Decision-making and the importance of understanding cash flow

As I said in my last blog post, one of the most common areas where my business clients want advice is around decision-making – knowing which of the options they’re faced with will be most beneficial for their business.

Whether you’re a brand new start-up business, or an established family business, it’s vital to make the right decisions over the course of your business journey. Make the right move, and you’re on the pathway to profits and success. Make the wrong move and you’re likely to miss opportunities and reduce your overall profitability.

So how do I help my business clients to improve their decision-making and make the very best of every situation?

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A clear focus on cash flow

I originally qualified as an engineer and that systematic, rational approach is something that informs my approach to decision-making and the assessment of financial options.

To know which outcome produces the most financial benefits, I focus on the cash flows in your business. Once we know the different options, and the cash flows that relate to them, we can compare and contrast the various financial outcomes.

 With the cash flows noted down, I enter this information into a table with three columns:

  • The first column is for the cash flows in the current situation.
  • The third column is for the cash flows in the alternative situation.
  • The middle column is for the difference in cash flow between the two options.

Here’s an example of how this table will look, using the example of ‘John’, a painter/decorator who’s looking to buy a new van for his business – you can read more on this example in the previous blog here.

Current Van Difference New Van Comment
Investment 0 -10,500 -10,500 As I’m only looking at what will happen from now, I don’t consider the cost of the current van.
Fuel -10,800 1,500 -9,300 This is fuel cost over 3 years, based on the info supplied.
Maintenance -6,000 3,000 -3,000 Maintenance cost over 3 years. based on the info supplied.
Van Hire -1,500 1,500 0 5 days pa for 3 years at 100 per day
Lost Earnings -2,400 2,400 0 2 days a year for 3 years at 400 per day
Tax -900 150 -750 Info as supplied
Insurance -1,500 -300 -1,800 Info as supplied
Resale Value 0 4,000 4,000 Info as supplied
Net Cash In/(Out) -23,100 1,850 -21,350  

 

The important number here is the final figure in that middle ‘Difference’ column. Using the cash flows we know, and estimating things like costs and wear and tear, we can reliably say that John will save €1,850 over the year by buying the new van he’s looking at.

For a small, one-person business, having €1,850 more in your pocket will have a positive impact on the company’s overall cash flow – giving you more scope to invest in other areas, like marketing, or new equipment.

Putting the cash flow approach into practise

My previous post mentioned two examples of businesses that were at a crossroads with their decision-making.

  • The dentist – One was a dentist friend of mine, who many years ago asked me if refurbishing his dental practice was a sound financial move.
  • The food manufacturer – The other was a food manufacturing business who came to me recently to ask whether they should keep production in-house or outsource it. 

Lets look at both these scenarios and see how the systematic cash-flow approach helps us to choose the best option for each business owner. 

For the dentist, the decision looks a little easier. He already had a quote for the cost of the refurbishment. This would be a tax-deductible cost, so we could say that the after-tax cost to him was 50% of the quote – all sounding pretty rosy so far!

Then I asked what would happen to his practice if he didn’t do it up. He replied that he wasn’t sure but he would expect to see a slight decline in the number of patients. He considered the quality of dental care would be most important but having a rundown surgery could lead patients to think he was not doing so well and maybe he was not so good – in other words, a shabby surgery could have an impact on the perception of his brand.

Finally, I asked him how he would feel working in a somewhat tired, run-down surgery. He was very strong about that and replied that he would hate it. So, he decided to do it up.

I think that was the right decision and was what he’d really wanted form the outset – he just wanted some reassurance that he was making the right decision.

An important lesson here is that not everything can be quantified. Yes, I know that is heresy for an accountant to say. But some factors in decision-making just can’t be expressed as hard numbers, even though these factors could be vital to the outcome of the decision. Always keep that in mind and consider these less quantifiable factors, even though it is hard to do so.

The right decision for the manufacturer

 Let’s look at the more recent example of the food manufacturer and the thorny question of whether to outsource production, or keep it in-house.

The business owner looked at the costs of producing in-house vs outsourcing to a contractor, and this was what we found:

  • The contractor had much bigger buying power and was able to save on the cost of raw materials (applying the benefits of economies of scale).
  • Labour costs for both alternatives were similar.
  • Overhead costs were lower for the contractor as he had a much larger operation with economies of scale again.
  • There were going to be additional costs for freight and for quality control as the outsourcer wanted to ensure the contractor would maintain standards.
  • By way of intangibles, the outsourcer was concerned that the contractor might gain his production know-how which could lead to contractor becoming a direct competitor – but they put agreements in place to deal with that.

I put my table in place for the food manufacturing decision. As I said already, it’s not always about the numbers. Reviewing the table gave rise to a series of discussions about the various elements to be considered, about the reliability of the numbers and particularly about the intangibles or the less quantifiable factors.

By having both the tangible numbers AND the intangible considerations all worked into the decision-making process, we came to an informed (and ultimately more profitable) conclusion – outsourcing production would be cheaper, more efficient and used all the outsourcers’ buying power and economies of scale to improve margins and profit. [I’m making an educated guess that this was the outcome as it’s not expressly stated, but it seems like the outsourcing option makes most sense]

The importance of process and good information

A key point to remember is that while having a good process is important, having good information to feed the process is vital. That information comes from having reliable and insightful management information available – something that I, as your accountant, can help you refine and make into an efficient management reporting system.

With up-to-date business information, a systematic approach to assessing your cash flows and a healthy consideration of the most intangible elements, you’ll make the best possible decision-making for the future of your business. It’s a framework and approach that will let you address most of the decisions that are likely in your business.

If you have any questions, or items needing clarification, feel free to drop me an email.  Remember, we’re available if you want to bring an external perspective to your decision.

 

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