Are Grants & Loans Really Necessary for Survival?

By John Stewart, Executive Director, NPRC

Are printers counting on government grants and Loans to survive the Covid-19 crisis?  Well, checking out various printing industry list servs, it certainly appears that many printers are indeed doing just that!

Instead of returning to the basics and concentrating on improving key financial ratios such as SPE, payroll and profits per employee many printers seem to be spending the better part of their days worrying how to fine tune loan applications and mastering SBA regulations.

Ironically, more printers appear to have mastered the myriad of new government regulations involved in securing PPP and EIDL loans and grants far better than they have mastered their own financial ratios. To be blunt, I have seen more posts in the past two weeks about how to secure various government loans than I have seen discussions in the past two years regarding  achieving higher SPEs and best practices for lowering payroll costs.

Most profit leaders in this industry (the top quartile in terms of profitability) appear well prepared to deal with the challenges that Covid-19 represents. Sure, there will be struggles and bumps along the way, but there is little doubt that they will survive and prosper both in the short term and the long term. Profit laggards, on the other hand, were ill-prepared to weather even a small financial storm, long before Covid-19 even existed. Now they find themselves in a cash and profit crisis mostly of their own making.

Sure, receiving a loan for $20,000, $50,000 or even $100,000 or more sounds great, but if that loan or grant is viewed as making the difference between “closing your doors” and your surviving to see 2021 then I would seriously question the financial strength and stability of your firm, Covid-19 not withstanding!

If you’ve been running a marginal or below average firm for the past two or three years, or possibly even longer, any loan or grant that you receive will end up being nothing more than a small band-aid where a tourniquet is required instead. Covid-19 related loans and grants are not likely to save firms that are foundering financially. At best, the inflow of new money will simply prolong the inevitable.

I talk to profit leaders all the time, and virtually all of them admit to me admit to me that while the loans and grants they have received are certainly helpful, they note that their firms are not dependent upon them for their survival. Some are treating these loans as “icing on the cake.” Ironically, because they are profitable to begin with, the loans and grants these firms will receive will end up making them even stronger in terms of profitability in 2020 and 2021.

Don’t misunderstand me when I talk about “icing on the cake.” Yes, even the strongest companies in our industry surely welcome the help, and they will indeed put these grants and loans to good use. Weaker firms, however, will likely use the money to patch holes in a sinking ship – a ship that was sinking long before we ever heard of Covid-19. In fact, many troubled firms will end up using the influx of cash to patch holes above the water line, instead of the more serious ones down below.

Don’t misunderstand me when I talk about “icing on the cake.” Yes, even the strongest companies in our industry surely welcome the help, and they will indeed put these grants and loans to good use. Weaker firms, however, will likely use the money to patch holes in a sinking ship – a ship that was sinking long before we ever heard of Covid-19.

Six months from now – I strongly suspect that that many of the troubled firms that so desperately need government grants and loans to survive will have blown through those funds faster than a speeding bullet, and six months from now they will be once again desperate for more loans and grants. As always, this industry, like all industries, has “profit leaders” and “profit laggards.” The difference between the two groups is that the former know there ratios inside and out and recognize that they are indeed in that top quartile. On the other hand, the “profit laggards” are generally poorly informed as to the types of key financial ratios it takes to operate a profitable firm in this industry, and thus struggle along, week to week, month to month.

In turbulent and uncertain times such as  we are facing today, it is more important than ever that you understand the kinds of key financial ratios required to survive and prosper. Granted, “increasing profitability” may be a bit “pollyannish” during the Covid-19 era, but the last thing you want to encounter these days is a slow, yet subtle decline in key ratios.

One fact we know for sure – Six months from now “profit leaders” will continue to be “profit leaders,” while many of the “profit laggards” of today will be struggling even more so than they are today, regardless of any loans or grants they may have received.

Granted, “increasing profitability” may be a bit “pollyannish” during the Covid-19 era, but the last thing you want to encounter these days is a slow, yet subtle decline in key ratios.

We’ve been publishing Financial Benchmarking Studies for the Printing industry for more than 30 years and we have tracked dozens of key ratios in our industry. Most important of all, we’ve been able to compare and breakdown ratios of of the top firms vs. those at the bottom in terms of profitability. Suffice it to say that the “profit leaders” in our industry seem far better prepared to weather the “storm” than the “profit laggards.”

Below are just a few of the key ratios that we look at closely when analyzing the value of firms and their survivability score. Average sales for the firms in this extraction was $1,100,000. These ratios are extracted from the NPRC 2019-2020 financial Benchmarking Study. The 64-page study is a comprehensive analysis of Key financial benchmarks and ratios for the quick and small commercial printing industry. See page 48 for specific definitions and formulas used to report the following. (Click here to read more about this info-packed study.)

Key Ratios – All Firms by Profitability Quartiles

 

Key Financial Ratio* Bottom Profit Qrtl Top Profit Qrtl
2018 Average Gross Sales $1,448,004 $1,037,417
Cost of Goods % 30.6% 29.0%
Payroll Expense % 38.8% 25.8%
Overhead Expense % 25.2% 19.4%
Owner’s Compensation % 5.4% 25.7%
Excess Earnings $ -$7,135 $201,258
Profits Per Employee $ -$637 $32,461
Sales Per Employee $ $118,688 $144,085

Definitions as to specific ratios reported below can be found in 2019-2020 Financial Benchmarking Study

Sales Per Employee can often act as instant indicator of overall financial health. You don’t need a P&L or a Balance sheet and you don’t need the help of a CPA or bookkeeper to calculate it. SPE has nothing directly to do with payroll or wages so you don’t need that info either. Simply divide your annual sales (do not include postage income) by the total number of FT equivalent employees, including all working owners, partners, etc. used to produce those sales. SPE is generally calculated and expressed in annual terms, not monthly, although it can change somewhat from month to month.

By the way, a SPE in the $140-$150,000 range, even though that puts it in the “Profit Leader ” category, does not represent the top of what can be achieved. I know many firms, most of them heavily invested in digital printing, that report achieving SPEs of $160,000 to $180,000 and even more. So don’t be patting yourself on the back too quickly. You can always do better. On the other hand, if your SPE is $130,000 or below you are seriously under-performing in this industry compared to your peers.

Recent SPEs reported by NPRC – SPE varies modestly from report to report. Below are are recent SPEs as reported in various studies:

Study                                                               Average        Median
2019 Digital Color Pricing Study                    $139,830         $130,673
2020 Mailing Services Pricing Study             $156,179          $142,500
2019 Wage & Benefits Study                            $139,048         $134,444
2019 Financial Benchmarking Study              $139,595               NA

2019 Financial Benchmarking Study – Average SPE

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