Recovery and the Overtrading Dilemma

There can be no doubt that a recovery in the UK construction sector is now well under way. The reasons for the recovery are varied but are probably down to a combination of current government policies and the previous years of under-investment, due to poor confidence, which are now helping to stimulate growth. So all looks well for the next few years. Confidence generally in UK plc is returning and investment in land and buildings is following close behind.
Nobody can argue that a return to economic growth is anything but a good thing but there are lessons to be learned from the past that Contractors and Sub-Contractors need to be wary of.
Historical data shows that as many firms go bust coming out of recession as those that fail in the depths of a slow-down. The reasons for this are varied but the usual cause is overtrading. Overtrading is, in effect, losing control of your working capital requirements.
Companies need working capital to fund day-to-day trading activities. As workload and turnover increase, so too does the need for working capital to pay your trading bills, salaries and other operating expenses.
Insolvency is defined as either having liabilities in excess of assets, that is negative net worth, and/or having no ability to pay creditors as and when payments fall due. It is the latter definition which usually causes failure and is often a symptom of overtrading.
So what are the warning signs of overtrading? The following are typical symptoms:
a)    Your overdraft is increasing month by month
b)    Operating margins are starting to slide
c)    Debtor days are starting to move out
d)    Key suppliers are beginning to get nervous and apply pressure by threatening to put you on stop
e)    Your accounts team begins to spend more and more time fending off suppliers and sub-contractors chasing payments
We all like to see a healthy order book and growing business and it can be very hard to turn down an offer of what you believe will be profitable work. But sometimes this is exactly what a prudent business owner should do if it is determined in advance that the project cannot be funded.
So how do you avoid overtrading and certain failure? The answer is easier to say than it is to do in practice and can be summed up in six words - "cash flow analysis, projection and control".
It is absolutely essential that you understand the cash inflow and outflow on every project you are working on and the outflow of cash required to fund your operating overheads such as rent, rates, heating, lighting, administrative salaries, insurances, vehicle costs and so on. From this information you should be able to produce a company model which shows on a week-by-week basis what your income and expenditure looks like and, in doing so, project and control what working capital is required by way of bank overdraft, loans or similar.
Each new contract win should be analysed on the same basis and imposed on your operating model and any potential contract should be analysed and fed into the company model before it is accepted.
It might be that you can only accept the latest contract if advantageous payment terms can be negotiated from your client or with key suppliers and sub-contractors. It may be it cannot be funded at all but the point is you need to know!
It should never be assumed that your bank will provide an increase in facilities to overcome shortfall in working capital requirements. It is precisely this sort of assumption that has led to many a company's undoing.
So, in summary, if the decision to take on a new contract is going to increase your working capital requirement, it is essential that you understand what the increased requirement will be long before you become committed and pass the point of no return.
Lack of analysis, projection and cash modelling is likely to cause a disaster. There is no excuse for failing to understand your business and its cash requirements. If the skill sets are not readily available in your business you simply cannot afford not to buy in these resources.
Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, whatever that might be, is not the way to avoid overtrading and inevitable disaster.
Peter Vinden is Managing Director of Vinden, the UK's leading construction business recovery specialists. He can be contacted by email at For similar articles visit
Peter Vinden

Peter is an experienced professional in the construction industry with particular expertise in quantity surveying and the commercial management of contracting organisations.