Fast growing businesses beware: It can all go wrong

Fast growing businesses beware: It can all go wrong

Fundamentally, there is only one reason that businesses go broke – they run out of cash.

So how do businesses (even listed ones) run out of cash and what can you do to make sure it doesn’t happen in your business?

There are three basic reasons business run out of cash

1. They are not profitable in the first place

They don’t have a cash flow problem; they’ve got a profitability problem. In other words, the lack of cash flow is a symptom of poor profitability (or even losses). If you have a profitability problem, unless you fix your business model and restore profitability, you’ll never get cash flow under control.

2. The second is that they use short-term working capital to fund the acquisition of long term assets

In other words, they use their working capital (short term funding) to purchase plant and equipment or property (long term assets). If your business is growing rapidly, this is a big no, no. You’ll need that working capital to fund your growth, particularly larger inventory holdings.

In most cases this issue can be fixed by sale and lease back of the assets (assuming funding is available). But the key is never to use your working capital to acquire long term assets unless you’re absolutely sure you have significant excess and know that you won’t need it in the near future.

3. The third reason that businesses run out of cash is that they grow too fast

Yes, businesses can grow too fast and it is a situation we see all too often. Make no mistake, a fast growing business is potentially in danger territory, particularly if it doesn’t have access to an endless supply of funds – and which businesses have that luxury?

For many fast growing businesses, this means holding more and more inventory. As the business (and sales) grows, more of the profits are required to be used to invest in more and more inventory to stock more and more stores. If you’re in a business where margins are tight – whammo! – you have lower profits to fund ever increasing inventory. Should inventory turnover slow you could also be in serious trouble.

If you also happen to have a business where you give credit terms to your customers, then not only do you have a build-up of inventory, but you also have a build-up of debtors. These have to be funded from somewhere. Unless the business is highly profitable, the profit alone may not be enough to fund that growth. This invariably means going to your friendly banker but at some point there will be a limit to which banks will be prepared to fund your growth.

How to avoid running into a cash flow problem?

There are three key measures every business should be checking on a regular basis, but particularly fast growing businesses, to make sure that they have a sound cash position. If you don’t currently know these you’re flying blind. Get a new accounts team!

Your Free Cash Flow
Your Free Cash Flow (or available cash) is simply that. It is the amount of cash you have left out of profit after funding the increase in size of your business. If you’re not measuring and monitoring this then you’re flying blind.

Your Working Capital Burn Rate
This is simply the amount of working capital (debtors plus stock less creditors) as a percentage of sales. If this is (say) 25%, then you know that for every additional $1m in sales, you’re going to need $250k in working capital to fund that growth.

Your Sustainable Growth Rate
This is simply the rate of growth the company can sustain without adversely affecting its proportion of debt to equity funding. It’s called “sustainable growth rate” for a reason.

There is a saying that goes ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity but cash flow is reality.’ We have worked with countless high growth businesses who have been stunned to learn that their financial position is unsound despite their growing sales.

It might sound crazy but at times it is essential to reign in your growth to ensure a sustainable journey in the long run. It might be painful to turn down opportunities at the time but trust me, you will be thankful when you come out with a sound business in the end.