Anderson ZurMuehlen Blog

Use Benchmarking to Swim with the Big Fish

You may keep a wary eye on your competitors, but sometimes it helps to look just a little bit deeper. Even if you’re a big fish in your pond, someone a little bigger may be swimming up just beneath you. Being successful means not just being aware of these competitors, but also knowing their approaches and results.

And that’s where benchmarking comes in. By comparing your company with the leading competition, you can identify weaknesses in your business processes, set goals to correct these problems and keep a constant eye on how your company is doing. In short, benchmarking can help your company grow more successful.

2 basic methods

The two basic benchmarking methods are:

1. Quantitative benchmarking. This compares performance results in terms of key performance indicators (formulas or ratios) in areas such as production, marketing, sales, market share and overall financials.

2. Qualitative benchmarking. Here you compare operating practices — such as production techniques, quality of products or services, training methods, and morale — without regard to results.

You can break down each of these basic methods into more specific methods, defined by how the comparisons are made. For example, internal benchmarking compares similar operations and disseminates best practices within your organization, while competitive benchmarking compares processes and methods with those of your direct competitors.

Waters, familiar and new

The specifics of any benchmarking effort will very much depend on your company’s industry, size, and product or service selection, as well as the state of your current market. Nonetheless, by watching how others navigate the currents, you can learn to swim faster and more skillfully in familiar waters. And, as your success grows, you may even identify optimal opportunities to plunge into new bodies of water.

For more information on this topic, or other profit-enhancement ideas, please contact our firm. We would welcome the opportunity to help you benchmark your way to greater success.

© 2018

Do Your Financial Statements Contain Hidden Messages?

Over time, many business owners develop a sixth sense: They learn how to “read” a financial statement by computing financial ratios and comparing them to the company’s results over time and against those of competitors. Here are some key performance indicators (KPIs) that can help you benchmark your company’s performance in three critical areas.

1. Liquidity

“Liquid” companies have sufficient current assets to meet their current obligations. Cash is obviously the most liquid asset, followed by marketable securities, receivables and inventory.
Working capital — the difference between current assets and current liabilities — is one way to measure liquidity. Other KPIs that assess liquidity include working capital as a percentage of total assets and the current ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities). A more rigorous benchmark is the acid (or quick) test, which excludes inventory and prepaid assets from the equation.

2. Profitability

When it comes to measuring profitability, public companies tend to focus on earnings per share. But private firms typically look at profit margin (net income divided by revenue) and gross margin (gross profits divided by revenue).

For meaningful comparisons, you’ll need to adjust for nonrecurring items, discretionary spending and related-party transactions. When comparing your business to other companies with different tax strategies, capital structures or depreciation methods, it may be useful to compare earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA).

3. Asset management

Turnover ratios show how efficiently companies manage their assets. Total asset turnover (sales divided by total assets) estimates how many dollars in revenue a company generates for every dollar invested in assets. In general, the more dollars earned, the more efficiently assets are used.

Turnover ratios also can be measured for each specific category of assets. For example, you can calculate receivables turnover ratios in terms of days. The collection period equals average receivables divided by annual sales multiplied by 365 days. A collection period of 45 days indicates that the company takes an average of one and one-half months to collect invoices.

It’s all relative

The amounts reported on a company’s financial statements are meaningless without a relevant basis of comparison. Contact us for help identifying KPIs and benchmarking your company’s performance over time or against competitors in your industry.

© 2018

 

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Turning Employee Ideas into Profitable Results

Many businesses train employees how to do their jobs and only their jobs. But amazing things can happen when you also teach staff members to actively involve themselves in a profitability process — that is, an ongoing, idea-generating system aimed at adding value to your company’s bottom line.

Let’s take a closer look at how to get your workforce involved in coming up with profitable ideas and then putting those concepts into action.

6 steps to implementation

Without a system to discover ideas that originate from the day-in, day-out activities of your business, you’ll likely miss opportunities to truly maximize profitability. What you want to do is put a process in place for gathering profit-generating ideas, picking out the most actionable ones and then turning those ideas into results. Here are six steps to implementing such a system:

1. Share responsibility for profitability with your management team.
2. Instruct managers to challenge their employees to come up with profit-building ideas.
3. Identify the employee-proposed ideas that will most likely increase sales, maximize profit margins or control expenses.
4. Tie each chosen idea to measurable financial goals.
5. Name those accountable for executing each idea.
6. Implement the ideas through a clear, patient and well-monitored process.

For the profitability process to be effective, it must be practical, logical and understandable. All employees — not just management — should be able to use it to turn ideas and opportunities into bottom-line results. As a bonus, a well-constructed process can improve business skills and enhance morale as employees learn about profit-enhancement strategies, come up with their own ideas and, in some cases, see those concepts turned into reality.

A successful business

Most employees want to not only succeed at their own jobs, but also work for a successful business. A strong profitability process can help make this happen. To learn more about this and other ways to build your company’s bottom line, contact us.

© 2018

 

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Unlock Hidden Cash from Your Balance Sheet

 

Need cash in a hurry? Here’s how business owners can look to their financial statements to improve cash flow. 

Receivables

Many businesses turn first to their receivables when trying to drum up extra cash. For example, you could take a carrot-and-stick approach to your accounts receivable — offering early bird discounts to new or trustworthy customers while tightening credit policies or employing in-house collections staff to “talk money in the door.”

But be careful: Using too much stick could result in a loss of customers, which would obviously do more harm than good. So don’t rely on amped up collections alone for help. Also consider refining your collection process through measures such as electronic invoicing, requesting upfront payments from customers with questionable credit and using a bank lockbox to speed up cash deposits.

Inventory

The next place to find extra cash is inventory. Keep this account to a minimum to reduce storage, pilferage and security costs. This also helps you keep a closer, more analytical eye on what’s in stock.

Have you upgraded your inventory tracking and ordering systems recently? Newer ones can enable you to forecast demand and keep overstocking to a minimum. In appropriate cases, you can even share data with customers and suppliers to make supply and demand estimates more accurate.

Payables

With payables, the approach is generally the opposite of how to get cash from receivables. That is, you want to delay the payment process to keep yourself in the best possible cash position.

But there’s a possible downside to this strategy: Establishing a reputation as a slow payer can lead to unfavorable payment terms and a compromised credit standing. If this sounds familiar, see whether you need to rebuild your vendors’ trust. The goal is to, indeed, take advantage of deferred payments as a form of interest-free financing while still making those payments within an acceptable period.

Is your balance sheet lean?

Smooth day-to-day operations require a steady influx of cash. By cutting the “fat” from your working capital accounts, you can generate and deploy liquid cash to maintain your company’s competitive edge and keep it in good standing with stakeholders. For more ideas on how to manage balance sheet items more efficiently, contact us.

© 2018

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2 Tax Credits Just for Small Businesses May Reduce Your 2017 and 2018 Tax Bills

Tax credits reduce tax liability dollar-for-dollar, potentially making them more valuable than deductions, which reduce only the amount of income subject to tax. Maximizing available credits is especially important now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has reduced or eliminated some tax breaks for businesses. Two still-available tax credits are especially for small businesses that provide certain employee benefits.

1. Credit for paying health care coverage premiums

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) offers a credit to certain small employers that provide employees with health coverage. Despite various congressional attempts to repeal the ACA in 2017, nearly all of its provisions remain intact, including this potentially valuable tax credit.

The maximum credit is 50% of group health coverage premiums paid by the employer, if it contributes at least 50% of the total premium or of a benchmark premium. For 2017, the full credit is available for employers with 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) and average annual wages of $26,200 or less per employee. Partial credits are available on a sliding scale to businesses with fewer than 25 FTEs and average annual wages of less than $52,400.

The credit can be claimed for only two years, and they must be consecutive. (Credits claimed before 2014 don’t count, however.) If you meet the eligibility requirements but have been waiting to claim the credit until a future year when you think it might provide more savings, claiming the credit for 2017 may be a good idea. Why? It’s possible the credit will go away in the future if lawmakers in Washington continue to try to repeal or replace the ACA.

At this point, most likely any ACA repeal or replacement wouldn’t go into effect until 2019 (or possibly later). So if you claim the credit for 2017, you may also be able to claim it on your 2018 return next year (provided you again meet the eligibility requirements). That way, you could take full advantage of the credit while it’s available.

2. Credit for starting a retirement plan

Small employers (generally those with 100 or fewer employees) that create a retirement plan may be eligible for a $500 credit per year for three years. The credit is limited to 50% of qualified start-up costs.

Of course, you generally can deduct contributions you make to your employees’ accounts under the plan. And your employees enjoy the benefit of tax-advantaged retirement saving.

If you didn’t create a retirement plan in 2017, you might still have time to do so. Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) can be set up as late as the due date of your tax return, including extensions. If you’d like to set up a different type of plan, consider doing so for 2018 so you can potentially take advantage of the retirement plan credit (and other tax benefits) when you file your 2018 return next year.

Determining eligibility

Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to these tax credits. We’d be happy to help you determine whether you’re eligible for these or other credits on your 2017 return and also plan for credits you might be able to claim on your 2018 return if you take appropriate actions this year.

© 2018

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Footnote Disclosures are Critical to Transparent Financial Reporting

Business owners often complain that they’re required to provide too many disclosures under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). But comprehensive financial statement footnotes contain a wealth of valuable information.

Here are some examples of hidden risk factors that may be discovered by reading footnote disclosures. This information is good to know when evaluating your company’s performance, as well as when evaluating the performance of publicly traded competitors or potential M&A targets.

Unreported or contingent liabilities

A company’s balance sheet might not reflect all future obligations. Detailed footnotes may reveal, for example, a potentially damaging lawsuit, an IRS inquiry or an environmental claim. Footnotes also spell out the details of loan terms, warranties, contingent liabilities and leases.

Related-party transactions

Companies may give preferential treatment to, or receive it from, related parties. Footnotes are supposed to disclose related parties with whom the company conducts business.

For example, say a retailer rents retail space from its owner’s parents at below-market rents, saving roughly $200,000 each year. Because the retailer doesn’t disclose that this favorable related-party deal exists, the business appears more profitable on the face of its income statement than it really is. When the owner’s parents unexpectedly die — and the owner’s sister, who inherits the real estate, raises the rent — the retailer could fall on hard times and the stakeholders could be blindsided by the undisclosed related-party risk.

Accounting changes

Footnotes disclose the nature and justification for a change in accounting principle, as well as that change’s effect on the financial statements. Valid reasons exist to change an accounting method, such as a regulatory mandate. But dishonest managers can use accounting changes in, say, depreciation or inventory reporting methods to manipulate financial results.

Significant events

Outside stakeholders appreciate a forewarning of impending problems, such as the recent loss of a major customer or stricter regulations in effect for the coming year. Footnotes disclose significant events that could materially impact future earnings or impair business value.

Moving target

In recent years, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has been trying to revamp its rules to minimize so-called “disclosure overload,” without compromising financial reporting transparency. Examples of disclosure-related projects currently on the FASB’s radar include fair value measurements, government assistance, inventory and income taxes. We can help you understand the latest developments in footnote disclosures and discuss any concerns you may have when reviewing the fine print in your company’s footnotes — or in the disclosures made by other companies.

© 2018

 

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Don’t Be a Victim of Tax Identity Theft: File Your 2017 Return Early

The IRS has just announced that it will begin accepting 2017 income tax returns on January 29. You may be more concerned about the April 17 filing deadline, or even the extended deadline of October 15 (if you file for an extension by April 17). After all, why go through the hassle of filing your return earlier than you have to?

But it can be a good idea to file as close to January 29 as possible: Doing so helps protect you from tax identity theft.

All-too-common scam

Here’s why early filing helps: In an all-too-common scam, thieves use victims’ personal information to file fraudulent tax returns electronically and claim bogus refunds. This is usually done early in the tax filing season. When the real taxpayers file, they’re notified that they’re attempting to file duplicate returns.

A victim typically discovers the fraud after he or she files a tax return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. The IRS then must determine who the legitimate taxpayer is.

Tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay legitimate refunds. But if you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a potential thief that will be rejected — not yours.

The IRS is working with the tax industry and states to improve safeguards to protect taxpayers from tax identity theft. But filing early may be your best defense.

W-2s and 1099s

Of course, in order to file your tax return, you’ll need to have your W-2s and 1099s. So another key date to be aware of is January 31 — the deadline for employers to issue 2017 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2017 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments.

If you don’t receive a W-2 or 1099, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If by mid-February you still haven’t received it, you can contact the IRS for help.

Earlier refunds

Of course, if you’ll be getting a refund, another good thing about filing early is that you’ll get your refund sooner. The IRS expects over 90% of refunds to be issued within 21 days.

E-filing and requesting a direct deposit refund generally will result in a quicker refund and also can be more secure. If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2017 return early, please contact us.

© 2018

 

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5 Common Sources of Substantive Audit Evidence

Do you understand how auditors verify account balances and transactions? This knowledge can minimize disruptions when the audit team visits your facilities and maximize the effectiveness of your audit. Here’s a list of five common sources of “substantive evidence” that auditors gather to help them form an opinion regarding your financial statements.

1. Confirmation letters. Auditors send letters to third parties, such as customers or vendors, asking them to verify amounts recorded in the company’s books. There are two types of confirmations: A positive confirmation requests that the recipient complete a form confirming account balances (for example, how much a customer owes the company). A negative confirmation requests that the recipient respond only if the balance is inaccurate.

2. Original source documents. Auditors can verify an account balance or record by vouching (or comparing) it to third-party documentation. For example, an auditor might verify the existence of a vehicle on your fixed asset list by reviewing the invoice from the seller. Vouching enables an auditor to evaluate the accuracy of the amount claimed by the company and whether the company recorded the transaction correctly in its accounting system.

3. Physical observations. Seeing is believing. So, auditors sometimes verify the existence of assets through physical observations and inspections. For example, inventory audit procedures typically include observing or conducting a physical inventory count, inspecting the process to record incoming and outgoing inventory, and analyzing the inventory obsolescence process.

4. Comparisons to external market data. For assets actively traded on the open market, auditors may confirm the amounts claimed on the company’s financial statements by researching pricing data. For example, if the company invests in marketable securities that it plans to sell within one year, an auditor could analyze the prevailing market price to confirm their book value. Likewise, a random sample of parts inventory could be compared to online pricing sheets to confirm that items are reported at the lower of cost or market value.

5. Recalculations. Auditors may verify in-house schedules and records by re-creating them. If the auditor’s work matches the client’s work, it confirms that the underlying accounts appear reasonable. Auditors often rely on this procedure for such items as bank reconciliations and schedules of payroll-related expenses (for example, overtime, benefits and tax payments).

Let’s work together

An effective audit requires coordination between auditors and their clients. Before audit season starts, let’s discuss the types of substantive evidence we expect to gather for each major financial statement category. We can help you anticipate document requests and inquiries, thereby facilitating audit fieldwork.

© 2017

 

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Not Necessarily a Luxury: Outsourcing

For many years, owners of small and midsize businesses looked at outsourcing much like some homeowners viewed hiring a cleaning person. That is, they saw it as a luxury. But no more — in today’s increasingly specialized economy, outsourcing has become a common way to cut costs and obtain expert assistance.

Why would you?

Outsourcing certain tasks that your company has been handling all along offers many benefits. Let’s begin with cost savings. Outsourcing a function effectively could save you a substantial percentage of in-house management expenses by reducing overhead, staffing and training costs. And thanks to the abundant number of independent contractors and providers of outsourced services, you may be able to bargain for competitive pricing.

Outsourcing also allows you to leave administration and support tasks to someone else, freeing up staff members to focus on your company’s core purpose. Plus, the firms that perform these functions are specialists, offering much higher service quality and greater innovations and efficiencies than you could likely muster.

Last, think about accountability — in many cases, vendors will be much more familiar with the laws, regulations and processes behind their specialties and therefore be in a better position to help ensure tasks are done in compliance with any applicable laws and regulations.

What’s the catch?

Of course, potential disadvantages exist as well. Outsourcing a business function obviously means surrendering some control of your personal management style in that area. Some business owners and executives have a tough time with this.

Another issue: integration. Every provider may not mesh with your company’s culture. A bad fit may lead to communication breakdowns and other problems.

Also, in rare cases, you may risk negative publicity from a vendor’s actions. There have been many stories over the years of companies suffering PR damage because of poor working conditions or employment practices at an outsourced facility. You’ve got to research any potential vendor thoroughly to ensure its actions won’t reflect poorly on your business.

To further protect yourself, stipulate your needs carefully in the contract. Pinpoint milestones you can use to ensure deliverables produced up to that point are complete, correct, on time and within budget. And don’t hesitate to tie partial payments to these milestones and assess penalties or even reserve the right to terminate if service falls below a specified level.

Last, build in clauses giving you intellectual property rights to any software or other items a provider develops. After all, you paid for it.

Need more time?

Outsourcing may not be the right solution every time. But it could help your business find more time to flourish and grow. We can help you assess the costs, benefits and risks.

© 2018

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Find Time for Strategic Planning

As a business owner, you know that it’s easy to spend nearly every working hour on the multitude of day-to-day tasks and crises that never seem to end. It’s essential to your company’s survival, however, to find time for strategic planning.

Lost in the weeds

Business owners put off strategic planning for many reasons. New initiatives, for example, usually don’t begin to show tangible results for some time, which can prove frustrating. But perhaps the most significant hurdle is the view that strategic planning is a time-sucking luxury that takes one’s focus off of the challenges directly in front of you.

Although operational activities are obviously essential to keeping your company running, they’re not enough to keep it moving forward and evolving. Accomplishing the latter requires strategic planning. Without it, you can get lost in the weeds, working constantly yet blindly, only to look up one day to find your business teetering on the edge of a cliff — whether because of a tough new competitor, imminent product or service obsolescence, or some other development that you didn’t see coming.

Quality vs. quantity

So how much time should you and your management team devote to strategic planning? There’s no universal answer. Some experts say a CEO should spend only 50% of his or her time on daily operations, with the other half going to strategy — a breakdown that could be unrealistic for some.

The emphasis is better put on quality rather than quantity. However many hours you decide to spend on strategic planning, use that time solely for plotting the future of your company. Block off your schedule, choose a designated and private place (such as a conference room), and give it your undivided attention. Make time for strategic planning just as you would for tending to an important customer relationship.

Time well spent

Effective strategic planning calls for not only identifying the right business-growing initiatives, but also regularly re-evaluating and adjusting them as circumstances change. Thus, strategizing should be part of your weekly or monthly routine — not just a “once in a while, as is convenient” activity. You may need to delegate some of your current operational tasks to make that happen but, in the long run, it will be time well spent. Please let us know how we can help.

© 2017

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