Is your core business delivering disappointing margins and low growth rates? Are you unsure of the path forward to growing your business? If you think big investments outside your core are your only means to accelerate growth, think again. The opportunity for profitable growth may be locked within your core business. Here's how you can unlock that potential. 

Step 1:  Define and understand your core

You first need to identify your core set of customers, products and operations in the following context:

•    Which customers (or segments of customers) are most profitable? These are the people that are most likely to pay a premium for your products and services, most loyal, or most often looking for ways to build a stronger partnership with you.

•    Which products/services routinely command the highest premium, have a strong brand identity with your customers, or are most likely to help you "seal the deal" over competitors?

•    Which parts of your operation are most important to your competitive position, drive your differentiation in the marketplace, or give you a sustainable cost advantage?

To create a view of your core that is backed by facts, not existing biases or assumption, you’ll want to get as granular as possible. Look at the least profitable customer, product and region segments and challenge their inclusion in the core. Identify the most profitable segments and ask: Have we truly done everything we can to grow those segments? Then you can estimate the growth and future margin trends of your core by examining both the attractiveness of your underlying markets and your evolving competitive position in them.

Step 2:  Lower the waterline by restructuring high-cost operations

Restructure or get rid of high-cost operations that don't deliver well-differentiated products and/or highly valuable customers. This will help you to lower the "profitability waterline."

Step 3:  Pare back your least profitable, non-core customers and products

Virtually every business has a set of customers and products (e.g., the bottom 20 percent) whose profitability is well below average. Ironically, growth efforts and investment are often focused around these segments, while the more profitable core is neglected. 

Ask yourself: If I were forced to eliminate the bottom 20 percent, what resources would that free up? Where else would I invest in the business to make up the lost revenue? 

This may require a radical re-thinking of the business, but a business that can pare back the bottom 20 percent is often in a much better position to drive profitable growth in the core.

Step 4:  Focus your growth efforts on your profitable core

Steps 2 and 3 will free up significant capital, which the management team then should allocate toward the most profitable core segments and operations. Ask yourself:

•    How can I better meet my core customers’ needs? How can I build a better partnership with them?

•    How can I best supplement my core products and operations to extend my competitive advantage? What organic or M&A investments would strengthen my core?

•    What products, services and customers are adjacent to my core, and do they represent opportunities to expand my core?

This four-step approach can unlock significant profitable growth potential within the core, revitalizing what may have been perceived as a stagnant business.