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'Please don't make me spend more time with my family...'

A numbers geek's guide to translating financial statements

Opinion I was finishing up a few things in the office well after 6.00pm when I got a call from one of our clients, a well-known OEM and off-the-page seller whom I visited twice a year and who readily accepted and acted on advice and ideas.

He was due to meet his bank manager the following morning with draft annual results which would show his first-ever loss. He wondered if I had time to cast my eye over his directors’ report, which would form part of the document package and discussion. His concern centred on the loss, which was large (certainly to him with his turnover in excess of £15m), and on what effect this would have on his banking facility and credit from other suppliers.

I asked him to fax his statement across, promising a quick response. I was astonished, nay mortified, to find his report extended to almost three pages of very intricate and detailed reasons for the loss. So detailed in fact that it would undoubtedly have alarmed his bank manager and suppliers.

I immediately returned his call and suggested we rework his statement, summarising events and using the correct phraseology. We got it down to half a page that we were both happy with and I wished him luck with his meeting. The following afternoon, he rang me again saying he was delighted the meeting went well with no change to his banking facility.

There was no use of flowery language or tech-speak but simple words and a summary the bank manager would understand.

I’m not what you’d call a finance geek. Honestly. But I do get a buzz and a fair measure of light relief and amusement when I read the accompanying comments of that CEO’s and CFO’s bolt onto their financial reports.

Financial results to an analyst are rudimentary - the "boring stuff" that measures and indicates past and potential future performance. The fun stuff is the directors’ statements, press releases, management changes, acquisitions, divestments, locations, earnings, share price, markets, articles and above all, the language used in all of these and their presentation.

It’s true the manner of what is written or said about results or events frequently reveals more about them. The language, tech-speak and buzz words used may change with the passage of time but corporate speak remains a tried and tested way of disguising, trivializing, pandering, glorifying or excusing events. Jargon is more likely to be included when results or events may be deemed less than encouraging or negative. Positive performance and results do not need window dressing and can easily be followed by the average layman.

Pumping out annual or quarterly results stretching to over 90 pages may look impressive but it's shocking when the same verbose claptrap is repeated from one period to the next.

There is a measure of truth in the argument that most shareholders know little about the business they invest in beyond the return it may give them. Questions of doubt are dispelled or clouded through complicated geeky technical statements many have absolutely no chance of understanding, rendering them unable to question or challenge senior management.

Fancy technical words or phrases are usually dreadful attempts to appear hip and modern, an affliction to which the IT is particularly prone. Why simple words and explanations are seen as not good enough baffles me. It’s almost as though there’s a competition as to who can come up with new buzz words. I mean, why does "go-to-market strategy" or "customer-centric vision" have to replace simple words like selling or customer satisfaction?

Executives who collectively talk of "execution" should place their head under a guillotine. What’s wrong with nice simple words like achieve, perform or deliver?

The wow factor carries favour with classics such as "best in class solutions" ergo (we think they’re top notch) or "positive signals on the dashboard" (it could have been worse). I mean, these are accounts, not the inside of a Range Rover.

Other favourites are "incremental productivity enhancements" (must do better), "program" (cost cutting) and "growing channel relationships" (selling more stuff). In recent years, "amid slower global macro-economic growth" or "challenging market conditions" have become standard fillers. It’s such a lovely broad global expression which few will question when so many others say the same thing.

Similarly, when people leave a business unexpectedly, more so after an acquisition, merger or results, we all know or suspect what's really happened. It’s a fruitless exercise adding gloss with statements such as "seeking new challenges" (they screwed up or disagreed) or "wish to spend more time with their families" (they screwed up, are a bit old, or disagreed) so why say anything at all? A simple so-and-so has gone should suffice. No further explanation needed.

Press releases, news items and results have become altogether too theatrical, too detailed, overly complicated (by design in most cases) and carry too much baggage. Waffling has turned into an art form. To an astute analyst however, they are a small window into the soul of the business and a measure of the quality and strength of senior management and its performance. In a Through the Looking Glass way.

Esteemed readers of El Reg may wish to contribute their own dictionary of tech-speak, with translations into real English. Here’s a few to get the ball rolling.

"There’s not really a story here" (Oh, there is)

"Best in class" (We think it’s top-notch, others may not)

"Restructuring initiative" (We need to lose people. Lots)

"Pipeline of opportunity" (Expectations...not guaranteed)

"Longer sales cycles" (Customers are buying less of our stuff)

"Cross selling opportunities" (We might sell stuff we couldn’t before)

"Aggregators" (We have an image/identity/directional problem)

"Value proposition" (Looks a good deal)

"Global footprint" (Reach)

"Insure" (ensure)

"Non-core business" (Areas we’ve failed in)

"Strategic goals" (Shifting targets) ®

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