Bringing enterprises back to life

Updated: 2018-03-02 07:08

(HK Edition)

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James Dubow may have an ace up his sleeve when he's summoned by businesses in distress. The company 'doctor' tells Lin Wenjie the state of a company's cash flow is a key pointer to its financial health.

'Doctor' James Dubow doesn't have to carry a huge box of medicine or other medical paraphernalia every time he goes out on an assignment.

The managing director and head of global consultancy Alvarez & Marsal (A&M) Asia has been on the job for more than two decades, injecting life into enterprises on the brink of going to the wall and helping them to achieve growth in both distressed and high-growth situations.

Akin to a medical doctor determined to stop the bleeding in a patient and ensure a stable supply of oxygen, Dubow's job is to stem a struggling company's poor cash flow, ensure that payments are made on time and that it's able to ride it out.

"Typical consultancy firms normally offer company advice with presentations for a fee, and that's the end of the story. But, we have a more hands-on approach. We send our staff to act as interim chief executives or chief financial officials in client companies to help them fix the fundamentals and give them a new lease of life.

"Our ultimate goal is to help them increase profits. That's the difference between traditional consultancy firms and us, so we have few competitors in the market," Dubow tells China Daily.

Established in the United States in 1983, A&M is noted for its work in turnaround management and performance improvement for a number of prominent enterprises both within and outside the US, including financial services giant Lehman Brothers.

After 35 years of development, A&M has diversified its operations to provide a full suite of services to investors, including pre-acquisition due diligence, transaction advisory, dispute and forensic investigations, and data analytics. But, for all of these services, A&M's core principle remains providing fundamental value creation for clients. Most of A&M's business today is performance improvement, helping good companies reach higher performance, largely for private equity sponsors.

Dubow often takes over a company with negative profit but, after performing the "surgery", he says its profit growth would be "pretty large". With more than 10 years' experience in diagnosing Chinese companies, particularly those in the retail sector, he sees cash flow as the most important indicator of a company's financial health.

"People focus on different things when examining a company, such as product quality, revenue and costs. Ultimately, what you're trying to do is to get more cash flow as the bottom line. So, the first step to turn around a company is to map out where the cash comes from, where it goes and how much is left over. Then, you can look at where the opportunity lies."

For retailers in China, Dubow often sees opportunities coming from the management of the supply chain. Sometimes, there're too many steps from the warehouse to the retail store when transferring goods, and that costs too much labor and capital. "Like a doctor, you have to come up with appropriate ways to reduce these steps."

Severe stress

One company he had worked with was a cathode ray tube (CRT) picture tube manufacturer, which had invested a lot in factories across Europe and Asia. The CRT picture tubes were used to make television sets before the 1990s, but the popularity of CRT television quickly went down with the introduction of large screens, slim and flat LEDs and LCDs. How to maintain the value of CRT picture tubes as the business was clearly dying was a big challenge for Dubow.

"When flat TVs first appeared, the quality of CRT TVs was better than those with flat screens because flat screens couldn't do black very well, and they cost 10 times more than a CRT TV in some Asian countries. So, for a while, there was still demand for CRT TVs in India, China and Southeast Asia. To save the company, we closed down the factories in Europe and moved some production to China and Indonesia, and simplified the supply chain to preserve as much of the value as possible."

Dubow admits that the stress was severe when managing redundancy because it's hard not to get emotionally attached to the employees. He always tries to downsize the factories to maintain as many jobs as possible, but, if needed, he would have to make rational decisions to cut jobs and close down factories.

Obligation to staff

"When we worked with the CRT company, we stayed there and knew the staff. It's extremely stressful that we knew we had the obligation to the employees, but we didn't know how to make payrolls for 12,000 employees every month, while some people had been in the company for decades."

Dubow came to China in 1994 when the Chinese market was still dominated by State-owned companies, and it was difficult to sell management work to Chinese companies or find capable people to run a business back then. He saw A&M's growth in China over the past 15 years. More importantly, he witnessed the development of private businesses and the increasing acceptance of management-type services in the country.

"There was a boom in private companies in the 1990s, and the companies today are very different from those in the past. Even the basic infrastructures for business were not ready, the fax machine did not work well, and there was no email back then. The Chinese companies today are becoming more sophisticated, and the quality of the people and the quality of the business are improving. They've started paying much more emphasis on management services, so we have pretty fast growth in China."

According to Dubow, the biggest challenge for the company now is the lack of talents as A&M could fill only half of its annual hiring program.

"Capable people are in high demand and so is pay. However, the situation is different from that in the 1990s. At that time, you couldn't find people with real management experience in private companies. Now, you can find capable leaders with enough energy and the drive to do things. With the economic boom in China, every company is competing for talents."

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(HK Edition 03/02/2018 page8)