How can I get my accountant more involved in growing my business?

Most accountants do much more than prepare financial reports and tax returns. They also can provide vital insights to help you build a more competitive, profitable and valuable business.

In particular, your accountant has the training and business acumen to develop or use key performance indicators (KPIs) and benchmark data to help you make critical business decisions with confidence. Through careful analysis of the accounting and financial information from your operations, your accountant will be able to help you determine what the numbers mean for you and your stakeholders. This enables you to adjust your business activities to optimize performance, allowing you to seize opportunities and grow profitably.

Selecting an accountant who understands your vision, your business and you is crucial to assessing ideas, risks and opportunities as they relate to your unique situation. It's also an essential part of developing personalized solutions that advance your goals and reflect your values and brand. Having an accountant who is your business advisor and cares about you and your business as much as you do also will ensure you have the right amount of support when you need it most.

Depending on your immediate needs and goals, it's also important to work with an accountant who has been successful helping companies like yours.

Whether you need help developing a business plan, managing your banking relationship, creating a succession plan or simply exploring ideas, be sure to communicate with your accountant and set up regularly scheduled meetings with him or her to increase your chances of success.

To ensure you are on the right track, here are some questions worth reviewing with your accountant:

How are the key financial drivers in my business connected?

How do I expand my business in a healthy way?

If I want to retire in five years, do I need to do anything now?

In which areas of the business should I invest first?

How will I know if I am achieving my goals?

How can I increase the value of my business before I sell it?

-Dave Zimmel, Vice-President of Private Enterprise at MNP in Calgary

What are the three keys to grooming successors in a family business?

Here is the secret: Start early!

The biggest challenge small family businesses have is that many of the founders are baby boomers aged 55 and over (an age group growing at a rate of more than 10,000 per day). If big corporations are struggling with what to do about the looming (if not already here) talent shortage, imagine what family businesses are faced with in their small talent pools? Couple this with the common problem of family business owners who generally believe they know everything, are infallible and will run the business forever. In the book Beating the Midas Curse, estate attorneys Rod Zeeb and Perry Cochell refer to studies that show 65% of second-generation family businesses and a mind-boggling 90% of third-generation businesses fail. And this is among businesses that had succession plans drafted by very capable lawyers.

Establishing a succession plan is a critical first step and needs the engagement of all the family stakeholders. A succession plan is more than listing names of people and deciding who is first in line for the top spot. Often, it is decided that the eldest child will file that role; but, sometimes, it is the most educated, the most experienced in the business or simply the parent's favourite. Too often, a child is chosen for the top spot in spite of the fact he or she has not been prepared, trained, mentored or coached for such a role in a timely manner.

So, start early and invest in experienced external help to facilitate the process and assess the talent pool. Talk to family members involved in the business about their dreams and aspirations. And get an unbiased opinion of the situation long before it's time for the founder to move on so you can avoid making decisions under pressure. The founder also can identify the skills required by potential successors, along with the appropriate training and experience they'll need to succeed. Most likely your advisors will recommend that you should be grooming more than one individual, to provide more depth and manage the risk of individual plan changes.

To summarize, the three success keys are:

Start early

Establish a succession plan

Invest in experienced external expertise.

-Carmine Domanico, President of Cristal International, an HR strategy consultancy in Brampton, Ont.

I am looking to hire a good sales trainer. Can you give me some advice on what I should be looking for?

By now, you probably have Googled and found out there are a plethora of options, everything from the large sales training company down to the lone practitioner.

I would suggest you hire someone who can demonstrate that they have been there, done that. They don't necessarily have to have experience in your industry, but they should be able to demonstrate that they have the right sales pedigree. Look into: their personal sales history; where they worked; who mentored them; if they have management experience; and how long they were in sales before they got into training. Ask about their teaching credentials.

You'll also want to know what companies make up their current client list; this will tell you a lot about your candidate. And find out if their selling philosophy matches what you want your sales force to emulate. They also should be able to demonstrate that they stay current with what's happening on the sales-education front. This will be evident in the courses they have taken recently, current books or articles they have read and the last time they updated their course materials.

Remember, the best players don't always make the best coaches. Whomever you select should have great presentation skills and the ability to command respect, from the most junior to the most experienced person on your team. The best way to evaluate this is to attend one of their sessions. If that's not possible, ask to see a video. You also could ask for a reference or two, but be wary of suspect references.

Whomever you hire should be able to grow with you. They should be able to provide you with a range of sales-training products, from basic selling skills to things such as negotiating and communication skills, strategic account management and professional sales management. If you truly are committed to improving your team's performance through sales training, you will need access to these products as your business needs evolve.

Pick a trainer who can help you over the long haul. It's usually cheaper than jumping from one to another, and familiarity with your business and people will cut down on orientation time. A good trainer also can help evaluate your reports, and your people will presumably already trust and value their input. So, everybody wins.

I also would recommend you hire someone who not only delivers the course but offers a one-to-one coaching service for your reps to help reinforce the learning. This can be done by phone or videoconferencing as well as in person, but it is a key component if you want to get the most out of your training investment.

Lastly, I would like to draw a distinction between training and pseudo-training. Pseudo-training is a brief one- to three-hour session in which you bring in a dynamic speaker who focuses on a particular topic. Typically, these sessions are a one-way information dump. There is no discussion, no reinforcement exercises or followup. Pseudo-training is more like entertainment-everyone leaves feeling good, but nothing changes.

-Harvey Copeman, President and CEO of the Canadian Professional Sales Association in Toronto

Which new markets offer the best opportunities for Canadian companies?

The buzz over the past few years has been all about the BRIC countries-Brazil, Russia, India and China. But each of these represents a very different market, and the costs/benefits of entering these markets are not equal.

For a variety of reasons, both political and economic, opportunities in Russia have never truly materialized. India, due to issues such as entrenched government bureaucracy, slow decision-making and extreme price sensitivity, still presents serious challenges. And China, aside from not really being a new market, is a massive one that can be daunting for small and medium-sized Canadian companies.

Brazil, on the other hand, offers significant opportunities for Canadian companies right now. In fact, Canadian companies looking to enter the Brazilian market may have a leg up on competition from other countries because of similarities between our two economies. Both Canada and Brazil are resource-rich and have strong commodities markets. Both also are exporting nations and share the same main trading partners-namely, the U.S. and China. But Canadian trade with Brazil is not nearly as significant as it could or should be.

Brazil offers opportunities across various sectors, many of which match Canadian industry strengths, such as information and communications technology, infrastructure, aerospace, environmental technologies, mining, and oil and gas equipment and services. Current growth in Brazil is making it difficult for domestic manufacturers and service providers to keep up with demand in these sectors.

Brazil also offers various incentives to foreign investors. These take the form of tax breaks for companies, as well as grants and other federal programs designed to support development in the less developed areas of the country, particularly the northeast and Amazon regions.

While there certainly are plenty of opportunities in Brazil, you have to do your homework-as with any foreign market. Be prepared to invest time, money and effort. The Brazilian business culture is built on relationships, so companies looking to trade with Brazil need to make building personal relationships a top priority. Also, be aware that there are certain industries that are restricted, and permission from the government must be obtained for foreign firms to operate certain types of businesses, such as transportation companies, mining companies, and oil and gas refineries. It's never simple entering new markets. But by taking some time to explore market opportunities and potential partnerships, Canadian companies can find strong synergies in Brazil.

-Joy Nott, President of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters in Toronto

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