Extra Edition / Business Management

Using Equipment Leasing To Strategic Advantage

September 18, 2005
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Michael J. Fleming
With leasing being used by eight out of 10 businesses in the U.S. today, and accounting for about one-third of new equipment acquisitions, most business executives are generally familiar with leasing. But executives facing lease vs. loan decisions may not fully know how the strategic use of equipment leasing can enhance financial performance and capital productivity. A deeper understanding of the lesser-known points of leasing, including asset management, tax treatment, insurance and maintenance, and lease options can better enable overall business performance.

Lessons From The Leasing Industry

The equipment leasing industry has been managing assets and employing strategies to ensure the most productivity is gained from equipment for more than 40 years. Companies that acquire significant amounts of equipment can learn valuable lessons from the leasing industry by reviewing their strategies and programs for efficient asset management. They can be easily adopted by most businesses, especially mid-sized to larger companies.

"Asset management" is a term used since the 1980's that basically means the ability to plan, acquire, manage, and recycle assets in a systematic manner. Each stage of asset management has a significant impact on portfolio return and profitability. The asset management function should be employed throughout an asset's entire life cycle from the delivery of equipment to its installation, use, maintenance, and finally de-installation and disposition. Most companies do not employ a formal asset management program. However, lessors have noted a growing trend among senior managers of companies that acquire large amounts of equipment to seek methods that will reduce their need for additional capital, as well as improve productivity from the current mix of assets.

Over the next five years, asset management programs are expected to become standard in medium- to large-sized organizations, and leasing companies are being called upon to provide asset management expertise to companies seeking help with their programs internally.

Financial Goals First

Careful consideration of financial goals, such as improving cash flow or meeting a return on net assets, is the foremost consideration of an asset management program. Establishing acquisition guidelines based on equipment needs as well as financial objectives also is crucial.

These goals - different for each organization - should also be factored into the criteria for measuring the performance of a division or business unit.

Businesses would be wise to track maintenance and insurance costs associated with equipment, especially equipment under heavy use. In other words, the question should be asked if it would be cost effective to keep a piece of equipment for an additional year, or incur additional maintenance costs, which could mean keeping it an unsound financial investment?

Also, determine how much growth is expected over the next one to three year period. This has an effect on the acquisition mix of ownership, renting, and leasing. Most businesses grow and change at varying rates. If an organization goes through a sudden growth spurt, having the flexibility to change your asset mix is key. The ability to dispose of equipment no longer needed during slower times also is important.

The amount of flexibility a business requires should be determined in order to help make the decision whether leasing or owning makes more sense. Ownership means the asset is yours forever (until disposal), while leasing allows usage of the asset for a set amount of time. The company's needs may fluctuate, so you need to decide what kind and how much equipment is needed. Equipment use and estimated obsolescence should be reviewed in order to help establish a meaningful guideline for future acquisitions. Determine exactly how the equipment is being used and when it will no longer be useful. Financing the asset for that set amount of time may be the wisest investment, with a disposal plan in place when the asset is no longer improving productivity, but rather causing a productivity plateau or even decline.

Lease Options

The type of lease contracted for has implications for equipment renewal terms and future acquisitions. Unless you have contracted under a master lease, you most likely will need to negotiate a new lease contract for additional equipment acquisitions. If you anticipate business growth that will require additional equipment, you can avoid a new leasing contract by negotiating an option to add equipment under original terms and conditions when structuring a lease program. This helps stabilize capital outlay.

Determination can be made at the outset whether the leasing company will handle installation, maintenance, and insurance. Though considered value-added services, all are increasingly becoming standards in lease agreements, and are more efficiently, cost-effectively handled by a leasing company with core competencies in these areas.

The business's accountant should be consulted about getting the best mix of lease/loan/own assets on the corporate balance sheet. For instance, under accounting rules, an operating lease is a tax-deductible overhead expense, and lease payments are deducted from corporate income. Also, leased equipment does not have to be depreciated over years.

Leasing On The Leading Edge

Managing obsolescence is a key strategic benefit of equipment leasing. While some industries are more sensitive to equipment obsolescence than others, most businesses use IT equipment and are subject to the required updating for the latest technological advances. Again, determine exactly how long equipment being acquired will be considered useful and productive to the organization. Leasing allows the upgrading of equipment without having to manage disposal and other ownership burdens. The risk of getting caught with obsolete equipment is lower with leasing than other equipment acquisition methods.

Equipment Leasing Association research shows that the use of leasing continues to remain steady as the financing choice of about one-third of all equipment acquisition in the U.S., but the reasons for choosing leasing are shifting slightly. More business leaders are choosing leasing for its strategic advantages, such as the reasons discussed above. For further information on how leasing may be used strategically, visit www.chooseleasing.org. You will find a lease versus buy analysis, a glossary of leasing terms, an analysis of the benefits of leasing, a directory of leasing companies, and more.

Michael J. Fleming, CAE, president of the Equipment Leasing Association (ELA), has served as the organization's president since 1979. For more information on equipment leasing, an estimated $218 billion industry in 2004, visit www.chooseleasing.org.

Publication date: 09/19/2005

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