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How a Regional Small Business Survived Its Cash Flow Freeze

When Finger Lakes Limousine found itself in a cash flow bind, owner Tricia Sutliffe had to act quickly. The winter slow season was approaching and they’d just added a new vehicle lease to the books, but short-term revenue was not going to cover that plus payroll, maintenance and other monthly expenses. Like many small business owners, Tricia had to find a way to survive the winter until spring thawed New York wine region and her revenue pipeline. Here’s how her small business got through the winter and positioned itself for long-term success, and what you can learn from her experience.

Finger Lakes Limousine is one of the region’s top transportation providers, offering wine tours, airport and campus shuttle services, wedding packages, nights out on the town and much more. Founded in 1991 by Mark and Tricia Sutliffe, the company took one six-passenger limousine and built it into a fleet of 14 vehicles ranging from motor coaches and vans to luxury sedans and limousines. During that time, Finger Lakes Limousine grew to 30 employees, including professional chauffeurs, mechanics, detailers and office staff.

Mark guided the business to steady, continuous growth with sensational attention to detail and customer service during the busy spring and summer seasons. Meanwhile, Tricia worked full-time as a hairstylist and raised their three children. The business and family functioned like this for 25 years until 2016, when Mark passed away unexpectedly. This left Tricia in charge of a company that she admits stretched her business knowledge: “I came into this company knowing some things,” she says, “but not really knowing enough.”.

As Tricia describes it, she learned fast—“some [things] the easy way and some not so easy.”

Woman standing in front of limo

An Operating Cash Flow Roadblock

Surrounded by six colleges and one of the East Coast’s best wine regions, airport shuttles and wine tours are Finger Lakes Limousine’s two largest revenue drivers. While the busy season extends from March all the way to mid-November (peaking in October), the winter blues in Central New York can start not long after. “During the winter months, there are fewer wine tours and weddings,” Tricia says. And while there are nine ski resorts surrounding the Finger Lakes, skiers aren’t looking for a limousine to take them from their home or hotel to the ski lodge.

So winter revenue slows down, but bills and payroll stay the same.

As Tricia became more familiar with how the business runs, she began to analyze her financials with a closer eye—and she didn’t like what she saw. “My checking account was looking a little low,” she says. “I’d just purchased a vehicle and I put some money down on it and it was, ‘UGH!’”

With the slower, snowier months ahead, Tricia was uncomfortable with her checking accounts dipping below a certain amount. “In [the transportation] industry, you don’t know what your income is gonna be,” she says. While Finger Lakes Limousine generates a specific dollar amount per month, anything beyond that figure is unpredictable. In order to maintain a cash flow that would sustain her business during the slower months, she needed to bolster her operations through outside means.

Finding Accessible Funding

Tricia’s experience is a common plight for American small business owners. As the National Small Business Administration (NSBA) shared in its 2017 Year-End Economic Report, small businesses are often limited in how they can access essential capital to manage or further develop their businesses. While 73% of business owners surveyed said they had satisfactory access to business loans and financing, 27% felt they had nowhere to turn for financial support.

In 2010, the NSBA found that more than one-third of the country’s businesses—36%—didn’t feel adequate financing was available. So the 2017 number is actually a 9% improvement from 2010. A big reason for that decrease is the rise of online lending.

Online lending companies have created accessible financing products designed to provide small businesses access to funds quickly. These products enable small businesses to sustain their operational costs, purchase needed inventory, hire employees and handle just about any other business need while they wait for an inflow of cash. For Tricia, this was the type of financing she was seeking.

Truck and limo outside of building

The Path to Bridge Financing

After doing some research, Tricia began applying for seasonal business financing. While she did receive offers from a few companies, the numbers didn’t match up with what Finger Lakes Limousine needed. It wasn’t until she connected with Fast Capital 360 Business Advisor Ryan Stoops and Funding Administrator Amber Thomas that things fell into place.

“She was concerned [about finding financing] because her husband’s name was on everything when she applied,” Ryan says. After assuring Tricia that he would do everything within his power to help, worked with Fast Capital 360’s partners and found a business line of credit program that would address each of Finger Lakes Limousine’s needs.

What Is a Business Line of Credit?

A business line of credit gives you access to funds to spend on your business as needed. You’re never obligated to withdraw the entire credit line, only what your business needs when you need it, which means you pay interest solely on the funds you use. Lines of credit offer both business owners flexibility and control of their debt, along with the ability to get funded in as little as one business day. For small business owners who have been in business for 6+ months, an annual revenue of $200,000+ and a credit score of 575+, business lines of credit provide advances between $5,000 to $500,000 with interest rates starting at 8% and a 6 month to 3 year term.

The Result

For Tricia, the line of credit helped her obtain the capital she needed to pay her employees, purchase a new vehicle and promote her business in advance of the upcoming busy season. All on terms she felt comfortable with. “We explained Tricia’s situation to our funding partners and together we made it work,” Ryan said. “We gave her peace of mind through capital. We simply made her feel comfortable.”

That was important to Tricia, because customer service has always been a differentiator in her own business. Seeing that she would get that same level of service as a customer helped her make the decision. “That’s how you want it to be,” Tricia says. “You want somebody that’s pleasant to talk to, explains things to you and gets to the bottom line. A lot of it is customer service.”

The funding Tricia received helped Finger Lakes Limousine with the basic necessities of running the company and keeping employees working. “Fast Capital 360 gave me a chance,” Tricia says, “and I have successfully been using your company now for almost two years for additional funding when needed.”

The interior of a luxury limo

What’s Next for Finger Lakes Limousine?

As Tricia continues to look for ways to grow her business, Ryan and Amber keep looking for other funding programs that might better fit her needs. “As Tricia keeps looking to upgrade her fleet,” Ryan says, “we’re always exploring ways to find the best funding program for Finger Lakes Limousine. We’re happy to do it.”

For Tricia, this is a great way for her to finance the company’s growth. Since she’s been working with Fast Capital 360, Tricia has been able to methodically upgrade her fleet one vehicle at a time, and she has even bigger plans on the horizon.

The building Finger Lakes Limousine operates in is Tricia’s current focus. She’s interested in purchasing it, or at the very least finding a way to decrease her $4,000/month rent.

“I can’t move on with my business and expect to keep paying $4,000.00 a month if [the landlord doesn’t] meet me halfway,” Tricia says. A personal friend is willing to work with her to finance a buyout that would bring her payment down to $2,000.00 a month, but there’s a lot of business to discuss before that plan becomes a reality. “I need to worry about what my payments would be,” Tricia says, “because I’m trying to save money. That’s the biggest thing.” An extra $2,000 a month could enable her to pay down debts, add new vehicles or further promote her business.

As Tricia works on that, her goals for Finger Lakes Limousine are simple. “I want to continue to keep offering luxury and professional transportation, upgrade a couple of my vehicles and continue in this business.” They’re little victories—for her business, her employees and herself.

“It has been a hard road to travel,” Tricia says, “but I am grateful I have a fantastic staff to help me keep this company going and growing.”

Jon Steiert is a content writer focused on making business and financial information accessible to any business owner. He’s always on the lookout for fascinating stories that just haven’t been told properly.
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