COVID-19: Seven strategies to unlock cash flow during the crisis

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following guest column from Maxime Theoret, the CFO at Dealer Solutions, a mergers-and-acquisitions company based in Markham, Ont., is intended as a financial-planning playbook to assist automotive retailers during the coming days, weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time of this writing, it has now been seven days of isolation and everything suggests that this is only the beginning of the crisis. The majority of dealers have either ceased operations completely or reduced their workforce by at least 75 per cent. Demand is declining, showrooms are empty, and service for the most part is running out of steam. According to the most recent government announcements, dealers can be expected to either close or idle in April.

This will put a lot of pressure on companies’ liquidity. Unfortunately, this situation is happening when sales and profits should be flourishing with the coming spring.

Fortunately, there are several options available to dealers in this time of crisis in order to replenish the coffers and in order to navigate the crisis.

Here are the top seven strategies in order of recommendation:

1) Company cash and cash equivalents

It is vital to forecast requirements based on current cash levels. Many dealerships are planning their cash-flow needs to get through the slower winter months, then to replenish the coffers when Spring arrives. This means that current cash levels at dealerships are usually at their lowest level annually due to operations’ seasonality.

However, some have short-term investments or deposits that can be converted to cash quickly and at no cost. The effective interest rate on these funds becomes the opportunity cost. For example, liquidating a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) that bears interest at 1.5 per cent annually will allow you to finance your operations at an effective rate of 1.5 per cent because you will forgo this return. This is without a doubt the lowest and most flexible cost of financing you can use.

2) Increase ‘floor-plan’ financing

Certain dealers might be in an equity position with their vehicle inventory (i.e. the value of their inventory is greater than the level of floor-plan liability) and while respecting their finance source ratios, it may be possible to increase their financed inventory levels and free up cash. This is valid for both new and used vehicle inventory.

The cost of this financing is usually lower than the other types of debts and loans offered by financial institutions. It is also very quick to obtain in the form of liquidity. This is the best financing to use to fill your shortage of liquidity in the short term if accessible.

3) Line of credit

Most dealers already have lines of credit at relatively low rates. As these overdrafts are already in place and, previously negotiated and approved by the bank, you will be able to use them easily to meet short-term cash flow needs.

A line of credit offers a lot of flexibility regarding terms and conditions as well as repayment terms which are entirely at the customer’s discretion. Therefore, there is no long-term commitment or minimum usage level. Once the crisis ends, the line of credit can be refunded, and the interest charged will only be based on the utilized portion and its duration of use. Another major advantage is that no monthly payment results from it other than the interest payment unlike a term loan with monthly interest and principal repayments.

4) Capital injection

Certain entrepreneurs who have accumulated cash reserves and liquid assets could benefit from them during the crisis. Often through other owned businesses, holding or investment companies, or on a personal level, business owners will be able to temporarily use these funds to finance the business.

The opportunity cost is to be considered, since it must be foreseen that the sum that will be loaned/invested in the dealership could be for a period of at least 12 months, possibly longer.

It is possible to inject funds as a loan or equity into a business and it would be wise to consult a tax specialist to determine the best approach. However, in a context where the funds would be needed in the short or medium term, the loan would be much more flexible and simpler.

5) Finance equity on real estate

The majority of car-dealership owners also own their real estate. In the event that their mortgage balance is lower than the value of the property, they have equity in their property. It is possible to monetize this equity with mortgage financing. Mortgage financing is very advantageous due to its low interest rates because the bank will use the real-estate asset as collateral.

The process can, however, be relatively long because it will require a real estate appraisal, except in cases where a recent appraisal is available. The resulting reimbursements are usually fixed monthly and can be amortized over a very long period, which considerably reduces payments.

In today’s environment, banks are flexible, and some will even let you finance up to 80 per cent of the value of the property. It is also advisable to negotiate early repayment clauses allowing you to repay this debt in the shorter term without penalty. This way you can repay down the loan once things are back to normal if you no longer need the extra cash. 

6) Short-term loan

These are not secured against specific assets, but rather based on the ability of the business to generate cash flow in the future to repay the loan. Short-term loans take longer to negotiate and will necessarily lead to a more rigorous analysis to demonstrate the ability of the dealership to repay the debt.

It is also to be expected that the financial ratios required by the banks for this type of loan will be more restrictive, since there is no specific guarantee. Often, a personal guarantee will be required on this type of loan.

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) offers, “Support for entrepreneurs impacted by the coronavirus COVID-19.” Given that the BDC’s mandate is to support entrepreneurship, the Canadian government greatly supports the BDC to help businesses to get through the current crisis.

Companies that need support through the Business Credit Program (BCP) should first contact their financial institutions to assess their situation.

“Financial institutions will recommend their existing clients to BDC and EDC when their needs are greater than what is available in the private sector only.”

More information is available at www.bdc.ca.

In the United States, the Small Business Administration (SBA), under the new government stimulus package, will distribute $350 billion to small businesses that can be partially forgiven if the companies meet certain requirements. The loans will be available to companies with 500 or fewer employees.

“The SBA loans strike a balance between loans on favourable terms and grants by providing forgiveness to firms that use loaned funds for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, and utility payments,” said Garrett Watson, senior policy analyst at the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Businesses can receive loans up to $10 million, based on how much the company paid its employees between Jan. 1 and Feb. 29. The loans will carry an interest rate up to four per cent. The stimulus package provides for an expedited origination process.

If the business uses the loan funds for the approved purposes and maintains the average size of its full-time workforce based on when it received the loan, the principal of the loan will be forgiven, meaning the company will only need to pay back the interest accrued.

For more information about the SBA’s disaster relief loans, visit https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/ 

7) Search for partnership, merger or sale

For most entrepreneurs, this would probably be the last option considered. In a context where the entrepreneur’s objective is to remain in the industry for the long term and retain the company’s shareholding, this option should only be considered if none of the previous solutions allows it to stay afloat during crisis.

Those who need an external partner or sell the business will need to do so in a structured manner. It is essential, in the current context, to organize the transaction strategically and to have an approach that will allow it to achieve the desired objective.

An agreement with a partner might seem simple, but it is a very binding commitment between the parties. There may be sensitive clauses to negotiate and the main issues will be the dilution of the shareholders and the value of the company. It will take a rigorous assessment of the business and a tight negotiation to reach an agreement that makes sense for all parties.

Finally, in some cases the only solution would be to sell the business. There currently remains in the market, buyers who will be ready to make acquisitions. However, a more focused approach is required, and expectations are different considering a more volatile environment.

Other measures and conclusion

Times are difficult and dealers should anticipate that things could get worse before they improve. It is necessary to be proactive and put in place a contingency plan. Take the time to set up a budget reflecting different scenarios. 

I recommend working with a sensitivity analysis that provides three levels: pessimistic (conservative), moderate, and optimistic. In the current environment, making sure you have enough liquidity to survive the most pessimistic of contingencies is essential.

Communicate with suppliers and discuss the payment terms and the level of service required in the coming months. The auto industry is a big family and there are a lot of caring efforts currently ongoing.

The good news is that the government is stepping in to support businesses, and banks are pressed to be more flexible. Take the time to review the governmental measures, such as the labour credit that will apply if there are still active employees. Contact the bank to review all the options available. If dealers have term loans with fixed repayments, most banks currently allow them to pay the interest portion only. This can make all the difference in monthly payments.

Our industry is very resilient. Together, we will overcome the current crisis and emerge stronger, ready for a return to normalcy.

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