Business failures: They don’t have to happen

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About half of all new businesses started in the U.S. will be out of business within five years. Or in other words, the long-term success rate for U.S. businesses is only about 50 percent.

But how often do business failures go unnoticed? The fact is, most business failures are noticed, but they’re ignored. It’s kind of like the hidden camera TV shows where bystanders witness something uncomfortable, like an old guy who ran out of gas and is trying to push his car, but nobody actually gives him a hand.

Look For the Signs

When a business is suffering, the signs are usually there. Even though sales may be steady and the business owner optimistic, it’s a little like a train wreck for outside observers who know what to look for: You know it’s going to happen, but you can’t stand to look.

These businesses often have operating lines of credit and operating accounts, but frequent overdrafts, or they have a line of credit that has turned into an evergreen loan. If you’re wondering why they don’t pay their bills on time, it’s simple: They have no cash flow. 

Surprisingly, these businesses sometimes struggle for years with no real direction from the person who could be their savior: their banker. Nobody tells them anything, and the banker who “wined and dined” them to get their business when times were good is now looking for a way to exit the credit, leaving the business owner confused and wondering what happened to the “red carpet” treatment.

As authorities in the business community, bankers, accountants and business attorneys should be the ones to spot the early stages of business trouble. Who else is as close to a business’ financial condition? The best way to spot potential business failures is to look for early signs of financial trouble, such as late or inaccurate financial statements, evergreen lines of credit, increasing A/P, and slow-paying A/R (e.g., an increasing amount of A/R that’s over 90 days).

The Snowball Effect

The typical routine of watching and waiting for a business to fail is a detriment and disservice to the customer. Think about a snowball that keeps picking up speed and girth as it rolls downhill. As the business failure picks up speed, it eventually becomes too much for the business owner who doesn’t possess the skills necessary to get the situation under control.

Remember that most business owners go into business with a trade skill, not an accounting degree. They may not know how to forecast, or even know what breakeven means, which leaves them not really understanding why they are losing money or having negative cash flow. The fact is, the average business owner doesn’t have the knowledge or training to understand what is going wrong.

Unfortunately, the psychology of disengaging from a credit is often exactly what it shouldn’t be: adversarial. How can this be managed in a win-win way? How can you tell a business owner you can no longer support him or her without sounding like you are leaving the business in a lurch?

The good news is that there is a way you can join hands with these businesses and be part of a successful solution that also helps you keep a valued customer relationship. Even if you have to exit the credit, you can still keep the business’ deposits while referring them to experts who know how to help improve their financial situation and cash flow.

Bring in the Experts

Asset-based lending (ABL) and factoring emerged from the need for better cash flow for businesses that are either too new to get traditional bank credit, or that need to exit a bank because they are no longer in compliance with loan covenants. In either case, you can refer your customers to an asset-based lender or factor that can administer the line of credit while you continue to meet all of the business’ other needs, such as deposits and cash management services.

Since asset-based lenders and factors are accustomed to dealing with these kinds of financial problems, they can often increase the availability of cash while the other issues are being addressed. They can also be a part of the solution when a credit has been over-extended and things are still not improving.

Creative debt restructuring is very common, and asset-based lenders and factors are very well versed in how to handle these situations. In short, they are a great referral in the right situation.

Another expert that can help troubled businesses is a type of management consultant known as a turnaround expert. Even though they are an added expense when cash flow is already tight, they can more than pay for their services if they are good at debt restructuring and negotiations.

It Takes a Team

It often takes a team to help businesses succeed during tough times. The business may need an injection of cash that can be achieved with asset-based lending or factoring, as well as a good business advisor to teach them about the financial side of their business.

Finding quality business professionals who understand this niche can be the tough part. The Internet is a vast and scary space when business owners don’t know what they’re looking for.  The terms used to describe these consulting services are not taught in school, and most owners don’t know how to find this kind of help. This is where you can provide invaluable advice and assistance—asset-based lending, factoring and quality management consulting are all referral-dependent.

No business has to fail due to financial mismanagement or a lack of expert financial assistance. But owners need advocates surrounding them who are proactive in identifying when they may need a helping hand—and then making the right introductions.

Tom Klausen is the president of First Vancouver Financial Services, Ltd., and a consultant in the small business field. He works with small business owners, lenders, consultants and accountants throughout the U.S. and Canada. Visit or reach Tom by phone at (604) 988-1490 (in Canada) or (206) 947-0912 (in the U.S.) or by email at

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