Export Sales: Disappearing over the horizon: Martin Whitfield on the problems of companies whose profits are jeopardised through late payment - or no payment at all - by their overseas clients

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The Independent Online
The disappointment always comes after all the effort has been put in. Hard-won export sales can turn from being the icing on the cake to a potential disaster if payment does not arrive, or is months overdue.

Huge amounts of work are expended in winning overseas business but the mechanics of payment are often left to one side, for fear of offending new customers.

Ian Campbell, director general of the Institute of Export, is staggered by the number of companies that take no action to protect themselves against bad credit risks, currency fluctuations or long delays in payment.

'Some companies just give up as they feel it is too difficult. This is depressing, as many have very good products that ought to be exported,' he says.

'Others learn the hard way by their own mistakes. One with a pounds 5m turnover and a small bottom- line profit of pounds 25,000 lost it all on a falling exchange rate. I asked them why they took the risk, and they said they hadn't even thought about it.'

The impact of late payment can be enormous - beneficial for the late payer, but detrimental to the seller. Stuart Natus, chairman of the finance committee of the British Exporters' Association, is certain that a number of large companies deliberately exploit their position of strength.

'Some of the larger companies have been the worst offenders, although they will deny it,' he says. 'It is often extremely difficult to assess in advance, as taking up a bank reference on a large company in Europe will result in the bank saying they are reliable and good for whatever sum is involved, but at the end of the day it all depends on the person who is signing the cheques.'

Graydon (UK), a credit information company, says that a firm with a pounds 10m turnover and an average of 78 debt days will have more than pounds 2.13m outstanding. A reduction to 50 debt days would reduce the amount outstanding to below pounds 1.37m, freeing pounds 750,000 in working capital.

Even with low interest rates in Britain, the interest charges on money borrowed to finance late payers can destroy an order's profitability.

In Germany, where interest rates are relatively high, companies are discovering the cash-flow benefits of deferring payment, with unfortunate results for foreign suppliers.

Mr Natus says that with a three month credit period, the addition of a further three month delay - quite common in Europe - would mean building in an extra 5 per cent on the cost of the goods or service.

Exports are particularly vulnerable to delay as firms looking to postpone payment can raise problems over proper documentation and currency conversion.

It has been known for companies in one country to avoid a local supplier in preference to a foreign provider of identical goods, in order to gain cash-flow advantage resulting from the longer standard payment period.

In all instances forewarned is forearmed, as the cost of possible delay can be estimated at the time of order and a rational decision taken on whether the business is worth having in the first place.

The experiences of exporters in the 'safe' markets of the European Union as recession spread across the continent has led to increasing use of credit checks, credit insurance and factoring.

According to a survey by the chartered accountants Grant Thornton, average payment periods for small- and medium-sized companies are 49 days in Britain, 43 days in Germany (up from 34 in 1993), 70 in France and 90 in Italy. Payments due in 30 days are slipping to 45, and those at 60 days slipping to 75.

Analysis by Trade Indemnity, credit insurers, shows that the experience of exporters in textiles and metals was for invoices to be left unpaid for an average of more than 25 days beyond the due date.

Such statistics are regularly bandied about by credit insurers and credit information companies who compile extensive databases of the payment record of companies in the major markets.

Philip Mellor, senior analyst with credit information specialists Dun and Bradstreet says information could be provided on companies with turnovers as low as pounds 50,000, although at that level the degree of financial detail could be sketchy.

Basic searches, giving payment records over the past 18 months, are relatively inexpensive with prices starting at around pounds 30.

'In terms of what it costs to win the order this is peanuts,' he says. 'For exporters, we can search out those companies in any sector which are financially stable and viable. The visiting and selling can then be done from at that stage, so time is not wasted on selling to companies where there have been problems with payment.'

A simple credit check will not guarantee payment, but an 18- month history is one of the best pointers to possible insolvency. As companies get nearer the brink, they become less concerned with meeting their bills.

Mr Natus says firms need not fear that instituting credit checks will put off their customers. 'They will almost certainly be doing it themselves, and would be surprised if someone did not find out who they were dealing with. It's all down to appearing professional.'

Security at a price is available by credit insurance or factoring. 18 credit insurers are offering their services in London, according to the Institute of Export. For many companies, the certainty of being paid is worth a small percentage of the contract. The price of insurance, like transport or marketing costs, can be fixed before the deal is signed.

Mr Campbell believes exporters should also make it easy for their customers to pay, and state exactly how they expect the invoice to be settled. Making it easy means not adopting what he calls the 'island mentality' of demanding cheques in sterling only, but giving details of bank accounts where the bill can be paid in local currency.

Stating exactly the terms of payment lessens the likelihood of cheques being sent in the wrong currency, for the wrong amount, at the wrong time. It also reduces the opportunity for errors to be blamed on faulty documentation.

Letters of credit and other devices can be used in less secure markets, while Mr Campbell says the final option of 'cash up front' should never be ruled out.

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