I have recently been appointed Finance Director at ACL. What a great opportunity, particularly since we’re a data-driven organization. Most new finance directors would face an immediate challenge of navigating a spider’s web of systems and legacy spreadsheets to prepare for their first board meeting. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for me, because I’m empowered by an invaluable resource: a means of interrogating all our data (from all our systems) in one place, and the ability to illuminate financial risk and performance. Here’s how …
Balancing risk and performance, at the click of a finger
Firstly, I use the ACL Platform to make sure my forecasts to the board and Senior Leadership Team are reliable. Whether it’s revenue, EBITDA, or free cash flow, I ensure automatic analytics “clean” the datasets that feed into those forecasts. I’ve got a suite of dashboards (which we call Storyboards), KPIs and accompanying alerts set up so I can keep an eye on key finance metrics in near real time (e.g.,our banking covenants). If we were to get too close for comfort an alert would be sent to myself, our CEO and key members of my team. We also use Storyboards to monitor other important metrics, such as the “rule of 50” and opex vs. earned revenue.
On each Storyboard I’m able to add commentary—an approach that has already avoided ad-hoc explanations in management meetings. We now spend our time discussing how to respond to a metric, rather than having to bring people up to speed with the content.
It’s also worth mentioning that our financial controller is already using technology to automatically test various internal controls, as she’s explained in her own recent blog closing the books faster, so we’re in a good place.
Why does technology make a difference?
It boils down to two areas: getting access to the information that’s important to me and trusting that it’s accurate.
Using connectors and commands, I can automatically access all the data in all our systems. Yes, really, all of them! Just like most other businesses I’ve worked for, we have a number of systems, which means our data resides in multiple places. So being able to break down those silos and access whatever information I need to provide confidence that we have visibility and control of our key risks, is really valuable.
What do the nuts and bolts look like?
Once I choose which information sources I want to get access to (anything from our GL, to sub-ledgers to invoice data and HR/payroll information), I determine which data is most relevant to me. (Essentially, that’s just a case of selecting columns in a table so the platform knows which bits of data to copy.)
The connections I made to each of those columns are permanent (unless I decide to switch them off). That means the copies of the data refresh automatically and are stored on a secure server where access is limited to nominated colleagues in finance and operations. Ultimately that means I’ve got all the data I need in one place, which again makes a huge difference to my day. No more hacking away to link or merge spreadsheets, no more version control headaches with spreadsheets being emailed around my team, and so on.
Tests on our controls are scheduled to run daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the individual control. These tests automatically flag anomalies as they occur, so my team has a longer lead-time to address them ahead of month-end.
I can’t rave enough about the benefits
The biggest impact for me is that I have confidence in the forecasts I’m presenting. I’m able to spend the day or two before a board or leadership meeting refining the message I want to articulate, rather than scrabbling around trying to get to a solid number. To summarize, I guess I just feel in control—long may it continue!
And that sentiment seems to be filtering down to my team. They tell me month- and quarter-end is less stressful now, because a lot of the anomalies are being picked up ahead of time. Of course, there’s still pressure to produce the final numbers and resolve the odd niggle that pops up last minute, but it would be unrealistic to expect that to go away entirely. However, I’d rather be in an environment where most of those issues are eliminated automatically. Life’s too short to waste precious time on details that can so easily be taken care of by technology.
Written by: Keith Bailey, Director of Finance, ACL