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Delivering Consistent Cash Flow

  
  
  

For independent retailers, financial health requires greater financial skill, attention to detail and discipline.

I was recently invited to take part in a roundtable discussion with a number of independent retailers. They were from different parts of the country, and collectively they represented a wide range of product categories. But they all had one thing in common: their number-one concern was cash flow.

Over the past several years, cash flow has been a challenge for almost every independent retailer. Many found that their financial health was stretched to the breaking point. With additional capital unavailable, they had to make significant cuts in expenses and unprecedented reductions in inventory levels. For most, these sources of cash have been pretty much exhausted. Now, independent retailers must be able to maintain positive cash flow given their current revenues and expense structures. In the near term, the customer cannot be counted on alone to return independent retailers to better financial health.

The return to financial health requires a commitment to fundamental business discipline, while consistently delivering a bottom-line cash flow number, each and every month. This requires an attention to business detail which many independent retailers are far from accustomed to. From my experience, even before this recession set in, only a small percentage of entrepreneurial retailers paid enough attention to cash flow planning. For most, their attention didn’t go beyond keeping a close eye on their bank balance. That wasn’t enough when times were better, and it’s certainly not enough now.

Right now, cash flow planning is more important than ever. A cash flow plan that projects all of the transactions that will impact cash each month for the next six to twelve months enables you to set up benchmarks and spot potential trouble before it is upon you. Projecting cash flow gives you the opportunity to develop the widest array of options to deal with cash shortfalls. As you plan each month, at least six to twelve months forward, the planned cash balance at the end of each month is the key, for that enables you to spot where the pinch points might be.

Once you’ve built a cash flow plan, deliver on the number you establish. The imperative point is to bring in the end-of-month cash flow target each and every month, regardless of top-line results. When revenues are coming in below plan, or margins are not up to budget, expenses must be cut immediately. Future revenue and margin dollar projections must be brought down, as well as expense budgets, until whatever marketing initiatives that have been put in place take hold. The number must be delivered.

If, on the other hand, expenses are running above budget, they must immediately be brought back in line. Nothing is immune. Expenses that were once thought of as fixed must be reworked, renegotiated or restructured until they are variable. The bottom-line cash flow number must be met, each and every month, without fail.

Here are a few more thoughts on putting your cash flow plan to work:

  • At the end of each month, as you post the actual results and calculate your variances, be prepared initially for a few surprises. You’re likely to see some variances that make you stop and wonder. Maybe payroll ran a little out of control. Perhaps something was posted into the wrong account in error. Track down the causes of any significant variances.
  • Close the operational leaks and bookkeeping idiosyncrasies that you find. It may be that the attention to detail that you’ve required of your team wasn’t quite sharp enough. You may find that there are a few too many corners being cut. You may find that there isn’t a clear understanding of how each transaction should hit the General Ledger.
  • A cash flow plan is a dynamic, living document and must be constantly revised to reflect the most current information. Take what you’ve learned and adjust the plans for the future months. Perhaps in hindsight the original plan didn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe experience has demonstrated that the plan wasn’t as detailed as it needed to be.
  • Each month, after you’ve updated the plan, take the actual ending cash balance and roll it forward into the future months, and review each future month’s projected ending cash balance. This month’s variance between your planned and actual ending cash balance may not have an immediate impact on your cash flow, but when you roll it forward it may project your cash into the red several months from now! And the time to learn about it is now, not several months from now!

In this economic environment, there’s very little margin for error. Sales increases are hard to come by, margins are under continual pressure, and credit is tight. Cash is King. If you show me an entrepreneurial retailer that takes the time to plan and who puts that plan to work, I’ll show you a successful retailer. That’s true now, more than ever.

Independent retailing in the next three to five years is going to require much greater financial skill and discipline. Put simply, independent retailers must become adept at delivering a number; converting revenues, whatever they might be, into consistent bottom line cash flow.

In the end it’s about cash flow. With positive cash flow, there is the promise of tomorrow and beyond. Without positive cash flow, there’s only an abyss.

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