LOOK TO THE TOP LINE AS WELL AS THE BOTTOM

LOOK TO THE TOP LINE AS WELL AS THE BOTTOM

One of the biggest challenges for a chief executive officer is accommodating the conflicting expectations of customers, employees, management, financial analysts and the investing public. Growth is the common denominator. But this simple word means different things to each group.

For customers, growth means that the company they are doing business with today is likely to be around tomorrow. It means higher sales volume and rising earnings will keep prices in line.For employees, it means job security, escalating wages and competitive pensions and benefits. For management, it means increased responsibility and opportunity.

For financial analysts, it means improvement in all areas of the business, primarily those that have a direct impact on the bottom line.

And for the investing public, it means only one thing: stock price appreciation. Shareholders don't get salaries, pensions or benefits. Any dividends they receive are typically small. They see advancing prices as the sole barometer of growth.

The tricky part for CEOs is striking a balance between earnings growth and sales growth. Far too many bore in on one or the other, looking for a shortcut to success. In their effort to boost the market price of their stock, they may blame earnings shortfalls on investment spending or sluggish revenue or difficulties in the economy.

Not too long ago, the market gave its highest multiples to companies that concentrated on the bottom line. Digital Equipment Corp., Sunbeam and others were rewarded for slashing costs to trim losses or boost profit.

Today, the driving force for price appreciation appears to have swung to the top line, as with the Internet stocks that are rewarded for their potential, even though earnings are minimal or nonexistent.

Both approaches are shortsighted. If a company meets profit forecasts but its sales decline, the market may very well punish it because of loss of momentum. The only true formula for long-term results is growing the top and bottom lines simultaneously. This is not easy.

But the single attribute that characterizes all well-known growth companies is a willingness to change, as financial requirements, economic conditions and heightened competition create new - sometimes seemingly impossible - demands on the business.

For some companies, change was revolutionary: ITT is no longer in the telephone business; U.S. Steel is principally an oil company, and Philip Morris is not only a tobacco company, but also is now America's largest food company.

For others, change was evolutionary: Sam Walton's little retail store became Wal-Mart, and Honeywell moved from simple thermostats to a family of electronic controls and then into a synergistic merger with AlliedSignal.

But for many, change proved to be an impossible hurdle. Studebaker, Crosley, New York Central, Schlitz and Pan Am are among the household names that have disappeared.

The company I run, Pentair, discovered the need for change shortly after its creation in 1966 as a designer and producer of high-altitude balloons. Pentair's founders had the insight and courage to let the balloons float away. The time and talent of management were refocused on other segments that were more in line with the global business environment.

To attain better top and bottom line growth, we acquired a number of underperforming companies and used our manufacturing expertise to turn them around. Then we looked for manufacturing companies with valuable brand names, since product recognition would be important to the continuation of our upward trend. By the end of the '80s, we had joined the Fortune 500, with more than $1 billion in sales and solid earnings.

My advice is this: Focus on acquisitions and improved performance at the same time.

Look for high-growth industries in which you have a strong global position and proven engineering, marketing, manufacturing or distribution skills to maintain high quality while minimizing costs.

Be realistic in targeting your annual growth from existing businesses and strategic acquisitions. Control Wall Street's expectations - don't let them control you.

An effective growth strategy requires attention to the top and bottom line in equal measure. A CEO who ignores any of this does so at considerable risk and will certainly not be able to bring his or her company profitably into the 21st century.