If you don’t know your numbers you will never know if your business is truly profitable, says Linda Dousis, an expert who helps small business owners keep track of and understand their finances. Dousis will present, “Do You Know Where Your Profits Are?” at the next free Small Business Insights lunch sponsored by Team Nimbus, on Tuesday, November 25, at 11:30 a.m. at the Main Street Bistro in Somerville. For more information, call 908-359-4787.

Dousis, who opened Administrative Services and Consulting in Hillsborough, performs bookkeeping services for her clients, but she is much more than a bookkeeper or accountant. Her background includes helping to take companies from start-up to millions in sales.

The first company Dousis worked with was a start-up manufacturer of rheological research instruments (instruments that measure viscosity and elasticity). She was hired as the administrative assistant, the company’s fifth employee, when it had just over $100,000 in yearly sales.

Seven years later the company had $10.5 million in sales, 115 employees worldwide, had filed an IPO, and started a German division. Dousis was vice president of administration, human resources, finance, and systems; secretary/ treasurer; and managing director of the German subsidiary, and was responsible for special projects, such as purchasing buildings, reviewing leases, renovating facilities, evaluating the underwriters for the IPO, marketing, and hiring and training employees.

She left the company to follow her dream of opening her own business, and “had just gotten through the first growing pains of working as an independent consultant,” when she received another offer.

“This company was 25 years old, but it had never grown past $300,000 in sales,” she explained. Her job was to help it grow. She began working with it first as a consultant and eventually became president of the firm, increasing sales to $4 million, and on the death of the owner negotiated an employee-leveraged buyout from his estate and the subsequent sale of the company to a Boston firm. She stayed for a few years, but when she was asked to move to Boston, she sold her interest.

“I was trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up,” when she got another interesting offer from a friend who owned a civil engineering firm. He, too, had owned a business for years, and needed Dousis’ help to grow.

“What I found out in that position is that a lot of people talk about wanting to grow, but they must be willing to put in the effort to make it happen,” says Dousis. “After a couple of years my job had evolved down to office manager and I was bored.”

In 2006 she opened her own business. “I have several nieces, and I thought to myself, ‘What if they come to me someday and ask if they should follow their dream? How can I tell them yes if I never followed mine?’” she explains.

Dousis’ business now includes consulting in a variety of areas such as financial management, inventory control, and human resources. She also works with small businesses that need back office services such as payroll and accounting. While in her earlier careers she worked with multi-million dollar firms, many of her current clients are one-person service companies who just need once-a-month assistance with their QuickBooks.

Have you made money? “Too many small business owners run everything out of a shoebox,” Dousis says. “They put all of their receipts in the box and take it to their accountant at the end of the year. They have no idea until then if they’ve made money.”

To really understand the big picture, a business owner must understand financial reports. “Without knowing that, you have no basis to make even the smallest decisions, such as can I afford to buy a new computer?” she says.

Profit and loss vs. cash flow. Different types of financial statements track things in different ways, Dousis explains. An income statement shows how much revenue has come in and how much money has gone out in expenses.

However, an income statement is not a complete picture of a business. Say a business owner is paying $800 a month on a piece of equipment. An income statement will show, for tax purposes, the interest amount that is paid each month. “Let’s say you are paying $400 in interest a month in the first year,” she says. “You need to know that for tax purposes, but you also must have the $800 in the bank every month to make the payment or you won’t have cash flow.”

The amount of depreciation and amortization are two other important figures to understand. “If you are working on a very small profit margin these things could mean that you show a tax loss at the end of the year,” she says., “And those figures could make a big difference when asking a bank for a loan or obtaining a contract from the government or a large corporation.”

The real costs of business. Dousis mentions a restaurateur she spoke with who mentioned that increases in the price of flour had affected his profitability. “That man knew his financials. If he was just stuffing his receipts in a shoebox he might have an idea that he was making less money now than six months ago but he wouldn’t be able to figure out why,” she says.

It can be more difficult to track the cost of business for a service company, she adds. She uses a business owner who pays his employee $20 per hour, while billing $30 an hour for the employee’s services as an example. “He thinks to himself, ‘I’m making $10 an hour on that employee,’ but is he really?” she asks. Travel, paid vacation, and down time must all be factored in. “Every function in a business — employees, marketing, customer service, inventory – relates back to financials,” she says.

Getting a handle on financials. The first thing Dousis recommends every business owner do, no matter the size of the business, is buy accounting software. “You can use QuickBooks, Peachtree, or even an Excel spreadsheet, She says. “It doesn’t matter which you use so long as you look at it monthly.”

Once you have entered the data, take the time to compare the statements with the previous month. “I was working with one business owner whose water bill suddenly increased from $50 to $1,700. If he hadn’t paid attention and just stuffed everything in his shoebox he might not have realized he had a leak in his water main until the end of the year,” she says. “Keeping track of the bills saved him a lot of money.”

Dousis mentions another client who came to her after her bank informed her that she was overdrawn. She found that an employee had been stealing from her account, but she hadn’t realized it for several months. Another client came to her for help after learning he actually had $45,000 more in his checking account than he realized. “He’d asked his girlfriend to handle his books and she hadn’t known she should enter an opening amount when she entered his data into the system,” says Dousis. While that tale has a happier ending than most, for Dousis it is still an excellent example of what she sees as the bottom line.

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