Should CFOs Automate Financial Reporting?


Finance executives want to make reporting faster and easier so they can do more with less. But automation alone won’t guarantee the CFO a strategic role.

When Derek Yung was hired as vice president of finance and strategic planning at NexTag a little more than a year ago, the privately held online price-comparison company had no strategic-planning processes to speak of. NexTag’s owners reported to the board quarterly, and kept most of the information about the company’s performance — and what they expected it to be — in their heads. “There was a lot of collaboration among the five people who controlled the company,” says Yung, but outside that group there was a “lack of accountability” and ownership.

“That works when you’re small,” Yung continues, but today NexTag’s not small. The company makes money by charging retailers a fee when shoppers click through to their site from NexTag and buy something. Those fees add up, and when NexTag was purchased four years ago by a private-equity firm, it was valued at $1.3 billion. NexTag now earns $200 million annually, and “five people can’t know everything about a $200 million company,” Yung says.

“We were good at telling you what happened yesterday — how many clicks Sears got and what we charged them — but how that rolled up for the month and how that reflected plan, that didn’t exist,” says Yung. NexTag used Great Plains software to report financial data. Other reporting systems were custom-built for each business function and produced spreadsheets that were consolidated manually to produce reports. Yung’s mission was to automate that process. His goal: to give the company the timely information it needed to make decisions based on good financial insight.

Yung chose Host Analytics, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business-analytics provider with budgeting, consolidation, and reporting capabilities he equates with Hyperion’s and Cognos’s — but with the lower cost of entry typical with SaaS. “I didn’t want to invest in IT for financial systems,” he says.

NexTag’s finance department now provides monthly performance reports to all internal P&L owners, a report on actuals versus plan for the current and prior year, and a monthly packet that goes to the board. “We set up the reports in Host Analytics once,” says Yung, “press a button, and there they are.” He believes automation will enable finance to do more with less and focus on business strategy.

The Myth of Automation
CFOs want to be strategic. As cloud provider Intacct CFO Marc Linden says, they want to spend less time on the “nuts and bolts of accounting” and more time evaluating new business models and opportunities.

Inside businesses in general, expectations for the CFO are rising. But what frequently stands in the way is the time and effort it takes to cobble together information from operational silos. And not only do those labor-intensive processes keep finance from the high-value work their organizations want, they can create time lags. “What kind of decisions can you make with information that’s out of date?” asks Forrester principal Paul Hamerman.

“As the organization gets more complex, it takes longer and longer for the reporting software to take its snapshot of the numbers in the database,” says Heather Meister, a financial consultant and CPA at DLC, a management consultancy. “When people come in to work in the morning, that snapshot no longer matches the general ledger.” That can lead to bad decisions. “You could think you have a cash-flow problem when you don’t, or don’t when you do,” she says.

While automation is the obvious solution to these problems, every technology has its limits.

“Financial reporting will never be fully automated,” states Gabe Zubizarreta, founder and principal of Silicon Valley Accountants, a boutique CPA firm. “Say you tell a salesman he’s going to get a quarterly bonus if he sells X units. By the second month, he’s halfway there. Should you record that bonus for the quarter? There’s no right accounting answer. Maybe recording that puts you a little below your profit estimate so you don’t record it. Maybe you do. It takes human judgment. You can’t automate that.”

Complexity makes report automation an ever-receding target. “The more complex the business, the more unique and separate the financial transaction systems that exist within it, the more manual journal entries are required,” says Bruce Myers, a managing director with AlixPartners, which specializes in IT transformations. “With companies constantly making acquisitions, there are always unique systems being integrated.” And while they’re being integrated — which, in the case of large enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) systems, can take years — companies have no choice but to report manually.

In large, global companies, “you’ve got people on the other side of the planet that have to report,” Zubizarreta says. According to KPMG partner Hakan Aytekin, “We see [global] companies typically not performing reconciliations on certain balances” simply because it’s too time-consuming to check the information coming from all those ERP systems.

The business units in different countries, says Zubizarreta, “have different rules, different products, different warranties, all combined together. It’s a mythical world in which you get everything on one system and everything is automated.”

This is a huge problem for those large, global companies. But for small and midsize businesses, fully automated reporting may be less chimerical.

Stitching Together a Better Report
Mike Maher, who after graduating from business school in 2007 couldn’t find a shirt that fit the way he liked, began selling custom-made shirts out of his apartment about three years ago. In March 2011, he and his partner opened Taylor Stitch in San Francisco, and this year he expects to sell between $1.5 million and $2 million in shirts, jeans, khakis, and hats. His balance sheets were done in Excel. “It wasn’t pretty,” he says, “but it worked for us.” Now, he says, Excel is “obsolete in our lives. It’s one less thing to deal with.”

Maher’s reporting software is provided by Xero, a SaaS QuickBooks Online competitor. Xero has report templates for P&Ls, receivables, payables, budget summaries, general ledger, and cash position statements, among others. The main challenge for small business owners, says Xero president of U.S. operations Jamie Sutherland, is “having insight into your cash position. That helps you to know what’s coming down the pipe so you know if you can hire that next employee to help propel the business.”

Maher is now running his business on three SaaS systems: Shopify, an e-commerce platform connected to the Vend point-of-sale system, flows into Xero. It all costs Maher under $200 a month. Of course, Taylor Stitch is not as big as Abercrombie & Fitch. “If I was,” Maher says, “you wouldn’t be speaking with me. I’d be fly fishing somewhere.”

Why Did I Buy That ERP System?
If Taylor Stitch was Abercrombie & Fitch, Maher could be fly fishing, secure in the knowledge that his ERP system would churn out all the reports he needed. But ERP systems, despite having had that capability for decades, are never configured for the unique needs of the businesses that deploy them. “I’m working with a company now that draws information from 14 different ERP systems,” says the SVA’s Zubizarreta. “And you’re going to tell me you’re going to push one button and get all the reports you need? ERP has never fulfilled that promise.”

ERPs are loaded with functions that businesses never use. They have payroll, but most companies outsource that. It’s the same with other ERP functions. “If the cost of automating the accounting for transactions in the ERP system exceeds the benefit of saving [the effort] of manual entry and consolidation, it may be difficult to justify spending the money,” says AlixPartners’s Myers. “There’s a lot of value that finance can drive more than worrying about trying to eliminate the marginal spreadsheet or manual journal entry.”

There are literally scores of report-automation tools on the market, ranging from SaaS tools like Xero and QuickBooks Online for small operations like Maher’s, to more robust and functional systems like BlackLine Systems and Host Analytics for midsize companies, to giant ERP systems scaling from cloud-based NetSuite to on-premises SAP and Oracle. They all can produce reports, and so can Excel. “The main thing is having a larger view of what the financial function should do for the company,” says Yung. “A fancy report that looks great but doesn’t help the business because you don’t understand what they need, that’s useless.

“Sometimes,” Yung says, “you just have a meeting and walk through all the information.”

That may not be high tech or automated. But it might just be very much appreciated.