Q&A: Ian Chambers, Unisys

(As the economic downturn bites ever harder, the role of credit and collections departments becomes correspondingly more vital for companies looking to maximise cashflow and working capital. Ian Chambers, Unisys' Global AR Controller, explains how C&C practitioners can help their companies ward off the worst impact of the slump - and how this might be the opportunity of a lifetime to demonstrate added value in critical times.)

SSON: Ian, times right now are pretty tumultuous in the global economy, and credit and collections functions have a great responsibility to their parent organisations to try to generate extra cost-savings and extra income. What do you think are the steps that credit and collections practitioners should be taking right now in the face of what looks like being a lengthy economic downturn?

Ian Chambers: The first thing I’d say is that, obviously, it’s a very interesting and tumultuous time as you say, but it also represents a fantastic opportunity for anyone in the credit and collections area. We’re coming off the back of 16, 17, 18 years of relative economic stability with low interest rates, low rates of bad-debt liquidation; and during that time it’s probably fair to say that a lot of companies have placed less emphasis on credit management and bad-debt management than perhaps they should have done. So as we move through a time of economic instability, it provides a good opportunity for the profile of credit management to be raised again as we come back to the forefront of the business world. It’s a double-edged sword – there’s obviously a lot of pressure coming along with an increased profile – but it does afford us a fantastic opportunity.

SSON: Would you say then that credit and collections has been somewhat neglected over the past few years simply because it’s such a good time?

IC: I think it’s never neglected. We all know the clichês: "a sale is not a sale until it’s paid for" and "cash is always king". But I think it’s an area that companies have felt that they haven’t had to focus upon because they haven’t felt the pain: if they had overdue receivables, with interest rates being very low, the economic effect of that has not been as profound as it’s obviously going to be, with cash-flows being squeezed. So I wouldn’t say "neglected", but I do think that over the past six months, and going forward, you will see an increase in the profile of the cash-management function.

SSON: And what sort of behavioural changes are you anticipating in terms of the general credit and collections outlook? Obviously there are quick wins and then there are longer-term wins that depend on additional investment; let’s look at the quick wins first. How do you think credit and collections activity is going to shift?

IC: I think there are two areas, and it goes back to the core fundamentals of the job. One is that each organisation is going to be very much focused on maximising their cash-generation programmes to minimise any need for the utilisation of overdrafts. You’re also going to see clients prospectively looking to hold onto cash for a little bit longer to ease their own cash-flow problems. So I think it’s very much the core function that’s going to be the battleground where credit and collections are going to be playing an important role. I think the other area is – and again it’s difficult to see exactly how this is going to play out – that we’re moving into a recession with increased business failures where, obviously, companies are going to be looking at their risk portfolio and whereas before they might have been quite happy to extend credit to most of their clients on quite liberal terms, I think that’s now going to be a focus. Against that there’s always the eternal challenge: if we’re in a recession and revenues are declining, companies still need to protect and grow revenue! So there is going to be pressure on credit teams who are analysing and evaluating risk: how do we continue to grow revenue without incurring risk in that area?

SSON: And how much have these programmes already started to take effect? Obviously we’ve moved away from the initial shockwave of the crisis to a more considered approach about how companies are going to get through the recession; do you see in terms of your day-to-day activities that this is already taking effect on the ground floor?

IC: Yes, very much so. I think – starting within my own organisation – there’s been an increased focus. We’re trading in markets where six months or a year ago we’d have said we’re in low- or minimal-risk markets; a lot of our business is with large financial institutions. What we’ve seen over the last six months to a year has been a total shake-up of any existing wisdom on that! And I think what we’ve seen is that nobody is immune; in previous recessions it’s basically been the weakest companies that have been affected, but there’s a growing feeling that nobody’s immune and this certainly hasn’t played out yet. All companies are asking: what have we got within our customer database – is there anything nasty lurking there? How do we know? How do we secure the debt we’ve got, and protect ourselves?

SSON: You spoke a minute ago about the opportunities that this might present for credit and collections; I’m assuming one of those is that now the function might have a much greater mandate from the boardroom to go out and make changes which perhaps might before have been on the back-burner…

IC: For any credible company I’d say that’s an absolutely fair assessment. You would hope that every company would be doing that anyway, but as we’ve said there should be an increased focus. If a company is doing the right things in these times, that’s exactly what they should be doing.

SSON: Ian, can you tell us how things have changed at Unisys specifically – if at all? What’s the focus been there over the past couple of months?

IC: Well, as I say, one of the things we’ve looked at is the risk within our customer portfolio. Traditionally our strengths have been within the public sector and the financial markets, in terms of whom we’re selling to… It’s really looking at the financial institutions we’ve been selling to and asking: is this debt really as solid as we thought it was or we would hope it to be? So we’re really looking very closely at what’s happening in those markets: increased vigilance, making sure that payment trends are not indicating any kind of weakness, or whatever. Together with that, we need to protect our own cash-flow to make sure that we’re not utilising borrowing lines we don’t really need to use. All-round there’s an increased focus on cash-management and bad-debt management.

SSON: One of the things which came up in a recent SSON roundtable is the danger that big companies might exacerbate their problems if they panic their suppliers into accepting worse terms, for example, or if they harry their debtors excessively for prompt payment. What steps are you taking – and what steps would you advise credit and collections practitioners generally to take – to mitigate against that sort of error?

IC: Well, I think what we’ll say is: resist all attempts by customers to negotiate longer payment terms. We are seeing one or two customers coming in asking for longer payment terms; basically our view on that is that we do not accept that. Obviously if there is a real financial need for a customer who is saying "we just cannot pay you this month", in the interests of good trading relationships you simply have to take that on board, and you may be able to be flexible to some degree; but certainly I think that just moving wholesale from 30 days to 60 days, or from 60 days to 90 days is just passing the problem on and effectively nobody wins in that scenario. So I would say for credit teams certainly to be resistant to extending credit terms unduly.