Archives for December 2011

CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T – PART 2

Last week I introduced the topic of cash flow management, using the graph below. Cash flows generated or use by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three inter-related cycles. They include the expense and revenue cycles, which I discussed last week.

Today I complete the topic with a review of the capital cycle.

The capital cycle:

If you have been in business any length of time, you know that capital is always a scarce and expensive commodity. Therefore, the capital cycle involves allocating or assigning available cash to its highest and best use. The process analyzes competing alternatives, such as opening a new location, expanding your sales force, product research and development, increasing inventories, debt repayment and so on. Unlike cash, the list seems almost inexhaustible.

Therefore, this cycle requires a quantified prioritization that incorporates a variety of factors including expected returns, time horizons, risk assessment and the cost and availability of required capital. Most business people are familiar with some applications of capital allocation. A simple example is whether to buy or lease company vehicles.

Other applications are not as well recognized. For example, assume two identical businesses earned a $100,000 profit. Company A had $1 million invested in the business, while Company B only had $500,000 of capital. Company B’s 20% return is double that of Company A. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as the math implies. While reducing capital increases returns, it also increases the risk of running short of cash and failing due to unexpected events. Every business requires some level of cash to serve as a buffer against this uncertainty.

Another application of the capital cycle is identifying and quantifying the need for outside funding to meet your needs. Obtaining adequate funding under terms and conditions that make economic sense in light of expected benefits is crucial to the process. This includes short-term needs like financing seasonal fluctuations in receivables and inventories, and long-term needs such as procuring equipment and facilities.

The capital cycle also includes securing “start-up” money, probably the greatest challenge and source of frustration most small businesses encounter. New businesses owners frequently make two critical mistakes in their search for start-up capital. The mistakes are:

  • They significantly underestimate the amount of cash needed to carry the business until it turns cash positive. Again, a clear distinction exists between turning an accounting profit and being cash positive. If you sell something for $100 that cost you $85, and the related operating costs are $10, you have made a $5 profit. However, if you need an additional $30 to expand your inventory and prepay next month’s rent, you are $25 short of cash. Lack of cash is a more immediate and serious problem than lack of profit.
  • The second mistake is assuming a business can borrow 100% of its initial capital needs from a bank or similar source. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have encountered entrepreneurs with an attitude of, “I’m supplying the intellectual capital. It’s my great idea. Surely I can find someone willing to put in all the cash!”

Banks are interested in financing established companies who need capital to expand, not start-ups wanting cash to test their ideas.

Conclusion:

Let me end with two simple statements. First, in business, success is a four-letter word. It is spelled C-A-S-H!

Finally, measuring, monitoring and managing all three cycles is vitally important to optimizing your cash flow, and ultimately to your very survival.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

The first response to a cash crisis is usually to tighten up on expenses, cut back on something, or generally to make do with less. That may be necessary, but it is usually only part of the answer.

As shown in the diagram below, cash flows generated (or consumed) by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three related cycles. They are the expense, revenue and capital cycles. I will discuss the first two today, and conclude next Friday with the capital cycle.

A brief description of each follows, along with what I consider the most common problems within each cycle. All three cycles presuppose that you have the ability to measure and monitor its activities and results.

The expense cycle:

Let’s start with the expense cycle, the assumed “bad guy” for most small business cash problems. This cycle is largely what the name implies. It is also the easiest to fix.

The expense cycle involves the cash used to pay vendors, employees and others for the goods and services they supply. It also includes operating expenses such as rent and utilities.

The biggest obstacle to correcting expense cycle issues is one of attitude. Your goal is not to “pinch every penny” and second-guess past spending decisions. Experience teaches that it is too easy to miss the big picture while focusing only on inconsequential items. Reducing paper clip expenses by 80% will not save your company.

The focus of your expense cycle review should be to ensure that costs are planned and justified by their expected benefits. Ask yourself whether they are consistent with your business goals. If the answer is no, the appropriate action is to eliminate the expense. It is that simple!

Furthermore, expenses must be incurred within an environment of adequate internal controls. This control environment includes management tools such as monthly financial statements, a detailed budget and basic procedures such as a purchase order process with competitive bidding. Without these controls, it is simply not possible to manage expenses.

The revenue cycle:

The revenue cycle deals with money coming into your business. If only it were that simple!

Problems within this cycle are the most difficult to identify and analyze, especially if management lacks a solid grasp of the numbers. Consequently, the root cause of many business failures lies within the revenue cycle. They are unpleasant to address, since they ultimately affect customer relations. Two examples follow.

Money coming into a business always starts with a sale to a customer. However, it does not end there. If your business offers credit to customers, making a sale actually drains cash until you collect the receivable. This creates an inherent conflict between the desire to increase sales through generous credit terms and lenient collection procedures, and the need to maximize cash flow. Success in this area requires adequate internal controls including standardized billing and collection procedures, a balanced customer approval process, and sound treasury management.

One unpleasant aspect of squeezing more cash out of the revenue cycle is the prospect of having to raise prices. Perhaps the single most common mistake is under-pricing products and services relative to your cost structure. Correcting this challenge is even more difficult after you have established unrealistic customer pricing expectations, or if you operate in an especially competitive environment. People who do business with you primarily because you offer the lowest prices are unlikely to exhibit much customer loyalty.

We will finish this topic next Friday with a discussion of the capital cycle and a closing comment on cash flows.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

 

CASH IS KING, LONG LIVE THE KING!

 

 

Today’s title is an obvious parody on the old phrase, “The king is dead. Long live the king!” It dates to thirteenth century England. It conveyed the immediate transfer of power between a deceased monarch and the heir to the throne. More relevant to our purposes, it signified the continuity of sovereignty, or the supreme authority.

Future articles will explore where cash comes from, and where it goes, two critically important issues for every small business. For now, I will discuss the more basic question of why cash is cash king in today’s business world.

First, allow me to quote the experts. A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas explained the supreme importance of cash rather succinctly:

“A lack of cash flow is often the biggest failure indicator. A lack of cash flow could cause a business to fall behind on wage payments, rent, and insurance and loan payments. A lack of cash flow also could inhibit the company’s ability to reinvest for future profits such as the ordering of products or supplies and marketing execution. When a company is borrowing to pay off past debts, it is usually a sign of disaster to come.”

They also said, “A significant shortage of cash flow limits the company’s ability to respond to outside threats. This is critical for fledgling businesses since new threats seem to appear every day.”

The only thing you can be certain of in business is that things will never turn out exactly as you planned. Adequate cash allows businesses to survive extended periods when sales, profits and cash flow are running behind plan, whatever the cause. Every business requires some level of cash to serve as a buffer against this uncertainty.

You could say cash provides sleep insurance. Constantly worrying whether a large customer will pay their invoice in time to meet Friday’s payroll, or whether you will have to turn away sales during your busiest season because you cannot stock sufficient inventory to meet demand is too often part of a businessperson’s everyday thought process.

Adequate cash levels are especially vital during the initial start-up period of a business. However, while the risks and challenges change as a business grows and matures, cash is supreme during any stage of a company’s life cycle.

For example, imagine that a 120-year-old company generated $1.2 billion in net losses. My immediate reaction is they certainly won’t be around to celebrate their 125th anniversary. That company is Alcoa. They lost $74 million in 2008 and a staggering $1.1 billion in 2009. Yet, Alcoa is still the world’s third largest producer of aluminum, and still trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

How is surviving such staggering losses possible? It was possible because during the same two years Alcoa generated $2.6 billion of positive cash flow from operations. As the old adage goes, “You can survive almost anything if you just have enough cash.” Businesses close their doors when they run out of cash to pay vendors and employees, period!

Here is an even more dramatic and current example of why cash is king.

AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2011. During the previous 15 quarters, the company accumulated over $4.9 billion in net losses. Yet industry experts seem confident the company will successfully emerge from bankruptcy. Why? AMR has over $4.3 billion in cash on its balance sheet.

Far too often, the immediate response to a cash crisis is to tighten up on expenses, cut something back, to make do with less! That may be an appropriate tactic, especially if you have not scrutinized expenses closely in the past, or do not have a good handle on your cost structure.

However, cutting back is not the only tactic.

Next week I will begin a discussion of how cash flow generated (or used) by any business is the net result of the inter-action and proper management of three related cycles. They are the revenue, expense and capital cycles.

Until then, long live the king!

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

WHAT A CPA KNOWS ABOUT MARKETING: MORE SALES AREN’T ALWAYS THE ANSWER

There is an old joke about a marketing executive who bought a truckload of melons from a farmer for $1 each. He advertised them for sale at $0.85. When his CFO asked how he planned make a profit, he proudly replied, “Volume!”

Does that sound absurd to you? Surely, the story must be a throwback to the days before we had MBAs and complex modeling systems to direct our every move.

May I be honest? I have a degree in accounting, and have done graduate work in finance, not marketing. I have never worked in a purely marketing or sales function. Any marketing professional worth his salt has probably forgotten more on the subject then I will ever know. That explains the often-asked question of why a CPA wrote a book called Highly Visible Marketing, and blogs about marketing related topics.

I do not see myself as writing about marketing; at least not as the average person understands the word. I write about a business approach that is foreign to many marketing professionals. It is largely unheard of among small businesses.

I call it marketing accountability.

I focus clients on improving cash flow by growing the bottom line, not the top line. It is that focus that adds value.

Too many business people think like our melon-selling friend. They assume they can make money on any product or service, if they can just sell enough.

As obvious as it may sound, there must be a reasonable and measurable relationship between marketing costs and the expected cash flow and other benefits.

Without that mindset, there is no perceived need to compare costs and benefits. Little or no effort is spent matching expenses and revenues until someone asks why the cash balance is circling the drain or vendors start calling asking where their payment is.

Do you think I might be exaggerating the importance of accountability?

A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas reported that of businesses in their study that filed for bankruptcy, 58% admitted to doing “little to no record keeping.” I assume a business that keeps no records has no ability to compare costs and benefits, let alone manage them.

I encounter this “I’ll make up the difference on volume” mentality with alarming frequency. One of those encounters was the cathartic event that led me to develop my marketing accountability approach.

I had a growing client who had reached $5 million in sales. Unfortunately, losses were growing even faster. They were in desperate straits, virtually out of cash. They thought the answer was to slash expenses and eliminate staff, while continuing to grow sales. In other words, they followed conventional business thinking.

I discovered they were losing money on their largest customer class, where all marketing efforts were directed. Much to their surprise, I did not suggest eliminating a single position. On the contrary, I recommended hiring a marketing person for the profitable customer base. I then directed  procedural improvements to make it easier for those customers to do business with my client. Finally, I suggested an immediate reduction in unprofitable customers.

Even more alarming is how often clients I assume are financially astute fall into the same trap. I worked with a very large company that started a bonus program on their entire product line. The problem was they lost money on some products, primarily because they were underpriced. The bonus structure did not differentiate between products. When sales of already unprofitable products increased, the added cost of bonuses produced a “double whammy” on the bottom line.

An appropriate tactic would have been to reward the sales force for increasing total sales, while also decreasing sales of unprofitable products.

As both examples illustrate, growing sales and increasing profits are not always synonymous. Admittedly, decreasing sales to improve cash flow and profits sounds counter-intuitive to someone lacking a firm grasp of their cost structure.

That is no excuse.

Knowing how to sell something without understanding the economic impact of those sales is a recipe for disaster. Those responsible for a promotion should also be held accountable for its results, good or bad. The ultimate result companies must focus on is how much cash a promotion puts in the bank. It really is that simple!

Does my marketing accountability approach work?

Here is what the client in the first example said, “While many companies are looking to cut back on employees as their first resort to handle cash shortages, CFO America was quick to point out that the right mix of customers was the crucial area of concern. They also were quite helpful in directing us in some marketing improvements that we could make. We are now in the process of implementing changes that are destined to enhance our financial picture.”

I leave you with that quote.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

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