Category Archives: Economy

Cash Flow or Bust!

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The recent furore over large companies asking to reschedule debt repayments has once again highlighted the issue of cash flow, and how important it is to even the largest businesses.

The companies are not really bankrupt – in one recent example, a company with debts of an estimated $60 Billion has these amply covered by an asset portfolio which, even in these depressed times, is reckoned to be worth around $100 Billion. Why, then, is it trying to put back the payment of some $3.5 Billion due this month?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t have the free cash available… Business plans were built on an expectation of a certain level of trading – primarily in property sales – which simply dried up with the global economic crisis. Without the sales, the company quickly found itself running short of cash and so unable to service upcoming debt repayments. Unlike governments around the world, of course, a company can’t simply print more money to get it out of a hole (an unwise move for governments that seldom seems to stop them, though!). In the absence of being able to improve its sales to generate cash, it must either borrow more money to repay old debts, or delay the repayment of those debts. And this is what the company in question is now trying to do.

The fact is that many more businesses fail through cash flow problems than for all other reasons combined – an estimated 80% of failures, in fact!

So how do companies get out of looming cash-flow crises?

The answers, of course, vary enormously with the type of business, but a few general items cover the vast majority of situations:

  • Boost sales – this is the most common response, and can be helpful. However one needs to ensure that it is not a case of delaying the inevitable: that sales are not done at such low [special] margins that the business cannot cover even basic costs. Reducing profitability for a short period to get extra sales can help cash flow, but reducing it to a point of significant loss is potential suicide.
  • Manage Inventory– this is a more complicated area and one not fully appreciated by many businesses. One needs to not only reduce inventories to a level appropriate to the business and lead times, but also to manage the ordering process to stop islands of excess building up (look at weekly sales, instead of monthly, and you’d be surprised how the picture can change, for example).  Reducing inventory by 3-4 days is like putting an extra 1% on the bottom line, and lower stock means lower payments which helps your cash flow, so systems should be in place to ensure stock doesn’t age, and that ordering is appropriate to the business run rate.
  • Reduce Receivables – another potentially complex area that is often neglected in the interests of “keeping customers happy.” If you are known as a soft touch, then your customers will stretch your payment terms to pay those that are more demanding (or financially beneficial). Instead of sending a month-end statement and hoping the money will roll in, send it at the beginning of the month and have credit controllers call your customers before mid-month (when they’re quiet anyway) to ask about any possible queries on the statement. Simply removing these queries proactively will reduce your DSO noticeably in most cases. Of course, there are many other techniques, too.
  • Reassign Assets – although this might not help a short-term cash flow issue, managing your assets properly can help prevent cash flow problems. Do you really need to own your Head Office, or is it an ego thing? Do your vehicles, or IT systems, need to be owned or can you lease them? In many cases you’ll find that the benefits of leasing or renting are significant in terms of cash flow and they have tax benefits, too.

All of these issues can play a significant role in helping you manage cash flow better, and there are more, besides, depending on the nature of your business.

The real point, though, is to run your business in such a way as to avoid getting into this sort of trouble in the first place – cash flow problems can literally put even the most profitable company out of business.

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Leadership for the New Business World

The worst economic recession for generations has caused a re-evaluation of business practices in many areas, and a call for greater corporate governance and oversight. Now that we’re officially reaching the end of the recession with many countries in Asia and the whole of the Eurozone, amongst others, officially out of it, it’s also time to look closely at leadership practices in business.

One thing’s certain – many changes need to be made, and recent surveys showing a significant majority of employees are planning to change jobs as soon as hiring picks up make this an urgent necessity if companies are to avoid the upheaval and cost increases associated with high staff turnover.

There are many reasons for this level of unhappiness, among them:

  • Severe stress at work – as companies cut costs and staff, those that remained found their workloads growing, often to a point of near-unsustainability;
  • Severe stress at home – really an extension of the added stress at work, compounded by longer working hours, and often less pay;
  • Lack of appreciation – many, if not most, companies overlooked the stress factors and showed no appreciation for the additional efforts of their staff, a situation worsened by cost-cutting which impacted the staff “welfare” programmes already in place;
  • Do as I say, not as I do – as the recession bit ever deeper, many executives seemed oblivious, continuing with executive perks, parties and benefits even as they were making deep cuts in employment and other areas (look at the scandals surrounding many of the bailed-out businesses for example);
  • Lack of direction – as companies cut, often in several waves, many seemed to have lost their direction. Although, as I pointed out in an earlier article, 93% of companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, the fact is that much of this work was done well into the recession and they were floundering for a good time (only half have a strategy in place for the upturn!).

As a result of these and other issues many have lost faith in their business leadership and this is the reason for the potential dramatic increase in staff turnover.

A recent survey by McKinsey, “Leadership through the crisis and after” points to the way forward. What’s interesting is that the top criteria for leadership during the crisis are the same as those for after it, with only minor changes to relative importance. In essence, leaders are expected to be:

  • Inspiring, creating a vision for all to see and aim for, and doing so convincingly and clearly;
  • Unambiguous, defining expectations and rewarding people appropriately for this;
  • Challenging, through encouraging people to challenge assumptions and take risks;
  • Participative, involving others in the decision-making process;
  • Above Reproach, acting as a role model, mentoring and teaching;

These are very much in line with what’s being said elsewhere and with what executives perceive as the most important criteria for organisations going forward: Leadership, Innovation, Clear Direction and an External (Customer, Supplier, etc.,) Orientation being seen as the top success factors.

It may not be too late. Employment typically lags an upturn by several months, so leaders still have a little time to restore the faith of their workforce. However, they cannot afford to delay any longer to address these issues of concern and need to clearly demonstrate that they understand the way forward for success. Failure to do so will almost certainly cost companies dearly.

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Postscript: Was pointed to an excellent presentation by Dr Tommy Weir on CEO Shift demonstrating how leaders will need to shift their thinking in 5 key areas related to talent. Well worth watching! See it at http://tommyweir.com/Video.aspx

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Will your business survive the upswing?

An article I saw today in SmartPlanet.com confirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time: businesses have over-done the cost-cutting and are poorly placed for the economic upswing.

The fact that leading economists and business leaders around the world have declared an end to the recession is great news. However, even though nobody is talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery’ or quick upswing, the Forbes study of 200 large companies cited in the article showed that leading executives believe the level of cost cutting undertaken will severely restrict their future growth prospects.

As I posted a few weeks ago, short-term business thinking has done enormous damage – and unfortunately this thinking carried through the recession with companies cutting costs as hard and fast as they could with little thought for the future.

While I don’t have the statistics to hand that the Forbes study has, my own observations indicate that perhaps the report is conservative: it showed 22% of executives believing their recruiting/retention policies were not aligned with their strategic goals, while a quarter indicated their training and development programs were similarly misaligned. My observations indicate this figure to be significantly higher – here in the Middle East, training and recruitment all but ground to a complete halt for the first 3 quarters of this year, right at the time when forward-looking companies should have been upskilling and upgrading their staff.

This really points to the core of the issue – the study showing that nearly all (93%) companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, but only 51% admitted to having a plan in place to guide strategy once the economy turns. Granted, the almost all rest said they were working on a plan, but is it not too late?

Certainly it seems that companies around the globe have missed great opportunities to position themselves strongly for the upturn and this is sure to lead to many failures as those that have done so take new leadership positions – as has been the case following every previous recession. The difference this time being, of course, that the recession was far deeper than any we’ve seen in a couple of generations, so the post-recession fall-out is likely to be worse, too.

Perhaps some companies can still save themselves by moving quickly to position for the upswing – taking on top-performing staff, embarking on aggressive training and taking advantage of the opportunities for mergers and acquisitions – but they can’t afford to wait any longer. Investors, too, are likely to severely punish those companies they see as being unprepared for the upswing.

The question now is whether your company will be one of the new leaders or will fail to survive?

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The Perils of ‘Quarteritis’

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE

FT ringing the Closing Bell at the NYSE (Photo credit: Financial Times photos)

It appears that one potentially good thing to emerge from the global economic meltdown is a return to sensible business planning and cycles.

One of the scourges of many businesses – this started in the US and spread out from there – is ‘Quarteritis.’ Not strictly speaking a disease, but something that has probably resulted in a lot more suffering than most diseases, ‘Quarteritis’ is about an overarching focus on ensuring each quarter’s financial results are significantly better than those of the quarters that went before.

While we all want to be part of, and invest in, businesses that have good growth, the fact is that business, like most things in life, moves in cycles and the best long-term businesses are those that plan for the long-term, not just the next quarter. A short-term focus leads to rash decisions, decisions that might be good to “save this quarter” but disastrous in the medium term.

To illustrate: in the IT industry two popular results of this are distributors being forced to take huge amounts of excess inventory in a quarter (“channel stuffing”), or new distributors/resellers appointed suddenly to get a new stock order into the current cycle.

Both of these have similar results over succeeding quarters – reduced profitability for all concerned, stretched payment terms, credit limit issues meaning needed products cannot be ordered and, potentially, delays in releasing new products while excess inventory is moved out of the channel.

By taking the longer-term approach to ensuring that all parties in the channel can grow profitably, vendors may not grow as quickly in the short-term but will ensure happier customers – at all levels in the supply chain – and so more loyalty and a more sustainable growth well into the future.

Wasn’t it this short-term focus – albeit in the financial markets this time – that ultimately caused the current crash? Executives and others were induced by means of massive bonuses to find ways to grow well above the market average and so started giving mortgages to those that could never afford them, and repackaging these as “high quality” loans. Frankly, this would have been considered fraudulent in many places – it’s certainly ethically very bad anywhere – and it was only a matter of time before implosion happened.

However, those involved had already taken their money and run… Isn’t it this short-term bonus-driven culture that’s behind the trend to shorter and shorter tenure by CEOs of public companies? Can CEOs really be effective when they’re only in place for a few years?

It’s time we started looking at the longer term sustainability of business, and rewarding people in ways that encourage this and I, for one, am pleased to see a number of governments leaning in this direction. Authorities and shareholders should claw back bonuses paid for fraudulent practice, especially when taxpayers have to bail out the companies as a result. CEOs, and other officers, should be rewarded, and lauded, for long tenure and sustained growth.

Business needs to get back to a solid footing and good practice – we should support those that are trying to move in this direction.

Amazon

Amazon (Photo credit: topgold)

This blog piece was first published in Sep 2009, so it’s good to see that there’s growing acceptance of the need to look longer-term as this video from INSEAD clearly points out – Prof. Javier Gimeno talking about how “short-termism” undermines a company’s long-term competitiveness.