Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.

Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.

I speak to a lot of business owners and managers. Some green, some very experienced. And I find that many simply do not understand the true financial position of their business. You might be shocked to hear it.

Some just don’t ensure accurate, timely financial reporting. I mean no P&L for months! Many others clearly do not understand the numbers put in front of them. Really. Even the difference between ‘Revenue‘ and ‘Gross Profit‘ eludes some of them. And plenty of others get lots of information, but focus on entirely the wrong data when they do look at it.

I am not being demeaning here. It took me years to fully grasp financial management, and I am only mildly proficient now. And I know that many people who rise to management roles have little or no financial training.

But if you manage or run a business, let me give you the word. You need to understand the numbers. And it’s more than just being able to read a P&L. You must not allow yourself to get seduced by numbers you see on a spreadsheet either.

Remember. It’s not numbers, percentages or ratios you put in the bank.

It is dollars.

And so I find myself cautioning disbelieving owners, celebrating a massive temporary PSA win for example, that they need to reject the contract. “But it’s worth nearly a million dollars!” they cry. “We have to do it!

No, you don’t actually.

In fact you must not take it on at margins and payment terms that will cripple you. “But this will grow our sales by 25%” they wail. “And what we lose on margin, we will make up on volume”. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What a seductive, but fallacious argument. If you are losing money on a transaction, greater volumes of that transaction just mean you will lose more money, more quickly. I have seen it countless times. Usually the cash flow implications will do the damage before the shitty margins get you.

And, increasingly, I find myself interrupting a self-satisfied Board meeting, where we are studying a gorgeous set of P&Ls, which show juicy profits. And then I go and spoil it all by asking for a balance sheet, a debtors aging report and a cash flow report. What a buzz-kill!

Smiles fade as we realise the ‘massive profit’ we have made this year does not correlate with an almost empty bank account, and massive creditors list to pay. (Often owing money to the government, an institution not known for patience or forgiveness in any country I have worked) Why? Because we are not collecting our debts in a timely way, or sometimes, we have not accounted for GST, BAS, Group Tax, superannuation, or some other statutory payment, which looms like a massive iceberg that many a recruitment titanic has failed to see

Look at it like this.

Revenue is only the bluntest of instruments when it comes to measuring business health. All revenue is not equal. We have to look at both margin and the cost of generating that revenue. So while obviously important to grow customers and sales, chasing revenue at the cost of all else is vanity and a potentially fatal blunder. I know companies with $50 Million in sales, who at the same time carry $5 Million in debt and make annual profits of $100k. I also know businesses with total revenue of $10 Million who are debt free, have $2 Million in the bank, and make almost $2 Million EBIT per annum. Which owner do you think sleeps better?

Profit is a far more reliable indicator of business robustness, but profit on a P&L can be misleading too! A rigorous P&L will give you a snapshot of your business performance over a set period of time, and it will tell you whether your business model is working. But ‘profit’, on a P&L, is still a mirage. It’s a fairy tale. It’s not real. Yet. You can’t pay next week wages with a set of financial statements, no matter what those statements say.

You need cash. Cash is the love of your life. Wad is God. Your one true friend. The one you can trust. Not everyone agrees by the way. I have been lectured by countless ‘high-flyers’, much, much cleverer than me, who tell me debt is good, using other people’s money is smart, and cash in the bank is lazy money. Most of them are bankrupt now.

Cash is reality. Make sure every ‘deal’ you plan to do, every new strategy, every new hire, is only ever agreed to, once you know the cash implications.

Most business meeting focus on revenue and paper profit. Yes, important, but always ask these 3 questions;

  • How much cash do we have in the bank?
  • What are our debtors and what are our liabilities?
  • What is the cash flow projection of this initiative?

Cash is like oxygen. It’s not what we live for, but if it runs out, you are sure as hell going to notice.

Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.


UK readers, please join me at one of my UK Masterclasses, in Manchester and London, October, 2015



About Greg Savage

Over a career spanning thirty years, Greg Savage has established himself as a global recruitment leader. Greg is a regular keynote speaker at staffing and recruitment conferences around the world.

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4 Responses to Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.

  1. Rob Davidson July 14, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    Great blog Greg, and timely.

    As we enter tougher and, even less certain times in some areas of recruitment tight management is even more essential than ever before. If there were any two lessons the GFC taught us, it is that:

    – cash is king:and

    – the time to start preparing for the next recession is today – if you wait for it to happen before you try to get your ship into shape, it will be too late.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. john milce July 14, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    Aint that the truth Greg 🙂

    I learnt fairly on in the piece (Sherborne has been going ior 18 years) that ‘Cash is King’ when a cursory glance at my Aged Debtors showed over $1mil owing – most of it way past due.

    Words were spoken and new measures put in place to manage cashflow, which are still in place to-day.


  3. Neil Bolton July 14, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    You’ve missed an important bit, Greg.

    The feeling of comfort and satisfaction in absolutely knowing where you are this week and where you’ll be in three months is incredible. Like most people we were late learners of the value of really, really understanding the numbers, but now, every Monday, we go through the cash flow, then the P&L, then monthly the balance sheet.

    And these meetings are very satisfying.

    Once we knew where the holes were fixing them was easy.

    And I agree with all of my heart: It’s much, much better having lower revenue but higher profit – and cash in the bank.

  4. Jan Reeves July 15, 2015 at 12:15 am #

    Wow Greg – one of the pure and fundamental truths of recruitment (and any business). Without laser focus on those crucial numbers a business can so easily turn to dust…

    Like you, I’m only mildly proficient with those numbers, but I was fortunate enough to know exactly how to get clients to pay invoices on time – every time – and build the business at the same time (and get expert help to learn the other numbers)

    The excellent thing is too that, if you learn to collect your receivables super fast, your business can be totally self funded and then when you sell, all those funds are yours. And then you can really laugh your way to the bank (or the South of France 🙂 )

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