How to Handle Lenders

In dealing with lenders, it is important for executive teams to understand the background of those with whom they transact business. Bankers, for instance, are often conservative by nature, have little experience running their own business, and can be a part of a corporate system that is bureaucratic and slow moving. Realizing from the outset that the word “risk” is a four-letter word to these professionals can prepare you to have better conversations. Furthermore, you must accept that most front-line bankers are not empowered to question the standards they must enforce on behalf of their employer or the banking system as a whole. All of this is especially true after the recent mortgage industry troubles of the 2008 recession genre. By keeping in mind who is on the other side of the desk when a loan request is submitted, you as a management team member can position your request in a way that gives the banker the best ammunition to give you an affirmative response.

How Lenders Think

Understanding how lenders think helps the entrepreneur better understand why lending policies are pragmatic rather than opportunity-driven, standard rather than adaptable, and monitoring rather than recommending. While market opportunities drive the entrepreneur, lenders approach the very same data with caution. The same unpredicted cash shortage that merely surprises a business owner may send a lender into a panic. Lenders are not in the business of selling advice–in fact, they can be held liable if found to be doing so and the business goes under. They are in the business of making money on loans. Therefore, their loyalty is to company profits and a return on their monies borrowed–and noting else! Anyone who wishes to test the strength of this premise should try missing a few note payments.

Consistency is the hallmark of the lender, due in large part to the constraints of a corporate directive of standardization. The seemingly two-sided face that the entrepreneur sees the lender wear is real; the lending officer truly wants to help and has empathy, but is governed by institutional guidelines. Overidentification with the needs of the borrower can cause a lender to lose her job. 

Consequently, the face the business owner sees is not reality but rather a front depicting what the lending institution would like to see happen. Rarely does a borrower learn the true acceptable level of performance that a lender would be willing to accept. Since lenders control the purse strings to the resources that keep the borrower in business, these lenders are impossible to control. Knowing a lender’s true bottom line enables the borrower to influence lending policies that permit operation under the best possible conditions.

How Lenders Act

During tough economic times, lenders are expected to:

  • serve as a flexible yet profitable source of capital,
  • monitor the performance of borrowers in their book of business, and 
  • provide sound references to inquirers on behalf of their clients.

Lenders must be allowed to continue to make money on the loans they have extended, but the borrower may request modifications of the terms of repayment based on business financial performance. Principal payment deferrals, interest accruals, and other methods can be used to create cash within the business operation, but one is ill advised to single-handedly embark on such practices without securing the commitment of the lending institution in advance.

To the extent they are able, lenders should be encouraged to visit the places of business of their borrowers and check things out. Outside assessment of company execution of its plans by this important stakeholder group can prove valuable to the management of the company. Hopefully, an open dialogue creates an environment where the lender reference in credit applications is always a positive one and facilitates smooth operations in your company!

 

 

The Turnaround Adviser’s Responsibility

The ability to turn the company around quickly without getting it bogged down in the minor setbacks is a hallmark of a good turnaround adviser. Emphasizing a solution-oriented approach, the adviser can rise above circumstances and fight another day;  such determination distinguishes the true turnaround expert from the would-be practitioners of company revitalization. Rather than dwelling on problems and making too much of an ultimately inconsequential event, effective advisers confront each challenge ready to overcome the odds stacked against them.

For example, a company may become delinquent with creditors and be unable to pay them in full in the near future. Under those circumstances, a partial payment plan can be worked out, but only if all creditors agree. Non-compliant creditors should then be segregated and handled separately. Whether they are paid at all during the turnaround is an issue; it may be better to let them file liens, since the liens can be repaid according to a schedule that is devised later at the magistrate’s office or in a court of law.

Primary Responsibilities

It is the turnaround artist’s primary duty to critically assess the executive team’s vision for the company and create a recommended course of action for realization of a mutually agreeable vision. In light of this duty, the adviser has three primary responsibilities:

  1. analyzing problems,
  2. drafting a turnaround plan for marketing, operations, and finance, and
  3. implementing the plan.

Therefore, the adviser should not be confused with consultants who merely offer advice. he must necessarily preside over plan implementation and be prepared to modify it as changing conditions demand.

Analytical Responsibilties

The analytical role includes the gathering and analyzing of marketing, operations, and financial information. Both internally produced reports and externally researched intelligence should be scrutinized in creating the turnaround plan. Any errors and omissions in the compiled plan must be noted for further investigation. From this analysis, the adviser develops the road map–a basic critical path of action.

Critical Path of Action

First, crucial points of action within the critical path are prioritized, such as completing a project for billing or getting to a key milestone on another before a window of opportunity is missed on behalf of the client. Personnel are then assigned responsibilities based on the established priorities, which are time sensitive. The turnaround adviser conducts regular debriefing meetings to update all affected parties on turnaround progress and the focal areas for the upcoming time period. As problems surface, the managers responsible for prioritized critical points, rather than the top executive, conduct troubleshooting sessions. If the sessions require negotiations with third parties, the turnaround adviser initiates these negotiations. For example, if lenders turn up the heat, the turnaround adviser must assuage their fears. Clearly, it is the  adviser’s general job requirement to put out all fires or make sure that someone else does.

Education

The turnaround adviser’s final responsibility is to educate the top executive, her team and other managers in the principles of sound business judgment and practice. If the group can observe the adviser’s actions during the renewal process, its members will learn a great deal about management techniques and strategies. When the adviser leaves, he or she should feel that the existing team is capable of steering the company through any weather.

Preparing to Implement a Turnaround Plan

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, recognizing that you have reached a point where a turnaround is necessary is critical to getting the most out of the effort to reposition the company. By holding out for a better day, the executive team simply prolongs the agony as the business continues to deteriorate. An inability to assess the situation accurately can render the team “unhelpable.” Lifeguards are instructed not to try to rescue a drowning man who is still flailing about in the water and attempting to save himself. Likewise, a savvy turnaround artist will not step into a company until he or she is assured that the executive team is convinced of the trouble and unable to get out of it without outside help. More importantly, the team must want to be helped and willing to accept help. Further, the business must be capable of being saved, and the team must have the ability to make the necessary changes.

Bringing in Help

Unfortunately, the warnings of bankers, attorneys, creditors and accountants are too often ignored. With bankruptcy lurking around the corner, however, the team may finally concede and call in a competent adviser–a strategic thinker with experience in assisting companies survive and prosper. In addition to possessing the right mindset and skills, the adviser can provide needed credibility so vital to stakeholders’ acceptance of the turnaround plan. 

Anyone brought into the company will need the full cooperation–and honesty–of management and key staff during the recovery. Efforts to paint too rosy a picture of the situation will undermine the adviser’s ability to turn the business around. For example, hoping that an industry networking event will suddenly generate enough new prospects to overcome a current cash crisis is another form of avoiding the real issues. Similarly, increasing the stream of revenues alone may make the company appear more profitable for a season, but only internal changes can prepare one to withstand business cycles. An effective turnaround adviser can help create and implement these changes.

Implementing the Turnaround Plan

While decline must be reversed quickly to create the positive cash flow needed to fund operations, turnarounds cannot be accomplished overnight; it took a while to get here, and will take a while to get out. Six months of intensive restructuring is usually necessary to return the business to positive cash flow. A complete turnaround can be accomplished within eighteen months if all goes according to plan.

Gathering Information

Having decided to begin the process of turning the business around, the executive team should be prepared to gather extensive information for analysis. After analysis, meaningful tactical and strategic plans will be developed for immediate implementation. Be careful not to confuse tactics and strategies. Tactics are methods employed in the short-term (six months or less) to reverse decline; they are specifically targeted at crisis-oriented problems. Strategies, on the other hand, are longer in time and scope. Strategies are aimed towards growth goals and objectives.

A turnaround plan is gleaned from information gathered in the financial, marketing, and operations fact-finding process. Like every good plan, it has four main purposes:

  • to provide a standard reference for organizational focus
  • to establish priorities for allocation of capital resources and management effort
  • to identify and quantify objectives (one to three year focus) to encourage and monitor performance
  • to set timetables and goals (three to five year horizon) for achieving objectives

There are two primary areas of information to be gathered for planning and analysis in a turnaround: the internal and the external environments.

Crafting a Turnaround Plan

The turnaround plan for a company in decline is like a recipe to a cook. The effective restructuring of a business requires the preparation and implementation of a viable plan. The plan must be based information gathered from financial, operating and marketing sources. Good plans must also address cost containment and revenue enhancement, providing the executive team with a step-by-step process for reversing decline and stabilizing the business. It must also lead to orderly growth promoted through a flexible strategic plan.

In turnaround planning, objectives are created that can be accomplished quickly. Therefore, a turnaround plan should be direct, with a limited life not to exceed one year. Teams should initiate tactics (for example, increasing traffic to one’s website) on a weekly basis, then shift to biweekly and monthly to keep pace with the rate of change within the business. When objectives must be accomplished over a longer time span, it is time to prepare a flexible strategic plan.

The Purpose of a Turnaround Plan

The purpose of a turnaround plan is to provide an organizational focus and a timetable for all recovery activities. For example, measurable performance standards must be enforced. Therefore, key personnel should set objectives before the actual plan is drafted to encourage employees to commit to levels of performance that they believe are attainable. The team management approach will generate the ideal environment for enforcing the mandates of the plan, since every key employee will have been involved in its formulation and implementation.

Time and Money

Because turnarounds are time and dollar critical, the team should stick to the originally drafted plan as long as its underlying assumptions remain valid. When the parameters upon which the plan has been based change, it is time to modify all portions of the plan affected. However, the team should not abandon the plan upon first confrontation with undesirable results.

Outside Parties

To satisfy outside parties interested in the cause for company decline and the solutions underway to reverse it, the plan typically contains a brief section describing the background and historical evolution of the company. Additionally, some discussion of prior operating performance and an objective assessment of the current condition can help the team highlight the events that have caused the problems. Management should then state the problems that caused the decline and follow up with the solutions that have been implemented to address it. Sections on the vision and philosophy of the company are unnecessary, though some do outline the thought process that led to current strategies and goals. However, these thoughts may be more appropriate in a flexible strategic plan, since a turnaround plan is action oriented.

Reaching Ground Zero

In environments in which the business has always made money (and may still be making marginal, though unsatisfactory, returns), it may be difficult to deal with declining profitability. Reading financial reports that signal what may be the first downturn the company has suffered is not sufficient preparation for the struggles to come.  Some find it difficult to believe that what they are reading is accurate. The impulse to ignore the signals and hope that the situation improves can be overwhelming. At some point, however, the team must deal with the facts and acknowledge that money is being lost–either as a net loss or as a smaller return–and that radical change is needed.

Being brutally honest and objective about the status of the business is hard. But, if “ground zero” is never reached, recovery cannot begin in earnest.

Common Danger Signals of Company Decline

Previously, we have examined the internal and external elements of decline and some of the early warning signals of each. Notably, we have made the distinction that, while internal elements are easier to control, external elements are capable of being influenced as well. It is the responsibility of the executive team to coordinate marketing and sales, operations and finance in such a way as to anticipate changes in the environment and plan accordingly.

The clear danger signals of decline vary with the stages of decline, and become more serious as the decline intensifies. Some of the common danger signals are as follows:

Common Danger Signals

Early Decline:

  • shortage of cash
  • strained liquidity
  • reduced working capital
  • stretched accounts payable
  • late accounts receivable
  • reduction of return-on-investment (ROI) by 20-30 percent
  • flat sales
  • several quarters of losses
  • increased employee absenteeism
  • increased employee accidents
  • increased customer complaints (product quality, delivery)
  • late financial and management information

Mid-Term Decline:

  • increasing inventory
  • decreasing sales
  • decreasing margins
  • increased expenses
  • increased advances from banks
  • requests for additional considerations from banks
  • late and unreliable financial and management information
  • erosion of customer confidence
  • accelerated accounts payable from vendors
  • overdrafts at the bank
  • delayed accounts receivable from opportunistic customers
  • violation of loan covenants
  • bank used to cover payroll
  • increased interest rates on indebtedness from banks due to increased perception of risk

Late Decline:

  • little attention  paid to profit decrease
  • staff cutbacks without analyzing cause of problems
  • overdrawn bank accounts as substitute for line of credit
  • cash crisis
  • accounts payable 60-90 days late
  • accounts receivable 90+ days late
  • further decline in sales
  • extremely low employee morale
  • eroding company credibility
  • excessive decreased inventory turnover
  • supplier restrictions
  • fewer reports to bank
  • qualified opinion from auditor
  • bounced checks
  • cutoff on supplies
  • credit offsets
  • accounts receivable continuing to age
  • further decrease in margins
  • further decrease in volume of sales
  • increase in uncollectible receivables
  • no liquidity
  • depleted working capital
  • lack of funds for payroll
  • ineffective management
  • attempts to convince creditors that company is viable and that liquidation is not necessary

Signals That Can Occur At Any Stage:

  • decreased capital utilization
  • decreased market share in key product line(s)
  • increased overhead costs
  • increased management and employee turnover
  • salaries/benefits growing faster than productivity/profits
  • increased management layers
  • lost market share to competition, which is not keeping up with marketplace changes
  • management in conflict with corporate goals and objectives
  • opposing directions for company and management
  • sales forecasts that predict that company can sell its way out of difficulty
  • poor internal accounting
  • credit advances to customers who do not pay on time
  • non-seasonal borrowing
  • sudden overdrafts
  • increased trade credit inquiries (a signal that new vendors are being sought out)

Not all of these symptoms may appear; it is sufficient cause for self-examination if some of them occur. As the problems of the business increase, its reputation with suppliers, banks, current customers, and other stakeholders is severely diminished. A credibility gap may occur, placing the business in the position of having to defend itself not just from internal and external factors, but also from a loss of esteem in the business community. Credibility is a key factor to the success of a business. Just as a company’s credibility within the commercial and banking community can ensure its success, a lack of credibility can just as surely cause its demise.