The 1,000 largest non-financial companies in the United States slowed payments to suppliers slightly in 2019 as they collected cash from customers more slowly and held slightly more inventory, causing overall working capital performance to decline after several years of improvement, according to the annual survey of The Hackett Group, Inc. At the same time, cash on hand and debt grew dramatically, reaching record levels.
But, according to The Hackett Group’s research team, the global pandemic has sparked a dramatic increase in focus on working capital and overall liquidity in 2020, driving many companies to launch comprehensive transformation efforts for the first time as they try to determine what their business will look like as the world economy emerges from the crisis.
This annual working capital survey found the potential for nearly $1.3 trillion of working capital improvement opportunities among the companies surveyed. Upper quartile companies converted cash 3x faster than median performers. They collected from customers 19 days faster, paid suppliers 20 days slower, and held less than half the inventory.
Both debt and cash on hand increased by 12% in 2019, with cash on hand reaching the highest point in the last 10 years. Companies continued to take advantage of low interest rates, borrowing to improve their cash position.
“As has been the case for more than a decade, companies relied largely on quick fixes in 2019 rather than do the more challenging work of process optimization and organizational design. The improvement in payables performance resulted from typical companies improving their performance, closing the gap to top performers. But, it was driven largely by increased use of external financing solutions, such as supply chain financing rather than structural and organizational changes. And on the cash side, companies simply turned to banks, increasing their debt substantially,” said Craig Bailey, Associate Principal, Strategy & Business Transformation, The Hackett Group.
“But, for the first time since the great recession more than 10 years ago, the fallout from the global pandemic has changed this picture dramatically in 2020. For most companies, there’s suddenly a ‘burning platform,’ a sense of urgency that is driving improvement. Companies are making liquidity and cash flow a top priority,” said Bailey. “CFOs are focused on cash visibility on a daily basis and have made daily reports on the company’s cash position a requirement as they try to drive cross-functional working capital improvement efforts. They’re implementing digital transformation capabilities such as robotic process automation to automate collections and payables. They’re improving forecasting through increased scenario modeling and integrated business planning capabilities. And, they are truly seeking to optimize and standardize how they collect from customers, pay suppliers and manage inventory.”
According to The Hackett Group Senior Director Gerhard Urbasch, “It’s a challenging effort, and companies must balance cash, cost, and service elements to succeed. CFOs must help other parts of their organization understand the importance of working capital and incentivize sales, procurement, manufacturing and other parts of the organization to make the right choices. In addition, they must consider the external impact of their actions, and in some cases make decisions designed to help customers and suppliers that may have more serious liquidity issues of their own.”
The Hackett Group’s experts identified an array of approaches companies can take to drive working capital improvement, including:
Use disruption to drive change. Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the current liquidity challenges to assess, reprioritize, and make changes. Examine legacy processes to identify where improvements can generate quick wins.
Improve visibility. Ensure that the right key performance indicators are available for various business leaders, so that they can be used to drive action plans. Provide leaders with a real-time, intelligent dashboards that equip them with the insight they need.
Look in-house first. Before making changes to terms with suppliers and customers, look for quick win opportunities within the company, areas where process improvements can improve cash position. Promote a cash culture across the organization, and provide incentives for sales, procurement, commercial teams and others to optimize for cash. On receivables, make sure staff are not trading terms for revenue, remove obstacles to payment such as misbilling, and put clear escalation processes in place, up to and including having senior finance leaders call on overdue bills. Companies can also monitor customer payment performance, assess credit risk, and reprioritize activities by value. On payables, ensure that controls are in place to avoid early payments. Prepare for further disruptions, including an anticipated second wave of COVID-19. On inventory, encourage staff to consider cash impact when making decisions, collaborate cross-functionally to determine the organization’s appetite for risk and potential disruption, and develop effective contingency plans.
Focus on modeling and forecasting. Build the ability to do scenario modeling, integrated business planning, cash flow forecasting, risk assessments, and more to improve decision-making ability. Identify potential disruptors and refresh contingency plans as necessary.
Consider customers and suppliers. Monitor the financial health of customers and suppliers, and make accommodations where necessary, particularly in cases where losing a supplier might disrupt the company’s supply chain. Work with customers to provide incentives for payment. And optimize payment terms for suppliers, ensuring the right terms are being offered for each category of suppliers. Consider segmenting suppliers by risk and criticality to determine what approach to take, where to apply leverage and where temporary support may be required.
Accelerate technology adoption and digital transformation. Digital transformation, including smart automation, robotic process automation, analytics, and more can significantly improve efficiency and effectiveness, significantly reducing transactional work, standardizing and streamlining processes, and providing more insight.
Revisit service delivery models. Organizations need to increase flexibility, resilience and agility to understand and manage risks across the supply chain and their impact on cash flow. Diversification, where possible, will help mitigate the risk of further shocks to the end-to-end supply chain. Companies need to look at corporate and functional strategies, internal processes and organizational design to protect cash and build for the “Next Normal.”
The Hackett Group Working Capital Survey and Scorecard calculates working capital performance based on the latest publicly available annual financial statements of the 1,000 largest non-financial companies with headquarters in United States, sourced from FactSet/FactSet Fundamentals. The survey takes an industry-based approach to ranking companies according to the four key working capital metrics Days Sales Outstanding (DSO), Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO), Days Payables Outstanding (DPO) and Cash Conversion Cycle (CCC). For each industry, the companies are ranked according to overall CCC days. Companies are classified according to the FactSet industry classification system, using data sourced from FactSet. For purposes of the survey and presenting the results we have grouped certain industries together. Historical comparisons within the survey are made on a like for like basis.