Beyond bean counting

Turn a finance team into a business partner.

How to transform a finance team into a business partnership.

The American merchant and revolutionary John Hancock once said, “The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.” His flamboyant signature on the US Declaration of Independence is a reminder that the influencers are the engines that change the course of history, and for that matter, business.

As such, it's through influence that Paul Helm, the chief financial officer of the NZ Transport Agency, has been able to take an inefficient and disjointed financial system with seven different ledgers and turn it on its head.

For the past five years, Helm’s mission has been to develop his finance team into something much more valuable than bean counters. He needed his team to become business partners – skilled influencers with peripheral vision and a focus on the end result: the happiness of the customer.

Five years on, his mission can be classified a success, with Helm not only being named the EY 2013 Best Public Sector CFO of the Year in New Zealand, but his team winning 2014 Best Finance Team of the Year at the CFO Summit Awards, beating heavyweight corporates Westpac Bank and Mighty River Power to take the top honours.

“That to me is fantastic because that's not me, that's the team and the recognition of the team for everything they've done,” says Helm.

It's a rare achievement for a Crown entity and one that has been years in the making, particularly because it involved some major shake-ups.

Helm needed to transform the entire finance structure, creating a single unified ledger, streamlining back office operations, simplifying reporting, retraining staff and educating management on accounting.

He also needed to transform his team. Rather than focus on where dollars had been spent, he needed his staff to look at how dollars were being spent, look for value and efficiencies, analyse the implications and equip the decision makers with this knowledge.

“That’s what we as CPAs should be doing,” says Helm.

"The transformation of the finance team into business partners has helped NZ Transport Agency become more focused on the long-term rather than quick financial fixes."

“We should be influencing and not making decisions for the business. We want the business to make the right decisions with the right information and we want to help them do that, not take over from them.”

As with any major overhaul, Helm's challenge was getting everybody on side and to approach the vision with the right attitude.

“That's why we had to work from the top down. We had to start working with the board,” he says.

“Then the senior leadership team started coming to us saying they needed to learn more because the board was supportive.”

Focusing on the long-term

With the board and senior managers on side, Helm then set about tackling the toughest transformation: turning his finance team into business partners, getting them to think of ways they could help the business in their daily roles, and convincing them to not just look at the numbers but put themselves in the customers' shoes when doing so.

“We had to let some people go – that's not been easy – and we've trained up a lot of people, people coming through the ranks,” he says.

“It’s very easy to get the wrong people in. We've taken quite a long time to get the right people, but we've got the right people now.”

Helm says the key to good staff is their attitude – do they want to help the business? – their communication skills, and their ability to influence.

Paul Helm

“I've got people who aren't qualified as accountants, but they know accounting and they can influence people,” he says.

The transformation of the finance team into business partners has helped NZ Transport Agency become more focused on the long-term rather than quick financial fixes. The ability of the team to add value by presenting forward-thinking financial information and analytics has also made their opinions much more sought after.

“We are now invited into a lot more meetings because we add value compared with, say five years ago where we were seen as, how would I put it, as an annoyance on the side; we had to be put up with,” Helm says. “Now people want us to be involved.”

To further integrate better financial management into business decisions, Helm hired senior accountants to sit among the senior business teams to work with them on a much more intimate basis rather than in a back office.

But has the overhaul had any noticeable impact on the bottom line? Helm says the strategy has been successful, with NZ Transport Agency, which has had a flat baseline on its operating costs since the global financial crisis, able to absorb pay rises and cost increases because of the new efficiencies. Further, other Crown entities are taking notice, with Maritime New Zealand working with the NZ Transport Agency to utilise the Agency’s automated invoice approval and processing system.

It's a success that has set the benchmark for not only public sector financial management, but for the corporate sector as well.

How to make your finance team a business partner

  • Focus on the end result. Whether it’s paying customers or internal stakeholders, make sure that your team’s mission aligns with that goal.
  • Get everyone on board. Not only does the finance team have to align with the mission; without support of the board or other key stakeholders, it will be very difficult to make substantial changes to an organisation’s financial structure.
  • Focus on the big picture: Set long term goals and stick to them. Don't waste time and effort on small journals that won't impact the business.
  • Build relationships: Trust is key. Business leaders need to trust their business partners and have confidence in going to them for advice.
  • Be influencers: Don't say yes or no; instead, communicate the pros and cons of any given situation. Be firm, but not too firm. Don't shy away from the hard discussions.

December 2014
December 2014

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