Sustainable competitive advantages and Financial discipline in SMEs

COVOD19 pandemic triggered disruptions have shown how important it is to build good financial discipline alongside building sustainable competitive advantages.

Recently we met an entrepreneur who has been into a service industry. He came with a request to advise him to tide over the crisis which is threatening his survival in the business. He has been into this industry for a long time and steadily built his business over the last 10 years. The business started from scratch reached a level of a couple of crores per month. Even before the COVID 19 pandemic business had been quite weak for some time due to poor financial management mainly diversion of funds outside the business.  That had indeed damaged the banking relationship.

Having been in the business over 10 years he has built a strong sustainable competitive advantage and that is giving him enough room to stay in the business in spite of the lack of financial discipline.

The COVID 19 crisis followed by overnight lockdown orders changed the scenario. When the lockdown was announced he was already on the edge; like many other small business owners who are often financially fragile, with little cash on hand or resources to buffer even a minor financial shock. Many MSMEs have ongoing expenses and little or no revenue and face the prospect that they may not sustain for long or never reopened.

Though Govt had announced many schemes to help MSMEs to overcome the challenge, he could not avail any of them due to his low credit profile. On the other hand, the creditors’ demand just became unbearable.

The sustainable competitive advantages built assiduously over the years under the threat of vanishing as he is not in a position to revive the business to the previous level even though the normalcy is slowly returning to the industry.

Building SCA is no mean task. It is hard work, require sheer dedication & passion. It happens over a period of time.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage(SCA):

Sustainable Competitive advantage stems from the many discrete activities a firm performs in designing, producing, marketing, delivering and supporting its product. Each of these activities can contribute to a firm’s relative cost position and create a basis for differentiation.’

Sustainable competitive advantage is the key to business success. It is the force that enables a business to have greater focus, more sales, better profit margins, and higher customer and staff retention than competitors.

At its most basic level, there are three key types of sustainable competitive advantage.

  1. Cost advantage: the business competes on price.
  2. Value advantage: the business provides a differentiated offering that is perceived to be of superior value.
  3. Focus advantage: the business focuses on a specific market niche, with a tailored offering designed specifically for that segment of the market.

Most MSMEs don’t have the market share and buying power to effectively compete on price and are not big enough to be all things to all customers in a market.

Therefore, to successfully compete, small businesses need to develop a sustainable competitive advantage that is based on providing superior value to a specific niche.

Is SCA enough? Will it guarantee enduring success?

The question can be answered through our own experience or looking at some entities which are passing through financial distress. It is quite obvious among the financially stressed organisation to see the depletion of  ‘organisational capabilities’ encompassing both physical resources (raw materials, plant and equipment) and human resources (financial, managerial, technical knowledge and skills) which are critical to the ability of firms to nurture Sustainable Competitive Advantage.

We can infer that Sustainable competitive Advantage alone will not bring success in the business. Having all the ingredients, if there is no financial discipline, the firm will likely to fall into distress sooner or later.

The major areas of financial management that require perennial attention to enduring the success of any organizations are :

Cash flow management– Mainly ensuring that long term asset acquisitions/diversifications are funded by surplus (more than required for existing business’s requirement) or funded by long term sources.

Asset management: Efficient management of current assets (cash, receivables, inventory) and current liabilities (payables, accruals) turnovers and the enhanced management of its working capital and cash conversion cycle.

Financing Decisions and Capital Structure- The firm needs to have a well-defined capital structure. The optimum capital structure is expected to enhance ROCE and ROE, without enhancing the financial risk.

Profitability Ratios:  Profitability ratios also indicate inefficient areas that require corrective actions by management; they measure profit relationships with sales, total assets, and net worth.

Tax Optimization: Manage the level of tax expenses undertaken in conducting business and to reduce expected taxes.

In the instant case described above, having robust SCA but poor financial discipline exposed him to face a severe level of risk of failure of the business. It was evident that when things were going good, adhering to financial discipline was the last priority.

The recent incident of Covid lockdown exposed many entrepreneurs to the risk of failure. However, those who have built sustainable competitive advantage coupled with better financial discipline are able to navigate the challenge better.


Possession of Sustainable Competitive Advantage is a necessary condition for success for an MSME. This condition is, however, not alone sufficient. Firms require financial management capability to realize the potential present in that strategic asset. This will help the firms to navigate any challenges, mitigate risks and overcome the impact of uncertainties like COVID 19.