Top tips for better working capital management
Cash is the number one priority for businesses and yet many CFOs are afraid of leading the charge when it comes to working capital management initiatives. Hugh Williams explains why it’s time for CFOs to get their hands dirty.
A lot of firms are currently undertaking some initiative to better manage their working capital because they cannot fund their businesses in the same way as they did in the past. Credit is either too difficult to get or much more expensive than before. Most have taken short term measures to stem the flow of cash (paying suppliers more slowly, getting money in faster from customers, and indeed cutting jobs) but these measures are running out of steam and are bad for long-term business relationships and for the wider economy.
Successfully managing working capital requires an executive sponsor who can mediate across a range of operational and financial functions, and it’s the CFO who has the best chance to lead this effort and make it work. Unfortunately for many of them, this falls outside their comfort zone, since it requires complex planning skills, and as a result many businesses are missing a huge opportunity to improve their profits.
The low-hanging fruit
Most working capital management initiatives nowadays focus on finance wanting to get its hands on the cash tied up in finished goods stock and anywhere else that they have significant inventories – and who can blame them? However, CFOs need to bear in mind that excess stock is just a symptom of poor internal policies, silo-based behaviour, cross-functional mistrust, and blind risk-taking. So getting out the big scissors to cut stock will not stop it from coming back, yet it will unwittingly create significant supply chain problems for the business which will far outweigh the temporary savings that have just been made.
In some cases there are massive shortages of supply (and lost sales) because businesses have cut people (for people, read capacity); poor customer service and product availability because stocks have been cut blindly; and badly controlled new product introduction (lost sales, obsolete stocks) because demand and supply chain planning is poor.
Conflicting KPIs are the greatest enemy of successful integrated business planning (IBP). In most companies management gives each departmental silo in the business a target to achieve that it is hoped will drive the business towards its goal.
Dr Eli Goldratt, author of The Goal, once said, “The sum of the local optimums does not equal the global optimum”. There are examples almost everywhere where businesses still think this is the way to manage and it usually doesn’t work. “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay,” they argue. Yes, but only to produce something the customer wants today, not at some point in the future. That’s why we have so much stock!
Finding the high-hanging fruit
If CFOs want better working capital management, they must step forward to lead end-to-end supply chain management, and not just issue unrealistic dictates – or worse still, wait to count the cost. They must understand, embrace and drive forward IBP and really get involved in the value or supply chain rather than marginalising this as some kind of ‘trucks’ and ‘sheds’ logistics planning to delegate downstream.
Today, IBP depends on purging the silo mentality and removing departmental KPIs that are local optimums. Sales and operations, for example, work at cross-purposes in too many companies and become adversaries – this needs to stop. These should be replaced by performance measures and drivers that make everyone work together towards the same end. These measures will beat a path to what I call ‘the high hanging fruit’. We all know the fruit at the top is the best and juiciest, but it also the hardest to get to.
Executive sponsorship is essential. CFOs, supported by their CEOs, must lead the culture change that accompanies integrated planning efforts visibly, vocally and physically. They cannot afford to pay lip service to this, otherwise they will rank alongside those many companies who have tried and failed because top management was not fully engaged. It is a long road that will take patience and persistence and continued investment, probably over a few years. In the first 12 months, you can just about get the process up and running. But those who have done this successfully will tell you they had not realised the potential size of the prize until they got to the top of the tree. The fruit up there is indeed much juicier than the stuff down low that everyone else is picking.
Hugh Williams is the managing director of UK-based Hughenden Consulting and has 25 years experience advising global companies like BP and Baxi on managing working capital.