Some years ago (but recalled as if last month) I was discussing the details about starting a new job with John, one of the two owner / directors of the business I was joining. We’d reached the point where the decision had been made and the offer confirmed when he asked me, quite casually, “When can you start?” At the time I wasn’t tied to a notice period anywhere else, but had a week away with the family coming up very soon. (It was late July, the weather was promising, and we were looking forward to getting away early August). After I had explained the holiday plans we agreed on a start date for the Monday after I returned. This was to be about three weeks after the meeting.
The holiday was great and the new job started. It was the CFO role in a really interesting and dynamic business which happened to be on the brink of taking off – they had landed their biggest ever contract with a well known blue-chip customer just days before I started. Exciting times.
Unfortunately they were exciting times for what to start with were all the wrong reasons: it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the business was also on the brink of collapsing under the pressure of growth. On my first day it was clear there were significant problems – they were running out of cash, fast, and urgently needed help sorting themselves out.
Over the next two critical months the directors and I steered the business away from bust and got the new contract under way; within the year we had rebuilt cash from its negative overdraft limit to a positive and healthy £1 million in the bank. And even more importantly, we’d transformed the working capital engine of the business from next to useless to one which efficiently supported the expansion: customer payment terms were renegotiated, radically, with their biggest customer now helping to fund the growth that their contract had triggered. Inventory financing was introduced and managed properly and relationships with suppliers were greatly improved – these were constraints whose removal allowed the business to grow. We introduced new software systems to record the flow and reporting of the business’s transactions, and established a firm grip on managing the accounting and finances. And the business grew, profitably, from under £5 million to over £20 million turnover within just two years. The owners also saw the value of the business and their shareholdings grow appreciably. And I’m pleased to say that in due course I got a proper thank you.
Looking back to the interview the July before I joined the business and thinking about what had been going through the minds of the owners, it’s clear that they were in dire straits and needed to solve their cash problems, fast, despite not shouting for help there and then. Maybe the closest they came to “Help!” was John’s casual question “When can you start?” and I’ll assume that his failure to add “Actually it’s really important you start as soon as possible” might have been kept back so as not to put me off before I started. Maybe.
Getting the cash to flow in the right direction isn’t always easy. Financing rapid and sustained growth isn’t easy either. Doing both well is a challenge for any business. So I’d recommend that you don't leave it too late to have a conversation you'd been meaning to have… particularly if it starts with “Help!”