Tight Makes Right

Companies still have plenty of opportunity to squeeze more cash out of operations.

Regal Beloit Corp. CFO David Barta has taken approximately 30 days out of his company’s cash cycle over the past four years. But he and the rest of the leadership team at the $1.8 billion maker of motion-control products want more. “Our commitment to the board this year is to take another 3 days out of the cycle,” Barta says. “That is not a huge stretch, but it is something for which my feet are held to the fire.”

With the economy on its heels and cash scarce, many CFOs are feeling similar heat. Whether by slashing costs, extending payables, paring inventories, or tightening operations wherever they can, they are trying to squeeze more cash from operations come hell or high oil prices. Agilent, for example, cited tighter management of receivables as a source of cash flow in its 10-K for 2007. Terra Industries increased its cash flow by paying more attention to customer prepayments, while Procter & Gamble reported an emphasis on lower inventory levels, increased payables, and industry-leading lean receivables.

Trapped cash represents an immense opportunity, according to research and consulting firm REL, a division of The Hackett Group Inc. Using data furnished by Capital IQ, REL calculated that the 1,000 largest corporations in the country (excluding financial-services firms) can generate an additional $491 billion of cash flow — nearly four times the combined profits of the 10 largest companies in the United States. To make that happen, companies in the bottom three quartiles in each industry would simply have to match the “cash conversion efficiency,” or CCE, of those in the top quartile.

Big improvements are possible. Despite a gloomy economic environment, Regal Beloit nearly doubled its CCE last year, to 11 percent, putting it just over the 10 percent average notched by the electrical-equipment industry.

Much of that improvement has hinged on making sure that everyone is focused on working capital and cash flow. “Every month, we review our performance in this area with our business leaders around the world and then go through the numbers with our CEO at both the company and business-unit level,” Barta says. “We also make a presentation to the board on a quarterly basis.” In addition to reviewing working capital performance by business unit, notes Barta, Regal Beloit chairman and CEO Henry Knueppel reviews details of the company’s working capital performance with the executives in charge of inventories, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and sales.

Barta says Regal Beloit has held its days sales outstanding relatively flat over the past four years even as it has expanded into overseas markets where payment terms are traditionally much longer than in the United States. It has also pared days inventory outstanding from the mid 70s to about 60, and, working in concert with its suppliers, has pumped days payables outstanding from the high 20s to the mid-to-high 40s. All that shrank the company’s cash cycle from 90 days–plus to the low 70s.

Adopting Six Sigma techniques also led to more-efficient and less-wasteful operations. “While the low-hanging fruit has obviously been taken, our plan is to continue to improve,” Barta says.

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