Resolve to Follow Your Cash Flow

I saw an interesting saying on a sign the other day, “New Year’s Resolutions, they go in one year and out the next.” That is my philosophy as well when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions. Yet, as a business owner, there is one resolution that ought to be made for the coming year: pay attention to your cash flow.

Most small business owners review their Profit and Loss Statement (hereafter P&L) more or less regularly, but often forget that the bottom line of a P&L is an accounting number. That is, the net profit on a P&L does not take into consideration the timing of cash flows. The business owner will look at the P&L and see a great number, then look at their bank account and say, “Where’s the money?” There are a number of reasons why those numbers may be different.

First, take into account the credit you extend to your customers, also known as receivables. If you have booked sales in a given month, but the actual payment is coming 30, 60 or 90 days in the future, your bank account will not reflect that fact. If you picture your sales as coins flowing into a bucket, any sale made on credit actually has an IOU on it instead of a dollar sign.

Secondly, take into account the credit your suppliers and vendors extend to you, also known as payables. For example, If you look at a P&L that contains cash that will not be paid until 30, 60 or 90 days into the future and do not take that into account, your cash on hand will be inflated beyond what it really is. If you spend those committed dollars on something else, such as payroll, and then have a problem with cash inflow, you might not be able to meet those supplier and vendor obligations when they come around.

The best way to avoid this problem is with a Cash Flow document that takes into account the timing of cash flows. The cash flow document will not register sales for a given month, but the actual cash inflow. The document will not register purchases of goods or services, but the actual cash outflow in a given month. The Cash Flow document should also show the recurring monthly cash outflows for payroll, rent and other expenses. By creating a cash flow document that moves into the future at least 6 months, you will be much better able to predict what cash you will need in any given month in order to cover all of the cash outflows.

Resolving to follow your cash flow in 2013 is one resolution that you can’t afford not to make!

Great Customer Service is No Accident

Nothing brings out the bulldog in me more quickly than poor customer service. Recently, the bulldog has had too many occasions to come out! In one case, a company website where I was trying to pay a bill was not working. The site was quite rudimentary for a $6 billion dollar company, with no help function at all. When I called the only number listed on the site, I went through the “pass you on” routine, with lots of hold time during which I was told how important I was to their company.  Finally, I reached the office of the right person to talk to, but she was on vacation. I sincerely hoped that she would make it back from vacation else I might never be able to pay my bill online (or anyone else, for that matter).

In another instance, a well-known delivery company left me a form to sign to have a package delivered on the second attempt. I even called the company to let them know that they could leave the package in the foyer and that I would sign the form. The next day, I found a second form next to the first. When I called this time, the customer service person could not tell me what happened and passed me on to the local terminal.

After a couple of tries, and more messages about how important I was, I reached the terminal manager. The manager explained to me that company regulations did not allow them to leave the package in the foyer of my condo. To put a quick end to the story, about fifteen minutes later when I removed my teeth from his leg (figuratively, of course), he agreed to have the package left as I had requested.

Customer service should be in the DNA of every company, and it does not happen by accident. Based on my experience, both as a customer and as a service provider, here are some guidelines to great customer service:

  1. Every employee of a company is potentially a customer service agent. Even amid the myriad choices in a company’s voice response system many people get through to one employee or another. Therefore, all employees must be trained and ready to handle customer service at a triage level, that is, be able to understand the problem and get the customer to the right place the first time.
  2. There should never be a circumstance where the only person who can solve the problem is not there. When there is a technical problem, multiple experts must be on hand. For a small company, this may mean having experts on call. With today’s technology, reaching a person who can solve a problem should not be a problem.
  3. Customer service representatives must be given reasonable authority to solve a problem. Repeating company policy is not a solution. Nor is saying, “My supervisor is not here right now, he will call you back.”
  4. At the very least, customer service representatives, supervisors and managers must learn how to ask questions and listen, not only to understand the problem, but ascertain what the solution is that the customer wants.

Finally, a suggestion to all companies: please stop using the “your call is important to us” routine!

Tragedy in Connecticut

As a person who grew up in Connecticut, I have been as shocked as others from the horrific event in Newtown, Connecticut. I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the victims and the people of Newtown.

DuPont Analysis: A Practical Example

The previous Blogs in this series introduced you to the DuPont Analysis; this offering will take up a practical example of how a DuPont Analysis can help you understand the state of a business. The subject of the analysis is a small company that manufactures medical devices of different sorts.  This study uses financials from 2011, at which time the company was about a $1.6 million company. To view or download the DuPont pyramid with pertinent numbers go to this  LINK.

I have discovered that people often feel that financial analysis must be quite complex. Well, yes and no. Large companies with complex business structures can be time consuming to analyze. However, in my experience, small business analysis does not need to be complex at all. As a matter of fact, the problems that a small company may be experiencing are not usually very difficult to pinpoint through financial analysis. The example that follows should give you a feel for the relative simplicity of analysis. Of course, if the numbers themselves are off, so will the analysis, but for the sake of example, the numbers presented in this analysis are accurate.

At the top of the pyramid we have a Return on Equity of 25%. In other words, for every $100 of equity invested in the company, there is a return of $25. Now, how are we to interpret that? There are several aspects to consider. If the company was expecting a 15% return, they are doing quite well. On the other hand, if they were expecting 35%, not so well. The previous year Return on Equity was 26%, which gives you one clue, meaning that the current year is down just a bit. However, the current year’s revenues are up by 16%, so there may be something amiss.

In order to understand better we must go deeper into the pyramid. Return on Capital is 23% with leverage at 1.09, meaning that the small load of debt that the company is carrying is actually improving return on equity (23% X 1.09 = 25%). So the problem is not that the company is over leveraged. As we continue down the left hand side, Net Profit Margin at 23%, Operating Profit margin at 30% and Gross Profit Margin at 72% all seem to indicate that the company has cost under control. On the other hand, perhaps the company could boost returns by increasing leverage. Using debt to increase capital for the purpose of increasing investment might be an option.

When we look at the Total Asset Turnover Ratio (also known as Capital Turnover Ratio), we begin to see the tip of an iceberg peaking above the water. The 1.0 indicates that the company is probably not using capital efficiently. At 1.0, the company is turning each dollar of capital over once a year. So, before the company goes looking for increased debt, they must discover why their use of capital is not more efficient.

We can see that Working Capital Turnover is just over 2, which could be an indication of where the rest of the iceberg is hiding. Working Capital is the amount of investment that is used to keep the company operating. It includes inventory, payables and receivables. Another way that this is expressed is in the Cash Cycle, how many days does it take to circulate a dollar in the process of creating a product, collecting that dollar from clients and paying to vendors.

As we can see, in the pyramid, this company’s cash cycle is 613 days long. Of that cycle, inventory is 554 days. This means that  it takes the company 555 days to circulate a dollar in their production and sales process, including both raw materials and parts purchased from vendors, work in process materials that are unfinished products and inventory both on the company’s shelves waiting to go out  or already on a distributor’s shelf waiting to be sold.

The real problem facing the company is that they are tying up capital in their inventory, making it difficult to deploy that capital for other reasons. For example, if their sales were to create a breakthrough, and they required additional manufacturing capacity, it would be difficult to do without taking on additional loans. But, would they want to take on increased debt when their use of that debt is so inefficient.

The real key is how to shorten their production and sales cycle, so as not to tie up large amounts of capital. The solutions could be improved manufacturing methods such as the use of Just in Time, better forecasting the marketplace for demand and paying closer attention to the inventory on distributor’s shelves. The company would do well to fix this problem before it became an even greater challenge, impeding future growth. In addition to fixing the problem, the company needs to monitor the level of both inventory and working capital closely, to guard against future reoccurrence.

As you can see, understanding the way that financial reports give a vision into the state of a company is not all that difficult. Using the tried and true DuPont Method will afford you that vision into the state of your company, and is well worth the time spent to produce the numbers that “don’t lie”!

The DuPont Method: Activity Ratios

In our last Blog entry, we discussed Profitability Ratios, which can show you how well you are doing at making a profit. As a component of the DuPont pyramid, profitability ratios show you how well you are using your capital to generate sales (click here for an image of the pyramid).

The other component of Return on Capital consists of the activity ratios, which measure how well your company is using capital to support operations. It is often said, “It takes money to make money” and the activity ratios illustrate how well your company is using that money to operate. We should mention, first off, that although we use dollars to calculate ratios, often those dollars refer to non-monetary assets, such as equipment, plants and inventory. The dollar amounts may also denote credit and debt, which we will explain a bit later.

The top activity ratio in the DuPont pyramid is total asset turnover ratio. This ratio tells us how many times a business turns a dollar over during the time period studied. Another way to describe this ratio is to say how many times a dollar’s worth of assets creates a dollar’s worth of sales. The ratio is calculated as follows:

Sales
Average Total Assets

Average total assets is determined by dividing the sum of total assets at the beginning of the time period studied with total assets at the end of the period, divided by two. If a company had total average assets of $100,000 and had sales of $200,000, the Total Asset Turnover Ratio would be 2. In other words, each dollar of assets was “turned” 2 times during the time period. The more times that a dollar of assets is turned, the more efficiently you are using your capital.

Fixed Asset Turnover is especially important to those that have large investments in fixed assets such as plants, machines, trucks and other equipment. The Fixed Asset turnover ratio will tell you how well your company is using these assets. It is calculated:

Sales
Average Fixed Assets

If your company has $50,000 in fixed assets and $200,000 in sales, your Fixed Asset ratio would be 4. In other words each dollar of these assets was turned 4 times. The importance of this ratio is not only in how well you use your assets internally, but also in comparison to your competition. If your ratio is 4, and your competition is at 8, then you are much less efficient, and will find it hard to compete. If your competition is that much more efficient, they could lower prices to be more competitive.

The final activity ratio that we will look at is Working Capital Turnover. As you may recall, working capital represents the assets and cash that you need to keep your company operating. In previous Blog entries, I have often explained that a fast-growing company that is not well financed may run of cash and go out of business, despite success at selling a product or service. This ratio is also referred to as the cash cycle, in other words, how long does it take for a dollar to be create a product or service, and then be received back as payment.

Monitoring Working Capital Turnover will help you avoid that pitfall. There are three components to this ratio:

  • Inventory Days: the number of days it would take to sell the inventory that you have on hand at your current sales rate.
  • Receivable Days: the number of days, on average, that it takes you to collect a dollar of receivables. In essence, this ratio lets you know how much “interest free” credit you extend to your clients.
  • Payable Days: The number of days, on average, that you take to pay a dollar of payables, the interest free credit that your vendors extend you.

The ratio is calculated:

Inventory Days X Receivable Days X Payable Days

If for example, your Working Capital ratio was 45, meaning that it takes 45 days to use a dollar to create a product or service (including paying for suppliers) and collect that dollar back in receivables. Many manufacturers and distributors keep too much capital tied up in inventory. Small manufacturers’ that find themselves in a cash crunch need to look at inventory, including Work In Progress, to be sure that they do not have too much on hand.

All businesses need to pay attention to receivables and payables, which are nothing more than credit that businesses extend to each other. Many a small business has gotten in trouble by purchasing goods and services at Net 60 and selling at Net 90. You must keep payables and receivable in balance in order not to have large amounts of cash tied up in this type of “loan” to your customers.

Now that we have covered the basics of a DuPont Analysis, the next Blog posting will be a practical application of a DuPont Analysis.

The DuPont Method: Profitability Ratios

As I first mentioned in this Blog two weeks ago, a good financial analysis can lead you directly to the source of most problems within your business. Yet, many small business owners and entrepreneurs don’t spend a lot of time on financial analysis, or only do so superficially. The series of Blog posts on the DuPont Method of analyzing financial performance will give the small business owner and entrepreneur an excellent set of tools to begin doing financial analysis on their business. For a diagram of the DuPoint Method, click here.

Net profit is a good thing, although it should never be confused with positive cash flow (see the Blog It’s Cash That Counts).  When your net profit is not where you want it to be, digging deeper into the profitability ratios can help you understand why.  Let’s start with Net Profit Margin which shows the percentage of each dollar of sales remaining after all costs and taxes are paid. The Net Profit Margin formula is pretty straightforward:

Net Profit
Sales

The key to remember here is that the Net Profit Margin is an indicator of how your business is doing, financially, but it does not tell us much about the details. Underneath Net profit Margin are two other ratios that can lead you to understand why you have the net profit that you do. On the one hand, you have direct expenses that your business incurs to create the product or service that you sell, and on the other hand you have operating expenses that your company incurs to support the production of that product or service. If either one is out of line your bottom line will be affected.

Examples of direct expense could be the cost of materials in manufacturing, or the wholesale price of a product that a company distributes. For a service company, the cost of consultants or other employees that create and provide the service is often the largest direct expense. Operating expense might be rent, utilities, and internal company services such as human resources or accounting. Now, there are eternal arguments on what constitutes a direct or operating expense; I am not going to take that up here because it is really the topic for a dozen other Blog postings!

When we decompose Net Profit Margin into its’ constituent parts we are able to see two things clearly, how well the business is operating and how much tax is paid to the government:

Operating Profit Margin X Tax Rate

I will leave it to the lawyers and accountants to take up tax rates, but Operating Profit Margin is the key to understanding how profitable your company is. The constituent parts of this ratio will reveal to you how well your company is doing both with direct expense and operating expense with this formula:

Operating Profit Margin = Gross Profit Margin X Operating Expense Margin

Gross Profit Margin represents the percentage of each dollar amount that remains after paying for the direct expenses. Its formula is:

Gross Profit
Sales

Gross Profit Margin represents the percentage of each dollar of sales that remains after paying  direct costs for providing goods and services. This ratio will tell you how efficiently your company is at creating products and/or services. Knowing the history of this ratio will be helpful, but even more important is the comparison to you industry. If your company cannot provide equivalent products and services at a similar cost, you will have difficulty competing in the marketplace.

Operating Expense Ratio (sometimes called Selling, General and Administrative expenses, or SG&A) represents the percentage of sales that go to the general operations of the company. The Operating Expense Ratio is calculated as follows:

SG&A
Sales

In effect, there are two areas of a company that drive profitability, the cost of the product or service that the company sells and the cost of general operations to run the company. If either one is larger than it should be company profitability will suffer. Some companies have problems with one or the other, and at times some companies have trouble with both.

Next week, we will introduce activity ratios, and the week after, have a complete example of a financial analyisis, including an spreadsheet that you will be able to use as a model for you own company.

DuPont Analysis: Capital, Debt and Equity

Capital equals debt plus equity. We hear this phrase, but do we really understand what it means? The best explanation that I ever head was also the simplest. Capital represents all of the assets of the company. Debt and equity represent who owns those assets.

As an example, if a company has $1,000 in capital assets, and $400 in debt, then equity is equal to $600. The bank, or whoever holds the company’s debt, owns 40% of the capital, and the owner(s) of the company own 60%. The proportion of debt and equity to capital is also known as the company’s capital structure.

We should also note that, although we express these relationships in dollars, we may not be talking about cash in the bank, but about other types of assets that could include buildings or other real estate, equipment, inventory as well as other intangible assets, such as good will (which is another topic completely!).

You will recall from last week that return on equity (ROE) was the ratio at the top of the DuPont pyramid (for an image of the pyramid click here), so let’s start there. ROE represents the earnings that a company makes on each dollar of invested equity. In other words, it is a sign of how each dollar of equity is contributing to the bottom line. The calculation for return on equity is:

Net Income
Equity

So, if a company had net income of $12,000 and equity of $100,000, then ROE would be 12% (ratios are usually expressed as a percentage). In other words, for every dollar of equity, the company returned $.12. One way that the ratio can be useful is to compare it to previous years. For example, if the previous years’ ROE was 8%, you could infer progress.

On the other hand, if the previous year was 16%, you could infer the opposite. Another way to use ROE would be to compare it to your industry’s average. If the industry’s average was 20%, for example, your company could be at a competitive disadvantage.

As we work down the DuPont pyramid, we see that ROE can be broken down into two constituent parts, Return on Capital (ROC) and Leverage. ROC is similar to ROE, in that it expresses the return on each dollar of capital in the company. Its’ formula is:

Net Income
Capital

If the same company as above had $150,000 in capital, then the ROC would be 8% or a return of $.08 on each dollar of capital. As in the previous example, you could compare the ROC to previous years, or to company expectations for this year, or you could compare it to the industry ROC. All would be useful in understanding how your company is performing.

At this point you might exclaim, “Wait a minute, how can ROC be less than ROE!” The answer to the question reveals the power of leverage, as well as the usefulness of the DuPont Analysis. To explain the power of leverage, let’s look at the capital structure of the company, that is, the ratio of Capital, Debt and Equity.

Let’s start out by assuming in a first example, that the company actually had no debt. If that was the case, then there would be no difference between the account of capital (debt + equity) and the amount of equity. Therefore ROE would be $12,000/150,000 = 8% and ROC would also be $12,000/$150,000 = 8%.

In reality, we said that the company had $150,000 of capital. If equity is $100,000 then based on the formula capital equals debt plus equity, then the company has $50,000 in debt. Let’s now look at the formula for Leverage:

Capital
Equity

Based on the formula, our example company has leverage of 150,000/100.000 = 150%., or simply expressed, 1.5 When we apply the principles of the DuPont Analysis, this becomes clear.

Ratios at each level of the DuPont Analysis are equal to the ratio above. So, another formula for ROE is:

ROC x Leverage = ROE

In this case 8% (ROC) x 1.5 (Leverage) = 12%. By using debt to increase the amount of invested equity, the company was able to get a better return. If the company had no debt, they actually would not have had as good a net profit.

We can see then that by deconstructing the top ratio, ROE in to ROC and Leverage, we have a better understanding of the company’s financial structure and why they have made the returns that they have. Next week, we will continue to delve deeper into the DuPont pyramid.