A Living, Breathing Thing; Cash Flow Management

That’s actually the way he put it to me. Many years ago, the CEO of a company that had been in deep financial trouble and had clawed its way out said, apparently in frustration with my failure to understand his concept, “You don’t understand, the cash flow is a living, breathing thing.”

 Now I know he was right. You don’t just create a spread sheet and manage cash. Especially in conditions of seasonality or fast growth you massage, tweak, manipulate and coerce it. You plead with it and threaten it. You spend too much time trying to get the numbers just right even though you know they will be different the next day.
Like a complex computer program with some interesting bugs, cash flows sometimes seem to have personalities. Once you learn about the dynamics of that personality, you’ll be an effective cash manager.
In the beginning, most small business owners, be they retail or brands, manage their cash flow out of their back pocket. They know their bank balance and checks outstanding. They understand what bills have to be paid when and can estimate their cash receipts pretty closely. When the numbers are small, sales steady, and the business relatively simple, this works fine.
But things change with seasonality and growth. Other people are involved in decisions about receipts and disbursements. The sheer number of factors means keeping it in your head gradually, almost imperceptibly, becomes impossible. A business owner’s tendency not to share critical financial information with others can exacerbate the situation.
If you now recognize that you’ve gotten to the point where you have to take a little more formal and proactive approach to cash management, what should you do?
First, let’s talk about what we mean by cash flow. We don’t mean the traditional financial analyst’s definition of net income plus non cash expenses like depreciation. Regardless of adjustment for traditional non cash items, the accounting measurement of net income has very little to do with cash flow as I’ll explain below. You can have income and no cash. Not all that unusual a situation in the snowboard industry I’ve noticed.
Instead, look at your balance sheet. The assets are what you have and the liabilities are what you owe. The balance sheet is calculated at a particular point in time. Think of your balance sheet as a telephone pole on your street (bear with me on this analogy for a minute). Down the street is another telephone pole. It’s your balance in, say, two months. There’s a bunch of wires strung between them. Instead of electric current, the wires, in this analogy, carry the transactions that result in the changes from the balance of the first telephone pole to the second. Your cash flow is like a voltmeter. It measures the current and changes in the current in the wire.
How could you have lots of income and no cash? Let’s say that in the two months between telephone poles one and two you sell $300,000 dollars of merchandise. But the terms under which it is sold don’t require payment for 90 days. Two months later, your accounting based income statement will show sales of $300,000 and profit of whatever your margin after expenses is. But you won’t have a cent in a bank from those sales. Income, but no cash flow. Retailers, of course, are fortunate in not having to worry about that exact scenario since they don’t typically sell on terms, but it’s still important to understand the principal.
Now of course if you’ve sold $300,000 in the previous two months under the same terms with the same expense structure, then you could expect to collect that money in the current two month period. So you would have cash flow. And as long as your sales and expenses were the same from months to month, your net cash flow would basically equal your accounting income.
I guess everybody who has the same sales and expenses each month of the year can stop reading now. But in case your business isn’t quite so consistent, let’s talk about a simple way to begin to forecast your cash flow and develop good instincts about it.
First, let’s look at our two telephone poles. In the two months between one pole (balance sheet) and the other, the dollar amounts of what you own and what’s owed you will change. The net change in those amounts represents the result of all the transactions that occurred during that period of time. For example, let’s look at the inventory number on the two balance sheets. Say that at the first balance sheet date, inventory is $500,000 and at the second it’s $600,000.
It probably didn’t make that jump in one mighty leap. Product came and product went with the result being an inventory level of $600,000 at the date represented by the second telephone pole. At different times in the period, inventory may have been well over or under either of those numbers. But at the end of the day, you know you’ve got an extra $100,000 tied up in inventory. So you’ve used an additional $100,000 over that period to buy stuff. Had inventory gone down during that period, you would have a source of cash because less was tied up in inventory. That is, you would have converted inventory into cash.
Now, let’s look down at the bottom of the telephone poles in the what you owe section (liabilities) At the first telephone pole you owe the bank, say, $100,000 and at the second, $150,000. If you owe more, than you’ve taken in more money to work with. You’ve increased your cash by $50,000. If bank borrowings had gone down $50,000 instead of up, you would have decreased your cash position by $50,000, though you might be sleeping better at night because you owed the bank less.
You can see that the “what you own” (asset) accounts at the top of the telephone pole work exactly the reverse of the “what you owe” (liability) accounts at the bottom. Increase the asset accounts and you tie up cash. Increase a liability and you create cash to work with.
Decrease an asset and you free up cash. Decreasing a liability is a use of cash.
Probably, I’ve been doing this too long because otherwise I wouldn’t say that there’s a certain elegance in how the various accounts all work together, each related but at the same time independent of the other. Study a couple of balance sheets and think about how the accounts changed. When you begin to have some intuitive comfort with these relationships, you’re well on your way to good cash measurement and management.
To be really on top of things, you still need your voltmeter to measure the flow of current across the wires and the changes. Do it on a computer or a piece of paper. Here’s the format I recommend and use myself in various business situations. There’s no magic to the categories. Change them to reflect your business situation.
                                                            Jan.      Feb.     Mar       Etc.
Beginning Cash Balance
Sources of Cash
            Cash sales
            Collection of receivables
            Line of credit borrowing
            Interest income
Total Sources of Cash
Total Cash Available
Uses of Cash
            Product purchases
            Repayment of bank line
Total Uses of Cash
Ending Cash Balance
The beginning cash balance is whatever is in your checking account plus (if you’re a larger company) any liquid investments you may have. The ending cash balance each month becomes the beginning cash balance for the next period. Depending on how quickly your situation is changing, your estimate of expenses can usually be based on your historical experience. But remember that just because you get your phone bill in July doesn’t mean you pay it that month. Typical many of your operating expenses will be paid in the month following receipts, and your cash flow has to take this into account.
If you’re a retailer, a lot of your product purchases are paid for well after the product is received, and the cash flow has to reflect that.
If you already have a budget and are creating and tracking it on a spreadsheet, use the program to adjust your budget to manage the differences between the budget and cash. If you don’t have to pay for your product for 90 days, reflect product costs from August as a cash expense in November.
Don’t get too caught up in the process of creating a perfect model. Get it done and work with it. Modify it as you learn more. Look at your projections versus what actually happens. Creating the model isn’t really where you get the benefit. Using it and watching the variables change with each other is. It’s a lot like learning a language. You only get better with practice and as soon as you stop speaking it, you start to lose it.
Print it out and hang it on your wall. As changes occur, use a pencil to change entries. Consider the impact of each change on future months. When there are so many pencil marks that you no longer can have a feeling for the cumulative result of all the changes, make those changes on a clean version, print it out and start over again.
You’ll quickly find that it is a living, breathing thing that responds to your attentions by surprising you less and less.