No time to win? Why midcap strategies should go long and short
Duncan Campbell explains why midcap businesses that can’t make time for sustainable growth will find themselves stuck in the moment. The right strategy will put time on their side.
“Time is money,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, who found enough of both to become an accomplished politician, diplomat, actor, musician and inventor. “Time is the friend of the wonderful company, the enemy of the mediocre,” added the US magnate Warren Buffet, some 200 years later. The investor knows a thing or two about good timing himself. For pressurised midcap companies, valued from £500m to £2b, an appreciation of time can prove the difference between thriving into the future and simply surviving in the short-term.
Big enough to matter, but small enough to stay agile, successful midcaps are essential contributors to national and global GDP, providing everyday goods and services, as well as valuable jobs, often outside the commercial centres. In this ultra-competitive sector, the laser focus on high returns, profit, market share and real-time turnover can leave precious little time for something as intangible as the future.
But read the annual report of any midcap company, and you’re almost guaranteed to find sustainable growth as a headline ambition. It’s business sense too. Research shows the clear benefits of going long. Over a 15-year horizon, major companies that focused on their future business enjoy an average 32% revenue benefit in comparison to those more engrossed on their current business plan.
CEOs that manage with a long-term orientation outperform their short-term-focused counterparts across a range of metrics: revenue, earnings, market capitalisation and brand equity (to name a few). But it’s easier said than done. Just one out of every nine companies sustains profitable growth for a decade or more. And corporate performance is more volatile than ever. On average, one in three publicly listed companies will not exist in five years’ time. That’s a five-times increase compared to 50 years ago.
These chilling figures show just how fickle time can prove. While CEOs and strategic directors know only too well that long-term behaviours drive greater value creation, the system increasingly demands a short-term focus. Leaders and managers just can’t find the latitude to think long term.
 Zook, C. and Allen, J., 2016. The Founders Mentality. Boston, Mass.: Harvard business review press.
 Harvard Business Review. 2016. The Biology Of Corporate Survival. Available at:
Avoiding the short-term cycle of doom
How to look beyond the current business model – and balance the allocation of resources appropriately? What’s holding CEOs back? In a word: uncertainty. Long-term investments – often stylised as ‘big bets’ – are viewed as risky and potentially anti-growth. The instinct that shouts think to the future, is drowned out by the need to deliver in the short term.
Risky growth opportunities are neglected. Decisions become entrenched in the current business model. Cost reduction becomes the core focus, which is good for a while, but then there’s nothing left to squeeze. Productivity suffers as the business model becomes less relevant. Profitability spirals – and the moment to act has passed. There is now less cash available for growth. Too late, the business discovers that the real risk was neglecting those future-focused opportunities in the first place.
Why do businesses enter this vicious circle? Sometimes, they don’t know how to take their business forward or invest in the future with confidence. Therefore, they focus on selling more of the same, rather than evolving what they sell. Go with what we know! The right strategy will help you go somewhere better, you don’t yet know.
The long and the short of it…
There are three good reasons why midcap businesses seek out a strategy consultant. Firstly, the consultant can bring new insight into the target sector. Second, the business is looking for inspiration. They need help in shaping their vision. Finally, they just need some heavy-lifting, due to lack of resource. They don’t have the time or people to look beyond the skyline.
Often for good and understandable reasons, businesses are forced into making short term decisions. Yet, all of our research and evidence says that businesses that can think long term are the ones that thrive. That’s the conundrum. It would be naïve to say that businesses shouldn’t worry about short-term performance. The job for strategy consultants is to help clients think and act in a more long-term way, while keeping a close rein on short-term factors. That's what creates more value, both in terms of financial returns and impact on society.
“Time is on my side, yes it is,” sings Mick Jagger for the Rolling Stones, aged 78. With the right strategy, time is on the side of midcap businesses too.
How to build a Long-Short strategy
The word strategy is derived from the classical Greek word strategos, meaning a military commander. Staying in antiquity, it’s tempting to imagine your strategy like a mythical two-headed bird, half hawk and half owl. The sharp eyes of the hawk can look into the future, while the owl can survey everything in the short-term periphery.
At Cognosis, we have built relationships with successful midcap businesses who reset their strategy with us every year, as a matter of course. What's changed? Where are we now? What do we need to do differently? They trust our consultants to help them balance short-term gain with sustainable growth.
We provide a tried-and-tested framework for creating a successful strategy, backed by a toolkit of solutions. In recent years, we have helped successful midcap businesses such as Arco, the UK’s largest B2B Safety company, to develop three- and 10-year strategic plans, while responding in the short-term to the challenges of COVID-19.
The framework has three core components.
Why we exist? What do we want to be known for in 10 years or even 100 years? Some people like the word purpose, others prefer vision or 10-year compass. Call it what you like, but it’s an important thing to get right, as it gives valuable strategic direction and provides a compelling narrative for customers and employees. For example, our own purpose at Cognosis is to help businesses and brands build sustainable growth.
Where to play? This is your three-year horizon. Be crystal clear about your target market. Fine tune your value proposition, so you become uniquely positioned to meet the needs of your target market. Next, you need to see if the calculations all add up. We call these strategic enablers: get granular about creating a doable, costed plan. Be prepared to go back and reappraise your choices.
How to win? Write a clear and compelling articulation of the direction and choices that people will buy into, using powerful data. This good thinking is translated into a one-year plan and a one-year budget.
The end result is a strategy that helps the business to look forward and look around at the same time. But remember: a strategy can’t survive on paper. If the right processes and skills to manage a strategy are missing, then it's not going to work. Are you constantly allocating resources to the right departments? Are you structured in the right way? Do you have the necessary leadership and talent in place? Are you hitting the OKRs (objectives and key results)?