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

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