Finance Does Not Live In Isolation

Finance does not live in isolation, an interesting concept. There are two important ramifications to that concept, first, you cannot look at your company’s numbers just for now, or just for this year. As a matter of fact, not even just for this year and last (unless, of course, you just started last year). Rather, you need to look back at least three years. You do so in order to see the trend lines of how you arrived where you are now. Are you improving or declining? If for example, your cash cycle is 145 days, what was it three years ago, better or worse? If better, work to understand what you have done right. If worse, dig down to find out what is going wrong.

The second ramification of the opening statement above is a question: what is your competition or industry doing? You need to know how you compare to your competition, whether you are a local or national player, dig out information about the rest of the industry. From the example above, what if the industries cash cycle average is 95 days? Can you see how you may have trouble competing in an industry that is far more efficient than you in keeping cash flowing through your organization? A longer cash cycle will mean that you must tie up more cash in working capital, rather than investing in other ways to improve business.

There are any number of online researchers that can provide you with industry information for you to use in viewing how your business stacks up against the competition. I prefer Bizminer, an online research company, because they break down their research in ways that are very useful for a small business. For example, you can do research on a statewide basis, and many of their reports are narrowed down to a small area, such as a county. In addition, their reports are broken out into different revenue categories, allowing you to narrow down your comparative information to your industry sector.

A last word, when comparing your company to your industry, do the comparison over the same timeframe that you are using for your company review. That is, if you are going back three years to see what your trends are, it is important to look at industry trends for the same period, to see if you are trending in the same way. This can give you another important clue on how your financial picture is shaping up.

Never leave your numbers all by themselves!

Be Thankful for What We Have

Several days ago, my wife was sworn in as an U.S. citizen in a ceremony in Chicago. Having dealt with the government bureaucracy throughout, we did not have high hopes for the occasion, but were pleasantly surprised by the ceremony that took place. Along with the 140 other new citizens and several hundred friends and families, we sang the national anthem and recited the pledge of allegiance. We watched a video about immigrants and also a music video with the song, “Proud to be an American”. The new citizens recited the oath to their new country.

For me, the highpoint of the ceremony was when the new citizens came forward to receive their certificate of naturalization. Of course, this is the digital age, so there were several new citizens taking selfie-videos of themselves receiving the certificate.

The person that impressed me the most was a gentleman in his 60’s, who really looked the part of an immigrant; neatly dressed but somewhat grizzled, with the rough hands of one who had done manual labor for many years. When he received his certificate, he held it aloft in both hands as high as he could reach to show it to friends and family across the room, and then began jumping up and down in a dance of sheer joy, a wide smile on his face. This was an important moment in this man’s life!

Of course, bureaucracy was on display that day as well. It took longer to check in the 141 prospective citizens than the actual ceremony. The Bulldog noted several quick changes in process that could have cut the time in less than half, but I kept my peace that day.

Afterwards, my wife told me about a comment that one of the bureaucrats made during the checking in lineup. Seeing the long line waiting to check in, she asked how many were there. When she was told that it was 141, she said, “Wow, why so many? Are they giving something away for free? I want some!” My wife had the right thought, but she did not verbalize at the time. I will now, “Ma’am, you’ve already got it, and you don’t even know!”

What the bureaucrat had was the liberty and blessings of being an American citizen. Unfortunately, at least at that moment, she seemed to have forgotten that fact. Many do, including myself from time to time. The freedom to live as I would like, to be an entrepreneur and build a business that supports my family and my community. The freedom to express myself and my ideas. We often take these things for granted, and often it is immigrants who remind about these freedoms.

To quote Churchill, “”Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (From a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).


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: 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

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

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:


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: The Numbers Don’t Lie

Over the years that I have been working with small businesses and entrepreneurs, I have discovered that there is no better way to judge the health of your company than through financial analysis. As the title of this blog states, the numbers don’t lie. A good financial analysis can lead you directly to the source of any 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.

In my experience, one of the best ways to analyze you business’ financials is based on a method developed early in the 20th century, the DuPont Method of ratio analysis. The method was created by F Donaldson Brown, an employee of the DuPont Company, as a way to manage General Motors . The DuPont Method was considered the standard until the 70’s, although I still find it a very useful tool.

The DuPont Method introduces a pyramid of ratios with Return on Equity at the apex (click here to download a file). At each level of the pyramid, the method deconstructs ratios into their constituent parts. For example, Return on Equity is composed of Return on Capital multiplied by Leverage. Return on Capital and Leverage are then decomposed into their constituent parts and so on.

The key highlight on financial ratio analysis is to see how financial operations drive value. Some finance people refer to this model as the value drivers model; others, as the financial levers model. The former see value drivers as the explanation of how an entity makes money and increases its value, hence the term “value driver.” The latter view financial ratio analysis as the method for identifying the triggers of financial results, hence the term “financial levers.”

There are three different types of ratios within a DuPont analysis: profitability ratios, activity ratios and solvency ratios. Profitability ratios analyze whether or not you are making money, and why. The question why is the most important part of that inquiry. Many are the occasions when an entrepreneur or small business owner will say to me, “According to my Profit and Loss statement, I am making money. Why is my bank account empty?” Profitability ratios will help to answer that question.

Activity ratios will help you understand how efficiently your business is operating. For example, if your business turns over its capital 3 times a year, but your competition does so 5 times a year, you could be at a competitive disadvantage. In other words you will find it harder to compete because the competition used its capital more efficiently.

Finally, solvency ratios will tell you whether or not you have the financial wherewithal to stay in business. There are many businesses that are the victim of their own success. A business that has a great product or service that others want to buy may expand so rapidly that they don’t have the capital resources (money) to keep up with the expansion. Solvency ratios will help you understand where you are in terms of capital resources and how fast you can grow.

So, tune in for the next three weeks as we take on the DuPont Method.

i Project Management Accounting, Callahan, Stetz & Brooks, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken New Jersey, 2007
ii Ibid.

It’s Cash That Counts

Next week I will begin a series about a financial anlysis tool known as the Dupont Analysis. To set the foundation, I am repeating this Blog about cashflow, because it introduces the capital blance sheet, which is integral to a Dupont Analysis.

I was working with an entrepreneur in startup mode, and was once again reminded of the difference between profits and cash. Particularly in startups, but also in more mature companies that achieve a breakthrough of some sort, mistaking profits reported on an income and expense statement with cash in the bank could be a crucial error. How do people make this mistake?

They do so by not taking into account the timing of cash flows. Remember, an income and expense sheet is reporting sales and expenses as they are booked for accounting reasons, but the cash flows that accompany the sales often do not happen at the same time.

For example, unless they are in retail, most companies do work on a credit basis (when retail accepts a credit card payment, they deposit slips like cash, so there is no extended term). You may not think about that way, but terms like Net 30 or Net 60 are nothing more than extending credit to your clients. In other words, your company is financing your customers’ purchases. The longer that it takes to be paid by your customer, the larger the debt that you finance.

Every company has a cash cycle, and depending on the business that you are in, there are more or less components to that cash cycle. Let’s take a company that distributes materials to other businesses. Here is a view of their cash cycle:

1. Purchase materials on credit terms (Net 30, 60, etc.) from suppliers
2. Hold in inventory
3.Repackage and sell to customers on credit terms (Net, 30, 60, etc)
4. Paid by customers
5. Pay suppliers

Now, this is a simplified cash cycle, but you get the idea. Obviously, if your customers are slow to pay you and you must pay your suppliers, you could be in for a shortfall of cash. Actually, one of the greatest risks to a startup or small company that is trying to grow is running out of cash while the business is expanding quickly. We should also note that there are other expenses (salaries, benefits, office space or utilities) that must be paid even if your customers are not quick paying you.

That brings us to the concept of Working Capital. Working Capital is the amount of cash that your company needs to have available in order to keep the cash cycle going or better put, to keep the company going. Working Capital is usually tracked in a type of spreadsheet known as a Capital Balance Sheet (which is a bit different than a Balance Sheet).

In a regular balance sheet, capital is kept above and debt below. In a capital balance sheet, a certain portion of debt is brought above. Here is the outline of a how to calculate Working Capital in a simple capital balance sheet:

Receivables (what your customers owe you)
+ Inventory
+ Current Assets
– Payables (what you owe your suppliers)
= Working Capital

Working capital represents the cash that a company needs to keep on hand to operate with receivables, inventory and payables. Receivables represent the cash that you have invested in materials and financing your clients. Payables are what your suppliers have invested in your company.

If the company sells $10,000 worth of materials in a month, 50% at Net 30 and 50% at Net 60, it means that they will not collect any cash for at least 30 days (if the customer pays on time!), and some of it not for 60. Even so, after expenses they might show a net profit of $1,500. There’s the rub, the net profit is not cash in the bank! If the company has bills to pay this month (or salaries) they must use the cash flow from previous sales to pay.

A startup company, in particular, will have problems if as they grow they do not have adequate cash in the bank to pay for expenses while waiting for cash to flow from sales. Often, a portion of the original investment capital in a new company is put aside for Working Capital; other means of having working capital at the ready could include a line of credit.

This is precisely what is meant by being adequately capitalized. Working with investors, bankers and others, the company’s executives must ensure that they have the cash in the bank to operate or they will literally be “out of business”!

Customer Service Personified

Last Saturday, my wife and I were on Navy Pier waiting for the fireworks when I ran into my good friend Joseph, who I believe to be the personification of Customer Service. The lessons he teaches by his actions are worth reviewing, so here is a repeat of that Blog from last year.

This past week, I took my wife for lunch at the Union League Club in Chicago. While I was there, I saw my good friend Joseph. Actually, he saw me first, as Joseph is a member of the wait staff at the club. By the time I had my soup from the buffet Joseph had placed my favorite soft drink at a table in the corner that he knew I preferred. As I approached, he caught my eye, flashed his signature smile and held out his hand to greet me, saying as he always does, “It’s good to see you!” My wife shares my opinion that Joseph personifies customer service.

Now, the award winning Union League Club in Chicago has many outstanding employees who give great service all the time so that it is easy to say that the club administration is doing all the right things to encourage their employees. Many of their employees have been on staff for years, indicating that they enjoy working at the club, and it shows! All the same, there is something special about Joseph; you can’t just teach somebody to be the way he is, although others could learn from his example. After thinking it over for a while, I concluded that there are four qualities that Joseph personifies: pride of ownership, personal warmth, attention to detail and enthusiasm.

Pride of ownership: It does not matter in which of the clubs restaurants you see Joseph; he always acts as if he owns the place. I mean this in a good sense, that he wants people to enjoy his restaurant and he will do everything possible to see that you do.

Personal Warmth: I believe that there are few people who can go to one of the club’s restaurants more than a couple of times that don’t know Joseph and consider him a friend. He consciously works at getting to know you and what you like. His efforts include more than just food and drink; in his unobtrusive way, Joseph gets to know about you as a person and remembers what he learns.

Attention to Detail: Joseph is always moving, seeing what is going on and who needs something. He is able to anticipate what you need next almost before you know it. As I mentioned above, my favorite soft drink will appear on the table before I get there with my food. Grab a dessert and he will be there with a fork before you sit down.

Enthusiasm: It is obvious that Joseph loves what he does. His underlying enthusiasm for his work shines through as he surveys the room and does whatever needs to be done. At the same time, Joseph has a great sense of timing, knowing how to take care of something without becoming the focus.

Recently, I took my granddaughters to the club for lunch for the first time. They were in Chicago, and I felt were ready for the experience. I was sorry that Joseph was not there that day, as I had prepared them in advance to watch him as an example of how to approach life with a great attitude and the spirit of great customer service that anyone in business should possess.