Laughing All The Way From The Bank
THE DAY THE BANK CALLED his loan, Bob Hofmiller thought it was some sort of a joke. He couldn't believe that any lender would choose that particular moment to end its relationship with his company. After all, bridge decay was a hot issue in the summer of 1984, thanks to the collapse of a bridge on the Connecticut Turnpike the previous year, and Hofmiller's company -- D.F.M. Enterprises Inc. -- just happened to be in the bridge-inspection-equipment business. After years of scraping by, D.F.M. suddenly found itself deluged with queries from around the country. In a matter of days, New York State was due to sign a contract for more than $1 million of D.F.M.'s bridge-inspection devices, and other big orders were in the offing. "And once we had an order in hand," says Hofmiller, D.F.M.'s vice-president, "there was practically no risk."
But the bank didn't see it that way. "Our local bank had just been acquired by Connecticut National Bank," he recalls, "and the new guys told us to pay off our loans. They wanted nothing to do with us."
For the next few weeks, Hofmiller and his brother Richard, president and founder of D.F.M., scrambled to find another source of capital. With the company's future hanging in the balance, they finally convinced a local savings bank to lend them $50,000. Today, D.F.M. Enterprises (#124) is a $2.2-million business sporting a $500,000 line of credit.
To talk with the chief executives of INC. 500 companies is to hear one story after another of narrow escapes from cold-footed bankers -- loans abruptly canceled for no logical reason; banks getting merged into indifference; sympathetic lending officers disappearing just when they are needed most. Whatever the proximate cause of the trouble, the news always comes as a shock and usually elicits the same response -- something very much akin to panic. Most executives respond as the Hofmillers did and go pounding the pavement in search of another bank. Some look for capital from another funding source. But a few INC. 500 companies have taken an altogether different route, developing strategies that minimize such problems by leaving bankers and other investors on the sidelines.
Take Scosche Industries Inc. (#269), which designs, manufactures, and distributes car-stereo accessories. Roger Alves, president, and Scotia Alves, vice-president, started the company on a shoestring back in 1980 and soon realized that, to survive, they would have to make the shoestring stretch. "We were always tight on cash," says Roger. Hoping to conserve what cash they had, he negotiated supplier agreements that included a "Just-in-Time" twist. Rather than taking delivery in one shipment, Scosche would often divide up an order so that materials would be delivered as they were needed. The company thereby kept its payables relatively low and reduced its need for bank credit. "I find that the best vendors are happy to accommodate us," says Roger, who continues the practice today even though Scosche is well beyond the shoestring stage, with such customers as Sony and Radio Shack and annual revenues of $3.6 million.
For Richard B. Boyd Sr., it was the downturn in the Texas economy that forced him to look for ways to conserve cash. Before that, he had relied on personally guaranteed bank loans to fund the rapid growth of Ford's Chemical & Service Inc. (#499), a Pasadena, Tex., manufacturer of pesticides. Then the banks turned squeamish. "If I were losing money like they are, I'd be petrified too," he says.
Like the Alveses, Boyd went to his suppliers for help with his cash-flow problems, persuading his biggest source, The Dow Chemical Co., that it was better off having a healthy customer than a floundering debtor. Dow agreed to ship raw materials in November and wait for payment until May, after the spring selling season. While some suppliers haven't been quite as flexible, major suppliers give Boyd 60 or 90 days to pay. That doesn't answer all of his capital needs. "We'd like to build bigger facilities and buy better packaging equipment," he says. But he probably has a better shot at getting long-term financing for those projects, now that he has reduced his company's revolving bank credit. "Without these deals, we'd need another several hundred thousand dollars in working capital."
If vendors offer one potential alternative to bank credit, customers offer another. Silver Lining Seafoods Ltd. (#152) uses both, although that was not always the case. In its first four years of operation, the company, located in Ketchikan, Alaska, covered its short-term cash needs by borrowing from a small Alaska bank. (Long-term financing came from 25 limited partners, to whom it passed along tax credits and depreciation.) Then, in July 1984, the bank suddenly canceled its credit line with no advance notice -- right in the midst of the fishing season, when cash was needed most. "The lending officer was new to our account," says managing partner Terry L. Gardiner, "and he didn't know the difference between operating losses and tax losses. So he looked at our tax losses and thought we were illiquid."
Silver Lining found another bank within a couple of months, but the experience totally changed Gardiner's approach to financing growth. Now, the company goes to great lengths to teach its suppliers about the quirks of the fishing business, including its seasonal nature. Once they are educated, Gardiner says, "they usually agree to let us slide a couple of months on our payments." Meanwhile, Silver Lining has also become more selective about its customers, doing as much as 40% of its business with large foreign concerns that agree to pay cash. As a result, Silver Lining is far less dependent on its bank than before.
"The way we run the business, our credit needs are less than half those of comparable-size companies in our industry," says Gardiner. "It forces us to do our homework and even turn away customers. But we think it's the right way to operate."
C.O.D. can, of course, do wonders for any company's cash flow, reducing the need for other sources of money. But it may be tricky to arrange if service is what you deliver, rather than product -- especially if you deliver your service over time.
Tricky, but not impossible.
Building System Evaluation Inc. (#283), in Sierra Madre, Calif., advises corporations and government agencies on the condition of hazardous materials and major systems in older buildings before they are purchased. Started in 1982, the company grew like mad, as did its accounts receivable. That's a penalty of rapid growth, notes founder and chief executive Frank Goss: "You can't collect the money as fast as you need it." With nothing but receivables as collateral, Goss soon discovered that bankers were unwilling to meet his escalating credit needs.
One option was to cut back on services, another to raise prices. Before doing either, however, Goss went to his six leading clients, explained his financial predicament, and asked them to help. "They all knew our capabilities," he says. "I told them that if we didn't get more financing, we'd have to turn away work or substantially increase our prices." To continue receiving the level of service to which they were accustomed, Goss said, they would henceforth have to pay one-third of Building System's fee upon signing a contract.
Goss concedes that his proposition was not greeted with enthusiasm in every instance, but his logic was hard to refute, and his credibility was well established. One by one, the major clients agreed to cooperate. Others have since followed suit. Today, Building System has emerged from its cash crisis, and new clients regularly pay one-third of their fees up front. "If somebody resists," says Goss, "we're not interested in doing the work."
So there are ways for a company to reduce its dependence on bank financing -- which is not to suggest that growing companies can bypass bankers altogether. For better or worse, the vast majority must still look to banks to provide them with at least some of the capital they need to grow, perhaps even most of it. They may not get what they want, when they want it, and -- judging by the experience of the INC. 500 companies -- they are probably in for some unpleasant surprises along the way.
If they are lucky, however, they may even get the last laugh.
Bob Hofmiller of D.F.M. Enterprises, the bridge-inspection-equipment company, still laughs when he tells about the recent visit of two young lending officers from Connecticut National Bank, the bank that called his loan back in 1984. Unaware of any previous experience, the pair inquired about D.F.M.'s credit needs. "I could see their eyes light up when I told them about our $500,000 credit line from another bank," Hofmiller recalls. They launched into their sales pitch, explaining all the wonderful things their bank could do for a company like D.F.M. Hofmiller let them go on at length. When they were finished, he allowed as how the bank sounded great, but he thought they might want to hear a little story about something that had happened a few years earlier. . . .
"They couldn't waffle fast enough," Hofmiller says with a grin. "It was a wonderful feeling."