Steven Mugglestone

The more I learn, the less I know

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How an FD drives a business when sometimes Accountants are just catching up

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How an FD drives a business when sometimes Accountants are just catching up?

Recent debates and criticism from Finance Directors say that Accountants generally do not have the commercial skills required to truly help, support and drive a business.  What does that mean; when a significant number of FDs go on to be chief executives, could you see your Accountant doing the same.  What are the skills and experience that an FD possesses, that an Accountant does not and how can those skills and experience help all businesses.

Most FDs work within a structure of their role covering how a business operates and where it is going and this can be looked at within three distinct areas, support, operational and strategic.

Support Areas

This covers some of the traditional areas that you would expect an Accountant to be responsible for, but an FD may have a differing approach to improve and support the business.

Compliance reporting is one of those areas and whilst this ensures that a company is up to date and complies with its statutory requirements to file its accounts and tax returns, an FD will also ensure that the messages within those financial statements are firmly within the company’s strategic vision and missions and that those financial statements reinforce publicly where the business is heading.

An FD will also be responsible for tax planning and overall dealings with HMRC, on an annual basis.  Whist an FD may not be a tax expert, they will ensure that tax costs are mitigated and planned for and sensible structures are in place to ensure that all relevant reliefs and tax breaks are made available to help the business, and individuals involved in the business to manage its tax costs.  As part of this, an FD will assess the risks involved to ensure that overall risks are managed in line with the strategic plan of the business.

As part of a support role, an FD usually gets responsibility for the areas that the other directors do not wish to touch.  These are usually HR, IT and insurance (part of risk control and mitigation).  Whilst larger organisations may well have separate staff and departments (usually reporting back to the FD), in a smaller organisation and business an FD is likely to outsource these and other similar areas.  Outsourcing allows an FD to ensure that the relevant risks involved in these areas are controlled and mitigated and that costs are also controlled.  However, despite being an Accountant by training, costs are not the only reason why outsourcing is considered as the risk profile and support afforded by the outsourced provided may well be more beneficial than trying to carry this out in house.

Again an area that other directors or the owner of the business may have little interest or desire to be responsible, albeit an area key to the success of a business is dealing with legal documents and agreements.  Whilst an FD is not a lawyer, they do understand what reasonable terms and conditions would include and what clauses should be in an agreement and what should be avoided or mitigated.  An FD will liaise closely with the businesses legal advisers (outsourced) to ensure that commercial matters are reviewed and considered in all of the legal agreements that the business adopts.


Operational Areas

Again this would appear to be a traditional area that an Accountant would operate within to help support a business, but an FD will have a different emphasis to ensure that the operational areas truly help to improve a business.

An Auditor and Accountant will carry out tests and comment on procedures and reporting known as internal control.  An FD sees this area as controlled delegation, the difference being that the appropriate structures and controls are put in place to allow senior members of the business to concentrate and be allowed to carry out roles that they are good at and that are crucial to the improvement of the business.  As an example, if the key director is also a key sales person, they should not be spending their time writing brochures, catalogues or processing orders, but they need to be comfortable that those areas can be carried out to the appropriate standard without them.

A real traditional area is reporting, but an FD will always ensure that the reporting format and what is reported is not about dwelling on the past but ensuring that appropriate areas are planned for and controlled.  The term key performance indicators tend to be over used but an FD will always look to simplify the reporting to concentrate on key areas that really matter and these may not always be financial.  An FD will use budgeting as a control tool for reporting, but will also use benchmarking against best performance within the business and external to the business.  This is not done to dwell on the facts that the business is performing better or worse than others in a particular area, but to understand the reasons and address accordingly.  Sometimes you find that your competitors carry out some things better than you and if you can address these areas you can make a difference to the bottom line.

The use of benchmarking, budgeting and using key performance indicators by an FD will lead to identifying profit improvement, ensuring that operational reporting is used to enhance the earnings of a business.  An FD will usually be responsible for negotiating and agreeing many of the businesses supply and service contracts.  This will mean that they will look to consider all relevant factors, model usage accordingly and ensure that competitive tenders can provide what the business needs.

Profit is one thing, but cash is king.  Businesses do not go bust because of profits, but because they run out of cash.  An FD will always be responsible for working capital and cash management.  The maths in this area is relatively simple in that with high stocks, work in progress and debtors with low creditors comes a strain on cash.  An FD will control this area on a rolling weekly basis and on some occasions and with some businesses this will be done on a daily basis, to free up cash for use in the business.

Strategic Areas

This is an area that perhaps a traditional Accountant does not readily engage with or is involved in.  An FD will have knowledge and experience of an overall strategic plan which covers customer and marketing strategies, systems and processes and people development, but whilst overlapping, an FD will concentrate on the financial areas that underpin a strategic plan.

But what is strategic activity and how can it be defined.  An FD will lead defining strategic investment and activity.  This will mean assessing where a business is going to channel its resources to improve;  an FD will ensure that investments in both capital and human resource, marketing or other activities together with other related improvements and new areas that they are undertaking have a reason and a goal and that these are appropriately considered taking account of strengths and opportunities.  The costs and impact on the business can be measured and the future impact forecasted.  An FD is ideally placed and qualified to ensure that strategic activities are appropriately considered, planned, assessed and monitored and along the way they can add to the creative and entrepreneurial flair gained from the experience in this area.

An FD would not be an FD without considering risk.  All project management and strategic plans will contain a risk register.  Full consideration of both financial and commercial risks involved in all activities are considered and recorded and appropriate mitigation and insurance will be put in place.

All businesses should consider a time plan and an FD will ensure that an appropriate implementation timetable is considered and worked to.  This may be in respect of a specific area or the overall plan for the business leading to eventual exit by sale, or perhaps listing on a recognised market.

Underpinning a strategic plan is an appropriate funding structure.  The businesses own cash generation may not be appropriate to fund longer term investments and in return some higher risk areas may not attract bank or similar funding.  An FD will ensure that funding is appropriate for both the timescale and risks related to the business’ activities and strategic plan.  An obvious key area underpinning funding for a business is the relationship with current and potential future funders.  An FD is key to this relationship, whether banking, private equity or institutional as they understand what information is required and help to ensure that funders are comfortable with the current position of the business and its future aims, goals and requirements.

In summary an FD is not just an Accountant and some of the areas above highlight what FDs mean when they say that Accountants do not have the commercial skills and experience required to add real value to a business.  Some of their roles, including controlling delegation and support areas ensure that other members of the senior management team or the business owner are allowed to concentrate on other areas to enhance the business.  Other roles and functions such as reporting, profit improvement and cash management ensure that that the business can continue to improve cash generation which leads to cash being made available to support the strategic goals of the business.

Given all of this that an FD can offer a business, the only remaining question is why would you just use an Accountant when you can have an FD.

To find out how we can help all SME businesses with this real pro-active support, experience and background or to help you source a part time FD for your business, feel free to contact me at steven@mcgregorsbirmingham.co.uk or call me on 0121 236 3317.

Steven Mugglestone BA FCA,
McGregors Corporate, Entrepreneurial Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers
…….Really good for your business

McGregors Corporate are a Member of Probiz Tax, providing Innovative Tax Solutions to Owner Managed Businesses.

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