Financial Planning & Analysis

Accounting & Finance as a Strategic Business Partner or: 3 Ways to Shift from Bean Counter to Bean Grower

The bean counter is dead. Long live the bean grower. Finance and Accounting professionals’ role within the corporate ecosystem over the decades has evolved from the proverbial bean counter to emerge as a bean grower. No longer is the finance team viewed as the pocket-protector-sporting, 10-key-toting, necessary annoyance relegated to the back rooms of the office. Now, we have earned a right-hand seat at the strategy table, where we provide key insights on where to plant, how to steward crops, when to worry about weather forecasts and impending draughts, floods or other natural disasters, what to do to mitigate harvest risk and how to maximize yield. Managing these risks and opportunities, from the perspective of a startup ecosystem, calls upon team members to wear multiple hats with responsibilities spanning accounting, FP&A, strategy, treasury, information technology and human resources.

Growing accounting and finance as a strategic business partner for senior management while juggling such competing priorities can prove challenging—to say the least. To assist in coping with such challenges over the years, I’ve employed three key strategies that all finance professionals can seamlessly build into their day-to-day:

  1. Maintain an awareness of the shifting macroeconomic environment.
  2. Stay abreast of functional, niche software developments and new platforms.
  3. Curate a solid professional network sphere.

1. Maintain an awareness of the shifting macroeconomic environment.

Or: How to learn to read macroeconomic tea leaves

Staying informed of the current macroenvironment can ensure that finance can interpret broader economic trends and leverage those learnings internally. For example, a film/TV production company risk mitigation strategy is to produce their films and TV shows in states offering generous tax incentives. Companies will secure single-picture financing or leverage their credit facility established with a banking institution to cover the portion of the budget that will eventually be offset by the collection of the incentive monies.

Depending on the state, a significant divide in timing can exist between the engagement of the financing and the cash inflows from non-transferable incentives, which can expose the company to interest rate volatility risk. The individual or team overseeing the administration of the project financing should be well versed in the day-to-day benchmark interest rate shifts to take advantage of the most economical rate settings.

In May 2019, the yield curve inverted allowing for long-term rate settings to fall below short-term settings. At the time, I was working for a company that had produced a film in a state which provided for a generous non-transferable tax incentive on qualified production spend. However, the incentive was to be reimbursed to the company over a period of four years. (Depending on the threshold of qualified spend of the production, the credit would be reimbursed over the period of two or three years, but the actual timeframe from wrap of post-production to receipt of cash from the state could push out the completion of collection to four years, depending on which state allocation year your project was assigned to.)

While this timing had been factored into the financing model on the film and the tax incentive factored against the credit facility, the film performance was exposed to interest rate fluctuation, which over the four-year collection period had the potential to result in a significant hit to the film P&L. To mitigate this risk, I was vigilant at monitoring rates, and when the yield curve inverted, I engaged an interest rate hedge with our credit facility bank to lock in the lower long-term rate over the four years. Keeping abreast of market fluctuations was as simple as turning on CNBC while having my morning coffee before work and translating that information into a practical work application that resulted in a strategic value-add.

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2. Stay abreast of functional, niche software developments and new platforms.

Or: How to get out of the tech weeds and expand your digital transformation consciousness

Another way to help management see accounting and finance as a strategic business partner is by reviewing and expanding your company’s digital transformation plan where opportunities exist beyond the traditional general ledger system, ERP or forecasting software. Taking advantage of such opportunities can add additional functional efficiencies that significantly reduce the need for human capital bandwidth on non-value-added activities.

TV and film production companies can have significant fluctuations in cash flow from day-to-day when cycling through physical and post-production on a slate of projects. Managing that cash flow can be a daunting task for most small to mid-sized companies that generally operate leanly.

Many companies still manage their cash forecasting via an Excel model, which can be onerous, clunky and time intensive when updating on a weekly basis. This was the case at a company I worked for recently which was cash flow centric and operated using multiple banking partners. When I discovered (via an unsolicited marketing email in Outlook) an open banking subscription-based platform that instantly lets you know your consolidated cash position and offers accurate and automated cash flow forecasting, I quickly envisioned the incredible efficiencies that implementing such a software could build into daily finance operations.

A forecasting process that would take a week could recognize a significant reduction in preparation time by leveraging the AI and APIs utilized by the software. The bandwidth freed up through employment of such a software product could mean an opportunity to lower overhead costs through reduced headcount or be pivoted to more value-added activities such as analyzing cash usage to find ways to mitigate other operating inefficiencies. Either way, the return on investment should be realized in a short timeframe and prove quantifiable.

This is one example of the ever-expanding universe of niche, cloud-based software platforms that can be a game changer for finance. Take a few minutes out of your day to respond to a request for a demo on a platform you may never have heard of previously—but seems interesting—or ask someone within your network sphere to recommend a product to inquire after. Those few minutes are worth the potential cost/benefit and functionality that you may eventually find yourself in a position to deploy.  

3. Curate a solid professional network sphere.

Or: How to get out of the cubicle and grow your networking sphere

One of the best opportunities to position yourself as a better strategic partner is through leveraging the technical knowledge base and insights on finance and industry trends of your professional network.

Working for startups presents interesting challenges that one may not have been faced with previously during their career. Often, you need to figure things out on the fly or design processes or systems that you previously had no experience implementing. This is where the wealth of knowledge found within a professional network can save the day.

Over the years, I have taken advantage of several opportunities to grow my potential outreach pool. I joined a social group championing women executives in the media space, which has regular meet ups and informational events, RSVP’d for various seminars and sponsored events hosted by various CPA firms and requested connections via LinkedIn—all of which have afforded me access to invaluable professional relationships—both industry related and not.

Some examples of leveraging these relationships into successful strategic initiatives include:

  • Resourcing a specialized IT consulting firm to assist with securing appropriate software products and partnering on a successful systems implementation, which resulted in significantly elevated reporting and data analytics capabilities.
  • Cultivating banking relationships that translated into the negotiation of a credit facility to optimize the capitalization structure for a high-growth startup.
  • Having access to a wide swathe of human capital recommendations when staffing issues arose.

The Continual Shift Toward Accounting and Finance as a Strategic Business Partner

To recap, finance and accounting professionals are being leaned on to provide more strategic value to their organizations, especially within startup environments, where they are called upon to wear multiple hats. Three key approaches to your continued evolution as a finance professional include maintaining an awareness of macro-economic trends, being vigilant of emerging niche software opportunities, and finding ways to expand your network sphere.

If you’d like to keep up with our consulting team’s perspective on optimizing the finance and accounting function, then subscribe to our blog to receive notifications when we post new content. You can also further explore supporting strategic endeavors for your company by downloading our free timeline for building a strategic financial plan:

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About the Author

Over the span of 20 years, Jo Ann has curated a strong finance and accounting background within the media industry through experiences working within large public corporations and small, high-growth startups. Through management and leadership roles with such companies as CBS Films, Propagate Content, GK Films, Tennis Channel and Sony Music, Jo Ann’s areas of expertise spans the controllership function, FP&A, financial reporting, modeling and analysis, building successful finance/accounting infrastructure for high-growth startups, post-acquisition restructuring, managing systems and decision analysis, data conversion and ERP implementation management, process improvement, cash flow planning and treasury management including credit facility oversight and banking relationships, working with third-party valuation firms on film library and purchase price asset valuations, film/TV international distribution finance and oversight of multi-entity partnership taxation. Jo Ann studied Engineering for two years at Iowa State University, subsequently completing a Bachelor Business Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University with an emphasis in Accounting. She graduated the two-year Society of Management Accountants of Ontario CMA program in 2001 and holds a CPA with the California Board of Accountancy. In her spare time, Jo Ann is an accomplished pianist, enjoys studying real estate investment and is an avid animal rescue advocate.

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