Ep. 29: Laura Landmark - Business Performance Management

Laura Landmark is a Chartered Management Accountant (CIMA) with over 20 years of experience working in senior finance positions in industry, from computer games, to wine, to luxury house development. During the last 10 years she has specialized in implementing and maintaining Accounting and Online Performance Management systems for reporting, budgeting, forecasting, dashboards & analytics. She and her business partner launched Mantle Analytics, which is a fusion of Accounting and Technology, just over two years ago -- to an overwhelmingly positive market response! Mantle standardize where appropriate, but specialize in creating outside-the box data driven solutions to help companies create their own technology fueled competitive advantage. They work by the 80/20 principle, 80% standard & 20% special custom-made solutions to meet customer specific needs. In this episode Laura talks about the importance of rolling forecasts and proactive management. You will find Laura very active on LinkedIn or via Mantles website. You will also find links to the software Mantle use below; she says feel free to contact her with any questions!

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FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Adam: (00:05)
Hey everyone. 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 today we're going to hear episode 29 of our series. Our featured expert guests for today is Laura Landmark, who spoke to Mitch from Norway about business performance management for a concept that everyone may not be too familiar with. Laura does a great job making important connections for accountants. So let's go ahead and listen to what she has to say. 
 
Mitch: (00:37)
What is business performance management? Why is it important and why is it so hard? 
 
Laura: (00:44)
That's a great question. Business performance management is actually a set of processes really that enables the, you know, the managers to to keep track on whether they're actually heading towards achieving their goals or not. I think that many people these days call it financial planning and analytics and you know, so there are, there are different words for it, but the reason why it's important is that without keeping focused on how the company's performing, there's a very good chance that you're not going to end up where you want to be. And especially with these days, things moving at the rate of knots, you know, moving so quickly, it's important to be fully on the ball and keep a track month by month, week by week, day by day, whichever is the relevant time-span on, on how you're performing against the goals and the targets for the company. And the reason why this is so hard is basically because there are so many moving parts, so it's not easy to, you know, to basically capture the actuals that are in the economy system and match them up potentially with the time registration that's going on in the time system. And then the project transactions that are in the project system and the whole ecosystem of, of different applications that exist in an organization make it very difficult to actually do unless you've got good systems in place of course.
 
Mitch: (02:15)
Now our main audience is the management accountants and you referenced financial planning and analysis. So from FP&A or business performance management, what is your view on the budgeting and the forecast that accountants are typically responsible for? 
 
Laura: (02:32)
Yeah, that's, well that's another good question. I can resonate with your audience cause I'm also a chartered management accountant. So I took my exams in London, well many years ago, I think about 20 years ago now. And I have spent an entire career trying to look at the future of companies, the different companies that I worked with or worked for because that's what we're trying to do. You know, as management accountants, we're to take data and to utilize it for reporting, forecasting and prediction. Budgeting and forecasting are extremely important. I would say forecasting more so than budgeting because it says it's live information. Really, when I talk about forecasting, I'm talking about rolling forecasts. So every month that goes by is another month of history and an extended month on the end of the forecast, whether it be a 12 month rolling forecast or an 18 month rolling forecast. You know, in reality, we've used these for all of our customers for quite some years now that we've been working in this way. And I've had many stories of customers that have been able to use the rolling forecast for effectively managing their businesses and also avoiding potential fools and, and threats. So one particular customer that I worked with, she was very proactive. This was a few years ago now, and she wanted to build a very detailed cashflow forecast because I think she could detect that they were potentially troubles ahead. So I worked with her for a while and actually understanding her business, I'm putting together a driver base full cost for her, which would roll forwards and it rolled forwards for 18 months. So every month that went by, she could look forwards and see 18 months into the future. And what she could see that in month 16, there was this big cashflow Dip and for a number of different reasons, it meant that she needed to go and renegotiate some, covenants with the bank. Now, what we found and what I found is that if you can go to the bank with a full cost and with a set of financial statements that show, you know, your, profit and loss, your balance sheet, your cashflow forecast in, you know, a period of say 12 to 18 months, they love it. And it's so much easier to go to the bank and renegotiate terms when you actually don't need the money. You know, when you get to the stage where, you know, in crisis and you need the money now, then it's very, very difficult to actually work, you know, with the banks. Naturally they see the risk of lending the money or extending the times. So I would say, although full costs, you know, they, they can't tell you the future, nobody can tell you the future. And the goal of forecasting is not actually to predict the future, to tell you what might happen and to allow you to do that scenario planning. So what if this, what if that, and as I say every month that goes by as new information allows you to, to adjust the forecast, it allows you to play with the figures and to create a future before the future happens. 
 
Mitch: (05:46)
So many of our previous conversations have been around data analytics and how there is technology available to really enhance this efficiency that you were talking about, you know, enable our management accountants to offer more foresight as opposed to insight into what's currently going on. So I'm curious what kind of technology you know, you are accustomed to or you know, is available to accountants to really improve in this planning and overall business performance, 
 
Laura: (06:15)
Right? Yes. Well we primarily use three tools for this. And when we started all business, we went actually all over Europe looking at different types of tools, different types of software to actually create the kind of environment for our customers that we wanted to be able to create. And what we found is, you know, a range of different great software, you know, so there's a lot of software out there, but for us it was important that it was SQL based because that's what our skillsets are. So what we found a is actually a Scandinavian product, which has recently been bought up by I think an American company actually, but it's called Bizview365. And what happens? Well what happened when we found this product was that it wasn't particularly set up for accountants. Now accountants, you know, we work a lot with accountants and they typically have a portfolio of let's say 300 or 3000 clients. You know, they're often working with many, many, many companies. And this particular product that we found called Bizview365, it was more for larger companies originally. So we actually worked with them to make a new vertical for accountants. And what that meant was that we were able to implement the software and roll it out very quickly to multiple companies. So that's one piece of software that we use. And the reason that we chose it, as I said, is it's SQL based. It's open at the back end so that we can integrate it with all sorts of different data sources and it's a planning too. So for us this was critical. We had to have a tool that could be budgeted in or forecasted in. And yeah, having said that, we also work with another product called one stop reporting, which is also a really great product. It's also a planning tool and it's something that's very user friendly. It's very a nice tool to actually build up budgeting templates in rolling forecasting templates and, nice report packs. So they're two very, very good tools that we use. And then we also use Microsoft power BI for visualizations. It's an extremely, you know, effective and well loved visualization tool. Fantastic. The dashboard's fantastic. Fantastic. Visualizing data. The only thing about it is that it's not a planning tool. So we can actually connect yes, power BI with a planning tool on the back end. So if we have customers that are particularly keen on using that for visualizing data, w we have ways and means of making it into a planning tool, if that makes sense. So for management accountants, I would say that when they're looking at software, it's very important to look at the planning element because not every tool is for budgeting and forecasting. Some of them are just for visualization. And in my opinion it's not enough, you know, as management accountants, we need to be able to forecast, we need to be able to plan for the future. 
 
Mitch: (09:19)
I'm just curious, based on the tools that you mentioned and that you regularly use, how has that transferred to results for your clients? What kind of benefits have you actually realized in implementing these new technologies? 
 
Laura: (09:33)
Yeah. Okay. That's another great question. Well, it opens up a new world really for our clients. And I think that once our clients get an initial taste of how, how it could be, you know, how easy it can be to actually get to their data, without the toil and the struggle and the long hours and the stress and the strain of trying to do all of this manually, then not only does it give them a great level of insight and a great level of, you know, depth of information, but it also removes a huge amount of, of stress from the organization. And so, you know, it's actually life improving products, I would say. So we've worked with them many different types of companies from, as I say, a lot of accounting practices who are typically the ones that are deep down and dates or need to churn out reports, satisfy different customer's needs. They want to be able to tie their customers to them. And the only way really to do that in this day and age is to offer the customer something over and above. You know, the, the bookkeeping really. And we all know that we've all had that, you know, many times over the last few years. So what a lot of the accountants that we're working with look for is, okay, what, what can we offer our customers? What, how can we understand our customers better and give them customized reporting. So from the accounting practices point of view, using these tools, is the difference between actually maintaining the customer or potentially losing the customer? I mean, there's so many examples that I could cite and there are very many customized projects because every company is very, very different. Yeah. But the impact is both financial and it's on the efficiency and it's actually on the enjoyability of actually being in the business. You know, actually automating all of these things using this software. But having said all of that, I think it's probably, I'm quite clear to see that the kind of projects we work on are not out of the box kind of projects. The software that we use is very configurable. It's very good, powerful, and it needs to be screwed together in the right way. So it's not the kind of software that you can just necessarily just deliver and walk away from all. Although having said that, you know, if you want to use it just for simple financial reporting, of course, you know, there's a lot less user intensive. But the beauty of the software is its power. It's what you can actually do with it. So once our customers get a little taste of, Ooh, you know, that was great, you automated that report for us, can you now do this one? And we say yes, of course we can cause, cause as long as we can get to the data, we can do whatever we need to do with it. You know, we can clean it, we can transform it, we can model it, you know, whatever needs to be done. We can do it because we have developers in, in our, in our company that are able to, to script and code the data. So I always think now that, you know, I am an accountant through and through, you know, by education and by profession, but I no longer see the accounting as being a standalone skill. It has to go alongside the technology and the development skillsets that if I don't have, I need to be able to work with people that do. It's essential. 
 
Mitch: (12:53)
Well, you just hit it. I know we've talked a lot about how the role of the accountant has changed and we attribute much of that to technology and the need to be more strategic. But my question is how can accountants learn about these skills or develop these skills further to be able to take their organizations to that next level and really transform the business for future success? And to kind of add onto that, what is the future of accounting? 
 
Laura: (13:19)
Right. Okay. Yeah. Well two great questions there. I think that for the accountants themselves, they are April I think to get the best education by doing, you know, no accountant comes out of school completely, you know, savvy and for the practical experience necessarily, you know, and knowing all the answers, you know, and every business is different. So if we think about an accountant who may have a portfolio or 20 or 30 or 50 different customers, they are never going to know the business as well as the customers themselves do. So my best advice about learning more about how to, you know, become more business focused and develop your business acumen is to spend more time just having conversations with the customers. And I don't mean conversations like how's the weather and all of that, but I mean actual conversations about the business. So what are the goals of the business? Do they even have any goals? You know, what is the mission and the vision and all of those things. And what they'll probably find in those conversations is that many of their customers really don't have a clue, but they like being asked. And it opens up a new conversation with the customer about, okay, well look, if you're not sure what the vision and the mission and your goals and values and all of that, or let's work on bows together. And in that process, you know, the accountants, they were able of course to, to go away and Google and find out more the industry and to look at best practice and to look at their common key performance indicators that are used in that particular branch. And to come back with a bunch of ideas. But really it's about listening to the customer, listening to what the customer's worried about, listening to what, you know, it's keeping the customer awake at night and then working with the customer to find solutions for that. Now the accountants, they might as well know that, you know, that there is the technology that can fix more or less any problem. So it, you know, often it's not a technological problem that one's facing. It's often about business process problem or it's a, you know, there's inefficiencies or there's a lack of communication or transparency or lack of focus or a lack of, you know, often companies have a million different projects or a million different products going on at once. And you know, it could be as simple as saying, okay, well let's, let's look at your portfolio paradox. And that's figuring out which ones are profitable or not. And the accountants, they know how to work with numbers. It doesn't have to be high tech to start with either. It could be just dumping everything into Excel, putting on a pivot table or putting on a power pivot or whatever and just analyzing the data. So I think learning by doing, I'm being in a lot of, strong interaction with the customer is one great way. With regards to your question about where I think the profession is going, well, I think it's going to be more and more business focused. I think that the requirement is going to be more and more that we as accountants actually understand how businesses work. How do they generate value? What is the difference between a business that's going to survive and a business that's not going to survive. How is it that businesses should, you know, strategize? Should it be based on price? Should it be based on differentiation? You know, we should, as accountants really be keen on knowing about what makes businesses tick. What makes businesses valuable? What do customers want? How you know, what are the trends in the market, particularly what are the risks, you know, we can quantify those risks. We're really good with numbers and we should quantify the risks because I think one of the main skills in businesses figuring out what not to do, you know, what should we drop what in our product line or, you know, in our project, portfolio or our customer base, who is it that's just costing us money? And, and you know, who are we not jelling with? You know, where the customers that we're really, we should say sorry, but we can't serve you anymore. You know, you'd probably be better, better off going somewhere else because you know, we have a completely different set of values and it's difficult to work together. So I think in business it's all about making great decisions. And in order to make great decisions, one needs to ask really great questions, you know, so it's not all answers. And I think that's a thing that accountant's always so terrified of is, Oh, you know, like, I don't know the answer to that. Well, it doesn't matter because it's the, that has the value, you know, by asking the question, you've opened up the possibility of, you know, a great conversation or, a thought process or a planning process that might never have happened, had the question not been asked. So answers are great and answers are valuable, but if you don't ask the questions, you never going to get the answers. So learning how to ask questions I think is a really important, part of where our profession is, is going to go. 
 
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