Ep. 143: Michael Schmit - What’s the Company ‘Why’ – Value Creation thru Transformation
Michael L. Schmit, CPA, is the Corporate Controller and Chief Accounting Officer of the Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc. (SWM), a publicly traded, multinational diversified producer of highly engineered solutions and advanced materials for a variety of industries, headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia (NYSE: SWM). SWM has been experiencing rapid growth over the last few years and their accounting team has been going through a business transformation, which Michael has been the leader of. This transformation includes implementation of robotic process automation (RPA), improved operational analytics, and several process improvements to meet the needs of the growing business. Michael's career spans over 25 years where he has held leadership roles in financial reporting, operations and management accounting, finance, internal and external audit, as well as shared services. And, in this episode, he shares what has gone in to his current business transformation project, how it compares to previous transformations, and how technology and the future of work play a role. His main takeaway? Businesses must understand their "why" and the specific goals they hope to achieve through transformation. Download and listen to the whole episode now!
Michael's Profile Magazine Article: https://profilemagazine.com/2020/michael-schmit-swm-international/
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Adam Larson. And this is episode 143 of our series. Today's conversation features Michael Schmit, the corporate controller and chief accounting officer of SWM. The accounting team at SWM has been going through a business transformation, including the implementation of RPA, improved operational analytics and several process improvements to meet the needs of the growing business. And Michael has been the leader of these efforts. In this episode, he discusses the importance of identifying the company's why when considering a transformation and the role of technology in the process, keep listening as we head over to hear more now.
So business transformation is not really new when it comes to accounting and finance, but the systems, the processes, the things that are being transformed have certainly evolved. So what has accounting transformation looked like at SWM and how does that compare to previous transformation projects or other things you've seen evolve in your experiences?
Yeah, I think that accounting and finance really isn't new, but I think the why we're doing this and the, how we'll achieve this, really has been continuing to evolve, to ensure that we're meeting customer's needs. For instance, the SWM, our accounting business transformation is really following our overall company's business transformation. SWM's has been growing at an accelerated pace, both organically and through acquisition in the last year and a half or the last, I guess two and a half years since I've been here, we've actually grown from about a billion in revenue and 22 production facilities in eight countries to now 1.5 billion in revenue with 36 production facilities in 11 countries. And now we operate in over 90 countries. So we've been really focused on integrating our acquisitions while transforming our own accounting processes, leveraging best practices from companies we've acquired as well as adding new technologies along the way. So our why wasn't to, just, you know, cut costs. It was to obtain synergies from the business, but also improve on kind of our status quo and, add more value from our roles as accountants. The vision for the accounting organization here is to operate as one team and one company to support our company's vision, their knowledge sharing and process improvements and leveraging technologies to execute world-class business partnering and fiduciary excellence. And so all those things are kind of leading the transformation and, you know, we see the fiduciary excellence piece as the absolute minimum expectation. Yeah. That includes complying with all laws and regulations, and to do that as efficiently as possible, but then also business partnering, which is partnering with companies' leadership and management, each other on our teams, and also other groups to provide actionable, insightful reporting to assist in decision-making to achieve the company's vision. So in other words, taking the rear view kind of near view of driving down the road and focus more on what's coming on the windshield and in the future of the road ahead. So this is different than past transformations, I was involved with in other companies, cause I think the why was really always focused on how do we lower costs and the, how was we're going to offshore it to a lower cost place like the Philippines or India. You know, sometimes robotics were in there as well, but really that's the main difference I see.
We'll get back to the specific, why at SWM and some of the goals and, you know, progress that you've seen in just a minute, we'll go to that. But I first want to, you know, take a step back. You mentioned business partnering another term that's, you know, again, not new, but it's definitely more prominent, I think these days when it comes to accounting and finance. This whole conversation has a lot to do with the future of work. And that's another hot topic, a phrase that is getting thrown around a lot. So before we really dive into what all of this means and the connection between the future of work transformation, business partnering, I'm curious what you think about the future of work. How do you define it? What are some of the main considerations are really, you know, why listeners should be aware of what's going on when people talk about the future of work?
Yeah, to me, the future of work really boils down to value creation. In other words, how can we as accounting professionals add more value beyond what we have done historically and what can now frankly, be done at lower rates in other countries, or be replaced by technology? You know, we're evolving from the history of being just scorekeepers to being trusted business partners. And that is someone that's going to provide those insights to help drive decisions of the business. And, you know, the rate of change now is greater than it's ever been in most industries and it's going to continue to increase. So as accountants, we have to be better prepared to change and help our businesses succeed in this. So we need to be able to evolve ourselves and improve at least at the speed of our business. And why should your listeners be, you know, interested in that, frankly, so they don't get left behind. I mean, I literally, you know, having their roles outsourced overseas or replaced by technology accountants today really must focus on continuing to develop their own business skills and be able to articulate the value they're bringing to the business above, you know, debits and credits and internal controls. That's just not good enough anymore and won't be in the future.
So that's a great point. And we have a lot of conversations about this and the need for upskilling, reskilling, and technology is a big part of that. And we'll get to technology coming up next, but to connect the dots in our conversations so far, the accounting transformation that you talked about, the specific why at SWM other initiatives, how is that preparing you and your team for this future of work?
You know, we're, we're focusing on, just business driven value, integrators, predictive insights, how to help the future of our enterprise, not just the enterprise today, but also getting the basics and fiduciary portion of our jobs done efficiently and effectively, leveraging technologies. We'll talk more about RPAs and advanced analytics, automated AP online account reconciliations, all those things. A great recent example has been during the COVID-19 pandemic when the world was hit in 2020, suddenly we had our a hundred plus accountants worldwide, all working from home. Luckily we had already started our journey and we'd implemented BlackLine systems, which is an online task management tool and account reconciliation tool at most of our locations. So this it's a cloud-based tool that you can really access from any browser and it's connected automatically to our GL and subledgers. So we were able to prepare, close and prepare our account recs and seamlessly, and it didn't really impact our Sox controls, internal controls. So our internal auditors and external auditors were able to audit and we were able to meet all our deadlines while other companies might have been struggling to kind of change things and have special actions taken during COVID-19. We were already prepared in that front. Similarly, on the AP side, we had implemented, automated AP software system called medias flow, where a lot of our vendors automatically are emailing or sending invoices to that. And then the entire delegation of authority is built in with them there. So, you know, whether it comes to me or our CFO or CEO, we can review the invoice online, whether it's a iPad phone, computer, whatever, and we can make sure that that gets approved appropriately once good controls. So those are great examples of things we've implemented to sort of make the blocking and tackling if you will easier. but really saved us during the pandemic. And so we weren't really behind the eight ball. We were kind of business as usual and, felt that gave us an advantage. You know, we were able to file our SEC filings on time and, you know, get our auditors, everything they needed, the board was happy and still, we executed two acquisitions during the pandemic where other companies were trying to figure out how to, you know, just do the basic internal controls. So I think that really gave us a competitive advantage.
Those certainly are great examples and it's great progress and a difficult time for many. I also appreciate the football reference with blocking and tackling. I can always relate to that. So good analogy there. And, you know, behind all of this, you, you started it off and talked about it a little bit, obviously the main driver behind transformation, the preparation and everything that goes into the future of work, what you were able to accomplish it's technology. And it talked a little bit about the technological advancements you've invested in you've implemented and some of the, the improvements or the capabilities that were there because of it. Can you take it a step further though, and talk a little bit about some of the benefits, the rewards, as opposed to just, you know, being able to do your business like you were talking about in a difficult time, how has technology enabled you to take a step further as well?
You know, in addition to, you know, black, white, and medias, I mentioned the RPAs, which is robotic process automation. And what that really is, is something that is a computer software package that can mimic human behavior. So it can log in to various systems. You can give the RPA, it's an email. you can have it as long as it's kind of repeatable tasks, it can take data and manipulate it and put it in other places. So a good recent example of that was something actually we implemented during the pandemic. We used sold kind of like this on a Skype call and it all set up. And, we were able to kind of take this program rule-based tasks and eliminate non repetitive, or non value, repetitive manual work in the process. For instance, we had a controller that was spending a day during the close process, taking manufacturing, variances, and certain employee costs and allocating them to multiple sites to multiple product families and product lines. And this required downloads from lots of systems, data manipulation, and literally hundreds of uploads journal entries. So we were able to build an RPA that now does that in the background in about an hour's time. And so while that's happening, that same controller is now spending that time on analytics and helping kind of get data more quickly to the FP&A team, to the leadership team, to operations, to make better decisions quicker. So really he's not working late hours, just closing the books. The data is also happening, and we're seeing the benefits of that, you know, already, you know, other things, other tools, one stream as our consolidation tool, which is, some of your listeners may be familiar with like, Hyperion. And those are pretty common now with large multinational companies, but for a company like us, we're doing acquisitions and there's multiple ERPs. Just, the ability to consolidate quickly pull that in and be in our SEC deadlines. And, you know, we've implemented at least accelerator, which is a ASC 842, solution. And that helped us, you know, we've just bought some companies overseas who had never had to do that before. So inputting that in quickly within the quarter of being able to get them their journal entries, Workiva W-desk for the filings, and then for analytics, we're using Altryx and I've used Tableau in the past as well. And we're continuing to kind of find new ways to use that, to help drive better decisions as well.
So let's talk about all this a little bit more, you know, he just brought in analytics and obviously that's a key part of it. Technology, the driver behind a lot of the data that's available, as you mentioned. So you've obviously had great success. You've seen the benefits of this transformation and the use of technology. How do you recommend going about it? You know, maybe our listeners aren't working for these multinationals, these big companies that already have this in place. Maybe it's part of a transformation project they're planning, what are some of the best practices or, you know, step-by-step things that they can consider, in order to improve their accounting or finance functions?
Sure. I would, you know, I'd say one thing is don't try to do too much too quickly, and there's going to be plenty of salespeople, vendors, consultants, who are ready to sell you technology with lots of promises that are going to fix problems you didn't even know you had. So I would say don't look for a problem to leverage this cold technology for make sure you're actually have something that is going to add value to the organization by you implementing this, do your homework, make sure there's really real value for you. For instance, if you're at a small company, you may not need an automated AP system. You know what I mean? You may have a small number. It may not be a ton of value there to implement this, or there may be a lower cost provider of some of these things online that, you know, larger companies might not look at so that won't stop vendors and consultants trying to sell you these things that you may not need. But, you know, I'd always say always start small, you know, run a pilot, a proof of concept. So let's say you think there really is value in implementing automated account reconciliation software. There's Trintech, there's Blackline there's others. I mean, I personally like BlackLine, used it at a couple of companies, but, it's very, you know, it's not cheap, it's expensive technology. So you may not need all the bells and whistles of a Blackline at a smaller company. You may not have, you know, multiple locations, multiple locations that in different countries where there may be a lower price that does everything you need. So, you know, do a pilot, do a small taste, try. And if you can, if you can afford it, I would always suggest using an implementation partner, the consultant that, has done this many times before, and maybe, also using a third-party to help kind of evaluate different vendors, because there are lots of products out there for the different, whether it's AP, whether it's RPA, whether it's analytics, there's tons of solutions. And I can't say one better than another because they're better in different situations and for different companies. So, you know, we've chosen the ones that were good for our company for various reasons, but there may be a different solution for you. So that gets back to doing your homework. So all those things, and then finally don't underestimate what it takes to make these changes. You know, you can't do it alone. accountants, sometimes aren't always the ones to get up out of their desk and partner with other people in the business, hopefully nowadays most do, but you have to work with IT. If it's an AP automation, you have to work with purchasing, you know, you can't, you can't do this in a box or you're going to fail, you know, or you're going to implement this great system and no one's going to use it. So, I think that's, it don't underestimate and bring in all those key stakeholders that, are going to be impacted by the technology.
That's a great recommendation, good suggestions. And I really like how everything you're sharing ties back to, you know, the individual, why or the individual is the individual, the department, the company, whatever, but it's all about what, why, you know, the value to you. So, I appreciate you sharing all that, all those steps. The last question I have for you, if it's all right. And, I like to ask this question when we're talking about transformation, the future of work, things like that, obviously nobody has a crystal ball, but it's nice to kind of think about what may be coming down the road next. Right. So when it comes to the future of work, in the role of the accountant, or, you know, the finance function, what do you predict is going to happen? You know, you talked a little bit about how transformation has changed a little bit because of different things that happen in, you know, in the industry, but what else do you think our listeners should be keeping an eye out for in the future?
Yeah. And you know, I have thoughts on this and I would say it's probably not going to be a tidal wave of all these things happening at once. It'll happen more quickly, I think for the larger multinational companies. But you know, some of these changes may not impact, the smaller, single owner companies and things like that for quite a while. But overall, I see, you know, robotic process automation, mimicking of human actual become cheaper and more easily available. They'll just become commonplace. So that gets back to learning more valuable skillsets for the future accountants. And then as artificial intelligence continues to advance, I think especially in the businesses that can afford it and that can gain the most value from it will continue to adopt things like cognitive optimization, automation, sorry, and, and cognitive engagement is coming, which will augment human judgment, human intelligence. So utilize machine learning, ultimately predictive decision-making and, natural engagement with humans. It'll be, you know, like the robo calls we get that'll turn into business. I think in our lifetime, probably sooner than we realize eventually we'll have, AI in our ERPs. And then our other tools, I think this'll, like I mentioned, mimic human intelligence and eventually completely replicate interactions and possibly even make decisions. So we all have to stand in front of that. You know, I think our government and agencies, our auditors and others will continue to use these tools for their own use. And there'll be more continuing monitor continual monitoring of financial activities, and of accounting. And you know, like I said, it'll eventually trickle down to the smaller businesses, but I think kind of the large multinationals will probably be hit first by the auditors and government and they better stay in front of it in themselves too. So, that's how I see. And I think some of that's already happening, you know, and I just think it's going to be next five, 10 years, not, you know, 50 years.
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