Financial control: avoid going bust

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Taking note of the danger signs early enough can help you avoid going bust in a competitive market. We take a look at financial control.Independent...

Taking note of the danger signs early enough can help you avoid going bust in a competitive market. We take a look at financial control.

Independent publicans at the dawn of the 21st Century find themselves in an industry where the competition is fiercer than ever before.

The plight of rural houses has been well-publicised, but back-street suburban pubs, too, have been forced to close under increasing pressure from fashionable bars drawing people into the town centres.

To succeed in those kind of circumstances you know you need to have the right pub in the right place and the right offer for the customer you hope to attract.

So far, it sounds an exciting challenge. But there is a duller discipline to attend to - financial control.

A pub can go bust for many reasons. But one of them is likely to be that the licensee didn't see the danger signals early enough to put the problem right.

BKR Haines Watts (HW), a London firm whose skilled accountants describe themselves as "insolvency practitioners" frequently get the job of clearing up the mess.

"All too often we get a call from someone saying they've got a bankruptcy petition next Monday and they want to know what's going to happen to them," said partner Peter Forsey.

What happens is that you can't get credit and you're not allowed to be involved in the running of business. "You can play the system to a certain extent but bankruptcy is such a public thing," added Forsey. "It's the stgma that does the real damage."

What frustrates the insolvency practitioner is that, in so many cases, it is a prospect that can be avoided.

"A lot of publicans get into financial difficulties because they lack controls and financial management - the basic procedures you need to run a business," said HW senior partner John Hall.

He gives a recent example of a licensee who contacted the firm because he never seemed to have enough money to pay the bills.

"He was an ex-merchant seaman who ran the pub with his wife and had his daughter working behind the bar. I started by asking him how much money he took in a typical week and he said he didn't know!

"So I sat down with him and explained that if he analyses his takings and finds out where it all goes he would be in a much better position to tackle his cashflow problem. He just turned to me and said 'that's interesting. I'd never thought of it that way before'."

If this sounds like an extreme example, then HW have plenty more, some involving huge sums of money that can mysteriously disappear from a business.

It can happen in any industry, of course, but pubs are particularly vulnerable because they are cash businesses where the money that flies backwards and forwards across the bar can be hard to keep track of.

You need a few loaves of bread and it's all too easy just to pop your hand in the till and think nothing more of the few pounds that have "disappeared". There are rarer, more sensational instances of people sticking their hand in the till for a luxury yacht, but the principle is the same. If you start thinking of the till as an extension of your own pocket you are on a slippery slope.

"Pubs might be cash businesses, but they are businesses like any other," said Forsey. "It's so easy to to take money out of the till - and realistically you have to accept a certain level of that. But sometimes it goes over the top."

There is simple action you can take to regain control, but before you can do that, you need to know what is happening.

"You need management information," explained Forsey. "You want to know where the money is coming from and where it is going. There is computer software to help you do that today, but without that information you are flying blind.

"If you can do it, a weekly cycle of accounts is best. If you can compare weeks you can quickly spot a problem."

This contrasts, however, with what Hall calls "the paper bag school of accounts" practised by some licensees.

"They just hand the money to their accountant once a year," he said. "That could be eight months after a problem has started to happen and you won't the full impact of it on the annual accounts until 20 months later. You can't hope to run a business like that.

"When we come in it is usually too late. Pride is the biggest problem, the attutude that it's my business and no one can tell me how to run it. Either that or they don't know where to go for advice.

"By the time they realise they've got to do something it might be six to 12 months down the line and it's too late to find a positive solution."

"People will wait until they get a tax bill which causes the problem to grow into a crisis very quickly," said Forsey. "Even six months earlier there would have so much more that could have been done."

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