Controllers Council recently held a panel discussion on Preparing for the Unexpected: The Case for FP&A, sponsored by BILL.
BILL is a leading financial operations platform for small and midsize businesses, SMBs. As a champion of SMBs, BILL automates the future of finance so businesses can thrive. BILL’s integrated platform helps businesses to be more efficiently, control payables, receivables spend, and expense management.
Our expert panelists are Monisha Merchant and Eric Greene. Monisha Merchant is Chief Financial Officer, CFO, for Cal Alumni Association. With a non-traditional career path, including the University of Colorado Board of Regents and Deputy Director of a non-governmental organization in Indonesia for tsunami reconstruction. Monisha earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Yale.
Eric Greene is Director of Accounting and Controller at Aptive Environmental. Eric is a CPA, a certified management accountant, a certified internal auditor, and a certified fraud examiner. And a couple more acronyms. He’s a PWC alum and a member of the Utah Association of CPAs, former board of director and a member of AICPA. Eric earned two master’s degrees, including accounting, a Master of Accounting, and an MBA from Westminster University along with undergraduate degrees in accounting and finance from the University of Utah.
Following are key takeaways to this discussion. If you are interested in learning more, view the full webinar archive video here.
Q: How would you define financial planning and analysis or FP&A?
Eric: Financial planning and analysis as we talk about it in today’s world, is all about creating value by understanding what happened in the lens of what does that mean for the business, and also trying to understand what does that mean going forward in terms of budgeting, forecasts and other related matters where you’re trying to make decisions for the future. And there’s been a shift from an accounting perspective, to a finance perspective, where most of the emphasis in legacy years past on getting sure the accountings were right. Well, now, it’s more about understanding what does this information mean for us now and in the future for making good decisions for acquisitions, for growing your business organically or going through other methods of growth.
Monisha: I was a product manager for a telecom company for a number of years, and the information that I got from my finance business partner was really critical in making decisions about what types of future product enhancements that we should invest in, and also really understanding the customer’s buying cycle. I’ll give an example of how I was asked to do a turnaround for in a very established product. And when I came in, I met with the finance business partner and was shown the monthly recurring revenue and the non-recurring revenue cycles over a calendar year of our fiscal year. And I noticed that there was a spike in March every year. And so that gave me some important customer intelligence to understand that in the first quarter of our fiscal year was the timing that our customers were making decisions to purchase this particular product.
And so that really helped in my ability to forecast for future years and understanding what, both from a cashflow perspective of when the money was going to come in, it helped me with my training of new sales teams to help them understand. It also moved when we were going to do promotions, understanding again, the customer buying cycle. And since I was part of a public company, I needed to be able to put together in that one slide that goes to the CFO and the CEO, information about why first quarter is going to look different. And why second, third and fourth quarter, it may not look as good as first quarter. But all of that was because of a very robust FP&A structure that I was able to tap into to be able to make those business decisions.
Q: Should every organization have an FP&A operation?
Monisha: Now as the chief financial officer for the Cal Alumni Association, we are an independent 501(c)(3) that serves the alumni for the University of California Berkeley. And we’re a much smaller organization, let’s say, than a $6 billion telecom company that I was working for before. I have a much smaller team, and what we’re trying to figure out is how to take advantage of reporting functions that exist in our accounting products. So, for people who are developing software tools, understanding that the fundamentals for accountants’ responsibilities haven’t changed, but having the ability to provide some intelligence in the charts that we can give, it makes it easier for even a small accounting team to be able to provide trends and information to the business partners.
Eric: I think that every organization, every business, every nonprofit should have an FP&A function. Now, does that mean you say you’re an entrepreneur and there’s only two or three people in the company and you’re trying to scale fast? Does that mean you have an FP&A person? No, of course not. But the idea is that someone needs to be thinking from a financial planning analysis perspective of what’s best for the business.
Q: What are the most prevalent obstacles to establishing an effective FP&A operation and potentially how would you overcome those obstacles as well?
Monisha: The main obstacle is making sure that you have the consistent policies and procedures for how you’re managing your finances, meeting all the GAAP accounting standards, and really having those resources allocated this back office administrative support, how all these people look at it, operational costs. If your CEO or your board or the business leaders that you work with and your organization want to be able to take advantage of the historical information, then you and your colleagues need to be properly resourced to have exactly what you need. And the more you understand how you overcome the obstacle is really understanding the value of what the rest of the people in the organization are going to get out of you having the right information.
Eric: The true value of an FP&A person is to be a business partner, to understand what the business needs are, and then to be able to work with the business partners in achieving those needs. I have found that sometimes that’s easier said than done when dealing with personalities, but I think showing people across the business, if you’re in finance to say, hey, I’m on your team. If we are able to align on trying to understand what’s going on here, this is going to make your life better.
Other obstacles I’ve seen with FP&A is obviously data integrity. A lot of FP&A is really working through and validating that the data that you’re using is sound. If you’re able to validate that the data is sound, it helps you be able to create stronger assumptions when it comes to saying, “Hey, what do we expect our revenue to be next year? What assumptions are driving that? Do we test those assumptions? And what data are we using to make those assumptions on?”
I also think technology is important as well when it comes to FP&A. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are software solutions out there that specialize in FP&A that really help you centralize and think about it more holistically.
Q: How can companies use FP&A to inform financial as well as non-financial decisions?
Eric: You’d be surprised how much FP&A has to deal with non-financial decisions. And I’ve found that every FP&A function that I’ve worked in and dealt with has spent a significant amount of their time helping the company make non-financial decisions as much as it is helping manage the forecast and making sure that the profitability of the business is online and trying to keep the budgets and all that good stuff. A lot of FP&A teams I’m involved with have been part of contract negotiation. They understand the business and they can understand, hey, if we’re looking at different options for a contract, does this make sense? From a financial lens, is this going to add value to the business or is this not going to add value to the business? And so, a lot of FP&A individuals and people in finance with an FP&A bent or skillset really can’t help making operational IT, HR and other decisions where they need a financial mind to be able to help make those decisions. And you’d be surprised how many times in a business that someone calls the FP&A person and says, “Hey, we’re trying to make a decision here. We need you part of the conversation.” And that becomes very natural as the business starts trusting the FP&A function and start bringing them in that they want their input to be able to try to make the best decisions as possible. So that’s where I say it from non-financial.
Monisha: Being the business line manager for products, really trying to understand the timing of when customers make decisions is important. Also, the work that the products that I worked on required significant amount of construction and capital investment and the timing of when the projects were going to come online and when the first payment was going to be made for the customer is helpful to know and understanding all the regulatory hoops to get through all the different construction pieces, truly understanding what the loaded cost model is too helps across different businesses so that you understand what is the profit margin, what types of discounts you can handle versus what types of discounts you can’t from a business perspective, understanding where your product fits in the broader market, how much influence your product might have on the pricing structure of the market. So as someone who was an FP&A customer for several years, all those pieces became important to me and to really understanding how I was going to one, turn around a particular product. And two, put it on a path for profitability and revenue growth at a time of extreme competition and price compression as well.
I think it goes back to the fundamentals. You have strong data; you have a strong accounting structure. And then over time, I see FP&A is also this iterative process because again, looking into the future, you know what some of the things are that maybe you have some long-term contracts, so you’re like, okay, this revenue is going to come in for the next three years. And then you’re going to hit a cliff. So, what does that mean for the business? And so, once you have all that good data, then the iterative, the back and forth, the relationship you have with your business partners, the CEO, the entrepreneur, really helps make it very informative and useful and really part of the overall business strategy.
To view the complete webcast, download full webinar here.
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