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Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance Insolvency

Update – sacked Small Business Commissioner speaks out

Small Business Commissioner sacked - for telling the truth?The now-ex Small Business Commissioner, Paul Uppal, has accused the Government of thwarting attempts to help SMEs tackle the late payment scourge.
Mr Uppal has reportedly blamed Whitehall for pushing him out of a role which, he says, is under-resourced and ignored by government.
He said that his office was met with “radio silence” from civil servants and ministers over his approach to the job and that his budget was too small to tackle the “huge task” of getting big companies to pay small businesses on time.
He also revealed a little more detail about the reason for his sacking, which was “a disagreement over an alleged conflict of interest related to an unpaid, interim advisory role in another government-backed small business scheme”.
The Times, is the only national broadsheet to cover the story, although it has been picked up by the online publication smallbusiness.co.uk.
It seems that The Times is becoming the champion of SMEs, carrying another article on the same day about a poll from the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) that found that almost one in six businesses said most payments are settled late. Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of CIPS, said there was a “rotten culture” of late payment. The organisation has been calling for big businesses that are slow to settle invoices to be barred from public sector work.
Another poll out this week from Xero, the online accountancy platform, revealed that a quarter of small business owners believe their company will go bust within 5 years, with 54% warning that late payments posed a risk to their firm.
The FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) has repeatedly said that late payment is the cause of an estimated 50,000 small businesses go under each year because of “pernicious” late payment. This figure might be questioned given that there were 17,454 formal company insolvencies in 2018 however I accept a liberal interpretation to allow for sole traders and companies ceasing to trade.

Does the Government care about or understand the pressures on SMEs?

According to research from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, at the start of 2018 a massive 99.9% of the 5.7 million businesses in the UK are small or medium-size businesses (SMEs). Of these only 0.6% of businesses in the UK are classed at medium-sized businesses.
This arguably makes SMEs an essential contributor to the economy and the provision of jobs.
Yet there has been no word on the appointment of a replacement for Mr Uppal, since I reported in my blog on November 19 the Government’s statement: “An open recruitment campaign to appoint a new Small Business Commissioner will get started immediately.”
Allegedly Fiona Dickie, the Deputy Pubs Code Adjudicator, was to provide oversight in the Small Business Commissioner role until early November, pending the appointment of an interim commissioner.
However, there has been a deafening silence from her, the General Election notwithstanding.
It has to be asked why an unpaid, voluntary advisory role for Mr Uppal was deemed to be a conflict of interest with his official position?
I have asked previously and I repeat my question: has the Government been successfully lobbied by some large corporates to roll back this initiative? Was he becoming too successful?

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Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting Debt Collection & Credit Management Finance

Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal sacked– is this down to his success in holding large companies to account?

Small Business Commissioner sacked - for telling the truth?In a worrying development the Government has sacked Paul Uppal, the Small Business Commissioner, over what it called a “conflict of interest”.
Even more worryingly, the only news outlet to report on the development was The Times, on October 12.
It reports that “the business department felt his involvement in establishing a bank redress scheme was a conflict of interest”.
So far, apart from the report in The Times, there has been a deafening silence on this development.
Mr Uppal’s role as a mediator of payment disputes between small and large companies was established in 2016.
His dismissal came just a few days after the Government had announced that Mr Uppal’s role was to be expanded to having a seat on the Compliance Board of the Prompt Payment Code, which it was intending also to strengthen.
The Government said: “Fiona Dickie, the Deputy Pubs Code Adjudicator, will provide oversight in the Small Business Commissioner role until early November, pending the appointment of an interim commissioner.
“An open recruitment campaign to appoint a new Small Business Commissioner will get started immediately.”

Has the Small Business Commissioner been too successful?

It was announced in December 2018 that in the first year of the Commissioner’s existence unpaid invoices worth £2.1 million to small businesses across the UK have been recovered. Subsequently that amount had reached £3.5 million.
Mr Uppal also began the practice of naming and shaming those large businesses that were failing to meet the terms of the Prompt Payment Code and of actually removing some of them from its lists.
They included Holland & Barrett, Jordans & Ryvita, BHP Billiton, DHL and GKN, G4S, Bupa Insurance and Zurich Insurance.
Clearly, there is a need for government intervention on behalf of SMEs when payments are withheld by larger customers.
A study by FinTech firm Previse shows that small suppliers are paid an average of 30 days later than the largest firms. And a separate survey by Hitachi Capital Business Finance found the proportion of SMEs that were taking legal action chasing late payments from clients had grown from 31% to 40% over the past year with more than 60% of SMEs affected by late payments.
IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employment) Deputy Director of Policy, Andy Chamberlain, said: ““Late payment is still the scourge of the self-employed. In fact, IPSE research has found the average freelancer spends 20 days a year chasing clients who have failed to pay them on time.”
Mike Cherry, the chairman of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), said: “We’ve made some genuine progress on the late payments front since the Small Business Commissioner first took office back in 2017…. This is a disappointing development, one that will put the brakes on our efforts to date.
He added: “The appointment process needs to be efficient and thorough  .. We can’t delay further action to tackle this crisis, especially in such an uncertain climate.”
Notwithstanding that we are in the run-up to a General Election, when all Government business is suspended there are a number of questions in need of answers on this situation and on the future of both the Small Business Commissioner and the Late Payment Code.
So, the question I would ask is has the Government been successfully lobbied by some large corporates to roll back this initiative. Was it becoming too successful?
Why was Mr Uppal sacked and was it really his involvement in establishing a bank redress scheme that was claimed to be a conflict of interest?
Have UK’s SMEs been consigned to limbo?

Categories
Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance Insolvency

Late payments situation getting worse for some SMEs

late payments penalty?According to the ICAEW (Independent Chartered Accountants of England and Wales) late payments to SMEs are a bigger problem than they were a year ago.
Of the nine SME industries analysed, it said, six had reported that the problem of late payments was worsening.
The FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) too, has said that while there have been some improvements thanks to the efforts of the Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal, late payments remain a major problem and research by Lloyds Bank Commercial released at the end of last month found that last year almost two thirds (62%) of SMEs that were being paid late “failed to chase up for fear of harming customer relationships” also cited time constraints as a significant factor.
The cost to small businesses has been considerable, according to research published by Hitachi Capital earlier this month. It estimates late payments have cost SMEs £51.5bn in the last year.
Its survey of 1000 businesses found that 31% have experienced late payments costing their business at least £10,000 in the last 12 months.
It said that 27% reported that late payments have hit profits, while 12% said the issue had forced them to defer pay to staff. Around 40% have had to use their own money to fund cash flow in their business, with 80% using personal savings to keep their business operational.
Mr Uppal has meanwhile continued to investigate SME complaints and published reports since I last provided an update on the situation.
In mid-July he suspended 18 companies from the Prompt Payment Code, including BT Plc, British American Tobacco and Centrica.
He investigated several complaints and has published reports naming and shaming the companies involved.
They included Bupa Insurance Services Ltd who had failed to pay an invoice for £29,403.76 on 2 November 2018 based on 45-day end of month payment terms. Payment was eventually made 30 days late on January 15 2019 after the SME and Mr Uppal had chased on several occasions.
Also named and shamed in separate reports were Zurich Insurance PLC which eventually paid a claim 65 days later than its agreed payment terms.
Another company, Sambro International failed to pay a small graphic design company within its promised 30 days, for two invoices submitted in November and December 2018. Eventually following Mr Uppal’s investigation, one was paid 56 days late and the second 23 days outside their contracted terms.
Clearly, Mr Uppal and the Chartered Institute of Credit Management (CICM), which administers the system of removal of businesses from the Prompt Payment Code are doing their best, but in the current uncertain economic climate SMEs have enough to worry about without this constant and relentless mistreatment by larger customers and it is well past time the Small Business Commissioner was given stronger powers of enforcement.

Categories
Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance

Proposal to strengthen sanctions for late payments culprits

late payments penalty?Some 18 months since the appointment of Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal to tackle the problem of late payments to SME suppliers by larger companies it seems that the situation has barely improved.
In fact, according to research published in June by Purbeck Insurance Services late payment problems have actually got worse for 27% of SMEs with some 30% reporting worsening cash flow problems.
In the first quarter of this year Mr Uppal’s department has overseen the removal or suspension of some 17 companies that had signed up to the Prompt Payment Code (PPC) but failed to meet its standards.
The five removed altogether included BHP Billiton, DHL and GKN Plc. Signatories to the PPC pledge, among other things, agree to pay 95% of all supplier invoices within 60 days.
In its most recent completed case in May 2019 the Small Business Commissioner (SBC) was approached by a SME over the failure by G4S to pay it an invoice for £31,880.49 despite having contracted to do so within 60 days.
Although G4S claimed this was an isolated incident and the invoice was paid immediately it was contacted by the SBC, further investigation found persistent late payment of previous invoices over an 18-month period.
Now the Government’s small business minister Kelly Tolhurst has announced proposals to consult on strengthening Mr Uppal’s powers.
The proposals include making directors accountable for overseeing their payment practices, which would have to be detailed in their annual reports.
They also propose strengthening the powers of the small business commissioner to tackle late payments through imposing fines and introducing binding payment plans.
The proposals have been welcomed by Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses while the IoD (Institute of Directors) is reported in an article published by CityAM to have said  that they marked a significant step forward: “Forcing larger firms to report on their payment practices will ensure much greater scrutiny where standards fall short, and sunlight is often the best disinfectant,”
In another development, from September this year firms that do not pay 95% of subcontractors within 60 days risk being frozen out of public sector procurement. The new rules force companies to report their payment data every six months to a national database overseen by the business department. This will no doubt encourage whistle blowing by those who are not paid within the 60 day deadline.
It is clear that voluntary agreements by large companies as well as being named and shamed are not going to be sufficient to halt the scourge of late payment to SMEs but barring large companies from public sector contracts and moves to strengthen the SBC powers are to be welcomed as they may change the late payment culture that seems to be embedded.

Categories
Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting Debt Collection & Credit Management Finance

Can SMEs have confidence in the Government’s new Small Business Commissioner?

mall business commissioner a superhero?In December 2017 the UK Government appointed a Small Business Commissioner with the remit of supporting SMEs struggling with late and unfair payment practices when dealing with larger businesses.
The Commissioner appointed to tackle this is Paul Uppal, who ran his own small business for 20 years, and it will be his job to support SMEs in taking action on late payments and on making a complaint.  There is also a website where SMEs can get help.
Three months after his appointment, however, research by Close Brothers Invoice Finance found that very few SMEs have any confidence that the Commissioner will be able to make a difference. Their report says: “84% of SMEs do not anticipate that the introduction of the small business commissioner will have any positive impact on their business.”
According to Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB): “The UK is gripped by a poor payments crisis, over 30% of payments to small businesses are late and the average value of each payment is £6,142. This not only impacts on the small business and the owner, it is damaging the wider economy.”
It has been estimated by the Centre for Economic and Business Research that a group of 22,000 so-called high growth small businesses make a disproportionately large contribution to the economy, providing an estimated £65,000 per worker compared to the national average of £55,000.
However, while very high on the list, ‘late payment’ was not SMEs’ only concern when asked about their issues and prospects for 2018.
According to a survey by chiefexecutive.com, high on the SME list of challenges were firstly recruiting, retaining and developing quality people, followed by managing growth and change (specifically access to and cost of funding) and the Government’s competence, regulation and understanding of business.
In fourth place was managing uncertainty (the wider geo-political and economic context). Other research has found that more than half of SMEs felt that their Brexit concerns were being ignored and that ministers were not listening to their views.
Given that SMEs are seen as the key to improving the UK economy’s growth and productivity plainly they will need as much support as possible.
As the deadline for leaving the EU is less than a year away it is high time that there was serious attention paid to SME voices and that significant and effective steps taken to address them.
The Small Business Commissioner appointment is a start, but he might also take up other causes for small businesses, not least holding banks to account for their dealings with SMEs. There is the prospect of a complaints procedure that avoids the need to deal with issues through the courts. There is also the creeping nature of fees and charges which go unreported in the press, the latest being Lloyds revised fees that for some have in interest rates being increased up to 52% and fees being increased by 240%.
it remains to be seen how effective the new Commissioner will be.

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Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting General Interim Management & Executive Support Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Turnaround

Build a Flexible Business Model to Ensure Perpetual Survival

While businesses might be concerned about a eurozone Armageddon, whatever the outcome they will need to ensure survival for the period of austerity that is likely to characterise the next decade.
Although growth is desirable, and has been the purpose for many businesses, a more realistic objective in times of uncertainty is to stay in business for the next five years.
Arguably the best way to achieve perpetual business survival is to avoid running out of cash. This involves examining all cash commitments and where possible turning fixed costs into variable ones so as to reduce the breakeven level of sales necessary to cover overheads and fixed obligations.
Long-term fixed obligations include fixed-term rents, hire-purchase or lease agreements, repaying loans, servicing interest, supply contracts and staff employment. Common examples of where companies have taken on such commitments tend to relate to: offices, plant and machinery, IT equipment and software, vehicles, signage, furniture, printers and photocopiers, mobile phones and telephone systems.
Most companies also fail to cancel or at least review contracts that automatically renew, such as: IT equipment and plant leases, life insurance, medical policies, employee benefits, subscriptions and membership, servicing and maintenance, office and window cleaning, sanitary towel and waste removal, portable appliance testing (PAT), health, safety and fire extinguisher inspections and so much more.
The key message is to review every payment and check whether it is necessary and you are not being overcharged.
While it sounds counter-intuitive, businesses often make more money by reducing sales. It is worth looking at the quality of contracts and the quality of customers. The benefits from focusing on only those contracts and customers that provide an adequate profit, that pay well and pay on time can be considerable.  Gross profit margins are increased, overheads are reduced by not having to chase payment and less cash is needed to fund pre-sale payments and post-sale credit. The flexible business model means that you no longer need to take on unprofitable work.
All too many companies are too focussed on chasing sales (and tails) to review costs and find ways to reduce them so reviews should also look at other ways to cut spending. Huge savings can be made on travel and communications costs by using internet-based phone and video conferencing facilities like Skype or VOIP services, for example.
The flexible business model is based on a principle of not having to pay out cash if there is no cash coming in. It needs leadership and teamwork but a focus on improving profitability, on reducing costs and on converting fixed overheads into variable ones means that a business can achieve perpetual survival.

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Debt Collection & Credit Management General Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Turnaround

Construction in Crisis – Time for a Reconstruction?

The ongoing economic crisis continues to take its toll on the construction industry with the sad news that a high profile company that was more than 100 years old has gone into administration.
KPMG have been appointed as administrators of London-based Holloway White Allom, which recently completed a refurbishment of the Victoria & Albert Museum, for which it won a conservation award.
The company, founded in 1882, was known for high profile contracts including the refurbishment of the Bank of England in the 1930s, the construction of Admiralty Buildings on Horse Guards Parade, of the Old Bailey in the early 1900s and the fountains in Trafalgar Square.
Although the company was undergoing a turnaround and restructure, following a cash injection earlier in the year from private equity firm Privet Capital, it is understood that it was forced into administration by late payment for one large project.
This latest high profile casualty comes as the construction industry faces increasing pressure. ONS figures show that output on public housing was down by 5.3% and on other public projects by 7.5% during the three months to August 2011 compared with Q3 last year, and accountancy firm Deloitte reports that the number of property and construction companies that went into administration in Q3 2011 rose by 11% to 117 compared to 105 in the same period last year.
However, some sectors of the industry are faring better than others.  Bellway, for example, this week posted a 50% annual increase in pre-tax profits, smaller construction companies focusing on repair and refurbishment are also surviving well and commercial construction activity has increased for the 19th month in a row.
Those companies that took steps to restructure their business to focus on what is likely to survive in a declining market and to deal with indebtedness early in the recession have done well. 
This suggests that those companies with a bad debt or over-indebtedness due to historical loans should consider restructuring their businesses before they run out of cash. It is not too late for them, but they are likely to require a restructuring adviser to help them.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Cash Flow & Forecasting Debt Collection & Credit Management Factoring, Invoice Discounting & Asset Finance General Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery Voluntary Arrangements - CVAs

Businesses Should Pay Down Debt and Beware Offers That Seem Too Good to be True

Many businesses are overburdened with debt and desperate for ways to deal with pressure from banks, HMRC and other creditors. All too often they are prepared to pay off old debt by taking on new debt which leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous lenders.
Prior to 2008, interest-only loans and overdrafts were a common method of funding, and were reliant on being able to renew facilities or refinancing.
Like many interest-only loans, an overdraft is renewed, normally on an annual basis, but it is also repayable on demand. What happens when the bank doesn’t want to renew the overdraft facility?  With the economic climate continuing to be volatile and uncertain and banks under intense pressure to improve their own balance sheets, they are increasingly insisting on converting overdrafts to repayment loans and interest-only finance is disappearing.
This has created a vacuum for alternative sources of funding to enter the market where distinguishing between the credible salesman and the ‘snake oil’ salesman can be very difficult. Desperate businesses are desperate often try to borrow money and become more vulnerable to what at first sight seem to be lenders that can offer them alternative funding solutions that the banks cannot.
Generally the advice is to beware, as the recent eight-year prison sentence handed to “Lord” Eddie Davenport illustrates.  The charges related to a conspiracy to defraud, deception and money laundering, also referred to as “advanced fees fraud”. 
The court found Davenport and two others guilty in September. Meanwhile a large number of businesses had paid tens of thousands of pounds for due diligence and deposit fees for loans that never materialised and left victims even deeper in debt. The case only became reportable in October, when restrictions were lifted.
Many businesses just want to survive and are trading with no plan or in some cases no prospect for repaying debt. In such instances they should be considering options for improving their balance sheet by reducing debt. Options might include swapping debt for equity, or debt forgiveness by creditors or setting up a CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement).

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Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting County Court, Legal & Litigation Debt Collection & Credit Management Factoring, Invoice Discounting & Asset Finance General Interim Management & Executive Support Rescue, Restructuring & Recovery

Companies are failing to manage Debt Collection and Credit terms

Many companies are risking their own solvency and ability to carry on trading because they neither manage their debt collection proactively nor have clear procedures for setting and imposing credit terms with their customers. Consequently they are suffering from late payments, or worse having to write off invoices due to bad debts.
They compound the problem by extending credit to customers who turn out to be a bad risk.  If a customer is itself borrowing money under a factoring or invoice discount facility then the company is depending on their customer’s customers thus creating a pack of cards that if recoursed as a bad debt after 90 days could bring down everyone in a supply chain.
I believe the root of the problem to be the company’s own credit management where I find that very few companies have a robust system in place.
The key steps are to do a credit check on any new customer, to set limits, manage them and regularly review customers’ credit levels.
Getting paid however requires more than just a credit check, it involves starting management of invoice payment long before it is due. Checking the invoice is approved for payment for example, will avoid discovering that the order was not fulfilled exactly as required, or the invoice has not been received! 
Paperwork is crucial. There should be a procedure in place whereby the delivered/ completed order is signed for/ off with a clause on the document that includes written confirmation that the customer’s requirement has been satisfactorily fulfilled.
In addition companies also need late payment procedures. If an invoice remains unpaid after the due date, a robust system for managing late and non paying customers should include putting a stop on processing any further orders and debt collection that may result in litigation, and enforcement if necessary.