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!

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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