Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cash Matters

This is the fourth blog post regarding the 10 Things I Accidentally Learned on the Path to Growth and is a topic many of us as small business owners don’t deal with well at all. After 25 years in this business, it has become more apparent than ever that access to cash is a key to success. I hear and see so many small businesses strapped by a lack of cash resources. They may even be doing well from a sales perspective, but because of poor cash management they have totally limited their options and ultimately stymied their ability to grow. Cash is king and we must never forget that reality.

A strong balance sheet goes a long way during tough times
One of the common mistakes I see owners make is to rob their companies of all the cash they accumulate as profits during the year. That assumes that they are generating a profit, but for any company to survive that has to be one of the outcomes of doing business. But removing all the cash leaves the company vulnerable in the event of tough economic conditions, or even a temporary downturn. That is particularly true if you don’t have a bank credit line in place. There are varying opinions on how much equity to leave in a business – but my advice is to be conservative and leave as much in as you possibly can. Now if you have to take all you earn just to survive each year – you really don’t have a business – just a job that is meeting your basic needs. A true business will generate cash and I suggest you leave as much as possible inside the company until you need it – for an M&A or tough times.

Risk is part of the equation
Spending cash on growing the business is risky. There are no guarantees from my experience. You can make some bets that are more likely to succeed than others, but there is an element of risk in every growth decision. So if you can’t afford to lose the cash you are spending – don’t do it. I have lost money when I thought it was a sure thing, and had success when I expected less than stellar results. If you can’t stomach the risk – don’t spend the cash. But you won’t grow if you don’t take calculated risk. It is part of the equation. And some people just don’t deal with it well at all. Know your risk tolerance, and that of your spouse, before you go too far.

Profit is not bad – you are not taking advantage of your customer
I struggled with this reality for a very long time. My focus was on providing the maximum value as long as I didn’t lose too much money doing it. Profit was almost a bad word. Could I cut the price another point or two so they get a really good deal. Here is the reality – a failure in your business is not in the best interest of your customer. If you ask them if they prefer to save a few dollars and buy from you driving you out of business, or pay a little more to have a stable business partner, they will take the latter every time. No one wants to have to change IT providers because they saved a few bucks. Profit has to be part of the equation. In fact – you should start there – with the amount of profit dollars you want or need to clear and work backward to determine sales, margin and expense lines on your P&L to make sure you end up making money.

Profit should not be a mistake
Too often we just take the leftovers when it comes to profit. It is more of a hope and prayer than a strategy and planned outcome. That is the wrong way to run your company. You need to plan for it, expect it, and make sure you achieve it. When you do it should be celebrated through rewarding your team with some of the bounty. Profit doesn’t happen by accident. It requires planning and focus to achieve it every year!

Paying tax is a good thing
If you had told me 10 years ago I would write a blog with this sub heading I would have called you crazy. I ran my company for a long time with a goal of zero tax liability. Just break even so I didn’t have to pay the government any taxes. Now don’t get me wrong – I hate paying tax – but I have come to appreciate the fact that only profitable and growing companies are in a position to pay tax. And if you want to grow – continually producing a P&L with no profit is a limiting factor. Bankers are not crazy about lending money to non-profitable companies. There is no leverage to be had with zero as the result of a year’s work. We have to be wise in how we manage our income, but tax is not an evil thing. We need to make money which means we will pay taxes. That is just as reliable as the fact that we will all die someday.

Bankers are your friend
So many partners think of bankers as an adversarial relationship. I often hear the comment that “the bank won’t loan me any money when I need it”. That is exactly true. They are not looking for companies that are barely holding on by a thread and in need of a cash infusion. Banks loan money to companies that have a track record showing they will be able to pay them back. They aren’t looking for long shots or hopeful returns. You have to build a relationship and a track record if you want to borrow money for growth. Invest the time – build the relationship – give them access to your plans and numbers. They are critical for growth.

Here are some other ideas around getting cash in order.
• Conserve cash – don’t spend it all
• Get your bank credit lines expanded
• Update your vendor and distributor credit lines
• Clean up your financial house
• Evaluate your staff and trim unnecessary
• Evaluate all expenses and make cost cuts
• Talk with your team so they understand why taking care of cash and profits matter to them
• Create profit sharing options to drive the team to join the chase to generate cash

Cash does matter greatly if you want to grow. In fact, I will boldly say you won’t grow without it. Some are able to have some short term success without generating regular profits and cash – but it is unsustainable and won’t scale. The more you want to grow – the more cash you will need. And the sad reality is that many don’t learn that lesson until they need it for a deal or some other great opportunity and have to pass because they don’t have any. It isn’t rocket science. Cash matters – and it doesn’t come accidentally. Plan to generate cash and then manage it well. It is a critical growth factor – cash is truly king!

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