Financial management naturally tends to slip down the list of priorities for business owners when the economy is booming, finance is cheap and clients are plentiful. But when the tide turns, your ability to control your finances, especially your cash flow, becomes probably the most important survival tool available to the entrepreneur.
Veroshen Naidoo, area manager at Business Partners Limited, suggests ten ways for business owners to improve their finances during a downturn:
1. Consolidate your debt
It is easy for business owners to pile up debt during the good times – a credit card or two, a property bond, machines and vehicles bought with various asset-finance loans, generous lines of credit at suppliers and a ballooning bank overdraft. All of this can become crippling when the crunch comes, and one way to survive is to look for a financier that can consolidate it all into one loan with a long enough term to make the instalment affordable. You’ll probably end up paying more in interest, but at least you can survive the dip.
2. Take a panga to your expenses
The expenses in a business coming out of a boom time can always be slashed without necessarily hurting its core health, and when you think you cannot possibly cut anymore, go through them once again to find ways of doing more with less. Incentivise productivity and cost reduction among your staff, and invest in cost-saving systems such as GPS devices for your vehicles or insulation to bring down your electricity bill.
3. Monitor your debtors
The worst time for bad debt is during a downturn because you need every cent to keep afloat, yet the likelihood that your debtors might default is so much higher, because their businesses are also struggling. Focus on collections, rethink your credit policy and tighten your vetting processes before granting any more credit.
4. Relook your business plan
A business plan compiled in the fat years is of little use during a downturn. Often, survival depends on much more than tweaking the projected sales figures, but rather requires a radical rethink of your strategy. Discard the old plan and start working on a new one from scratch.
5. Negotiate with your financiers
As awkward as it is, start communicating early and frankly with your financiers about your situation. They know that nearly all of their clients are struggling. When you show them that you are one of their clients who is proactively making plans to survive, the chances are better that they will support a rescue effort, for example through a loan-repayment moratorium or even through an extension of your overdraft.
6. Manage minutely
A downturn requires intense hands-on management, with great attention to detail, simply because there is no room for the kind of errors that can slip in when you step away and manage your team with a light touch, as you can during boom times. Even if you are consistently a hands-on kind of manager, double down on it during the darkest days.
7. Negotiate with your suppliers
Even though your suppliers are very likely, just like you, to become wary of extending credit terms during hard times for fear of bad debt, there is still a chance that they might be willing to accommodate their best clients.
8. Look towards your neighbours
When work dries up and your team and machines stand idle it might be worth looking in places that you wouldn’t normally consider. The more established firms in your industry may well be over-committed and would happily pass over-flow work on to you, or they might find it convenient to outsource a certain type of smaller client to you.
9. Try support programmes
If you haven’t tried government incentive schemes and support programmes yet, now is the time. Don’t expect a flock of angels that will swoop to your rescue. Government programmes work slowly, but it might just be the thing that gets your business going again when the economy picks up one day.
10. Keep looking for business opportunities
Some of the best business opportunities arise during downturns. Competitors go bust, leaving huge gaps in the market. Consumers look for alternatives and are often more open to break their loyalty to their usual suppliers and service providers. The pressure of the downturn on your peers may open them up to the idea of a merger which can ensure the survival of both businesses, and take you to the next level even before the economy picks up again, as it always will.