Typically, there is significant triage to be done before determining if you can improve banking relationships. Most often, the problems come back to cash flow and misunderstanding what banks do. While Boards do not manage bank relationships directly, they are responsible for the firm’s capital structure, and that always includes the bank relationship. In these cases, the Board exercises its voice to the bank through the CEO and CFO.
The two issues which drive the banking relationship are:
Character – Will the borrower put the bank’s interests ahead of the company’s?
Cash flow – Does the company have enough margin of safety in its cash flow so that the bank is assured it will get its money back?
Frequently, in the recent past, I had to help a number of clients improve banking relationships and when the tough conversations would begin, I had to ask clients to view their bank as if it were a company that leases highly sensitive scientific research equipment. Think of a piece of equipment in a police forensics lab for example.
Borrowing money is like leasing a DNA Sequencer because the business issues are the same:
Relationships: The bank wants to know you well before you submit an application, and the leasing company will not send equipment until they are convinced they can trust you with it.
Repayment Costs: They want all of their money/equipment returned on time. You pay interest/fees/lease payments for the privilege of using their equipment/money.
Duration Expertise: In both cases, there is a deadline for returning their asset. You cannot receive the money/equipment until they know your CFO/scientists know how to operate it properly.
Controls: Regular calibrations/covenants are used to prevent the money/equipment from being misused.
Customization: You negotiate the specifications of the loan/equipment to best suit your needs.
When put in this light, it is easier to understand why banks behave the way they do. If you have a current facility, then yes, you are a client of the bank. But only so long as you follow their rules. They really care more about getting their money back than what happens to your business.
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Transparency is important if you want to improve banking relationships. As Greg Powell, Head of Brand and Product Marketing at Fundbox said in an interview, “The more info you can provide, the better. Make sure the info you present shows the best and most complete picture of your business. Either choose to show multiple bank accounts, if you have multiple, or choose the single one that best reflects your performance.”
In short, you should expect banks to care more about their success than yours. You can improve banking relationships by adjusting your expectations and by understanding the expectations of your bank.
A banker I have worked with on several assignments summarized the issues from an insider’s perspective. His bluntness is based on 30 years of seeing how things really work:
While one doesn’t usually associate Edgar Allan Poe with banking, this take on his classic poem The Raven sums things up nicely:
Quoth the Banker, “Watch Cash Flow”
Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of accounting lore,
Seeking gimmicks (without scruple) to squeeze through
Some new tax loophole,
Suddenly I heard a knock upon my door,
Only this, and nothing more.
Then I felt a queasy tingling and I heard the cash a-jingling
As a fearsome banker entered whom I’d often seen before.
His face was money-green and in his eyes there could be seen
Dollar-signs that seemed to glitter as he reckoned up the score.
“Cash flow,” the banker said, and nothing more.
I had always thought it fine to show a jet black bottom line.
But the banker sounded a resounding, “No.
Your receivables are high, mounting upward toward the sky;
Write-offs loom. What matters is cash flow.”
He repeated, “Watch cash flow.”
Then I tried to tell the story of our lovely inventory
Which, though large, is full of most delightful stuff.
But the banker saw its growth, and with a might oath
He waved his arms and shouted, “Stop! Enough!
Pay the interest, and don’t give me any guff!”
Next I looked for noncash items which could add ad infinitum
To replace the ever-outward flow of cash,
But to keep my statement black I’d held depreciation back,
And my banker said that I’d done something rash.
He quivered, and his teeth began to gnash.
When I asked him for a loan, he responded, with a groan,
That the interest rate would be just prime plus eight,
And to guarantee my purity he’d insist on some security—
All my assets plus the scalp upon my pate.
Only this, a standard rate.
Though my bottom line is black, I am flat upon my back,
My cash flows out and customers pay slow.
The growth of my receivables is almost unbelievable:
The result is certain—unremitting woe!
And I hear the banker utter an ominous low mutter,
“Watch cash flow.”
Herbert S. Bailey, Jr.
Source: Reprinted from the January 13, 1975, issue of Publishers Weekly, Published by R. R. Bowker, a Xerox company. Copyright 1975 by the Xerox Corporation.
Bruce Werner is the Managing Director of Kona Advisors LLC and served as an outside director on private company boards for the last three decades. Kona Advisors LLC provides advisory services to the owners, investors and CEOs of private and family-owned businesses. With deep experience in governance, succession planning, finance, strategy and management issues, Kona…
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