Financial Decisions Must Be Made With The Mission In Mind

Interview with Scott Sarian, Director of FP&A at Harvard University


Scott Sarian has over 12 years experience in the Financial Services industry, including his current role as Director of Financial Planning and Analysis with Harvard Law School. At Harvard Kennedy School, Scott worked with the school's research centers to ensure proper budgeting for all types of funding, including grants and funds, and coordinated long-term budgets (5-10 years) for strategic planning purposes. In his time with Capital One, Scott was responsible for total cost management for a $40 million business line for a major corporation. 

We sat down with him ahead of his presentation at the FP&A Innovation Summit, taking place in Boston this September 8-9.

How did you get started in finance?

I always felt comfortable working with numbers. It probably started from my love of baseball growing up, and calculating the statistics for all of my favorite players! After my dream of playing for the Boston Red Sox fell way short of reality, I put my acumen with numbers and analysis to good use by working in the financial industry.

What unique challenges have you faced within your industry/in your current role with your current company?

As a not-for-profit organization, we have a mission to educate the next generation of leaders. Our senior leadership is focused on achieving our mission and wants to provide the best education possible to our students. Often, the best decision in light of our mission isn’t necessarily the best fiscal choice. Financial decisions must be made with the mission in mind, and not just the bottom line.

To what extent have you seen the finance function further integrate with other areas of those businesses in recent years?

Finance plays a role in all areas across our school. Since other departments typically may not have a finance person embedded within the department, our office serves as the financial experts on many various issues. For instance, we will work to determine the maximum levels of Financial Aid we can provide to students, and develop new financial programs to assist students who otherwise may not be able to handle the debt burden from tuition loans.

Have you had any challenges automating your FP&A process?

Harvard University is very decentralized, and the Law School itself is as well. When attempting to forecast using a bottoms-up approach, we seek feedback from many different departments and budgeters. As much as we try to set standards regarding how to forecast, inevitably various budgeters will forecast in their own ways – some being more conservative than others, etc. When we aggregate this information from many budgeters, we have to apply a broad stroke to the process, and see if the aggregate total of many departmental submissions is in line with our expectations school-wide.

What will you be discussing in your presentation?

My presentation will look at FP&A in Higher Education. I’ll give an overview on Harvard University as a whole and how our revenue is generated, and then look at the challenges we face on managing our expenses.

You can hear more from Scott, along with other industry leaders, at the FP&A Innovation Summit. To register, click here.

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