It’s the Vibe (On Overtrading) – Part 2

Posted by on Apr 17, 2014 in Academic Research, Working Capital

The truth is in the cash flow

It’s the Vibe (On Overtrading) – Part 2

My first post on this topic dealt with the consequences of overtrading and the difference between business growth and overtrading.

This post will help an owner of a small or medium-sized business identify when their business is overtrading.

I think there are a number of qualitative and quantitative signals that help a business owner identify when growth has become overtrading.

Here’s what I would be looking out for:

Qualitative Factors

  1. A feeling of being overwhelmed by the volume of orders on hand;
  2. Increasing volume of customer complaints, or customer complaints when previously there were none;
  3. Rapidly changing priorities;
  4. Lack of time to concentrate on other (staff training, financial, etc) aspects of the business.

Quantitative Factors

  1. Negative operating cash flow*;
  2. Rapid increase in net working assets#;
  3. Rapid lengthening of the Cash Conversion Cycle#;
  4. Rapid lengthening Debtor Days and Stock Days#;
  5. Extending Creditor Days# beyond agreed payment terms;
  6. Insufficient funds in the bank account to meet normal operating expenses.

* A quick way to measure Operating Cash Flow is to calculate the Net Profit after Tax for the period, less dividends paid in the period, plus depreciation expensed in the period less the increase / plus the decrease in Net Working Assets over the period.

# Follow the link to find out what these terms mean and how to use your financial information to measure and track them over time.

As the business owner generally works in the business I think it most likely that they will notice the qualitative factors first. As a business adviser often sees the business from a financial perspective I think it most likely that they will notice the quantitative factors first.

In isolation, I think of these factors as trip-wires. They alert the business owner to the danger that growth is becoming overtrading. So, whenever one of these wires is tripped, the business owner (or their adviser) should take a hard look at whether other signals are also present. For example, a business owner feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work should take a hard look at what is happening to the working capital of their business. Similarly, a business adviser seeing a trend of negative operating cash flow should ask the business owner about the volume of work, level of complaints, etc.

If only one type of factor is evident (ie: either qualitative or quantitative, but not both) then overtrading may not be an issue. However, I think overtrading is definitely occurring when both qualitative and quantitative factors are evident. 

So, here is the message for business owners (and their advisers): By knowing the difference between growth and overtrading, and the signals that help identify overtrading, a business owner (or their adviser) is in a position to take action to mitigate the damage caused by overtrading.

My next post, which will be the last on this topic, will look at some of the responses a business owner can take to remedy overtrading and return to growth.