As companies expand, so do the demands on finance. Yet while the role starts out as accounting and evolves into a service function, in a thriving business this is not enough. Bigger numbers mean bigger risk. More work for the company means more complexity in the figures, and more decisions to make. Finance has to rise to the challenge and become analytical and forward-looking.
Yet how to establish a culture of agile finance? One solution is to hire financial analysts on top of the accounting team. This may work, but it is expensive, and tends not to expand analytical thinking. Another approach is to train managers, who always benefit from more finance sophistication. But handling data in a growing firm is tricky, and placing this requirement in non-finance personnel won’t always succeed. At minimum, it distracts them from their critical natural roles – of selling, marketing, managing and innovating.
The real objective is to root analytical financial thinking across the upper tier of the business. Instead of seeing finance as reactive, the function should be considered an essential, forward-looking component. As the finance group emerges alongside (but distinct from) accounting, it must deliver not only past reports but predictive analysis. Along the way, it must simplify and streamline financial reporting and support team leaders to learn how to manage with numbers.
“Not only did the core finance capabilities elevate, we increased our capability to be good financial stewards,” says Adanma Akujieze, CFO and Treasurer of Larson Design Group, Inc., a leading national architecture, engineering and professional consulting firm with 18 offices in 7 states. In transforming the function, she says, “We also, across the organization, elevated our ability to project, our ability to hear and study our clients and read between the lines, our ability to truly know our business.”
Key elements of a comprehensive approach to developing an agile, analytical financial mindset across the company include:
Not everyone will embrace the mathmatical world of financial thinking. Some may find it challenging. Some may resist. The ingrained culture of operations doing the real work of the business while finance stays in a box counting the beans can be difficult to overcome. The positive challenge is to help teams grasp the empowering capacity of financial analysis, when finance work-product supports operational teams to enable the company to excel.
Larson Design Group, or LDG as it is known, has been on a path of growth and change. Founded in 1986, it completed the transition to 100% employee ownership in 2019. Starting the next year, it announced several new offices and mergers, expanding in the West and in Florida.
Amid these developments, the group was determined to upgrade its finance function – now an 11-person team, with four in corporate and general accounting, six on the project and transactional side, and a CFO, in Akujieze, who brings a mix of both work-streams.
The company knew it needed to be able to manage its dynamic corporate ambitions amid recent major social and economic uncertainties. These variables dramatically accelerated the speed at which the teams needed to re-analyze, re-present and re-circulate performance results and projections.
In a difficult environment, they made a decision to up their game. They understood that forecasting –especially short- and long-term cash-flow planning – needed to improve. This information was needed for the leadership and group heads as well as their main banking partner in timely, digestible projections about where they were going, giving not only the what but also the why.
Systems were a starting point. Business unit leaders had different schedules and different requests, and key performance data was submitted at different times. Finance grappled to process the information. The end-of-month time was always a significant strain. Meantime interim reports were often requested out of time, doubling up burdens.
In partnership with operations, the finance team developed a single set of data, agreeing what was essential and what was less important. The aim was to move beyond, say, daily labor or other metrics, to focus on top-line trends, such as the revenue, earnings and overall utilization lines. This streamlined the use of financial analysts’ time and talents.
Despite periodic requests for ad hoc reporting, Larson stayed committed to developing their own approach – a unified, more efficient process of reporting and financial analysis. Incorporating ERP software Deltek Vision gives project managers visibility to pull up projections of project financials, profitability, metrics and performance, saving a great amount of analysts’ effort.
Along with freeing up analysts’ time, the finance team was also given enhanced authority to enforce policy. Previously, the culture was for finance to be responsive, to record information and feedback with reports. “It was, ‘Tell me to jump, and I’ll ask you how high,’” recalls Akujieze.
With the shift, finance was given the ability to challenge teams, and ensure focus is on overall operational health. A case in point is strictly adhering to project setup controls, a natural progression of growth with intentionality and change from more flexibility in the past.
There is also a lot of listening. Akujieze underlines the importance of job shadowing. Not everyone in finance understands the nitty gritty of what the teams do, so shadowing helps them understand the challenges, as well grasp individual strengths and weaknesses.
At the same time, communications and setting expectations were important for the finance team. Insufficient communication leads to an erosion of efficiencies. “It’s the things that would cause re-work at the end of the day,” notes Akujieze. “And it’s a disservice to a company ultimately where the time and talent of very skilled analysts are not being applied optimally.”
Cash flow was one of the drivers for LDG’s shift in the finance culture, and managing cash flow as a shared endeavor illustrates one of the key wins from the change.
Rather than working in silos, they took a holistic approach to the challenge. The cliché is that operations want vendors and subcontractors paid, while finance focus on Accounts Receivable. The team approach was to build joint enthusiasm for both sides of the equation. They needed to be as eager to get cash into the firm as they were to pay it out to get results for clients.
“It was about developing the confidence to insist on payments, even while the firm quite actively promotes a client-first attitude,” says Akujieze. “Client service excellence is our foremost core value. We must be as eager to turn that into cash because, ultimately, if leads don’t make it to cash, the cycle is not complete.”
In practice, the company found this attitude could deepen client relations. During the pandemic, without allowing client collection delays to become a problem between the companies, Finance, Legal and operations teams partnered to work out payment plans where necessary. The company found that clients honored their commitments to LDG. Where a client has integrity – where it shares the same values as its supplier – going the extra mile will be rewarded.
“This was not because I or any other senior leader stepped in,” Akujieze says. “There was a lot of due diligence on the part of the project team. We can meet in the middle if there is some kind of difficulty.”
Not every company can pick and choose who they work with. Many have to grab any opportunities out there. Not only did these finance-sales collaboration benefit the cash-flow position, they also emphasized the ways in which growth – backed by agile finance – opens up opportunities. Choosing work (and trustworthy clients), reducing risk and empowering employees can lead to expanding to new lines or new areas. The journey takes effort. But it’s a virtuous circle that keeps on giving.
LDG Finance is now closer to Akujieze’s personal vision of an agile finance group – their push got them further and faster than they could have imaged only a few years prior.
“The shift has helped remove noise and streamline the routine non-essential day-to-day tasks, so we focus on what’s critical,” she says. “It forced a transformation that was already under way. But it made us do it quicker. A lot of the time when we cast a strategic vision it’s geographic, it’s M&A, it’s a couple numbers here and there – what we want to grow to. Here’s a more intangible, a softer type of goal I think companies should be reaching for: to get to the point, through growth and agile systems, where they have freedom of choice.”
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