The main points in a nutshell

  • Three areas show whether a company is succeeding or failing: liquidity, profitability and the strength of the balance sheet.
  • A company’s KPIs are only meaningful in historical or industry comparison.
  • The following are the most revealing indicators: liquidity ratios, EBITDA margin, return on equity, ratio of fixed assets to equity, and the debt factor.

Key financial metrics (commonly expressed as ratios) come in all shapes and sizes. But which figures do companies actually require in order to know they are on top of growing their business?

Basically, three areas indicate the success or failure of a company: ability to pay, business efficiency and sustainability – in other words, liquidity, profitability and financial soundness. There’s no getting around this triad:

  • Short term: liquidity
  • Medium-term: profitability
  • Long-term: soundness or strength of the balance sheet

In most cases, a few key figures from these three areas alone, depending on the company, are enough to monitor the course of business. Make sure you really understand these figures yourself. This is not a task you can delegate to employees.

Corporate KPI #1: Liquidity

The first performance indicator is not actually one at all. By definition, short-term liquidity stands for something liquid and dynamic. It should be planned for in advance to cover a period of time in the future and, of course, secured, because liquidity problems are by far the most common reason a corporate crisis escalates. At best, key liquidity figures serve as indicators that relate only to a fixed reference date. Nevertheless, liquidity planning is indispensable for running your day-to-day business. And it must take the entire value chain into account – from order to receipt of payment after invoicing. Simply put: the greater the value added, the longer the planning horizon you need:

  • For retail companies with less internal value-added, this horizon is four to six months.
  • For manufacturing companies, it is at least six months, as such companies must plan for the longer term.

Planning will help you master even unstable phases, because although falling sales will improve liquidity in the short term, sales growth will tie up funds. In growth phases, accounts receivable increase and inventories grow, tying up liquidity. Additional employees may also be hired during such phases, which in turn will require increased liquidity at the end of the month.

If you underestimate the impact of growth, you will need to find liquidity quickly: for example, by delaying accounts payable invoices, reducing inventories or borrowing.

Learn more about how you can plan the liquidity of your SME (DE).

Plan your liquidity: with the UBS planning template

Careful liquidity planning will help you make the best possible decisions for your company, especially in uncertain times.

Corporate KPI #2: EBITDA in relation to sales

A cash flow statement shows where cash and cash equivalents come from (cash flow, financing, divestments) and where or how they are used (fixed or current assets, dividend distributions and so on). This is how we arrive at business efficiency – i.e., the profitability – of a company.

A variety of key figures can be used to calculate profitability: at the center is the relationship between a company’s profit or cash flow and its sales or expended capital. The ratio of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) to sales is particularly revealing when assessing profitability.

Profitability in industry comparison

How high the EBITDA margin should be depends strongly on the industry. For a manufacturing company, more than 10 percent is considered healthy. The figure will be lower for trade and service companies, because of their lower propensity to invest: For such companies, a margin of between 3 and 6 percent is sufficient.

Good to know: the difference between EBIT and EBITDA

  • EBIT (Earnings before Interest and Taxes): earnings excluding interest and taxes
  • EBITA (Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization): earnings excluding interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization

UBS Growth Package “Corporate Growth”

Useful answers to questions about growth for SMEs: our easy-to-read dossiers on different subjects summarize important concepts, practical tips and strategies.

Corporate KPI #3: Balance sheet structure

The bedrock of a company is the structure of its balance sheet, which reveals its financial soundness and strength. Depending on the industry, different assets are central:

  • Manufacturing companies: Fixed assets are key. Durable capital assets should also be financed on a long-term basis. Equity and long-term debt capital must at least cover fixed assets. Ideally, they should exceed it, so that equity can be held aside as a reserve to cushion any losses. We therefore recommend a ratio of equity and long-term debt capital to fixed assets of approximately 120 percent.
  • Retail companies: Current assets are key. The primary concern is in assessing business risks and the demands on equity. Sound, non-producing companies should have an equity ratio of at least 30 percent; for industrial enterprises, this should be at least 40 percent but preferably 50 percent or more.

Further indicators for assessing SME performance: productivity indicators

Productivity ratios are not financial key figures in the narrow sense, though they still provide information about how well your company is performing. Depending on the company and key figure, entrepreneurs develop a sense of how productive the working day was. Depending on the industry, productivity ratios include different metrics that are relevant in the assessment. Three examples:

  • Labor productivity: Expresses the labor output of a given period in the past: for a consulting firm, this includes approximate hours billed per number of employees; for an industrial firm, it includes the number of units produced per hour.
  • Machine productivity: Expresses how efficiently machines in an industrial operation are running and producing.
  • Capacity utilization: Expresses the utilization of employees and/or machines. Ideally, a company produces so many products and services that all employees or machines are kept fully occupied.

How are corporate key figures to be understood?

For all calculations, however, remember that the key figures for a company are only meaningful in historical or industry comparison. Also remember that the measurement of key figures is a continuous process. One measure is no measure. The trend of individual key figures over time is much more important than a single snapshot.

In brief: The most important key corporate figures

Liquidity ratio

Liquidity enables a company to meet its liabilities as they fall due. A distinction is made between three liquidity ratios, which compare current liabilities with current assets.

  • Liquidity ratio 1 – also known as the Cash Ratio – is the ratio of cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities to current liabilities. Rule of thumb: between 10% and 30%.
  • Liquidity ratio 2 – also known as the Quick Ratio – refers to the ratio of cash and cash equivalents, marketable securities and current receivables to current liabilities. Rule of thumb: between 100% and 120%.
  • Liquidity ratio 3 – also known as the Current Ratio – refers to the ratio of current assets (cash and cash equivalents, marketable securities, current receivables, inventories) to current liabilities. Rule of thumb: between 150% and 200%.

EBITDA margin

This is the ratio of operating profit before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) to net sales. The margin shows whether sustainable investments can be made, interest paid on equity and debt capital, equity further strengthened and/or a profit distributed.

Return on equity (ROE)

The net profit in relation to average equity influences how attractive a company is to investors.

Equity-to-fixed-assets ratio

A distinction is made between two coverage ratios:

  • Fixed asset coverage ratio 1: Ratio of equity to fixed assets
  • Fixed asset coverage ratio 2: Ratio of equity and long-term debt to fixed assets

Rule of thumb: Fixed assets should be covered by equity and/or debt.

Debt factor

The debt factor measures the ratio of debt to cash flow (roughly equivalent to EBITDA) and shows how many years it will take to repay the debt from the cash flow. Depending on the financing (real estate, inventory, machinery and so on), the factor should be less than five years.

Thomas Sommerhalder 

Senior Advisor Corporate Clients

Thomas Sommerhalder advises our corporate clients as Senior Advisor. Previously, he was managing director and board member of SMEs in the textile and printing industry and owner of a consulting firm.

Discover more content

Impulse newsletter

The latest information, specialist articles and tips for SMEs and young companies.