Could smart supply chain financing have saved Toys R Us from bankruptcy?
Exploring the role of financing in enabling a more integrated, digital supply chain.
On November 6, 2017, Toys R Us announced they are filing for bankruptcy. The driver was not their inability to support their long-term debt obligations, but a rapid retraction of available supply chain financing. Company leadership describes the cause of the squeeze as a “dangerous game of dominoes” with the company’s suppliers . In this instance, because trade credit is last in line if a company goes bankrupt, suppliers like Hasbro and Mattel were highly attuned to any indications of trouble. When a rumor of potential bankruptcy spread, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy where the suppliers refused to deliver, preventing the Toys R Us from continuing profitable operations. This outcome was of course undesirable for Toys R Us, but also for their suppliers who need the retail channel for sales.
As supply chains digitize, supply chain financers (SCFs), like Citigroup, have potential to mitigate the impact of this net working capital death spiral and become strategic partners with their customers.
How does SCF work?
Though the mechanics are complicated (see process flow below), the crux of the product’s value is enabling suppliers be paid earlier, reducing their risk, while also enabling customers to retain advantageous payment terms. Typically, the customer contracts the service with Citi, and they are underwritten for the financing. Suppliers then have the option to purchase the financing based on the invoices from their deliveries to the customer, enabling the suppliers to be paid at the time of sale rather than 30-120 days later. For smaller suppliers, this product enables them to pay based on the cost of capital of their larger, more creditworthy customer.
Image source: Citi Supplier Finance 
Though SCFs serve many major supply chains, including Toys R Us’s, they have thus far largely served as a passive broker of financing between players. As supply chains digitize, Citi will have new opportunities for thoughtfully structured financial products and strategic advising that shapes the dynamics of the complete supply chain.
Citi has already taken a number of steps to entrench their role as a broker in digitizing supply chains. They have worked to enable the automation of key processes like reconciliation by offering electronic invoices . Additionally, as customers globalize their suppliers, Citi has expanded their footprint accordingly to meet this demand.
Citi has also made investments to set them up for growth in the medium and long term. The have invested in technology like CitiDirect BE Mobile that allows suppliers to check the status of payments from their mobile device . They have also begun collecting data from “every aspect of [their customer’s] supply chain down to country by country, almost by subsupplier and then sub-subsupplier .” This data presents huge opportunity for enhancing Citi’s offerings.
In the medium term, Citi should build out its ability to see a customer’s complete supply chain in order to act as a strategic partner. Developing this visibility would enable them to advise on key vulnerabilities, present opportunities to save cost, and share customer performance relative to peers. Over time, this advising could become real-time – a missed delivery far up the chain is immediately communicated to the retailer along with the expected impact on inventory, enabling the customer to plan for the disruption and adjust their financing plans. Thinking back to Toys R Us, a financer with these capabilities could have helped them weather their crisis by immediately alerting them when a supplier skipped their delivery and perhaps even recommending smaller suppliers that could bridge the inventory gap. Before the crisis, such a financer could have also provided crisis planning advisory based on their supply chain visibility.
Moving forward, it remains to be seen if Citi will be able to compete in the increasingly competitive environment. The growth in competition is seen particularly acutely in Europe where “bank proprietary platforms” have declined to be less than half of SCF platforms . Competitors are both other investors and fintech players. Fintechs have entered the market with a sole focus on SCF, and largely compete on improved customer services like a superior technology offering, easier legal contracting process, and quicker supplier onboarding (a particularly arduous aspect of the process with banks because of Know Your Client requirements) . Citi’s ability to leverage the data they collect into actionable insights for their customers will be a key determiner of how much share they will win. Key questions remain around how the market will unfold:
- Will Citi be able to translate their supply chain data into strategic advising quickly enough to win?
- Will fintech players with singular focus and strong capabilities in technology be able to gain sufficient share to compete with Citi’s breadth of data?
- Alternatively, is the future actually a story of partnership where the banks and fintechs will collaborate to create a superior customer experience?
 Sujeet Indap, “Toys R Us Collapse Highlights Fragility of Supply Chain Finance,” Financial Times, November 6, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/2a0bb496-c300-11e7-b2bb-322b2cb39656.
 “One Step beyond: Taking Supply Chain Finance to the next Level” (Global Trade Review, n.d.).
 “Citi Supplier Finance: A Better Way to Work with Your Most Valued Suppliers” (CitiGroup Treasury and Trade Group, n.d.).
 “Rewiring Citi for the Digital Age | McKinsey & Company,” accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/rewiring-citi-for-the-digital-age.
 Andrew Sawers, “Banks versus Fintechs in SCF: Competing and Collaborating,” Supply Chain Finance Briefing, accessed November 10, 2017, http://www.scfbriefing.com/banks-versus-fintechs-in-scf-battling-or-collaborating/.
Student comments on Could smart supply chain financing have saved Toys R Us from bankruptcy?
Interesting take, Elle!
I think it may have been too late for supplier financing to save Toys R Us from bankruptcy. While it’s true that Toys R Us was historically running late on payments to suppliers, the fact that they were one of the largest distribution channels for toys kept major brands with them. By the time the death spiral started, their problems were already deeper reaching than that – they have faced declining in store traffic, losing customers to online alternatives and overall suffering from a lack of imagination. (1) They were missing the bigger picture of needing to reinvent their entire business and stave off competition.
With the Toys R Us example in mind, I wonder which types of businesses would benefit most from Citi turning their data into actionable strategic advice. They may be able to help smaller independent retailers – ones who have flexibility to swap out products quickly as you suggested in the article. In the case of a smaller retailer, automating the invoicing and payment process would eliminate costly labor and help them improve their margins to better compete with larger retailers.
Thank you for this really interesting essay Elle! I agree with the comment of AB that the death spiral for Toys R’ Us probably could not have been stopped anymore, even if supply chain financing would have been more accessible. Upon some research, I believe that a focus on the wrong competitors and bad managerial decisions already doomed Toys R Us years ago. The company succeeded in late 20th century as “category killer”, which means that they sold products of only one category (toys) to reach a size and economies of scale that general retailers can’t match. This strategy only worked until really massive retail chains like Walmart and Target became so large that their toy sections could compete with Toys R Us. This led to Toys R Us losing value and market share and ultimately to its purchase by KKR and Bain Capital in 2005. Toys R Us got restructured and kept trying to fend off Walmart and Target, while it didn’t react to another new trend: Online retail. Amazon increasingly started taking market share from brick and mortar retailers. Overwhelming competition and massive accumulated debt finally led to Toys R Us’ downfall. A detailed description of this process can be read in this article:
While I think that Toys R Us’ bankruptcy was inevitable, I agree that SCF can add a lot of value to supply chain management. I’m not sure, however, to which extent a bank would be willing to “consult” its customer on supply chain management. I think that Citi would have to essentially develop a new business besides its core business, banking. Additionally, banks will probably be slow to learn and adapt to new requirements in a role as supply chain advisor. If a fintech startup driven by industry experts acts quickly, it is probable that it develops superior competency as supply chain advisor and adds more value than a traditional bank like Citi.
Thanks, Elle, for an interesting essay. A couple of thoughts below:
– Supply-side: To address your last question first, my bet would be that Citi and its competitors are actively seeking JV or partnership opportunities – if not outright offers to buy – fintech platforms, which offer platforms, IP and expertise in the SCF space. On the other end of the table, I would imagine that fintech platforms are incentivized to partner with large banks because of the superior logistics and systems capacity to handle the vast amounts of supply chain data that you discuss above. At the end of the day, I think the banks like Citi have the upper hand over the fintech platforms because they most likely boast superior (i) scale, (ii) relationships/networks, (iii) financial resources, and (iv) systems capabilities.
– Demand-side: My major concerns about the demand-side of the SCF system (e.g., whether a Toys R Us would have welcomed this service) are:
(1) What may be the cybersecurity threat posed to a business like Toys R Us if it were to work with Citi and “open its kimono” to all of its supply chain information? How might Citi account for this and mitigate this risk?;
(2) Per the United Interconnect case today, we saw a copycat threat scenario arise when United allowed its external equipment consultants to enter its manufacturing facilities. Do you think Toys R Us would have been concerned about the downside of Citi having access to all of its proprietary supply chain information? I can imagine some significant negative applications of this data if Citi were to unintentionally share it with a competitor, for example.