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Studies overwhelmingly identify bad management as the leading cause of business failure. Bad management translates to poor planning by management.

All too often, the owner is so caught up in the day-to-day tasks of getting the product out the door and struggling to collect receivables to meet the payroll that he or she does not plan. There never seems to be time to prepare Pro Formas or Budgets. Often new managers understand their products but not the financial statements or the bookkeeping records, which they feel are for the benefit of the IRS or the bank. Such overburdened owner/managers can scarcely identify what will affect their businesses next week, let alone over the coming months and years. But, you may ask, “What should I do? How can I, as a small business owner/manager, avoid getting bogged down? How can I ensure success?”

Success may be ensured only by focusing on all factors affecting a business’s performance. Focusing on planning is essential to survival.

Short-term planning is generally concerned with profit planning or budgeting. Long-term planning is generally strategic, setting goals for sales growth and profitability over a minimum of three to five years.

The tools for short- and long-term plans have been explained previously in this section: Pro Forma Income Statements, Cash Flow Statements or Budgets, Ratio Analysis, and pricing considerations. The business’s short-term plan should be prepared on a monthly basis for a year into the future, employing the Pro Forma Income Statement and the Cash Flow Budget.

Long-Term Planning

The long-term or strategic plan focuses on Pro Forma Statements of Income prepared for annual periods three to five years into the future. You may be asking yourself, “How can I possibly predict what will affect my business that far into the future?” Granted, it’s hard to imagine all the variables that will affect your business in the next year, let alone the next three to five years. The key, however, is control – control of your business’s future course of expansion through the use of the financial tools explained in this section.

First determine a rate of growth that is desirable and reasonably attainable. Then employ Pro Formas and Cash Flow Budgets to calculate the capital required to finance the inventory, plant, equipment, and personnel needs necessary to attain that growth in sales volume. The business owner/manager must anticipate capital needs in time to make satisfactory arrangements for outside funds if internally generated funds from retained earnings are insufficient.

Growth can be funded in only two ways: with profits or by borrowing. If expansion outstrips the capital available to support higher levels of accounts receivable, inventory, fixed assets, and operating expenses, a business’s development will be slowed or stopped entirely by its failure to meet debts as they become payable. Such insolvency will result in the business’s assets being liquidated to meet the demands of the creditors. The only way to avoid this “outstripping of capital” is by planning to control growth. Growth must be understood to be controlled. This understanding requires knowledge of past financial performance and of the future requirements of the business.

These needs must be forecast in writing – using the Pro Forma Income Statement in particular – for three to five years in the future. After projecting reasonable sales volumes and profitability, use the Cash Flow Budget to determine (on a quarterly basis for the next three to five years) how these projected sales volumes translate into the flow of cash in and out of the business during normal operations. Where additional inventory, equipment, or other physical assets are necessary to support the sales forecast, you must determine whether or not the business will generate enough profit to sustain the growth forecast.

Often, businesses simply grow too rapidly for internally generated cash to sufficiently support the growth. If profits are inadequate to carry the growth forecast, the owner/manager must either make arrangements for working growth capital to borrowed, or slow growth to allow internal cash to “catch up” and keep pace with the expansion. Because arranging financing and obtaining additional equity capital takes time, this need must be anticipated well in advance to avoid business interruption.

To develop effective long-term plans, you should do the following steps:

  1. Determine your personal objectives and how they affect your willingness and ability to pursue financial goals for your business. This consideration, often overlooked, will help you determine whether or not your business goals fit your personal plans. For example, suppose you hope to become a millionaire by age 45 through your business but your long-term strategic plan reveals that only modest sales growth and very slim profit margins on that volume are attainable in your industry. You must either adjust your personal goals or get into a different business. Long range planning enables you to be realistic about the future of your personal and business expectations.

  2. Set goals and objectives for the company (growth rates, return on investment, and direction as the business expands and matures). Express these goals in specific numbers, for example, sales growth of 10 percent a year, increases in gross and net profit margins of 2 to 3 percent a year, a return on investment of not less than 9 to 10 percent a year. Use these long-range plans to develop forecasts of sales and profitability and compare actual results from operations to these forecasts. If after these goals are established actual performance continuously falls short of target, the wise business owner will reassess both the realism of expectations and the desirability of continuing to pursue the enterprise.

  3. Develop long-range plans that enable you to attain your goals and objectives. Focus on the strengths and weaknesses of your business and on internal and external factors that will affect the accomplishment of your goals. Develop strategies based upon careful analysis of all relevant factors (pricing strategies, market potential, competition, cost of borrowed and equity capital as compared to using only profits for expansions, etc.) to provide direction for the future of your business.

  4. Focus on the financial, human, and physical requirements necessary to fulfill your plan by developing forecasts of sales, expenses, and retain earnings over the next three to five years.

  5. Study methods of operation, product mix, new market opportunities, and other such factors to help identify ways to improve your company’s productivity and profitability.

  6. Revise, revise. Always use your most recent financial statements to adjust your short- and long-term plans. Compare your company’s financial performance regularly with current industry data to determine how your results compare with others in your industry. Learn where your business may have performance weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to modify your plans if your expectations have been either too aggressive or too conservative.

Planning is a perpetual process. It is the key to prosperity for your business.

This Financial Management article was written by on 3/1/2005

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