Staffing Accounting – Finance Department For Start – Ups to Medium-Sized Companies

I have had a lot of conversations recently about staffing the accounting and finance function in the company. As companies grow and shrink, their needs in this area change. We certainly do not want to be over-staffed, and we also want the most cost-effective staff doing as much of the work as possible. For example, we typically do not want our Controller or CFO entering payables – this task can easily be delegated to a much lower cost employee.

In a a simplified organization chart of the different accounting and finance functions, a CFO would be at the top of the chart with a Controller reporting to her. The Controller would have staff in AR, AP, and Payroll along with one or more accounting managers over one or more of those functions. The reality is that most start-up and emerging companies cannot afford all of these positions. My purpose in this post is to explain how to fulfill all of these necessary functions throughout the life-cycle of a start-up company. I am making the assumption that we all understand the purpose of the accounting/finance function as well as the assumption that the company has or will hire the appropriate outside professional(s), like a tax CPA, to help the company remain compliant.

Even at the earliest stages of a start-up, it is usually best to hire a part-time bookkeeper to fulfill all of the roles listed above. They usually do not have the expertise of a high-level controller of CFO, and they will be slightly over-paid for doing some of the more clerical tasks. But the bookkeeper gives an affordable and flexible option to start-ups.

As the company grows and has revenue, the company should begin to look to hire full-time clerical staff to handle most of the AR, AP, and payroll tasks while the bookkeeper remains part-time and delegates everything they possibly can to the in-house staff. One of the major challenges that usually emerges during this process is that the part-time bookkeeper will begin to struggle to keep up, especially with the monthly financial statement preparation and analysis as well as other management reports on how the business is doing and what improvements should be made to maximize cash flow.

Often the next best step is for the company to consider engaging the services of a part-time CFO. This individual will be a strategic direction to this department and may only be needed about a half-of-a-day per month. As the company continues to grow, the part-time bookkeeper will need to be replaced by a full-time Controller or Accounting Manager. All of the full-time accounting staff will report to this person. In addition, this position will take direction from the CFO.

Excel Spreadsheets – Do They Still Have a Place in The Finance Department?

From Excel to excellence for the month-end close reconciliation process.

As a financial accounting professional, it is almost certain you will have been using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets during the month end close process. It is also extremely likely you will have experienced problems with them too!

Over the last thirty-odd years, spreadsheets have become a mainstay in finance departments, used for all sorts of tasks, from reconciliation to reporting and everything in between. Despite their popularity with finance staff, they still pose a massive margin for error. The expected error rate when reconciling with spreadsheets is 0.8-1.8% and though this may seem small, for a company with a $1m turnover this represents a risk of $80,000-$180,000.

What’s more, the damage done can also affect public perception and trust in your brand, leading to less tangible but just as dangerous losses.

Is it possible to move away from spreadsheets?

For smaller businesses, the number of accounts needing to be reconciled is relatively small, so it makes sense for smaller businesses to continue using a combination of spreadsheets and QuickBooks. In turn, the team that manages the financial close process will also be relatively small, perhaps just one or two finance staff, so there is also less room for data handling errors.

However, as the number of accounts to reconcile grows and the team managing your monthly close process is expanded, errors can easily worm their way in to the reconciliation process. Once a business has grown, it makes sense to move away from Excel spreadsheets and QuickBooks, particularly for tasks like reconciling. At its capacity, the finance department of a large organisation can generate up to five hundred spreadsheets a month – so it’s easy to see how errors and duplications can creep in.

Will the finance department ever rid themselves of Excel spreadsheets completely?

It seems unlikely that Excel spreadsheets will disappear from the finance department completely; admittedly, they are still a really useful tool for auditing, even for very large businesses (of 1,000+ headcounts) and they will probably remain the go-to program of choice for creating graphs and charts.

However, businesses that are managing to grow and are serious about both productivity and regulatory compliance will likely move their reconciliation and monthly close process to specialist programs, as opposed to makeshift spreadsheets. Especially as the need for advanced reporting and intuitive financial analysis expands beyond the capabilities of Excel.

Learn How Your Finance Department Can Inspire Growth

Almost all departments within all companies have an untapped ‘cognitive surplus’. A ‘cognitive surplus’ is the difference between the specific tasks an employee is assigned to do and what they actually are capable of doing – the actual versus the potential work.

It seems obvious, but to tap into it the ‘Cognitive Surplus’ can make a huge difference.

Companies such as 3M, Dell and Google have all implemented what is called ’20% time’ or ‘innovation time’ – one day of their working week, dedicated to whatever projects they like… provided it benefits the company in some way.

Does it pay off?

One might wonder: Does it pay off? Well, at Google this has resulted in successful projects such as Gmail, Google News and AdSense, and according to ex-employee, Marissa Mayer, as many as half of Google innovations are a result of ’20% time’.

But, while this approach might be considered something market leaders can utilise, many finance departments perceive they barely have the time to complete all the necessary work at present, never mind crafting new and innovative ideas, supporting procedures that aid business growth.

Yet finance departments really do need this ‘innovation time’.

In this slow and sometimes contracting economy, the next two years will be critical for businesses. It will fall largely on finance departments to walk the thin line between productive spending and managing a dwindling pool of resources. Additionally, with a host of new financial regulations coming into place in this two-year period, financial departments will be instrumental in helping businesses to remain compliant without losing their current standing.

This extra pressure and workload will make it difficult for finance to inspire new talent whilst holding on to the employees they already have. Finance professionals require stimulating challenges without being overloaded with extra work – they need ’20% time’ to effectively tap-in to their expertise, and not have their time consumed by lengthy, repetitive tasks – that can be automated.

How to make time for tapping into ‘Cognitive Surplus’ in the finance department

One way in which businesses can help free up some of their finance department’s time to complete tasks, is by automating the tedious and time-consuming tasks that turn prospective talent off finance work. Reconciliation is one such set of tasks that finance professionals find particularly tiresome and time consuming. Fortunately it is now possible to automate account reconciliation, processing hundreds of thousands of transactions in just minutes rather than hours or potentially days.

While significantly reducing reconciliation errors, automation also frees up large chunks of time that could be dedicated to maintaining compliance, providing strategic insight in this tough economy.

This additional time could even become the rarely considered ‘innovation time’ your business needs to inspire growth and stay competitive.