Friday, February 7, 2020

A consultancy CFO's No. 1 KPI


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According to Halloran Consulting's Tania Zieja, there is one KPI that is vital for finance, accounting and HR.

Tania Zieja, CFO of Halloran Consulting Group, has a lot on her plate. Bolstered by over 20 years of accounting experience, Zieja manages the HR, accounting and finance departments of the Boston-based consultancy. Among her several operational duties on a day-to-day basis, she manages one integral role with an especially deft hand: knowing how to support company growth with new software system integration. 

Zieja spoke with CFO Dive Thursday about her keys to success as CFO, the best way to measure success, and how her intel on which systems to upgrade has evolved from her time at IBM to her time at Halloran. 

Prime KPI: billable utilization

Among all the data Halloran compiles through its software programs, Zieja tracks one KPI most intently: billable utilization. 

"Any billable time our consultants put on a timesheet goes through [cloud accounting software] Sage Intacct, onto a client invoice, and becomes revenue for the company," she explained. "It’s a healthy metric that shows we’re doing resource allocation correctly, and that we’re hiring at the right speed." 

Zieja said that at consulting firms specifically, resources are mostly shared, "so it’s really important to have your finger on the pulse with what’s going on with your resources, because they cost a lot, and if they’re sitting on the bench, they cost even more."

Billable utilization is Zieja’s main metric, and she and her team share it freely with the board. 

"We’re very transparent with those numbers across the company," she said. "Which is not meant to shame anyone if they’re not meeting targets. It’s truly meant to start conversations, to make sure everyone’s sharing the workload, no one’s suffering in silence, and to ensure we’re on top of hiring."

Understanding yield and billable utilization, Zieja says, is key for any financial team working with contractors, and consultants especially.

Tracking time spend

An upward trend of time spent on things such as budgeting or forecasting, year over year, shows Zieja that, because of Halloran’s growth, and the data they’re looking for, workers spend more time on a particular task. 

"Is there a better use of my team’s time? Is there a program that can replicate what they’re doing rather so they don’t have to crunch numbers on Excel?" These questions, she said, are the key drivers for her next implementations. 

"I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the forecast and budgets, and reconfiguring them if need be," she said. "I also read a lot of slide decks.

"My theory is: if you can create a template of the data, and you can click a button and fill it in from the data source, then you’re not spending time downloading, uploading, and manipulating trends and graphs. Put in the time upfront and reap the rewards later," Zieja said.

Upgrading while expanding

As the company's need for resources and headcount expanded, so did the systems necessary to support them. "While we were implementing our new system, we were still growing and adding to our headcount," she recalled.

"Our people are our product. Their salaries are our main expenditures. If we start spending a ton on systems, software, and other operational expenses that go into running a consulting firm, we kind of strangle ourselves a little bit with our growth, because we need to have that capital available for their salaries, and generating their revenue."

Financial planning & analysis (FP&A) helps support that, Zieja said, but "it’s a bit of a circular argument ...Who’s more important? I don’t think anyone," she said, but the relationship between consultant salaries and FP&A implementation costs are "very symbiotic."

Compared to Zieja’s former employer IBM, Zieja assumes they’d "have to provide the majority of their staff with a user license, and that’s where the costs can go up exponentially with these systems."

In any upgrading effort, Zieja stressed the importance of deciding which systems need changing and which are best left alone. To do that, she asks her teams to report on their trend sheets where they’re spending their time. 

Programming rules for small vs. large companies

Zieja​ noted there are differences between upgrading a system for a big, established company like IBM, where she worked as a revenue accountant, and for a smaller, fast-growing company like Halloran. 

"When I came to Halloran, it was really in need of some serious upgrades," Zieja said. "Expenses were being entered in manually, and I just knew that the way we were doing things would not allow us to grow and expand at the pace we truly wanted to."

One of the first systems Zieja eliminated was Paychex, which she replaced with Paylocity. The switch enabled her to work on the front end with onboarding, benefit administration, and payroll, she said. 

Her second endeavor, in 2017, was moving from QuickBooks and Netsuite’s cloud-based OpenAir to Sage Intacct, all the while keeping Salesforce, which integrated well with Sage. 

The thoughtful switches have alleviated several pain points, Zieja said. She points out that the need to keep FP&A spend relatively low in consulting can be tricky.

Tackling integration woes

One common system upgrade snag, regardless of company size or spend: integration. Does it ever make sense to change a system, even if it would potentially create integration problems?

"Integration is definitely key," she said. "I’ve gone through an integration that broke often. The problem with that is that you could have a system that might be very helpful, but if you can’t rely on the data, and get the data out, or you have to reconcile it to prove the data integrity is still there, it kind of defeats the purpose." 

Zieja cites a real-life example from her time at Halloran. When the company used Netsuite OpenAir for timesheets, expenses, and product reporting, they took the data and pushed it to QuickBooks in an effort to expedite their financial reporting process. The two systems spoke to each other well enough, Zieja recalls, but there would often be some type of missing link, such as one system needing an upgrade while the other needed new code.

"That can really be a time-suck," Zieja said. "I find that when you can’t trust your data or its source, you’re really putting yourself in a bad position. And if your management team can’t trust the data because the system integration broke, they won’t trust it in the future. And that’s not a good cycle to get into."

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