Declining Profitability Case

Case Declining Profitability Case
Recent activity on Sep 30, 2017
3 Answers
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Anonymous A asked on Sep 29, 2017

Dear All

Let's say we have an BCG style open ended case e.g. the client, a fast food chain, has experienced declining profitability. I have two approaches when informing the interviewer of my planned structure:

1. State that I want to address 3 main buckets

a. The P&L (the revenue side and the cost side, the main items and their drivers);

b. The competitive landscape; and

c. Changes in consumer bahaviour.

The root cause (e.g. branding, operational, QC, menu problems etc) will then come out of the above analysis.

2. Stay strictly MECE i.e. state upfront that this is a profitability problem and therefore I want to look at the revenue side then the cost side then dig deeper.

Which of these 2 is the best approach? While I think the 2nd approach is the best I am afraid of being too similar to all other candidates and of being seen as just following a framework by rote. With the first approach I can add a bit more flavour to my answer, can display some creativity and can stand out a little more.

So which approach is best and are my justification for the 1st approach valid?



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updated an answer on Sep 29, 2017
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School


I doubt that having 2 more blocks in the 1st level of your structure will make you stand out and add flavor.

Based on my experience there are 2 things that really make you stand out during the case:

  1. Being extremely structured
  2. Demonstrating descent business judgment

1. Being extremely structured means structuring throughout the case.

  • Poorly prepared candidates just do the initial structure and get "You are not structured enough" feedback
  • Well-prepared candidates continue structuring throughout the case. In your particular example - you may continue with splitting revenues into the number of customers and average check, then check into avg number of items, prices, and mix. If the # of customers has declined - you dig deeper into internal and external factors that include the ones you've mentioned (competitors and consumer behavior)
  • Distinctive candidates not only constantly do MESE structures, but also prioritize the particular branches of the structure based on their judgment and evidence available. (e.g. if you have a problem with sales people you 1) structure the problem into a) sales strategy, b) sales process, c) motivation, d) skills&technology and then 2) you prioritize c-motivation, explaining that it's the most common problem in sales. This is your hypothesis.

2. Demonstrating descent business judgment

Building Business Judgment is actually about building industry and functional knowledge.

Focus on the most common industries in the following priority (sorted by probability of getting a case): 1-retail and CPG; 2-airlines; 3-Telecom; 4-banking; 5-natural resources; 6-tech

There are several sources of info to develop business sense:

1) Cases - you simply solve 50-70 cases and get a broad knowledge of different industries, common pitfalls and questions. The key here - find good partners who already had case interviews with MBB companies

2) Company reports, equity reports, IB roadshow docs - usually have a good overview of company and industries. One of the best sources of industry information

3) HBS cases - quite useful, but not sure if lot's of them available publically. Probably worth buying

4) Books - one good book about airlines with numbers and industry analysis can give you all the necessary industry knowledge

5) News, Industry blogs

For each industry, you should understand:

  • Revenue streams
  • Cost structure
  • Margins
  • Key performance indicators
  • Key revenue drivers
  • Industry trends

I strongly recommend practice drawing structures for each industry - profitability, value chain, etc

Then I will switch to getting functional knowledge and key concepts in:

  • Marketing (Brand and trade marketing tools, etc)
  • Supply chain (Ops metrics like cycle time and throughput time, distribution and delivery specifics, etc)
  • Finance (Basic Accounting and Valuation)

Good luck!


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replied on Sep 30, 2017
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Hi Anonymous,

I would not use either of the two, as you would definitely need more elements in the structure. In particular, assuming you have clarified the goal, I would recommend you three buckets: (i) Identify the problem. (ii) Propose a solution. (iii) Consider risks.

This is how I would suggest you to proceed:

Step 1: Identify the problem. You can proceed through the following steps:

  1. Segment by profitability/revenue channels. Ask the interviewer how the client segments its profitability channels. In your case, that may be related to the different products in supermarkets, or type of restaurants
  2. Identify which channel is the priority. Ask for the change in profitability for each channel. Then start from the one that had the biggest decline in profits.
  3. Identify whether it is a revenue or cost issue. Ask how revenues and costs changed for the channel that you have identified. Start from the area which has the major negative change in absolute amount
  4. Analyse the components of revenues and/or costs. According to what you found in step 3, you should further segment revenues in price and volume and costs using fix or variable costs, or dividing them through the value chain.
  5. Identify the component that is underperforming. You can do so comparing the client performance with its past performance, or benchmarking competitors on that area.
  6. Identify the reason for the problem. Usual areas to consider are:
  • Customers (for revenues) /Supplier (for costs) issues
    • eg revenues (customer issue): changes of preferences of the customers for eco-friendly products
    • eg costs (supplier issue): increased prices for suppliers
  • Competitors issues
    • eg revenues: decreased prices for competing product
    • eg costs: lobbying strikes/ regulations against us
  • Client issues
    • eg revenues: stopped to do marketing campaigns
    • eg costs: wrong process development/budgeting

Step 2: Propose a solution. In general, there are two main things you can do to increase revenues and two to cut costs:

  • Revenues increase strategies
    • Work on current products
    • Work on new products
  • Costs decrease strategies
    • Decrease the cost of each unit
    • Decrease the number of units of cost

Step 3: Consider risks. Present all the elements that could be risky and should be analysed further before a complete recommendation, according to what you found. Eg: it may be necessary to launch a pilot marketing campaign before the main one, or consider whether reducing benefits for sales people may lead to resignations, etc.

This approach joint with the proper communication of the structure can definitely help you to stand out, as many candidates will focus on analysing the problem only, or even on generic revenues and cost analysis.



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Anonymous replied on Sep 29, 2017

For an open ended declining profitability question like the one posed, a combination of your two approaches would be best, assuming the interviewer doesn’t let you probe deeper to understand root causes. So, start out with a purely MECE structure of revenue and cost but then break down the potential revenue and cost issues.

For revenue, you want to explore the Price Quantity equation:

  • Pricing: Has base pricing changed? Have any promotions been run recently / discounts been given? Has there been a shift in the mix of orders to lower cost items that has effectively resulted in lower overall average price per order?
  • Quantity: Has there been competitive pressure (e.g., new competitor offerings, new competitor stores, new competitor pricing, increased competitor marketing)? Have certain restaurant channels (e.g., malls vs stand alones) seen a change in traffic? Have you changed your menu (e.g., removed certain menu items)? Have your changed your order system (e.g., relied more on self-serve)?

For cost, you want to split the cost into the typical Fixed and Variable cost:

  • Fixed cost: Fixed cost for fast food restaurants are every cost incurred even if the restaurant is closed. Have rents increased? Has your interest rate gone up? Have insurance rates gone up? Have tax rates increased?
  • Variable cost: Fast food restaurants have mainly 3 types of variable costs. Have your COGS increased (e.g., food and beverage costs)? Have your labor costs increased? Have your maintenance costs increased (doubtful)?

By combining the two approaches, you demonstrate to the interviewer that you are a structured thinker and that you understand the “2nd level” issues. Don’t worry about trying to “stand out”. Just make sure that you are answering the question. And, be sure to talk through the problem out loud and in a structured way.

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Vlad gave the best answer


McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School
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