The future of funding

Oct 01, 2019
Large customers are good for business, but can stretch your cash flow. 

By Peter Brady

Have you recently received a ‘polite letter’ from your US multinational corporation (MNC) customer advising of a stretch in your credit terms from 30 days to 90 plus? Or, indeed, from any of your MNC customers? In recent years, the extension of MNC credit terms has become business as usual across the globe but for SMEs, it is anything but business as usual.

Think about it. How would an extension of credit terms impact on your cash flow and projections this year? And what are the implications for your growth strategy in 2020 and beyond? Winning a contract with a large MNC is a measure of success for established SMEs. However, an extension of credit terms can feel like a double-edged sword as it puts excessive strain on cash flow.

Why does it matter?

A strain on your cash flow can have many implications, all of them negative. The first impact is on your suppliers – they expect payment in 30 days. There is an immediate gap in cash flow and you are unlikely to have sufficient sway with your suppliers to realign. This could mean:
  • You are not in a position to fund the initial costs of fulfilling contracts;
  • Pressure is placed on your existing supplier relationships in the form of increased risk around quality, timely delivery and higher prices;
  • Capacity to deliver on-time to customers is affected; and
  • Ability to grow the business at pace is limited.

The lost opportunity 

It may seem obvious, but having cash tied up in debtors with long credit terms is a fundamental challenge for most SMEs. If SMEs could access this cash early, it would give a distinct competitive advantage when negotiating terms with key suppliers.
Think of what you could do if your invoices were paid on day one, not day 90. First, you could pay your suppliers early, enhance the relationship and ultimately secure better terms. Second, you could deploy funds into driving new customer acquisition and fund new business tenders with the comfort of cash flow certainty.

So what do you do?

You have two options:

1. You could try to negotiate: know where you stand in your customer’s eyes. Do your products or services play an important role in their success? Is your product or service critical to their delivery? Even so, unless you are the sole producer of a key strategic element, there’s another company out there to potentially replace you. Alternatively, your customer might offer softer credit terms in exchange for a pricing discount – but cutting margins is an extremely expensive source of finance and unlikely to be recovered. This course of action doesn’t make good business sense, as it is a race to the bottom.

2. Look at funding options to bridge the gap: the financial market is developing all the time to reflect the needs of business. For decades, when Ireland’s SMEs needed to fill the cash flow gap left by extended credit terms, they had limited choices – commercial overdrafts, short-term lending or an invoice discounting facility.

That may have been adequate in the past but such is the success, ambition and global reach of Irish SMEs across all sectors today, this range of funding options falls short of their requirements.

Commercial overdrafts are harder to secure and are generally seen as an unreliable method of funding, not directly aligned to the changing requirements of a business. Similarly, short-term lending is onerous to put in place and comes with significant levels of conditionality. An invoice discounting facility continues to plug the cash flow gap for many SMEs in Ireland. However, invoice discounting facilities are operationally clunky and carry significant fixed and hidden costs and limitations. They are therefore not really fit for purpose for today’s SMEs.

Many SMEs often have a small number of key strategic customers in their sales mix. Supported by government bodies such as Enterprise Ireland, Ireland’s SMEs have a global footprint. Exporting is crucial to scalable business success, and not just to Western Europe. SMEs are securing contracts across the globe – US, Canada, EMEA and Asia.

Invoice discounting facility

For years, the invoice discounting facility has serviced working capital funding requirements. However, the facility comes with three major limitations:
  • The facility limit;
  • Geographical restrictions; and
  • Debtor concentration risk limits.

The facility limit

At the outset, SMEs are subjected to a long and onerous process to get approval for the invoice discounting facility. Fair enough, you may say, as this is effectively a loan and it follows that the bank providing it decides how much the facility is for. SMEs must enter into a long-term commitment, often saddled with non-usage charges or exit fees. SMEs must also pay credit insurance and sign a personal guarantee – something entrepreneurs have grown to fear.

Geographical restrictions

Exporting to the UK? Great. Exporting to United States (US)? Not so great. Country risk and the law of the land plays a major role in how traditional lenders assess the risk and granting of facility limits. If the country in which your customer is located is outside of what is considered in banking terms to be palatable, funding limits and exclusions will apply.

Debtor concentration risk limits

The most common reason for restricting funding under an invoice discounting facility remains customer or debtor concentration. It applies when an SME becomes over-exposed to a single debtor. The debtor could be a large household brand name, but traditional lenders must impose facility limit restrictions. For SMEs, it is somewhat ironic that the more business you do with a key customer, the more your funding is limited.

So, back to your US multinational extending its credit terms. You’ve worked tirelessly to win this business, but you can’t sustain 90 days’ credit and this customer accounts for over 60% of your debtor book. Your business needs:

  • Consistent certainty of funding, without any limit relating to geography or debtors;
  • Funders who recognise the strength of your business model and the substance of the underlying transactions; and
  • Access to working capital to scale your business globally.

Market and product innovation

Invoice, purchase order and recurring revenue trading are collectively known as “receivables trading”. Receivables trading ticks all the boxes. It enables SMEs to leverage their customer relationships. By selling invoices and future invoices (purchase orders) to a pool of capital market funders, SMEs can access finance when they need it.

What difference do capital market funders make?

The funders are capital market institutional funders, pension funds, corporates and sophisticated investors – and there is a large pool of these funders. The fact that there is not just one entity, but a pool of funders purchasing the receivables (invoices or purchase orders) eliminates the requirement for imposing concentration or geographic limits on the SME. It extinguishes the need for any commitment, lock-ins or fixed costs. At no stage is there an ask for a personal guarantee. This funding solution puts control back into the hands of SMEs and allows them to decide when they need to access funding on their terms – a liberating benefit.

How does it work?

Receivables trading is available via an online platform. A pool of institutional funders (the buyers) are members of the platform. SMEs (the seller) uploads their invoice or purchase order and the buyers purchase them. The model is ideally suited to established SMEs with MNC or sovereign debtors. The SME can use the online platform in conjunction with their existing facility by carving out specific debtors from the invoice discounting facility.

In conclusion

Business is constantly changing and working capital funding has caught up. Alternative funding where sellers and buyers connect directly via an online platform is fast becoming the norm. With this funding solution, SMEs can tender for business of any scale globally – confident that they can fund the upfront costs. It’s a gamechanger for most.

According to the Central Bank Survey of SMEs, which was published in January 2019, the top two reasons for credit applications were working capital, and growth and development. ISME’s quarterly business survey reveals that 70% of Ireland’s SMEs still rely solely on traditional bank funding. In Europe, it’s only 30%. Alternative funding is the future of funding.
Peter Brady FCA is Co-Founder and CFO at InvoiceFair.