The Most Profitable Business Sectors in 2010

Entrepreneurs dream of and start businesses for a variety of reasons. Some hate the jobs they are in, while others dislike the politics of a big office environment. But most would agree that the lure of freedom and flexibility were huge motivating factors.

Regardless of the rationale behind their decision, one criterion is more critical than any other: They want to make money and support their families. While it is easy to get distracted by chasing customers, growing top line revenue and expanding premises, the simple business fundamentals – profit and cash flow – determine whether the entrepreneur’s dream will ultimately last or turn into a nightmare.

It is almost impossible to predict the success and financial health of a business by looking at the number of employees, the look/feel of the website, the size of the office or the resume of the owner. Most of us would assume that the only way to really know, is to get a copy of and read the financial statements. While this is a great idea and valuable exercise, there is also another, easy way to narrow down your choices. You could simply choose to start or buy one of the Top 10 Most Profitable businesses – i.e. a venture that statistically has the highest probability of being financially successful.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? But how [exactly] do you find out which businesses are on the list?

It is not widely known in the marketplace, but there are in fact certain industry classifications which have a track record of high net profit margins and solid cash flow. There are also certain characteristics and financial metrics of these select businesses which exponentially enhance their profitability. So much so, that these particular businesses are 5 to 10 times more likely to survive and thrive.

1. Consultants, experts and speakers
This industry includes business advisors, authors, coaches, therapists, psychologists, authors and paid speakers. On average, these businesses enjoy high per hour rates, carry no debt or inventory and have very low fixed expenses. The number of professionals in this area is growing rapidly each year and they are consistently generating net profit margins of 25-35%. Not bad for a business that is borne out of one person’s expertise – the large majority of these businesses employ less than 3 people.

2. Accounting and financial services
While this industry may sound boring – bookkeeping, payroll, tax compliance, accounting advice and software, advisory services, financial/investment advice etc – these practitioners become a whole lot more interesting when they are standing on their wallets. These businesses tend to have the longest client relationships (as most people perceive a huge risk inherent with switching to a new provider) and thus the lowest churn rate and the lowest cost to acquire and retain clients. They enjoy profit of around 23-26%, have enormous pricing power and their services are seen as must-haves, not discretionary spends. By and large, they also tend to have low operating expenses per client and as a percentage of sales.

3. Legal specialists
Despite their reputation as sharks and bottom feeders, lawyers make excellent profit and cash flow (on average 20-24% net profit margin). Their success factors mirror those of their accounting and financial services colleagues. Most clients are attained through WOM and referrals (keeping marketing costs low) and they tend to stay with their advisor over the long term as there is a perceived risk/cost to switching attorneys. Lawyers are fantastic at generating repeat business and up sales. Some of the most profitable areas include DUI defence, criminal law, tax and estate planning and divorce law.

4. Dentists – general and specialists
Dentists have three key operating advantages – they are often able to treat multiple patients simultaneously, they enjoy high average dollar transactions (most of which is not covered by health care plans) and their operating costs are relatively low (when divided by the total number of patients serviced). Yearly maintenance services (cleaning and x-rays) produce high contribution margins and dentists do a great job of convincing us we need them regularly. On average, they spend more than any other health provider on follow ups and re-bookings. Fortunately, the cost of this direct marketing is much lower than the cost of acquiring new patients and produces returns of 18-22% for the practice.

5. Designers
No matter what they specialize in – structures, decor, your brand, high end clothing and accessories – these professionals have a flair for bringing in the money – in fact about 16-19% on the bottom line each year. These practitioners benefit greatly from high end pricing and relatively low variable product costs and operating margins. Their greatest assets are their customer lists and their time. The greatest risk for those who are not as successful in this area is productivity – either not understanding the time involved to complete a job or not charging market rates for their time.

6. Medical specialists and veterinary medicine
It pays to specialize. The medical profession is relatively recession -proof. No matter what, people and pets tend to get sick and we rarely opt to forgo seeking care and treatment. Surprisingly on the rise are highly discretionary services such as plastic surgery, Lasik eye surgery, lap band specialists, infertility treatment and hair restoration. These specialists are often able to charge outside of what is covered by public and private health care (earning profit of around 14-16%) and they earn much more than their general medicine counterparts.

7. Specialised health and alternative medicine
As with traditional medicine, it pays to specialize. Mental health, podiatry, chiropractic, naturopathy, acupuncture, physical therapists etc. enjoy profits of 13-15% due to high average dollar transactions, repeat visits, low cost of goods sold and low operating margins.

8. Eldercare and retirement services
As the average population continues to age, there is a growing strain on young families from both ends – the need to manage child care with a career AND the need to manage the transition of elderly parents into assisted living or full time care. As a result, placement services, retirement villages, aged care services etc. are growing and becoming more lucrative. Private services in particular can earn 12-14% before tax.

9. Insurance and mortgage brokers
These businesses often cost very little to start and operate and earn their money through 2 distinct streams – the upfront fee they earn for securing the deal and ongoing annual trailers (which can often grow to 80% of their total revenue). While recent changes in many jurisdictions have reduced or delayed their initial payments from banks and various institutions, the ongoing passive revenue streams make these profitable businesses at 11-14% on average. The perceived hassle of switching is high, thus most retain customers for long periods of time and promote/receive referrals regularly.

10. Online business, small deposit and lending institutions
The internet has made it possible for anyone to set up shop and sell goods or services online with little or no experience and low overheads. While there are many dud eBusinesses, the ones that are making money are doing it on a huge scale. The most profitable ones (selling services and membership continuity programs) are earning more than $0.20-0.30 cents on the dollar each year in net profit, but examples of these are few and far between. On average, the ones that sell products and/or services should enjoy 11-14% on the bottom line with no debtors, low inventory and a small investment in fixed assets. Specialised credit unions and private lenders are also enjoying profit margins of around 10-13% due to low overheads and a growing mistrust among consumers with the traditional banks.

From this list, we can draw several important conclusions. First professional services is a winner. Of the list above, 8 out of 10 business fall into the category of professional services. The core drivers of their profitability being steady demand for services(despite economic ups and downs), low overheads, high contribution margins and repeat business. Aside from law, specialized medicine, dentistry and accounting, many of these professions also enjoy relatively low barriers to entry.

More often than not, it pays to specialize. Businesses in niche areas are often able to set high prices, command high value sales with large contribution margins and generate both repeat and referral businesses. This lesson can also easily be extrapolated and applied out to traditionally difficult or low profit industries. Take for example, the restaurant business or general trades like welding or electrical services. By becoming highly specialized, these businesses can directly influence the success and viability of their enterprises.

And finally, size definitely matters. In the small to mid size sector, economies of scale in most industries kick in around $1m in revenue – and this is especially pronounced in industries that require an upfront investment in specialized fixed assets like medical equipment, manufacturing equipment and technology.

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