHODS OF COLLECTING A good way to improve cash flow is to make the entire company aware of the importance of accounts receivable, and to make collections a top priority. Invoice statements for each outstanding account should be reviewed on a regular basis, and a weekly schedule of collection goals should be established. Other tips in the realm of accounts receivable collection include:

* Do not delay in making follow-up calls, especially with clients who have a history of paying late
* Curb late payment excuses by including a prepaid payment envelope with each invoice
* Get credit references for new clients, and check them out thoroughly before agreeing to do business with them
* Know when to let go of a bad account; if a debt has been on the books for so long that the cost of pursuing payment it is proving exorbitant, it may be time to consider giving up and moving on (the wisdom of this depends a lot on the amount owed, of course).
* Collection agencies should only be used as a last resort.

ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE FINANCING

Accounts receivable financing provides cash funding on the strength of a company's outstanding invoices. Instead of buying accounts, lenders use invoices as collateral for the loan. Besides benefiting a business in debt, accounts receivable financiers can assume greater risks than traditional lenders, and will also lend to new and vibrant businesses that demonstrate real potential. An accounts receivable lender will also handle other aspects of the account, including collections and deposits, freeing the company to focus on other areas of productivity. However, risks are involved, and agreements are typically lengthy and steeped in legal lingo. Before considering this type of financing, sound financial and legal advice should be secured to make sure that it is appropriate for your company.

ACTIVITY-BASED COSTING

Activity-based costing (ABC) is an accounting method that allows businesses to gather data about their operating costs. Costs are assigned to specific activities—such as planning, engineering, or manufacturing—and then the activities are associated with different products or services. In this way, the ABC method enables a business to decide which products, services, and resources are increasing their profitability, and which are contributing to losses. Managers are then able to generate data to create a better budget and gain a greater overall understanding of the expenses that are required to keep the company running smoothly. Generally, activity-based costing is most effective when used over a long period of time, as opposed to shorter-term solutions such as the theory of constraints (TOC).

Activity-based costing first gained notoriety in the early 1980s. It emerged as a logical alternative to traditional cost management systems that tended to produce insufficient results when it came to allocating costs. Harvard Business School Professor Robert S. Kaplan was an early advocate of the ABC system. While mainly used for private businesses, ABC has recently been used in public forums, such as those that measure government efficiency.

HOW ACTIVITY-BASED COSTING WORKS

Activity-based costing programs require proper planning and a commitment from upper management. If possible, it is best to do a trial study or test run on a department whose profit-making performance is not living up to expectations. These types of situations have a greater chance of succeeding and showing those in charge that ABC is a viable way for the company to save money. If no cost-saving measures are determined in this pilot study, either the activity-based costing system has been improperly implemented, or it may not be right for the company.

The first thing a business must do when using ABC is set up a team that will be responsible for determining which activities are necessary for the product or service in question. This team should include experts from different areas of the company (including finance, technology, and human resources) and perhaps also an outside consultant.

After the team is assembled and data on such topics as utilities and materials is gathered, it is then time to determine the elements of each activity that cost money. Attention to detail is very important here, as many of these costs may be hidden and not entirely obvious. As Joyce Chutchian-Ferranti wrote in an article for Computerworld: "The key is to determine what makes up fixed costs, such as the cost of a telephone, and variable costs, such as the cost of each phone call." Chutchian-Ferranti goes on to note that even though in many instances technology has replaced human labor costs (such as in voice-mail systems), a business manager must still examine the hidden costs associated with maintaining the service. Nonactivity costs like direct materials and services provided from outside the company usually do not have to be factored in because this has previously been done.

Once all of these costs are determined and noted, the information must be input into a computer application. Chutchian-Ferranti explains that the software can be a simple database, off-the-shelf ABC software, or customized software. This will eventually give the company enough data to figure out what they can do to increase profit margins and make the activity more efficient.

After a business has had enough time to analyze the data obtained through activity-based costing and determine which activities are cost effective, it can then decide what steps can be taken to increase profits. Activities that are deemed cost prohibitive can then be outsourced, cut back, or eliminated altogether in an effort to make them more profitable. The implementation of these changes is known as activity-based management (ABM).

POTENTIAL PITFALLS OF ACTIVITY-BASED COSTING

Companies that implement activity-based costing run the risk of spending too much time, effort, and even money on gathering and going over the data that is collected. Too many details can prove frustrating for managers involved in ABC. On the other hand, a lack of detail can lead to insufficient data. Another obvious factor that tends to contribute to the downfall of activity-based costing is the simple failure to act on the results that the data provide. This generally happens in businesses that were reluctant to try ABC in the first place.

In 1999, Gary Cokins wrote an article aimed at certified public accountants who have difficulty embracing activity-based costing. In "Learning to Love ABC," Cokins explains that activity-based costing usually works best with a minimum amount of detail and estimated cost figures. He backs this up by stating that "typically, when accountants try to apply ABC, they strive for a level of exactness that is both difficult to attain and time-consuming—and that eventually becomes the project's kiss of death."

In 2000, Cokins wrote another article entitled "Overcoming the Obstacles to Implementing Activity-Based Costing." In this work Cokins noted that "activity-based costing projects often fail because project managers ignore the cardinal rule: It is better to be approximately correct than to be precisely inaccurate. When it comes to ABC, close enough is not only good enough; close enough is often the secret to success." Cokins also notes that the use of average cost rates, the use of overly detailed information, and the failure to connect information to action can also hinder ABC projects. By understanding these concepts, Cokins feels that CPAs can enhance their roles as business partners and consultants.

Another limiting factor is that activity-based costing software can be pricey. As Mark Henricks wrote in a 1999 article for Entrepreneur: "Most ABC practitioners find that special-purpose ABC software is required to make the task manageable. At $6,000 and up for one package sold by ABC Technologies, software can add significantly to outlays for this type of accounting technique. There are, however, some pilot packages available for $500."

Time can also be a factor for businesses seeking a quick fix. Henricks notes that "although some companies see results almost instantly, it typically takes three months or so for most businesses to experience the benefits of ABC. And depending on your product or business cycle, it could take much longer."

ACTIVITY-BASED COSTING AND SMALL BUSINESSES

It used to be that large corporations were the only businesses involved in activity-based costing. Not so today. Service industries such as banks, hospitals, insurance companies, and real estate agencies have all had success with ABC. But since its inception, activity-based costing has seemed to have been more successful when implemented by larger companies rather than by smaller ones. As Henrick noted, "Companies with only a few products and markets aren't likely to get as much benefit from basing costs on activities as companies operating with diverse products, service lines, channels and customers." But since setting up activity-based costing for a business usually takes less time for a smaller project, a small business that is unsure about the effectiveness of ABC can consider a simple test program to determine whether it is right for them.

Douglas T. Hicks is one expert who feels that the time is right for small businesses to implement activity-based costing. In a 1999 Journal of Accountancy article entitled "Yes, ABC is for Small Business, Too," Hicks presented a case study for one of his clients, a small manufacturer that builds components for the automobile industry. Hicks detailed how they were able to triple sales and increase profits fivefold in a four-year span after adopting ABC. "Much of this improvement came from a profitable mix of contracts generated by a costing/quoting process that more closely reflects the actual cost structure of the company," Hicks stated. "This has enabled the company to improve the management of its contracts." Isolating and measuring the cost of material movement and using the data to justify many operational changes were other factors Hicks cited for the success his client had with ABC.

Hicks also noted a change in management's attitude after the success of ABC: "On an important but less tangible level, management's knowledge of and attitude toward cost information have undergone a substantial change. Where once managers had their own way of measuring the cost impact of management actions, they now measure those costs in a formal, uniform way. When managers contemplate changes, they have a mental model that directs them toward changes that truly benefit the organization."

Hicks went on to say that "any small or midsize organization can develop an ABC system. It doesn't require a great commitment of time or financial resources. Nor does it require the implementation of special software integrated into the general ledger—although for larger organizations that may be a benefit. It requires only that management view its operations through 'the lens of ABC' and create a model that will enable it to measure costs in accordance with that view."

Gary Cokins, director of industry for a noted ABC software and services firm, tends to agree with Hicks. In his book Activity-Based Cost Management: Making It Work, he proclaimed that "Within 10 to 20 years, everyone will have some sort of ABC. It's a matter of when, not if."

ADVERTISING, EVALUATION OF RESULTS

Once the small business owner has successfully designed and placed an ad (or had that ad successfully designed and placed by an agency), he or she will be eagerly awaiting the increased sales that advertising promises. While advertising can be an effective means of increasing profitability, measurable increases in sales may not be immediately forthcoming. But if the advertising was well-planned, well-placed, and well-executed, it will likely produce positive results eventually.

CUMULATIVE EFFECTS

It is widely accepted among advertising experts that one major benefit of advertising any business is the cumulative effect of the message on consumers. This effect occurs as consumers are repeatedly exposed to advertising which may not have an immediate impact, but becomes familiar and remains in the memory. This message will be recalled when the need arises for the service which was advertised. The consumer, because of the cumulative effects of advertising, will already be familiar with the business's name, as well as the image that it has cultivated through its advertising campaigns. For example, a consumer has heard a carpet cleaning company's ads for months, but until the need arises to have his or her carpets cleaned, there is no reason to contact the company. When that need does arise, however, he or she will already know the name of the company and feel familiar enough with it to engage its services.

CONSISTENCY One trap that advertisers sometimes fall into is that of restlessness or boredom with a long-running campaign. The ownership of a small business may feel a need to change a long-running advertisement simply because of a desire to try a new, more exciting avenue. There are certainly valid reasons for doing so (stagnant sales, changing competitive dynamics, etc.) at times, but advertising experts discourage businesses from yanking advertisements that continue to be effective just for the sake of change. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is the guiding principle behind this caution. They note that consumers learn to associate businesses with certain advertisements, design elements, or themes, but that these associations sometimes take time to sink in. Similarly, industry observers counsel small business owners to maintain a level of consistency with the advertising media they utilize (provided those media are effective, of course).

By choosing an appropriate style and theme, and carefully placing ads in effective media, the small business owner begins to create a lasting foundation for his or her company. Maintaining an advertising campaign in itself advertises the stability, dependability, and tone of a business. If customers are finding the ads useful, then the advertising is working; changing the ads could diminish their effectiveness.

STRATEGIES FOR TRACKING ADVERTISING'S EFFECTIVENESS

Before the advertiser decides to stick with one advertising plan for the next several years, however, he or she wants to be sure that the advertising is having some effect. Because of the cumulative effect of advertising, this can sometimes be difficult to ascertain. The following are suggestions for the sometimes vague science of tracking the effectiveness of advertising:

MONITORING SALES FIGURES This strategy involves tracking sales from a period before the current advertising was used, and then comparing those figures to sales made during the time the advertising is active. One pitfall of this strategy is not choosing a representative time period. One month's worth of sales figures may not be enough to fully gauge the effectiveness of an ad. Ideally, the business owner could compare figures from long periods of sales to exclude changes due to factors other than advertising, such as seasonal fluctuations and holiday sales.

RUNNING A COUPON One satisfyingly concrete way of tracking how many customers were exposed to advertising is to use coupons. These coupons, which will typically provide some sort of discount or other incentive to customers to use them, can be easily tabulated, providing businesses with tangible evidence of the advertising campaign's level of effectiveness. Such measurements, however, are limited to print campaigns. Another version of the coupon, which is effective across media types, is to encourage customers to mention their exposure to an ad in return for a bonus. For example, a radio ad might include the sentence, "Mention this ad for an additional 5 percent off your purchase!"

SURVEYING CUSTOMERS Perhaps the most accurate and easiest method of tracking the effectiveness of a media campaign is simply asking customers how they were directed to you. You can ask if a customer saw a particular ad, or more generally ask how they came to know about the shop or service. Consumers are generally pleased to be asked for their input, and they can give you firsthand accounts of how advertising is effecting your business.

ADVERTISING STRATEGY

An advertising strategy is a campaign developed to communicate ideas about products and services to potential consumers in the hopes of convincing them to buy those products and services. This strategy, when built in a rational and intelligent manner, will reflect other business considerations (overall budget, brand recognition efforts) and objectives (public image enhancement, market share growth) as well. As Portable MBA in Marketing authors Alexander Hiam and Charles D. Schewe stated, a business's advertising strategy "determines the character of the company's public face." Even though a small business has limited capital and is unable to devote as much money to advertising as a large corporation, it can still develop a highly effective advertising campaign. The key is creative and flexible planning, based on an indepth knowledge of the target consumer and the avenues that can be utilized to reach that consumer.

Today, most advertising strategies focus on achieving three general goals, as the Small Business Administration indicated in Advertising Your Business: 1) promote awareness of a business and its product or services; 2) stimulate sales directly and "attract competitors' customers"; and 3) establish or modify a business' image. In other words, advertising seeks to inform, persuade, and remind the consumer. With these aims in mind, most businesses follow a general process which ties advertising into the other promotional efforts and overall marketing objectives of the business.

STAGES OF ADVERTISING STRATEGY

As a business begins, one of the major goals of advertising must be to generate awareness of the business and its products. Once the business' reputation is established and its products are positioned within the market, the amount of resources used for advertising will decrease as the consumer develops a kind of loyalty to the product. Ideally, this established and ever-growing consumer base will eventually aid the company in its efforts to carry their advertising message out into the market, both through its purchasing actions and its testimonials on behalf of the product or service.

Essential to this rather abstract process is the development of a "positioning statement," as defined by Gerald E. Hills in "Marketing Option and Marketing" in The Portable MBA in Entrepreneurship: "A 'positioning statement' explains how a company's product (or service) is differentiated from those of key competitors." With this statement, the business owner turns intellectual objectives into concrete plans. In addition, this statement acts as the foundation for the development of a selling proposal, which is composed of the elements that will make up the advertising message's "copy platform." This platform delineates the images, copy, and art work that the business owner believes will sell the product.

With these concrete objectives, the following elements of the advertising strategy need to be considered: target audience, product concept, communication media, and advertising message. These elements are at the core of an advertising strategy, and are often referred to as the "creative mix." Again, what most advertisers stress from the beginning is clear planning and flexibility. And key to these aims is creativity, and the ability to adapt to new market trends. A rigid advertising strategy often leads to a loss of market share. Therefore, the core elements of the advertising strategy need to mix in a way that allows the message to envelope the target consumer, providing ample opportunity for this consumer to become acquainted with the advertising message.

TARGET CONSUMER The target consumer is a complex combination of persons. It includes the person who ultimately buys the product, as well as those who decide what product will be bought (but don't physically buy it), and those who influence product purchases, such as children, spouse, and friends. In order to identify the target consumer, and the forces acting upon any purchasing decision, it is important to define three general criteria in relation to that consumer, as discussed by the Small Business Administration:

1. Demographics—Age, gender, job, income, ethnicity, and hobbies.
2. Behaviors—When considering the consumers' behavior an advertiser needs to examine the consumers' awareness of the business and its competition, the type of vendors and services the consumer currently uses, and the types of appeals that are likely to convince the consumer to give the advertiser's product or service a chance.
3. Needs and Desires—Here an advertiser must determine the consumer needs—both in practical terms and in terms of self-image, etc.—and the kind of pitch/message that will convince the consumer that the advertiser's services or products can fulfill those needs.

PRODUCT CONCEPT The product concept grows out of the guidelines established in the "positioning statement." How the product is positioned within the market will dictate the kind of values the product represents, and thus how the target consumer will receive that product. Therefore, it is important to remember that no product is just itself, but, as Courtland L. Bovee and William F. Arens stated in Contemporary Advertising, a "bundle of values" that the consumer needs to be able to identify with. Whether couched in presentations that emphasize sex, humor, romance, science, masculinity, or femininity, the consumer must be able to believe in the product's representation.

COMMUNICATION MEDIA The communication media is the means by which the advertising message is transmitted to the consumer. In addition to marketing objectives and budgetary restraints, the characteristics of the target consumer need to be considered as an advertiser decides what media to use. The types of media categories from which advertisers can choose include the following:

* Print—Primarily newspapers (both weekly and daily) and magazines.
* Audio—FM and AM radio.
* Video—Promotional videos, infomercials.
* World Wide Web.
* Direct mail.
* Outdoor advertising—Billboards, advertisements on public transportation (cabs, buses).

After deciding on the medium that is 1) financially in reach, and 2) most likely to reach the target audience, an advertiser needs to schedule the broadcasting of that advertising. The media schedule, as defined by Hills, is "the combination of specific times (for example, by day, week, month) when advertisements are inserted into media vehicles and delivered to target audiences."

ADVERTISING MESSAGE An advertising message is guided by the "advertising or copy platform," which is a combination of the marketing objectives, copy, art, and production values. This combination is best realized after the target consumer has been analyzed, the product concept has been established, and the media and vehicles have been chosen. At this point, the advertising message can be directed at a very concrete audience to achieve very specific goals. Hiam and Schewe listed three major areas that an advertiser should consider when endeavoring to develop an effective "advertising platform":

* What are the product's unique features?
* How do consumers evaluate the product? What is likely to persuade them to purchase the product?
* How do competitors rank in the eyes of the consumer? Are there any weaknesses in their positions? What are their strengths?

Most business consultants recommend employing an advertising agency to create the art work and write the copy. However, many small businesses don't have the up-front capital to hire such an agency, and therefore need to create their own advertising pieces. When doing this a business owner needs to follow a few important guidelines.

COPY When composing advertising copy it is crucial to remember that the primary aim is to communicate information about the business and its products and services. The "selling proposal" can act as a blueprint here, ensuring that the advertising fits the overall marketing objectives. Many companies utilize a theme or a slogan as the centerpiece of such efforts, emphasizing major attributes of the business's products or services in the process. But as Hiam and Schewe caution, while "something must be used to animate the theme …care must be taken not to lose the underlying message in the pursuit of memorable advertising."

When writing the copy, direct language (saying exactly what you mean in a positive, rather than negative manner) has been shown to be the most effective. The theory here is that the less the audience has to interpret, or unravel the message, the easier the message will be to read, understand, and act upon. As Jerry Fisher observed in Entrepreneur, "Two-syllable phrases like 'free book,' 'fast help,' and 'lose weight' are the kind of advertising messages that don't need to be read to be effective. By that I mean they are so easy for the brain to interpret as a whole thought that they're 'read' in an eye blink rather than as linear verbiage. So for an advertiser trying to get attention in a world awash in advertising images, it makes sense to try this message-in-an-eye-blink route to the public consciousness—be it for a sales slogan or even a product name."

The copy content needs to be clearly written, following conventional grammatical guidelines. Of course, effective headings allow the reader to get a sense of the advertisement's central theme without having to read much of the copy. An advertisement that has "50% Off" in bold black letters is not just easy to read, but it is also easy to understand.

ART WORK AND LAYOUT Small business owners also need to consider the visual rhetoric of the advertisement, which simply means that the entire advertisement, including blank space, should have meaning and logic. Most industry experts recommend that advertisers use short paragraphs, lists, and catchy illustrations and graphics to break up and supplement the text and make the document both visually inviting and easy to understand. Remember, an advertisement has to capture the reader's attention quickly.

ADVERTISING BUDGET The advertising budget can be written before or after a business owner has developed the advertising strategy. When to make a budget decision depends on the importance of advertising and the resources available to the business. If, for instance, a business knows that they only have a certain amount of money for advertising then the budget will tend to dictate what advertising is developed and what the overall marketing objectives will be. On the other hand, if a business has the resources available, the advertising strategy can be developed to meet predetermined marketing objectives. For small businesses, it is usually best to put together an advertising budget early in the advertising process.

The following approaches are the most common methods of developing an effective budget. All the methods listed are progressive ones that look to perpetuate growth:

* Percentage of future or past sales
* Competitive approach
* Market share
* All available funds
* The task or objective approach

The easiest approach—and thus the one that is most often used—is the percentage of future or past sales method. Most industry experts recommend basing spending on anticipated sales, in order to ensure growth. But for a small business, where survival may be a bigger concern than growth, basing the advertising budget on past sales is often a more sensible approach to take.

METHODS OF ADVERTISING

Small business owners can choose from two opposite philosophies when preparing their advertising strategy. The first of these, sometimes called the push method, is a stance wherein an advertiser targets retail establishments in order to establish or broaden a market presence. The second option, sometimes called the pull method, targets end-users (consumers), who are expected to ask retailers for the product and thus help "pull" it through the channel of distribution. Of course, many businesses employ some hybrid of the two when putting together their advertising strategy.

PUSH METHOD The aim of the push method is to convince retailers, salespersons, or dealers to carry and promote the advertiser's product. This relationship is achieved by offering inducements, such as providing advertising kits to help the retailer sell the product, offering incentives to carry stock, and developing trade promotions.

PULL METHOD The aim of the pull method is to convince the target consumer to try, purchase, and ultimately repurchase the product. This process is achieved by directly appealing to the target consumer with coupons, in-store displays, and sweepstakes.

ANALYZING ADVERTISING RESULTS

Many small businesses are distressingly lax in taking steps to monitor whether their advertising efforts are having the desired effect. Instead, they simply throw a campaign out there and hope for the best, relying on a general sense of company health when determining whether to continue, terminate, or make adjustments to advertising campaigns. These small business owners do not seem to recognize that myriad factors can influence a business's fortunes (regional economic straits, arrival of new competition, seasonal buying fluctuations, etc.). The small business owner who does not bother to adequately analyze his or her advertising efforts runs the danger of throwing away a perfectly good advertising strategy (or retaining a dreadful one) if he or she is unable to determine whether business upturns or downturns are due to advertising or some other factor.

The only way to know with any accuracy how your advertising strategy is working is to ask the consumer, the opinions of whom can be gathered in several ways. Although many of the tracking alternatives are quite specialized, requiring either a large budget or extensive advertising research expertise, even small businesses can take steps to measure the effectiveness of their advertising strategies. The direct response survey is one of the most accurate means of measuring the effectiveness of a company's advertising for the simple reason that it measures actual responses to a business's advertisements. Other inexpensive options, such as use of redeemable coupons, can also prove helpful in determining the effectiveness of an advertising campaign.

ADVERTISING AGENCIES

The decision whether or not to use an advertising agency depends both on a company's advertising strategy and its financial resources. An agency has professionals who can organize, create, and place advertising so that it will meet established objectives better than most small businesses can do on their own, but of course the expense associated with soliciting such talent is often prohibitive for smaller companies. Still, some small- and mid-sized businesses have found that agencies can be helpful in shaping and monitoring advertising strategies.

Because of their resources and expertise, agencies are useful when a business is planning a broad advertising campaign that will require a large amount of resources. An advertising agency can also help track and analyze the effectiveness of the advertising. Some criteria to consider when choosing an agency include size of the agency, size of their clients (small companies should avoid allying themselves with agencies with a large stable of big corporate clients so that they are not treated as afterthoughts), length of time that the principals have been with the agency, the agency's general advertising philosophy, and the primary nature of the agency's accounts (are they familiar with your industry and the challenges involved in differentiating your company's products or services from others in that industry?).

ADVERTISING LAWS

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) protects consumers from deceptive or misleading advertising. Small business owners should be familiar with the following laws, which pertain to marketing and advertising and are enforced by the Commission:

* Consumer Product Safety Act—Outlines required safety guidelines and prohibits the sale of harmful products.
* Child Protection and Toy Safety Act—Prohibits the sale of toys known to be dangerous.
* Fair Packaging and Labeling Act—Requires that all packaged products contain a label disclosing all ingredients.
* Antitrust Laws—Protects trade and commerce from unlawful restraints, price deception, price fixing, and monopolies.

Many complaints against advertisers center on allegedly deceptive advertisements, so small business consultants urge entrepreneurs and business owners to heed the following general rules of thumb:

1. Avoid writing ads that make false claims or exaggerate the availability of the product or the savings the consumer will enjoy.
2. Avoid running out of advertised sale items. If this does happen, businesses should consider offering "rain-checks" so that the consumer can purchase the item later at the same reduced price.
3. Avoid calling a product "free" if it has cost closely associated with it. If there are costs associated with the free item they need to be clearly disclosed in the ad.

Since advertising is a complex process, and business law undergoes continual change, business owners should consult an attorney before distributing any advertising.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

Affirmative action refers to concrete steps that are taken not only to eliminate discrimination—whether in employment, education, or contracting—but also to attempt to redress the effects of past discrimination. The underlying motive for affirmative action is the Constitutional principle of equal opportunity, which holds that all persons have the right to equal access to self-development. In other words, persons with equal abilities should have equal opportunities.

Affirmative action programs differ widely in the extent to which they attempt to overturn discrimination. Some programs might simply institute reviews of the hiring process for women, minorities, and other affected groups. Other affirmative action programs might explicitly prefer members of affected groups. In such programs, minimum job requirements are used to create a pool of qualified applicants from which members of affected groups are given preference.

Affirmative action affects small businesses in two main ways. First, it prevents businesses with 15 or more employees from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, and physical capability in practices relating to hiring, compensating, promoting, training, and firing employees. Second, it allows the state and federal governments to favor women-owned and minority-owned businesses when awarding contracts, and to reject bids from businesses that do not make good faith efforts to include minority-owned businesses among their subcontractors.

The interpretation and implementation of affirmative action has been contested since its origins in the 1960s. A central issue of contention was the definition of discriminatory employment practices. As the interpretation of affirmative action evolved, employment practices that were not intentionally discriminatory but that nevertheless had a "disparate impact" on affected groups were considered a violation of affirmative action regulations. Another central issue was whether members of affected groups could receive preferential treatment and, if so, the means by which they could be preferred. This issue is sometimes referred to as the debate over quotas. Though affirmative action programs came under heavy attack during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the principles of affirmative action were reaffirmed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. But in 1997, California's Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in that state. The resulting legal battles, which were expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, seemed likely to have wide-reaching effects on affirmative action.

HISTORY OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

Affirmative action has its roots in the civil rights movement. In March of 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which established the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. The order stated that contractors doing business with the government "will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during their employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." The order did not advocate preferential treatment of affected groups but rather sought to eliminate discrimination in the traditional sense.

The legal status of affirmative action was solidified by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation prohibited discrimination in voting, public education and accommodations, and employment in firms with more than fifteen employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act offered a similar understanding of affirmative action as Executive Order 10925, stating that the act was not designed "to grant preferential treatment to any group because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The act's sponsors, Senators Joseph Clark and Clifford Case, emphasized this non-preferential interpretation of affirmative action when they wrote: "There is no requirement in Title VII that an employer maintain a racial balance in his workforce. On the contrary, any deliberate attempt to maintain a racial balance, whatever such a balance may be, would involve a violation of Title VII, because maintaining such a balance would require an employer to hire or refuse to hire on the basis of race."

The Civil Rights Act did not provide criminal penalties for employers that discriminated, nor did the civil remedies established by the act include compensation for pain and suffering or punitive damages. Rather, the act sought to establish a conciliation process by which victims would be restored to the situation they would have had in the absence of discrimination. To carry out the conciliation process, the act created a new federal agency as a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC acts as a facilitator between plaintiffs and private employers and also pressures violating employers to provide compensation, whether in the form of back pay or restitution. The EEOC also provides legal support for plaintiffs should the plaintiffs pursue their grievances in court.

Two important issues became contested in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: whether unintentional or structural discrimination constituted violation of the principle of equal opportunity; and the extent to which preferential treatment should be given to affected groups. These issues came to the forefront during the Johnson administration. In a 1965 commencement speech, President Johnson argued that equality of opportunity required more than simply ending discrimination. Rather, he argued for a more active interpretation of affirmative action that would assure "equality as a result."

In 1966, the U.S. Department of Labor began collecting employment records with breakdowns by race in order to evaluate hiring practices, overturning earlier policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In 1968, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance issued regulations which required, for the first time, that specific targets be set by which the effects of affirmative action programs could be evaluated. The regulations stated that "the contractor's program shall provide in detail for specific steps to guarantee equal employment opportunity keyed to the problems and needs of minority groups, including, when there are deficiencies, the development of specific goals and timetables for the prompt achievement of full and equal employment opportunity." It was in these regulations and analogous measures by the EEOC that the debate over affirmative action quotas had its origins.

Goals and timetables were established by the U.S. Department of Labor using "utilization analysis," which statistically compared the proportion of employed women and minorities in a firm with the proportion of women and minorities in the regional workforce, deriving a measure of what the department called "disparate impact." In the absence of discrimination, it was assumed that these proportions would and should be roughly equal. Since these regulations focused on results and not intent, the structural nature of discrimination was officially recognized. In addition, these regulations provided an official and measurable basis for the preferential treatment of affected groups.

In the landmark Griggs v. Duke Power Co. case of 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Duke's requirement of high school diplomas or IQ tests for those applying for unskilled jobs. The decision held that "Title VII forbids not only practices adopted with a discriminatory motive, but also practices which, though adopted without discriminatory intent, have a discriminatory effect on minorities and women." The ruling provided a legal foundation for cases of "disparate impact," asserting that employers may not use job requirements that adversely affect women and minorities unless required by what it termed "business necessity." (For example, in the case of serious health or safety threats to co-workers or customers.)

The EEOC was strengthened by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, which enabled the Commission to file class action suits. Under the Carter administration, the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection established the "four-fifths rule." This rule was significant in that it provided an explicit benchmark to determine disparate impact, which had been left vague in earlier U.S. Department of Labor regulations. The four-fifths rule held that firms contracting with the federal government should not be allowed to hire any race, sex, or ethnic group at a rate below four-fifths that of any other group.

Another significant Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action came in a 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Under the University of California at Davis's admission policies, 16 of 100 places were set aside for minority applicants. Allan Bakke was a white applicant who was denied enrollment to Davis's medical school, even though his test scores were higher than the minority students who were admitted. Casting the deciding vote, Justice Lewis Powell held that Bakke should be admitted to the program since Davis's policies constituted a rigid quota, but that, nonetheless, Davis could continue to favor minorities in its admission practices and that it had a "compelling state interest" to attain a diversified educational environment.

The tide favoring affirmative action began to turn in the 1980s during the Reagan and Bush administrations. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan stated, "We must not allow the noble concept of equal opportunity to be distorted into federal guidelines or quotas which require race, ethnicity, or sex—rather than ability and qualifications—to be the principal factor in hiring or education." Through court appointments, hiring and firing decisions, and budget cuts, the Reagan administration sought to end affirmative action as it had evolved since the Johnson administration. Between 1981 and 1983, the budget of the EEOC was cut by 10 percent and the staff by 12 percent. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance was hit harder yet, with budget cuts of 24 percent and staff cuts of 34 percent during these same years.

Two important Supreme Court rulings in the late-1980s also acted to substantially weaken affirmative action. The 1988 case Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust overturned the landmark 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power Co., shifting the burden of proof in employment discrimination cases from employers to plaintiffs. In the 1989 case Wards Cove Packing Companyv. Antonio, the Court ruled that a plaintiff could not simply show disparate impact to prove discrimination, but must demonstrate that a specific employment practice created the existing disparity.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN THE 1990S

In an effort to fight the dramatic rollback of affirmative action, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Act returned the burden of proof to employers in disparate impact cases, requiring employers to prove that employment practices that resulted in disparate impact were "job related"' and "consistent with business necessity." The act thus overturned the Supreme Court's rulings in Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust and Wards Cove Packing Company v. Antonio. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 addressed issues of unlawful harassment and intentional discrimination, allowing minority and female victims of intentional discrimination to be awarded up to $300,000 in compensatory damages in addition to back pay and restitution.

In 1994, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated one of the largest affirmative action programs ever. The FCC voted unanimously to set aside 1,000 of 2,000 new radio licenses for small businesses, women, and minorities. These licenses are for businesses serving the rapidly growing number of users of pocket-size telephones, fax machines, pagers, and hand-held computers. Small companies owned by women or minorities could receive up to a 60 percent discount on the cost of these licenses, which federal officials estimated have a total market value of $10 billion. One of the concerns expressed about the FCC ruling is that it will enable the rise of companies that are only nominally headed by women or minorities. This could occur as a result of the acquisition provisions of the ruling, which allow up to 75 percent of the equity and 49.9 percent of the voting stock of a small firm to be acquired by a larger firm, and yet the small firm still qualifies for licensing discounts.

Despite such efforts, the mid-1990s saw affirmative action programs continue to be rolled back by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, as well as by state legislatures and court decisions. Critics charged that affirmative action was a form of "reverse discrimination," meaning that by favoring minorities and women it discriminated against white males. In addition, they argued that affirmative action sometimes prevented companies from hiring the best available worker, and in so doing caused resentment toward minority workers on the job.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which banned preferential treatment on the basis of gender or race in public employment, education, and contracting in the state. In effect, the measure eliminated affirmative action programs in California, except as necessary to comply with federal law. Although civil rights groups quickly blocked the measure with a court injunction, it took effect in August 1997 when the injunction was overturned on appeal. It was widely believed that if the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Proposition 209, many states would follow California's lead and make dramatic changes to their affirmative action programs.

AGE DISCRIMINATION IN EMPLOYMENT ACT

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits any employer from refusing to hire, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against any individual because of age. The act covers compensation, terms, conditions and other privileges of employment including health care benefits. This act specifically prohibits age-based discrimination against employees who are at least 40 years of age. The purpose of the act is to promote the employment of older persons and to prohibit any arbitrary age discrimination in employment.

The roots of the ADEA can be traced back to 1964, when the U.S. government enacted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act radically changed working life in the United States. The core of Title VII was to prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. This statute provided a way for women and minorities, in particular, to challenge barriers that limited equal opportunities in organizations. States adopted similar legislation as well. One variable noticeably missing from Title VII was age discrimination. Three years later, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives enacted the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

SCOPE OF COVERAGE

The ADEA covers individuals, partnerships, labor organizations and employment agencies, and corporations that: 1) engage in an industry affecting interstate commerce and 2) employ at least 20 individuals. The Act also controls state and local governments. Referrals by an employment agency to a covered employer are within the ADEA's scope regardless of the agency's size. In addition, the ADEA covers labor union practices affecting union members; usually, unions with 25 or more members are covered. The ADEA protects against age discrimination in many employment contexts, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignment, and fringe benefits.

Under the act, employers are forbidden to refuse to hire, to discharge, or to discriminate against anyone with respect to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of a person's age. The act also forbids employees from limiting, segregating, or classifying an individual in a way that adversely affects their employment because of age. The act states that all job requirements must be truly job-related and forbids employers to reduce the wage rate of an employee to comply with the Act. It forbids seniority systems or benefits plans that call for involuntary requirements due to age and also makes it illegal for employees to indicate any issue related to age in advertisements for job opportunities.

The ADEA was enacted to promote the employment of older persons based on ability rather than age and to help employers and employees find ways to meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment. As a result, the Act authorizes the Secretary of Labor to performs studies and provide information to labor unions, management, and the public about the abilities and needs of older workers and their employment potential and varied contributions to the economy.

PROCEDURAL REQUIREMENTS AND DEFENSES UNDER ADEA

The procedural requirements for an ADEA suit are complicated. Before an individual can sue in his/her own right, a private plaintiff must file charges with the EEOC or with an appropriate state agency. The EEOC may also sue to enforce the ADEA. For both government and private suits, the statute of limitations is three years from the date of an alleged willful violation and two years from the date of an alleged nonwillful violation.

The plaintiff does not need to prove that age was the only factor motivating the employer's decision, but must establish that age was one of the determining factors guiding the employer's actions. Once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden of evidence shifts to the employer. The employer must provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's demotion or discharge. Charges filed and resolved under the ADEA are compiled by the Office of Research, Information, and Planning from EEOC's Charge Data System.

The ADEA allows employers to discharge or otherwise discipline an employee for good cause, and to use reasonable factors other than age in their employment decisions. It also allows employers to observe the terms of a bona fide seniority system, except where such a system is used to require or permit the involuntary retirement of anyone age 40 or over.

In addition, the ADEA provides for a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) defense. In general, an employer seeking to use this defense must show that its age classification is reasonably necessary to the safe and proper performance of the job in question. Specifically, the employer must show either:1) that it is reasonable to believe that all or most employees of a certain age cannot perform the job safely, or 2) that it is impossible or highly impractical to test employees' abilities to tackle all tasks associated with the job on an individualized basis. For example, an employer that refuses to hire anyone over 60 as a pilot has a potential BFOQ defense if it has a reasonable basis for concluding that 60-and-over pilots pose significant safety risks, or that it is not feasible to test older pilots individually.

CURRENT ADEA ISSUES

Age discrimination cases will be of increasing concern to businesses in the future as the work force in the US and in many developed countries continues to mature. In addition, changes in Social Security laws will mean older workers in protected classes will be working longer than before. In Supervision, Mary-Katherine Zachary warns that plaintiffs in age discrimination cases typically receive more empathy than other discrimination plaintiffs and judges hearing such cases are likely to be in the protected class themselves. Damaged can be substantial and may take the form of back pay, front pay, overtime pay, emotional distress pay, liquidated damages, and multipliers for intentional violations of the law. Remedies can also include equitable relief, hiring, reinstatement, and promotion. Employers are cautioned to consider ADEA laws when restructuring the workplace.

Another issue facing employers in this realm is legal interpretation of the ADEA as it relates to retirees. Federal court rulings in mid-2000 indicated that under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers had to provide the same health care benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees that they do to younger retirees who do not yet qualify for Medicare. Critics of this interpretation within the business world claim that the practical result of such a ruling, if not addressed by Congress, will be a dramatic drop in the percentage of businesses offering comprehensive health care benefits to workers.

"To equalize their costs for [Medicare-eligible and younger retirees], employers' choices are limited," contended Business Insurance. "One option would be to add a whole slew of health care-related benefits for Medicare-eligible retirees. Obviously, though, that wouldn't be very practical, as employers already are struggling to restrain the costs of their existing benefit programs and would not want to increase their costs by expanding benefits. Another alternative would be to equalize benefits for the two groups, but that, too, would not be very practical…. Many [employers] would terminate health care plans for both groups of retirees." Given these scenarios, business groups have urged legislators to amend the ADEA, adding language that explicitly excludes retirement health care benefits as an element of the act.