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Business leaders must focus on risks as much as on profit to ensure business success, according to Rice University research

When it comes to getting a good return on investment, businesses should be equally focused on mitigating risks as they are on earning a profit. Getty Images

Consider for a moment the race to build the next super computer. Google, Alibaba and other U.S. and China companies are racing to build a machine — called quantum computing — far more powerful than anything the world has ever seen. In this race, China reportedly has the lead.

Given that this kind of technology can protect trillions of dollars in corporate and even national secrets, why do American companies lag behind? If such research and development represents an unknown and is a potential business risk, should U.S. companies be interested in assuming such a task? Rice Business professors Vikas Mittal, Yan Anthea Zhang and a Rice Business Ph.D. student Kyuhong Han, may have answers.

They researched the various ways companies create strategic advantages for themselves. What is the relationship between these strategies and the risks involved? Companies create value through innovation-based activities such as research and development or else via branding and advertisement. As there's no set formula for success, each company has its own approach — which could affect the risk associated with the company's stock price (called idiosyncratic risk).

Typically, the two strategic pillars are examined separately, rather than jointly. But when they compared the two approaches, they found that one presented far more risk than the other.

To reach their conclusions, the Rice team looked at a data set of 13,880 firm-year observations that included 2,403 firms operating in 59 industries over 15 years (2000–2014). The data sets were from the firms' annual operational and financial information from Standard & Poor's Compustat, the University of Chicago's Center for Research in Security Prices and from the Kenneth French Data Library. What the data revealed was the stock price of companies that placed a higher strategic emphasis on marketing and branding (called value appropriation) than companies that focused research and development (called value creation).

If it is less risky for a firm to emphasize branding and marketing over research and development it stands to reason that firms would want to exercise caution in big new research and development efforts. What's the payoff for making a quantum computer or even Space X, after all, if the research and development risks associated with the endeavor are extraordinarily high? In some instances, it may be much safer to rebrand and market. Closer to home, many companies in the oil and gas industry bet big on innovative ventures — costly product features, digitization initiatives and so on that may only increase the risk to their stock price than meet customer needs.

The researchers found that firms that plunge big efforts into research and development have more to worry about than whether their innovations will work. They have to weather the fluctuations of industry demand. When industry demand is volatile, the downside of excessive research and development, at the cost of customer-relevant strategies is even worse.

For the Rice Business researchers, the lessons for managers are clear. The return on investment is intimately linked not only with optimizing potential profits but also minimizing potential risks. Research and development heavy endeavors like Space X and quantum computers may be flashy, but in the event of an unexpected drop in demand, they're also more likely to plummet to earth, creating stock-price volatility.

Managers need to think about the elements that create risk — like demand instability. The more companies create a stable and predictable client base, the less risk that they have to face in the stock market. There is still a tendency among many firms to see advertising and research and development as preceding and guiding customer perceptions, preferences and behaviors. But perhaps the relationship is just the opposite.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom. Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Yan Anthea Zhang is a Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Kyuhong Han is a marketing Ph.D. student at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year.

When looking at striking statistics, it's clear composting has a direct impact on the future of our environment. In Houston, 81 percent of waste ends up in landfills that pile high, and the city exceeds the national waste average by 25 percent. While the smell of landfills may make you wince, the repercussions of exhausting those landfills are even more displeasing.

Not only are the plots of land permanently lost from agricultural and home development, but the landfills also emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas that's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Independent.

What started as the Stowers family's resolution to be eco-friendly became a full-blown business plan. After Stowers attempted to compost at home for his own family, he soon partnered with New Earth Compost in Fulshear, Texas, as a drop-off location for the waste and did a test drive of the service with his neighbors back in March. Happy Earth Compost now serves 350 homes in the Greater Houston-area and has plans to expand to College Station.

Happy Earth Compost has created a service, with pricing ranging from $15 to $35, that provides Houstonians with the bins to compost and picks up the waste from your door. The buckets can be picked up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly while the company does all of the labor and dirty work to help you compost. A new $5 drop-off option is also available for Houstonians who are willing to drive to one of the applicable farmers' markets.

Subscribers can also get free compost to use in their gardens, what gardeners often call "black gold" because of its value and benefits, says Stowers.

Members receive equipment and instructions upon registration. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth

The family-owned business' typical week involves picking up buckets from 300 houses, dropping off compost, cleaning those buckets, and starting the process all over again.

"It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's getting people set up to do it. We're trying to make things easy for everybody by doing the hard work on our end," he says.

Ease is a key feature that helps the service stand out to Houstonians. Composting in Houston no longer requires the personal labor of investing in a compost bin, balancing the mixture of materials, measuring the temperature of your compost, and ordering worms to help accelerate the process (you read that right).

At various farmers' markets around Houston, Stowers is quick to point out the convenience of the program he's created. "It's hard to convince people to compost. It's easier to convince them to try something that's beneficial and simple," he explained.

Jenna Arbogast, a Happy Earth Compost customer, had dabbled in composting on her own but never committed to maintaining it at home. "When I found out about Happy Earth Compost, I so excited that someone was taking the initiative to extend this city-wide. Being that we are such a large city, we have such a great opportunity to heal our environment," says Arbogast. "I really love contributing to something as a collective. Even though I could compost at home, I really wanted to support this initiative," she says.

To Arbogast, who has been using the service for three months, convenience and transparency have made Happy Earth Compost a joy to work with. "You get all the benefits of composting without the maintenance, and you're supporting a good cause," she says.

Since its May launch, the Happy Earth Compost Instagram has grown by over 1,900 fans. The Stowers family has been amazed by the response and hopes to expand to more households in Houston.

"I think there's definitely a movement to be more sustainable to actually consider what we're doing and take care of our stuff, including the earth," says Stowers. He envisions a future where composting is taught to future generations as a fundamental need for the environment.

"It may not cost us now, but it will cost us eventually. What can we do now to make a difference now?" asks Stowers.


Jesse Stowers started his family business in May. Photo via happyearthcompost.com

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