Building the Financial Reservoir

“Are you sure that it’s going to be safe over there?” asked our oldest son, Dave, extrapolating from his First Cavalry experience in Saudi Arabia prior to the Gulf War of 1990.

“How are we going to keep in touch with you?” asked another one of our kids. “Do they have cell coverage?”

You’d think that my wife and I were going to the end of the earth. In fact, we were better connected last week in Dubai than we were in Texas’ Big Bend National Park in early 2005, when we were unexpectedly out of calling range for three days and daughter Beth was on the verge of calling out the National Guard to track us down.

We were in the U.A.E., Jordan, and Oman, in part to catch up with our youngest, Chuck, who’s been consulting with the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority to develop a strategy for building six new “economic cities” at a cost of $300-400B over the next 25 years. But we were there also because we were curious to observe some of the social as well as the economic developments of these three stable Middle Eastern countries.

We let the five kids know that they could reach us by cell phone, but at $1.50-2.50/minute with a nine-hour time difference, that wasn’t practical for chit-chat. Nor was Skype an alternative – too much repetitive updating would have been a major distraction. Instead, we produced a nightly journal of our Mideast operations and observations and emailed it to arrive in their “in” boxes at mid-afternoon.

Voila! No angst. No wondering whether Mom and Dad had gotten hung up at the Oman-U.A.E. border crossing (a 10-km. gauntlet) or run down by stray camels in the Jordanian desert (or, more accurately, on the beach in Dubai). They were able to track our movements against the itinerary we’d sent to them and be reassured that we were under control. After all, almost half of our activity there was being audited by Chuck.

It occurred to me while writing these daily travel summaries that informing our kids has a lot of parallels for small company managers in reporting to funding sources, especially bankers and investors. We were operating in new territory; we had a broad plan, but expected to be opportunistic; our “audience’ was totally removed from our day-to-day activity; and the more consistent our reporting (“having a wonderful time”), the less concerned they became.

Just prior to the trip, for my client Fabrico, a precision metal fabrication company in Oxford, MA, I completed my 72nd monthly investors’ financial summary to wrap up the sixth full year (September 30th) of their ownership of the Company. Generally, Fabrico has done very well during this period, and the investors have been consistently supportive, not because of my deathless prose, but because their confidence in the management team has been confirmed by the numbers and by the reporting.

In addition to a positive bottom line (the lack of which is challenging for any reporter), here are the elements of good financial reporting to keep investors’ juices flowing:

  1. Timeliness: The earlier, the better – but no later than the end of the following month.
  1. Accuracy: Once the books are closed for the month, that’s it. No going back to make prior period adjustments. And there’s no excuse when the auditors have to make major year-end changes.
  1. Consistent format: Balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement.
  1. Context: Each of these three financial statements, compared with the budget and with last year – for the month just ended, and for the year to date.
  1. An update: The latest forecast (revised at least quarterly) for the rest of the year with assumptions to document any change from the original plan.
  1. Financial analysis: What caused the variances? What are the trends – not only in revenues and expenses, but in cash, receivables, inventory, and other balance sheet accounts? How do the ratios line up – with expectations, with the industry, and with the bank’s financial covenants?
  1. Non-financial news: Significant results from sales, operations, or R&D.
  1. A heads-up: What new developments might be anticipated in coming months? (You don’t need to be a seer – you’ll have the perspective of at least half of the next month when you assemble the report.)

If the Accounting Department is doing its job, this report is less than a two-hour exercise. Done well, it avoids at least two hours of detailed financial discussion in board meetings or conference calls. Furthermore, it establishes an archive through which to record the company’s operating and financial history, a valuable element in any due diligence process.

Most importantly, it is tremendously reassuring to your financial sources – investors, lenders, lessors, landlords – that you are running a fiscally disciplined organization. This series of snapshots builds your credibility in terms that they most readily understand, and it can significantly improve your access to the next round of funding from both established and new investors.

It may also allow you to leave the cell phone at home while you’re traveling, freeing you to compose trip journals late into the evening. Unless, of course, you have to get up for the 7:00 a.m. camel races.

Camel Bites

Union-busting in the Arab world –

Our driver in Amman described his previous position as a foreman at a Roman restoration site under the Bureau of Antiquities:

“One day all my stone-cutters walked off the job, complaining that they weren’t being paid enough. The Greek university guy who was overseeing the project asked why we just didn’t raise their pay a few dinars a day.

“I said, ‘I can take care of this. We don’t need to raise their pay right away.’

“So I spoke to the organizer of this strike, who happened to be most clever of the cutters. I told him that I didn’t need the other guys, only him, and that I would raise him five dinars if he would come back. He was earning about 600 dinars a month, good money at that time. He immediately accepted.

“I let him work for a few days while the other guys looked unsuccessfully for other work. Then I offered them their jobs back at the same rate. Every one of them came back to work for me.

“The next day I fired the ring-leader and raised all of the other guys two dinars a day. They all immediately became much better workers and never again complained.

“And they learned that loyalty has to work both ways.”

Draining the Swamp

“…Also in Dubai, the managements of the Bawadi hotels development and the Al Ghurair Investment Company announced that they would work together to create the world’s largest shopping area. The first phase, due to be completed in 2012, will offer some 4m sq. ft, [almost 100 acres], and the eventual shopping area in the Bawadi development will cover 40m sq. ft. The total cost of the venture was estimated at $27Bn. As well as housing retail facilities, the Bawadi development will include 31 hotels with a total of 29,000 rooms.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit August, 2007

“Somewhere you have to house the 120 million passengers a year who by 2016 will be flying into the largest airport in the world.”

American Public Media – Marketplace November 12, 2007