Businesses in various industrial sectors are undergoing a fundamental transformation as a result of the effects of globalization, advancement in new technologies and increasing digitalization. Apart from presenting a wealth of opportunities to help the organization soar to greater heights, these changes are also presenting a variety of challenges on the business model.
They are altering customer behaviours, placing increased pressure on existing markets and impacting financial performance. In these trying times, the finance function is being called upon to help steer the organization in the right direction and improve profitability.
Popularly known as bean counters, accountants are now required to support business growth initiatives and help grow the beans within their organizations. The modern finance function has evolved from being a “just numbers” back-office function to a “strategic partnering” front-office role providing deeper insights and a clear direction for translating the numbers into effective actions for those operating on the front lines of the business.
Whereas in the past the finance professional spent his day behind the scenes, glued to his computer, producing and reporting the numbers, today’s finance professional is involved in the business interacting with the other organizational functions and helping drive business performance. There is a joke about an accountant without a spreadsheet being described as “lost”. In the past, this could have been true, but not today. The bean grower of today is a strategist, a motivator, a leader, a team player, a change agent, completely understands the drivers of business performance and drives improvements in respect of new revenue and value-producing opportunities.
It is no secret that the finance function is the custodian of the business profit and loss. In times of economic downturn when cost control is critical, the finance professional is called upon to help identify areas where the organization can scale back in order to improve overall profitability. In good times, finance helps senior management identify new opportunities (new markets, new products, potential acquisition targets, new services etc.) that need exploiting. Disrupt or be disrupted is the mantra in today’s ever-changing business environment. The business has to evolve with times.
The challenge on the finance function is to deliver more with less. This has led to many organizations to embark on ad-hoc cost-cutting programs hoping to improve the bottom-line. Unfortunately, cost control alone is not sufficient or effective enough to enable the organization realize the targeted gains. You can only cut costs up to a certain level. This is because each cost initiative reaches a point of diminishing return, after which, the company has to explore new ways of improving profitability. In order to grow its influence on company profitability, the finance function must:
- Understand the Drivers of Business Performance. To be effective bean growers, accountants need to move beyond numbers and get an understanding of the company’s product s and services and how they affect the profitability of the business. This means finance teams lifting their heads up from their financial reports and obtaining a better view of the business itself. Instead of focusing only on where the business has previously failed, finance should provide strategic insights, competitive intelligence and analysis that enable effective decision-making by the senior management team. For example, finance should be able to provide data, metrics and analysis that helps transfer the function’s own understanding of the drivers of profitability to others throughout the organization, in order to ensure that profitability develops into a basis for action.
- Help Identify New Pathways Toward Profitability. When it comes to profitability improvement initiatives, many at times the focus is on the bottom-line. As mentioned earlier on, eliminating fat from the bottom line works up to a certain extent. Cost reduction is a short-term fix but not sustainable in the long-term, especially if the company is looking to grow. Management become misguided and believe that by laying-off people to contain salary costs or postponing capital investments they are placing the organization in a better competitive position. The opposite is true. In fact, cost cutting by itself is counterproductive as it can lead to inefficiencies, missed opportunities and higher operational costs. There is nothing wrong in getting the business lean, but getting lean has to be linked to the business strategy, done the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons. Attention should also be focused on the revenue side of the business, for example, diversifying the business, internally growing existing business units, making additional productivity improvement, improving existing product or service offerings and making major business purchases.
- Invest in Modern Technologies. As the amount of data generated continues to grow, an enormous demand is being placed on finance to make meaning of this data, identify trends and develop the most effective responses that will help protect and improve company margins. Finance must know what information will have the greatest impact on profitability since having the right information is at the core of improving company profitability. Equally important is placing this information in the right hands. Relying on spreadsheets alone will not cut it. Finance must invest and make use of modern Business Intelligence and Analytics technologies in order to be able to identify accurate, reliable and relevant information and place it in the hands of the right people at the right times. These modern technologies help transform finance into a more flexible, responsive and forward-looking function. The modern finance function must have the ability to use technology to gain a more detailed understanding of the metrics underlying the company’s profitability.
- Develop Effective Pricing Capabilities. The sales organization is normally rewarded on revenue made and this sometimes results in the sales team being interested only in closing the deal at the expense of profitability. Not all customers are equally profitable to the organization; therefore sales should be tailored to optimize profitability. Getting the pricing wrong has negative consequences on the overall profitability of the company. Finance need to have an advanced understanding of the company’s different customer and product portfolios. By performing customer profitability analysis and product profitability analysis, finance will be able to understand the customer costs-to-serve and use these costs to segment customers, fine-tune pricing and manage profitability by helping direct efforts towards growing profitable product and customer combinations. Sales personnel can then use this cost-to-serve in negotiations as well as forward-looking analyses to drive effective decision-making.
- Collaborate With the Rest of the Organization. Although finance plays a central role, maintaining and improving company profitability is a team effort – it should be everyone’s concern. It is imperative that finance professionals work directly with their colleagues outside of finance (Sales, Marketing, Operations and R&D.) and develop a list of actionable items which impact profitability. For example, working more closely with the sales organization will ensure that sales personnel have all the information and tools they require to make decisions that support profitability goals, otherwise they will be ill-equipped to make the best decisions. Getting the buy-in and commitment of the C-Suite is also critical since the C-Suite is involved in setting the direction of the company. The C-Suite’s involvement will in turn lead to the establishment of a common goal and set of metrics shared with the front lines of the business through synergies with their finance teams. Remember Individuals don’t win, teams do.
If the organization is to succeed in maintaining and improving its margins, finance’s involvement is important. Finance helps make meaningful and measurable profitability improvements. Look at the bigger picture and beyond quick fixes such as rapid cost reductions. Develop a more detailed understanding of the full set of your business’s profitability drivers and take full advantage of new technologies capabilities to uncover the organization’s key profitability levers and challenges.