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Rockford, IL, along with the rest of the nation looks forward to better economic news in 2024.
Regional manufacturing industries working with their banking partners have successfully survived economic turbulence with savvy business practices and smart money-management tools, said Illinois Bank & Trust, a division of HTLF Bank, CEO and President Jeff Hultman.
“In general, people are still positive, but they are definitely feeling a little more stressed than a year ago in terms of outlook for business strength in 2024. I wouldn’t say pessimism yet, but I don’t think it’s the optimism of a year ago,” Hultman said.
Rockford’s economy is built around manufacturing, mostly aerospace and automotive, but medical related manufacturing and machine tools and metals are also part of the area’s business dynamic.
“We have a pretty good cross section of manufacturing, but the biggest concentration would be in aerospace and automotive,” Hultman said.
“Aerospace remains pretty strong. Both are catching up from pandemic-level supply chain issues, but it’s still optimistic on the aerospace side. Travel is still pretty strong.”
Automotive manufacturing is recovering from a recent labor strike. “So that seems to be going in the right direction,” he said.
The bank has the most market share of any bank in the region.
“We deal with more customers than anybody, so we see what the best practices are,” Hultman said, so they can share those insights.
Ongoing inflation and a declining workforce have created disruptions along the supply chain. Demand — new orders— has dropped in some sectors, he said.
Of the hurdles facing business clients, keeping and attracting skilled and talented workers tops the list.
“Retaining top talent through competitive compensation and career development is still number one. It’s a big issue facing everybody, with Baby Boomer retirements, especially on the shop floor,” Hultman said.
Recruiting skilled labor should be helped by Rock Valley College adding an advanced technology center to roll out computer and software skills workers and their employers need.
“It’s a chronic problem for employers in this region,” Hultman said.
Along with that challenge is riding out the waves of inflation.
Because manufacturing relies on suppliers, “when you have a lot of manufacturing, you usually go into recessions earlier and come out earlier.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Liquidity management and contingency planning are always great tools for a business but especially when fighting inflation.
Adequate liquidity management is part of an overall contingency plan and can buffer against 2024’s uncertainty.
Having both stored capital and access to credit is essential.
Neither works well alone.
“You can’t go into this with no cash in the bank, but a big line of credit. Three-to-six months of operating expenses in cash is a good target,” Hultman said.
Unfortunately, if things go poorly, without the cash, credit may be hard to find.
“It also provides that cushion to be able to operate even when dramatic or quick changes happen to the company,” he said.
Hultman knows some clients who were able to make recent recessions work in their favor because they had strong liquidity and could take advantage of acquisitions or recruiting talent when other companies stumbled.
Successful regional companies have robust contingency plans helping them succeed under all kinds of conditions.
“A true contingency plan makes sense whether that’s preparing for material changes in sales decline, continuing interest rates or cost of capital increases. Then there’s cybersecurity and fraud,” he said.
“That’s the number-one thing, just being prepared for the potential impact of major events and determining what the responses would be to any of those, being prepared with a plan and determining what the triggers are for the plan to be instituted,” Hultman said.
Also, many successful clients focus on automation and operating efficiencies, including the role AI can play in automating various manufacturing processes, he added.
HOW WE CAN HELP
“It’s really important to have a strong banking relationship heading into whatever we’re heading into in 2024,” he said.
The bank has Treasury Management, Commercial Card services and fraud prevention products to help their clients succeed.
For example, using a Commercial Card as part of purchasing can extend the working capital cycle. The cards also come with rebates so procuring can become a source of revenue as well, he said.
Treasury Management automates many aspects of cash flow and includes an annual or biannual review which comes with a fraud assessment.
“We have the products and services to take care of a majority of it,” he said.
The bank’s Positive Pay fights check fraud. People who write checks get digital images of the checks they wrote the previous day and they authorize the authentic payments before they clear the bank.
“As for fraud, there isn’t this new ingenious approach to fraud. It’s not a new trick. A lot of it is human error. Adoption (of fraud prevention services) is the biggest hurdle,” Hultman said.
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