Which is more valuable, gold or beryllium? John Grampa’s answer — gold — probably won’t surprise you, but his reasoning might. Gold is worth more than beryllium to his company, Brush Engineered Materials, not because it can fetch more in the metals market but because products made from it can be turned into cash more quickly.
By the time the company extracts beryllium ore from a mine in Utah, sends it to a plant to be treated, ships it to a manufacturer of electronic connectors in Asia, and collects payment, nine months have gone by. But the company might need a mere 10 days to obtain gold bars from a bank, melt them, fabricate the molten gold into thin strips, ship those to a manufacturer of diabetes test equipment, and get paid.
Several years ago Grampa, the company’s CFO, and his fellow executives took a hard look at the brisk supplier-to-manufacturer-to-customer cash cycle for gold and other “advanced materials” and realized that it far outpaced that of beryllium, copper, and similar industrial construction materials. That insight was a key factor in the company’s strategic shift to high-tech markets. “We focused on the fastest-growing applications in fast-growing markets, where the cash-to-cash turn was also the fastest,” he says.
The move has helped Brush ride out the economic downturn, in part by enabling it to eliminate fixed assets that drain cash. To supply beryllium, for instance, the company must maintain a mine, a chemical-extraction facility, and a big melt shop. The production of gold strips requires much leaner facilities. “Our business fell the least in those new markets that have lower fixed- and working-capital commitments and a higher intellectual-property commitment,” he says, “meaning that we were able to generate more cash than we otherwise would have.”
The credit freeze of 2009 prompted other CFOs to lessen their need or broaden their search for cash beyond banks or capital markets. When credit was more readily available, companies would tap it “in anticipation of needing it later,” according to Chris Kuehl, the economist for the National Association of Credit Managers. Now, with debt hard to come by, money wrung from supply chains has become a highly desirable commodity.
As a result, finance chiefs now study supply chains not merely with an eye toward cutting costs via layoffs and plant closings, but also for their potential as lucrative acquisition targets or as a way to serve a customer base that yields a better payoff. For instance, Eaton Corp., a $15.4 billion industrial manufacturer, has reduced its production of basic auto components in favor of more-sophisticated engine parts that improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. “The reason to move into the higher-tech spaces is because, fundamentally, the margins are higher and that translates into more cash,” says Richard Fearon, the company’s vice chairman and chief financial and planning officer.
But employing any of these strategies is not simple. Particularly tricky is choosing which industries to invest in based on how efficiently they might spawn cash. Finance executives should be wary of applying a single standard to different kinds of businesses — or even parts of the same business — warns Fearon. One industry, for instance, might enjoy high turnover for many products but need to warehouse certain legacy items for years. In contrast, another sector might produce a much narrower range of products, but ones that all have speedy turnover.