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ARE INVESTORS LOSING OUT? THE IMPACT OF HIGH G&A COSTS ON AIM-LISTED COMPANIES

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Sanjay Swarup

By SKS Business Services

Executive Summary

SKS Business Services has analysed the data from 89 AIM-listed oil and gas companies. The analysis highlights the continued problems in 2014 of excessive general and administrative spending, a persistent issue that emerged from the 2013 analysis of 134 AIM-listed companies also undertaken by SKS Business Services.

The research also serves to highlight the benefits of outsourcing (or right sourcing) the finance function of AIM-listed companies, to reduce G&A costs,to generate independent and more detailed and accurate management accounts and to improve the transparency reports to investors, who are often kept in the dark about where their money has been spent.

Introduction

“Even if you’re making pots of money, you should be looking hard at what you can do to reduce costs.  This is to cushion the business against market volatility, be it commodity prices changes in demand and supply or changes in customer behaviour. Companies involved in developing natural resources or undertaking research and development have long gestation periods and are thus funded by investors until they produce revenue.“Keeping G&A as low as possible makes for a sound business case as one would think that investors would back thrifty management given a choice.”

“All too often the analysis of G&A takes a back seat. Investors don’t have benchmarks to compare and challenge the costs and are therefore losing out on potential returns. This report aims to shed light on how improvements can be made.”


Sanjay Swarup
SKS Business Services

As competition becomes fiercer in a global economy, the traditional and widespread approach tomanaging finance for medium and small sized companies, is likely to change. Evidence continues to emergeof the difference that professionally prepared management accountsand ongoing reviews of G&A costs can make to profitability, cashflow and attracting good investments.

Currently, business growth is being stifled in too many medium-sized firms by a lack of financial insight into their own business and by a lack of focus on reducing non-core spend.Several AIM-listed companies in this research fail to look at an efficient operational model for their business and most of them appear to omit potentially useful detail about certain cost areas in their annual reports.

This analysis follows on closely from the research undertaken by SKS in 2013, which looked at 134 AIM-listed companies’ level of spending on their general and administrative (G&A) costs since 2008. Key findings from the research found:

  • Overhead costs had increased 21% since 2008 (compared to inflation of 12%, a real increase of 9%), while profits had fallen from an average of £9.6 million to an average loss of £1.52 million
  • In 2012 AIM-listed companies spent 5% more on non-core operations than in the previous year
  • Despite the rise in G&A expenses, only three of the 134 AIM companies analysed provided any explanation to investors as to why this rise took place or what they were doing about it
Sanjay Swarup

Sanjay Swarup

The findings highlighted the problems AIM-listed companies were facing due to a rise in G&A costs. As a result, SKS conducted deeper research this year into sector-specific AIM-listed companies, in this case the oil and gas industry. This new report analyses the annual reports from 2012 and 2013 of 89 AIM-listed oil and gas companies and identifies a significant continuing over-spend in G&A costs in both revenue-producing firms and those still in exploration stages.

SKS also suggests in this report that a change in a company’s finance function through outsourcing can not only reduce the cost of the finance function by 50%, but it will allow greater efficiency when regular monthly accounts highlight any excess levels of spending. Our findings indicate that by adopting further right sourcing methods, companies can save up to 20% of their overall G&A costs, which, for some of the organisations, could see the difference between making a profit or a loss.

This research looks closely at how AIM-listed companies are falling somewhat short of reporting closely on G&A costs in their reports and asks, how can investors be expected to make sound judgments about potential returns if such important information is lacking?

Section 1 – Investors are still being kept in the dark

General and administrative costs are the sets of expenses needed to administer a business. These costs are not related to the construction or sales of business goods/services. Examples include:

  • accounting staff wages and benefits
  • building rent
  • corporate management wages and benefits
  • depreciation of office equipment
  • office supplies
  • utilities
  • subscriptions
  • insurance
  • legal team’s wages and benefits.

These costs are a prime example of expenditure any business will have to endure before trading has started.

They are thenon-core costs which businesses are always under pressure to reduce. Yet in firms with a strong centralised command and control management system i.e. a head office, these costs will be larger than those that outsource different departments, like the finance function and legal team.

The AIM-listed firms examined in this researchfall into four different categories when portraying their G&A costs:

Category 1

28% of these firmsreported total G&A spend for the year, with a minor explanation where costs have increased or decreased. For example, Madagascar Oil Limited, a revenue-producing firm, provided its explanation of G&A in 2013 as follows:

“Total general and administrative and VAT penalty expenses increased to US$10.0m (2012:US$9.6m). This is primarily due to VAT penalties recognised as a result of the tax dispute settlement and increased legal and professional fees relating to the Board restructuring and Houston office closure during 2013.”

Category 2

Another 28% reported G&A spend without explaining why it has changed. One revenue producing example does suggest further explanation on their G&A spend in the additional notes of the financial statement, yet no justificationis eventually provided.

Category 3

There are a small numberof firms (11%) whose reporting on G&A costs lacks clarity as only partialknowledge about the total amount being spent. For example one 2013 annual report states, “the group’s ongoing G&A expenditure is generally estimated to continue at between $1.5 million to $1.7 million gross per month.” This report not only fails to give accurate figures for the overall spending on G&A, it lacks the precision around what this spending constitutes.

Category 4

33% of firmsprovide a detailed picture of their spending, up from what was discovered last year. One non-revenue firm, Antrim Energy plc,is a good example, stating in 2013 that“general and administrative (“G&A”) costs decreased to $4.8 million in 2013 compared to $5.8 million in 2012. The decrease in G&A is primarily due to reduced employee compensation.” Further details are provided in their notes too.

In the 2013 research of general (as opposed to sector-specific) AIM-listed firms, only three had management discussion and analysis reports where the description around G&A costs alluded to an increase in spend, but not around how it was going to be reduced. Even though the number is larger within the oil and gas sector,this type of analysis did not increase our understanding of why the G&A has risen or fallen when two-thirds of these firms are not reporting enough information.

A greater level of detail should exist amongst those revenue-producing oil and gas firms in general, but even moreso forthose businessesthat are not making revenues and are only in the exploratory stages. It is here that reducing G&A costs is more important than ever, at least until revenues and profits are generated. If investors can clearly see where their money is being funnelled, it might increase the level of trust to invest more money, an obvious benefit for those early-stage companies.

Section 2 – Why AIM companies are losing money when revenues are up

After analysing the 89 oil and gas firms closely from their 2012 and 2013 information, it can be determined that for many of them there was a dramatic increase in revenues produced.Some have all dramatically hit oil with their revenue streams. This was mirrored in the overall rise in revenues for all 89 companies, with total revenues having risen by 28%.

SKS Business ServicesHowever, this positive revenue stream does not correlate with the level of profit made in 2013. The number of companies making a profit dropped from 16 in 2012 to 9 in 2013. Only Bankers Petroleum made a profit in both years and in 2012, 15 of the firms went from a profit to a loss in one year. Overall, losses in revenue streams increased by 45% in one year.

Last year’s research revealed a consistent rise inG&A costs since 2008. This year’sresearch found a drop in overall G&Aspend and although between 2012 and 2013 there was a reduction of 12% inG&A spend in these 89 firms, their losses increased by 83%. Clearly, more work needs to be done.

Last year’s research found a link between a reduction of profits and the large costs of G&A. This link is still apparent in the latest research: in 2012 there were 27 companies whose total spend on G&A was either more than or equal to their total loss in revenues. So if these firms were able to reduce all of their G&A spend (and in some cases like Max Petroleum and Infrastrata they would only need to reduce a percentage of their G&A) a loss making company would be profit making.

When looking at those oil and gas companies who moved from a profit to a total loss in revenues, seven of them had increased their G&A spend.

While there is anencouraging overall reduction in G&A spend, non-revenue producing firms actually saw a rise of 5.5% in G&A spend between 2012 and 2013. For firms not generating an income, keeping those costs down should be imperative. As we saw from Section 1, the companies provide no reason for where this rise is coming from and what can be done to make cuts.

For a select few, the G&A spend is an identifiable contributing factor to explaining a loss. However, for the rest, the average level of G&A spend has decreased, suggesting there are other contributing factors affecting these losses. One explanationmay be a rise in variable operational costs.

Regardless, the level of variable operational costs does not reduce the scale of the effect G&A costs have on overall spending. As seen in Section 1, a detailed analysis of G&A costs can help to highlight areas where non-operational savings could be made, thus potentially reducing the loss in revenues.

Section 3 – Is there an answer?

While a central office is able to integrate the businesses, various departmental functions do not necessarily need to be carried out on site. The finance function is a prime example. Too many businesses will have accounting teams on staff, yet they only carry out simple book-keeping tasks and produce report content for the CFO to review.

Outsourcing the finance function will of course create more freedom and opportunity to create more regular management accounts, and independent business advice, which will clearly identify where the over-spending on G&A costs is coming from. Without this analysis it is clear that a level of puppy fat is surrounding these businesses, where easy savings could otherwise be made.

Revenue-producing firms would normally build up higher levels of G&A costs as these businesses will have extra staff and offices to support the production of oil and gas. It is easy to see that certain aspects of these businesses would not be essential for non-revenue producing firms. For those firms, keeping non-essential costs down is crucial, especially when informing investors of their research progress.

Having accounting staff in-house means paying for services which require spending furniture, office supplies and utilities. Through outsourcing, these costs will vanish overnight without diminishing the quality of the work. This can be taken to a higher level where the finance, legal and HR functions are all right-sourced. An example of this operational modelcan be found at an SKS client. The mining firm is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange andmaintains flexibility by operating without a head office. The CEO and CFO are based in London, the COO works from the U.S and the Auditor from Canada.

Several aspects of its business benefit from this model, from management to finance function to operations– all being outsourced to different countries. It is estimated this company has saved over $300 K on G&A costs by moving the finance function and at least three times this amount on overall G&A costs.

A simple way of finding cost savings is through regular management accounting and external business advice. Regular independent management accounts can address spending on all aspects of the business, from planning for future investment to achieving cost savings. The benefits of having monthly accounts allow for decisions to be made in advance instead of making a rather late assessment of the budget when compiling year-end accounts. These savings would then be explicit in the annual statements, highlighting cost reduction and improved profit forecasting.

Too many companies are failing to grow because they are unable or unwilling to invest in structuring/managing their finance function better. All too often the cause is simply a lack of understanding of what skilled financial analysis and forward-looking management accounts can deliver. The oil and gas companies analysed here could clearly benefit from closer analysis to discover why their revenues have increased, but they continue to incur a loss.

Conclusion

The purpose of this research was to highlight how a group of AIM-listed oil and gas companies are missing a fairly straightforward opportunity to maximise precious resourcesand, in some cases,avoid losses in revenues.They do not seem to be reviewing their non-core G&A costs or adopting tested and emerging shared services or outsourcing models to reduce these non-essential costs.Their financial statements typically reveal a significant lack of information about where investments are being spent. Investors are losing out as a result, unable to analyse whether their financial contribution will be a solid return on investment. And without regular, more detailed analysis of how the business operates, it is easy for these oil and gas firms to miss potential profits.

It is becoming easier to cut costs through the better use of technology and to negotiate better terms with suppliers. Technology can make it easier to outsource areas of the business like the accounting and legal teams to other locations, firms or countries, which in turn will reduce G&A costs. Indeed some companies stand to reduce their finance function spend by 50% by addressing this more closely.On top of this, with the right application of further right-sourcing methods, companies can reduce their overall G&A spend by 20%. Many of the 89 oil and gas companies would benefit from this approach. It would appear that their focus on developing an industry reputation for innovation takes necessary attention away from controlling general running costs more keenly.

The oil and gas sector is unpredictable; businesseshave a limited lifespan before natural resources run out. Without effective business and financial analysis, these firms will fail to keep control of lossesin revenue. Addressing this is surely imperative for non-revenue-producing firms, who seek further investors to aid their exploration.

If these companies can demonstrate a solid business plan with keen monetary projections it will help toconvince investors to spend more on a worthy project. Only once these firms start addressing this fact and outsourcing more sensibly, they will not only reduce their G&A spend, but keep those valuable investors happy at the same time.

Finance

Beyond Transactions: The Payment Revolution

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Beyond Transactions: The Payment Revolution 1

By Marwan Forzley, CEO of Veem 

The uninterrupted disruption brought on by the pandemic accelerated the need for robust, digital-first tools created to support remote teams and accelerate online commerce.

As offices across the US moved to work from home for indefinite periods, specialized back office departments handling sensitive information have had to go a layer deeper to find tailored solutions that support the transition of their in-person workflow. For finance teams, payment approvals, issuance, and general management became a challenge overnight. Particularly for those who — even in 2020 — continued to send and receive paper checks through the mail.

For years and even to this day, millions of small business owners around the world have relied on slow and confusing bank processes to manage their business finances. Every day, they spend valuable time using old, complex and expensive platforms to transact with domestic and international vendors — never knowing where their payment is or even when it arrives at its destination.

With ongoing economic and logistical uncertainty looming as we move into 2021, this old norm should not be expected for much longer. This year has seen small business owners wear more hats than ever before, and has influenced a mass adoption of online financial applications that offer heightened security, save more time, and provide more value as budgets tightened.

A study conducted by Mastercard earlier this year saw online business-to-business payments skyrocket in popularity with more than half (57%) of small business owners across North America turning to digital services since the start of the pandemic to improve cash flow and modernize their payment processes.

If this study is of any indication, the days of making an appointment with a banker or sending a wire transfer through an outdated web portal have passed. And the time for the payment revolution is here.

Putting the user in the driver’s seat

Major world events have always acted as a catalyst for innovation and change. As of a result of the growing pains we experienced this year, in 2021 businesses can finally say goodbye to huge transaction fees and bank-imposed gatekeeping when it comes to managing their financial processes.

The financial technology firms, in partnership card and local bank networks and sometimes even each other, have been building and iterating on products over the past decade that were created to work flawlessly from a desktop or smartphone.

For the first time, small businesses have access to needed, user-friendly financial tools packaged to make their lives easier. No longer reserved for major enterprises, those previously underserved by traditional banks can sign up for applications that consolidate billing, payments, working capital and more to one central dashboard.

With the owner in the driver’s seat, they can better communicate with vendors and customers and reallocate their time previously spent manually sending, receiving and reconciling payments toward growing their business — without ever stepping foot out of their home.

Marwan Forzley

Marwan Forzley

Genuinely seamless and automatic integrations with complimentary functions aligned to core financial activities mark a fundamental change in how businesses will choose to operate moving forward. Not only should experiences be integrated, but the entire lifecycle of the transaction should be digital.

Consider a freelance contractor that uses a time tracking and invoicing software to invoice a client. Through an integration between the time tracking tool and Veem (a complete online business payment tool) the client receives and captures the invoice within their Veem payment dashboard. Because Veem and Quickbooks are integrated partners, as soon as the invoice is received, a bill is automatically created, marked as paid, and reconciled on the client’s accounting software as soon as the funds are issued.

In this flow, the contractor only needs to send an invoice, and the client only has to approve the payment for everything else to move. Thoughtful integrations like these empower businesses to log-in to one application, but benefit from several, ultimately eliminating inefficiencies.

Relentless transparency

Understanding that old habits die hard, it’s expected that businesses of any size have questions when it comes to moving payments from a bank to an online provider.

Answering these questions with unprecedented product value and relentless transparency is the best way forward to bring more businesses onboard in 2021.

This means providing up front pricing, tracking, choice and flexibility to users. Before, during and after the pandemic, cash flow management remains the most critical part of running a small business. Digital payment providers enable the entrepreneur to have unparalleled insight, visibility, and control over their cash flow.

Through non-bank payment options, businesses can secure their information over a secure data network, watch their money move from origin to destination, and choose the speed at which they would like funds to move. By these tools working in harmony, the user can remove friction and spend more time focused on their business.

Separating the signal from the noise

2020 is a year that changed everything for the global small business community. In a report by Veem issued at the start of the pandemic, an overwhelming 80% of businesses shared that they anticipated COVID-19 to impact their business over the next 12-16 months. Problems surfaced that many didn’t even realize they had. And in finding those problems, businesses turned to technology to support them.

As enabling technology, it’s our job to listen and bring clarity and solutions to those contributing to and growing our local and global economies despite the hurdles and challenges they’ve faced.

Right now, small businesses deserve more. More access, more choice and more credit. In the road ahead we expect online payments and bundled user friendly financial services to play a pivotal role in the recovery of small businesses. The payment revolution will see the continuation of important and meaningful products that value the users time and enable businesses to launch, grow, and scale regardless of what’s to come in 2021.

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The UK’s hidden payments crisis: why businesses should rethink their payments strategy

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The UK’s hidden payments crisis: why businesses should rethink their payments strategy 2

By Edwin Abl, Chief Marketing Officer at Modulr.

As the economic conditions imposed by the Coronavirus endure, businesses are facing a dilemma about how to reduce operational costs while meeting customer needs in as economical a way as possible. And all without compromising on their quality of service.

A recent survey of 200 payments decision makers across the UK, revealed there are hidden costs of payment processing which will have an exponentially greater impact on wider businesses if left untreated. It found, UK businesses are spending an average of £1.5m a year in costs attached to payments – money they simply cannot afford to lose to inefficient processes in these uncertain times.

Businesses need to plug any holes in their boat to avoid sinking. And for many this includes the examination and recalibration of their payments strategy.

The research reveals that the payments process now represents a huge 12% of a business’s total operational expenditure. With two-thirds (64%) of all businesses expecting the cost of payment processing to increase over the next two years.

Two thirds (67%) of payments decision makers surveyed believe the way they process, and service payments has had a direct impact on their customer experience. In fact, 62% of respondents believe the hidden costs of poor payments outweigh the hard costs. This indicates that a poor payments strategy is no longer something business leaders can ignore, as it now has a far greater and unseen impact on wider business mechanics.

The top three hidden costs attached to inefficient payment processes were ‘impact on customer experience/satisfaction’ (38%), ‘influence on relationships with other teams and departments (35%) and ‘impact on competitor differentiation’ (31%).

These findings suggest there is widespread consensus that getting payment operations right, directly creates performance boosts elsewhere in the business. When asked to estimate, as a percentage, the business performance boost received if hidden payment inefficiencies were resolved, the average margin for improvement was +14%, with traditional banking the sector most likely (31%) to predict a performance gain greater than +15%.

The 5 key steps UK businesses can take to drive payment efficiencies

There are five key areas payments decision makers and tech leaders should be looking to change, so that they can drive end-to-end payment process efficiencies:

1 – Locate hidden payment process inefficiencies

Visibility is a key issue. Respondents across large (46%) and small businesses (47%) say they have very clear metrics directly related to payment process costs. Only 8% say that they don’t understand the costs involved. Yet, businesses know they could do better with improved visibility of costs. Both large and smaller companies cite ‘lack of visibility for operational costs’ as the top challenge when it comes to achieving strategic goals around payment process and money services provision.

Digital banking companies, including lenders and FinTechs, identified ‘lack of visibility for operational cost’ as a challenge when it comes to increasing payment services revenue (37%). This is in comparison with all respondents mentioning other issues such as lack of skills (25%) and constrained resources (25%) as secondary and tertiary challenges respectively.

For many businesses, developing a cost model for current and projected payment process costs, both hard and hidden, is a top priority.

2 – Make payments key to stakeholder experience management

Customer, departmental and even supply chain partner experiences are increasingly intertwined. There is no doubt that customer experience is a top priority for payment services strategy. But enhancing the broader stakeholder experience is a close second, and certainly complements the former.

Employee experience affects customer experience. So, payment services innovation must extend beyond customer touchpoints. Happy employees who feel they are working with effective and efficient payments systems will be best placed to enhance the customer experience. And, employees in commercial roles who have bought into the benefits of efficient payments will naturally want to extoll those benefits to customers.

Edwin Abl

Edwin Abl

Companies with a sophisticated and integrated supply chain are likely to be the frontrunners in implementing the integrated payment services that benefit all stakeholders, due to their historic experience. As customer experience management evolves into a broader discipline of stakeholder experience management, including employees and supply chain partners, it will become more crucial than ever to include payment services experience

3 – Integrate and automate to support payment innovation

Payment innovation is driving a culture change, connecting previously siloed functions such as IT and finance. There is increasing integration of systems from customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), into accounts and payments. The research tells us that payment processes are impacting nearly every department, affecting areas including customer experience, brand, leadership, business agility and ultimately, revenue. Integration enables new business models for paying suppliers and customers.

Automation is key to driving efficiency, replacing manual error-prone and time-consuming processes with real-time and responsive, digital ones. This is particularly the case when it comes to operational and payment processes.

Indeed, 52% of large companies say that team hours spent on payment processes was their biggest hard cost attached to payments, compared with 26% of smaller companies who share that view. This suggests that automation could contribute more to cutting the cost of payment processes in large companies.

A host of payments-as-a-service providers (including Modulr) are supporting customers to do just this by enabling them to stream a whole unified product ecosystem of payments functionality directly into their own software.

4 – Bring business leaders together

Payments innovation is driving systems integration and creating a more collaborative stakeholder ecosystem. As all the C-level roles become increasingly focused on the customer experience, the finance remit now includes overall business operations and its associated risks and opportunities. The role is evolving beyond just accounting, tax liability and funding. Therefore, closer collaboration between senior leaders is key to driving efficiencies and enhancing customer experience.

5 – Innovate by adding finance and payments to vertical services

Companies with a vertical focus are well placed to innovate by offering new payment services. In many vertical sectors, especially employment services, software vendors are increasingly embedding financial services facilities, such as payments, into their technology platforms. Employment services SaaS providers, across payroll, accounting, bookkeeping and more are offering financial services to existing and new customers within their specific ecosystem.

This means they can develop hyper relevant, convenient and delightful financial products and services for their end users through highly flexible, ‘plumbed in’ payments. This creates an ecosystem of stickier products while boosting the lifetime value of each end user.

Moving forward – engaging technology to drive efficiencies

If the onset of the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that there are many advantages to investing in technology and having a digital infrastructure as responsive as your customer-facing experience.

However, whilst digital technologies enable companies to provide customer service in new ways during lockdown. These same businesses are failing to transform their digital strategies, with the biggest priority still being cost reduction (41%).

By not shedding legacy technology and shoring up operational efficiency, UK businesses are following an increasingly risky strategy. And one which will have an exponentially greater impact on the wider business if left untreated. Particularly when this widespread failure to act concerns the customer experiences that sit at the very heart of a proposition – the payments.

To find out how you can drive payment efficiencies into 2021 and beyond, download the full report here for all the insight you need.

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Gain financial regulation qualification online

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Gain financial regulation qualification online  

Warwick Business School in partnership with the Bank of England are delighted to offer two online specialist Postgraduate Awards, which are perfect for anyone working in financial regulation to evidence their professional development.

  • Financial Conduct, Leadership & Ethics – Starting in February 2021
    You will debate and cover questions such as how do financiers judge ethical questions in financial markets? What are the implications for regulators and for clients?
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    You will develop a comprehensive understanding around financial regulation by looking at topics such as its tools, benefit and practical application.

Studied online over a period seventeen weeks, you will gain a detailed knowledge of the subject, learn industry best practice and gain a qualification to evidence your understanding.

The wider Global Central Banking & Financial Regulation qualification offers three start dates and four qualification levels.

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Invest in your career

Find out more about these Awards and the qualification levels offered by Warwick Business School in partnership with the Bank of England, by downloading the brochure here.

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