Many small- and medium-size businesses have been sailing through incredibly turbulent waters for over a year. As of May 2021, 34% of small businesses in the U.S. remained closed. Even as the economy picks up and GDP growth surges back, overall confidence in the small business sector remains low, with inflation, increased labor costs, and potential new taxes posing challenges to recovery.
As small businesses look ahead to a post-pandemic recovery, their CFOs are responsible for more than just the numbers. We must also serve as valuable business partners who can see the bigger picture, understand the ins and outs of our organizations, and identify the best routes to success.
The following are just a few of the ways small-business CFOs can support their CEOs and cross-functional partners.
First and foremost, to make informed decisions related to inventory, expenses, hiring, capital investments, and other areas, managers and owners need clear insight into the business’s financial performance. Finance leaders must ensure they are providing accurate, quality reporting in a timely way. A small business I knew received financial reporting more than 60 days after month’s-end. And, because it didn’t systematically close each reporting period, historical numbers invariably changed.
For small businesses, cash is king. It is the company’s lifeblood. Without it, turn out the lights, close the doors, and go home. As such, CFOs need to pay particular attention to cash flow. After more than a year of financial difficulties, recovery for many small businesses will depend on their ability to ensure cash is once again coming in. But finance leaders must go beyond simply monitoring cash flow — they must proactively manage it. For example, finance needs to aggressively ensure customers are paying consistently, fully, and on time. This is not the time to let payments slide.
Looking beyond COVID-19, leadership teams should be revisiting their strategic plans or defining them if not already in place. (Unfortunately, many smaller companies may not have typically prioritized strategic planning.) Having insight into financial performance and forecasting, finance leaders can and should be instrumental in the process.
For example, at The PTI (Plastic Technologies Inc.) Group of Companies, the company I am CFO of, historically focused on research and development (R&D) for sustainable packaging innovation, including niche manufacturing initially offered as an extension to PTI’s R&D services. After I arrived, we developed a multi-year plan, including significant investment in new manufacturing equipment based on our strategic assessment that the niche manufacturing side of the business held untapped potential. When the pandemic arrived, we saw a significant uptick in need for our containers consistent with consumer demand for hand sanitizer and other products related to pandemic fears. We were able to confidently implement our strategies more rapidly than planned.
Navigating through short-term challenges and contingency planning are business imperatives for small business recovery. For example, what is your plan for transitioning from remote work? Will your employees go back to the office full-time, or will you permit hybrid work arrangements? Finance leaders should be on top of current regulations, including those governing face mask mandates and social distancing. They should be inquisitive by probing staff about such decisions and related implications.
At PTI, while discussing new protocols for those who have been vaccinated and whether we should inquire about vaccination status, my line of questions helped drive the conversation forward. It helped us arrive at optimal policies acceptable to everyone.
CFOs should also ensure the leadership team invests time in contingency planning. Though conventional wisdom says we’re exiting the pandemic, there could be lapses that potentially endanger investments being made that are predicated on a quick and consistent economic recovery. As finance leaders, we must keep an eye on trends and possible virus resurgences. In the event of a relapse, we must be prepared to offer opportunities for cutting costs and protecting the business.
CFOs can be the catalyst for change around issues related to sustainability, an increasingly important topic for businesses large and small. Finance leaders can help integrate sustainability issues into reporting alongside traditional financial metrics and balance the bottom line with more long-term concerns. Embracing sustainability can lead to concrete financial benefits by marketing the company as sustainable and conscientious of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.
At PTI, we recently entered our U.S. locations into a demand response program: In a potential grid emergency, we have committed to reducing electric usage at our sites upon short notice. While we may receive a small payment for participating, the more critical benefit is operational, as we’ll receive advance notice of a potential blackout. That will let us proactively shut down in a controlled manner, insulating our equipment and product from damage.
Many smaller companies tend to take their bankers, accounting firms, liability insurance brokers, and other such relationships for granted. During the best of times, this complacency is a risk. It is vital to shore up such relationships during uncertain times, whether for cost savings, enhanced benefits, or more robust compliance. CFOs should lead the way in maintaining and building valuable relationships with these partners.
As small and medium-size businesses struggle to recover and grow this year, we, their CFOs, are well-positioned to offer valuable leadership across all these areas, going well beyond merely tracking profits and losses and closing the books. Our value will be in steering our companies through turbulent waters toward brighter, post-pandemic shores, keeping an eye out for trouble on the horizon, and re-imagining the long-term destination.
Steve McNally, CMA, CPA, is chair-elect of the Institute of Management Accountants and CFO of The PTI (Plastic Technologies Inc.) Group of Companies.