Let’s say you run a small company that’s developing a unique idea. Everyone works hard in designing the product, and your sales department hits pay dirt: a large manufacturing contract. This is exactly what you wanted, but you now have a problem: you need to hire more people and invest in some machinery to fulfill the contract, but you won’t see any money until the goods are delivered.
In this situation, a lot of your options aren’t too appealing – a large loan (assuming your business has the credit,) or convincing your employees to accept a deferred payroll. In many cases the best solution is to strike a deal with an invoice factoring company. What the factoring company will do is effectively buy your invoices at a discount – the “factor,” which are typically 3 – 4% – and provide you with the up front cash that you need. When they come due, the factoring company will then collect your invoices in full. Although the invoice factoring company will collect the receivables, this is usually done in a transparent way to the customer: as far as the customer is concerned, they are simply paying an invoice to a company as they normally would.
Even if it’s not out of a need for capital, many smaller businesses also turn to factoring companies to alleviate cash flow issues. When selling to large corporations, some businesses find themselves dealing with long gaps between invoicing and payment and with little leverage to narrow it. By turning to an invoice factoring company they can create a steadier cash flow.
The Beginnings: Invoice Factoring in Early America
Factoring made its way to America almost as soon as the pilgrims did. Many early American merchants made use of factors in order to sell tobacco and cotton abroad: they would ship their goods to England where a factor would take a percentage for selling and collecting money owed, and English merchants would do the same using American factors. In this way factoring played a pivotal role in rapid growth of American industry – without factors it would have been much more difficult for merchants to maintain a steady cash flow and trade of goods overseas.
As the American economy grew, American factors were able to concentrate more and more on domestic business. From the early colonial factors, and group of around 40 large factoring companies descended, based mostly on the east coast, that played a major role in financing the textile and transportation industries until the early 1950s. In the early part of the 20th century these factoring companies began to establish percentages of receivables that they would advance companies upon the purchasing the invoices, usually around 70%-80%. This provided much of the large amounts of capital needed in these industries.
The mid 1950s saw the emergence of smaller businesses using factoring to address cash flow issues, moving the factoring industry away from the exclusive realm of large industry. As smaller businesses began to make use of factoring, the industry grew rapidly and became more competitive. The result was a trend towards mergers beginning in the 1970s that saw the number of large factoring companies reduced to around 10 by the end of the decade. At the same time, banks and other large financial institutions began to offer factoring services, and the business of factoring became the domain of large, institutional organizations.
The Impact of Invoice Factoring on Today’s Small Business Trends
The factoring industry more or less remained this way until fairly recently. The last 10 to 15 years has seen the re-emergence of small, independent factoring companies catering to a much wider range of businesses and needs. This trend has created a split market with a few mammoth factors targeting traditional factoring industries, and many small factoring companies that are continually creating new markets.
This trend towards newer, smaller invoice factoring companies is a reflection of contemporary business trends. The pace with which smaller companies develop and operate, particularly in the competitive technology and service sectors, requires a steady cash flow that can’t always be provided by receivables. An example of this can be seen in the emergence of temporary staffing agencies. These companies have large payrolls and depend heavily on cash flow. The competitive nature of this industry puts many temp agencies in a position where their payroll is due before their invoices are, and many smaller factoring companies have come about to provide solutions for this gap between payables and receivables.