This year has, with a few notable exceptions, been a difficult one, and the phrase ‘unprecedented time of uncertainty’ has almost become cliché. As a CFO, your main priority is ensuring the financial stability of your company regardless of market conditions, and the apparent inability of anyone to predict anything has made this a greater challenge than ever before.
In 2017, world events are likely to continue to confuse and panic again in equal measure. The Italian banks are at breaking point, the French elections could see one of Europe’s leading powers fall under the control of a far-right party, and article 50 is likely to be triggered, beginning the process of the UK exiting the EU.
There are, however, reasons for the CFO to be optimistic about what 2017 holds. Donald Trump, for all his flaws, will likely cut corporation tax significantly, providing a timely boost for business, while technological advancements should also mean that finance leaders are better positioned to cope and drive growth.
According to a new survey by consulting firm Kaufman Hall, agility is a top priority for CFOs in 2017, yet many are still struggling to achieve it. Less than 23% of respondents to the survey said they are very confident about their company’s ability to overcome unforeseen business obstacles, citing outdated FP&A tools and processes as the primary cause.
This push for agility will see continuous forecasting take on an even more important role next year. In Kaufman Hall’s survey, 38% of respondents said their company now uses rolling forecasts, up from 33% from the same period a year ago and 25% in 2014 and popularity is likely to increase exponentially next year as companies begin to realize the benefits. A recent survey by Aberdeen Group saw 71% of top-performing organizations who responded say they mitigated against risks related to volatile business conditions by continuously updating forecasts to better reflect current business conditions, and those seeking to emulate them should do the same.
Cybersecurity remains a pressing concern for organizations of all sizes. In 2016 alone, 2.2 million patient records were taken from 21st Century Oncology, 1.5 million Verizon Enterprise Solutions customer records were stolen, and nearly 150 million accounts leaked from major email providers including Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail.
Such is the threat posed by hackers, the past year has seen cyber security increasingly fall under the purview of the CFO. A recent Grant Thornton survey of 912 CFOs found that 38% of respondents identified the CFO as the position most often responsible for cybersecurity, while 44% of finance leaders said they felt the most significant concern for their organization today is cybersecurity and 57% said undetected breaches were what worried them the most.
The logic behind giving the CFO oversight of cybersecurity is clear. They control some of the most sensitive and important data found within organizations, spanning revenues, profits, investments, and acquisitions. AICPA Vice President of CGMA External Relations, Ash Noah, notes that: ‘The finance function has a unique view into the complexities of the business, as well as an in-depth understanding of the industry, markets and risk climate, yielding important insights for a company’s strategic direction. As the finance function continues to evolve to become more business-centric, it’s critical for finance executives, from the CFO down, to play a driving role in preparing for and addressing potential cyber-risks for the long-term growth of the company.’
CFOs’ Skillsets Expand…
In a recent interview with us, Ian Swanson, CFO of Delicato Family Vineyards noted: ‘The greatest challenges facing leaders today are the many non-financial aspects of the job. No longer is it enough to put an annual plan together and then report out income statement and cash flow variances month-to-month. You have to understand the entire business as well as the CEO; its strategy, its capabilities, the competitive landscape, its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the impact of changing regulations and new technologies. Helping the organization manage its way through this changing landscape and keeping all of the stakeholders apprised is much more of the job than it has ever been before, and I only see the demands increasing.’
His words are reinforced by EY’s DNA of the CFO survey, which spoke to 769 finance leaders. Respondents to the survey found that number crunching is no longer the be-all and end-all of the CFO’s role, with skills that can help inspire and generate loyalty such as empathy, innovation and imagination becoming equally important.
…And They Begin To Look More At Non-Financials
Not only are CFOs looking to embrace skills outside of their normal wheelhouse, they are also looking at information external to the finance function. According to Adaptive insights, 76% of CFOs report that their finance teams are tracking some non-financial KPIs today, and 46% of CFOs anticipate that number will rise in the next two years.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been threatening to explode for a number of years now. Estimates for the number of connected devices on the market range from 20.8 billion by 2020 (Gartner) to 28 billion by 2021 (Ericsson).
The central challenge facing CFOs today is measuring and monitoring business performance in a timely fashion to ensure their organization can respond to events in an agile fashion and exploit every opportunity possible without too great an exposure to risk. The IoT will make it significantly easier for CFOs to do this, with data flowing into billing, enterprise resource planning, and accounting systems in real time. This will change the way that forecasting and audits are carried out, providing real-time visibility around transactions and making risks easier to pinpoint - ultimately, leading to better decision-making.
The last few years have seen a dramatic resurgence in the popularity of zero-based budgeting (ZBB), a budgeting method first popularized in the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter in which budgets are prepared from scratch with a zero-base rather than based on historic data. The number of publicly-traded US companies mentioning the term in their earnings calls increasing from 14 to 90 between 2013 and 2015, and some of the world’s largest organizations have now implemented ZBB - including Unilever, KraftHeinz, Coca-Cola and Mondelez, all of whom have reported significant cost reductions as a result.
ZBB is particularly well suited to an uncertain world, and is likely to continue to grow in popularity so long as uncertainty in the business climate continues. According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, a well-implemented zero-based budget can save large corporations 10-25%, sometimes as early as six months of implementation, and while it is time-consuming, it is likely to remain in trend for the next year at least.
Peter Wollmert, EY global and EMEIA Financial Accounting and Advisory Services (FAAS) leader, recently noted that: ‘CFOs worldwide are struggling to make the most of the increased volume and speed of data available to them. Many are encumbered by legacy systems that do not allow reporting teams to extract forward-looking insight from large, fast-changing data sets. The result is an increasing expectation gap between what boards now look for from corporate reporting, and what CFOs can deliver. Until reporting catches up with technological advancements it will continue to be compromised.’
Making sense of this huge amount of data is the central challenge facing CFOs, and the next year will see them employ machine learning and AI to a greater deal in order to cope. In a recent IBM report, 38% of CFOs surveyed said that AI would be one of the technologies most likely to transform their enterprises within the next few years. In another report by the World Economic Forum, ‘Technological Tipping Points’, which asked 800 executives when they thought that ’30% of corporate audits would be performed by AI’, 75% said 2025. CFOs will have to review various aspects of their organizations and put in place a strategy to help best exploit AI to maintain their competitive edge, ensure they keep costs down, and increase their profits. They must also look at areas where AI could prove a risk, and where competitors may adopt it and outflank them. People often talk about how AI will cause mass unemployment, but for CFOs who fail to plan, it won’t be the machines that have rendered them redundant, they’ll have done it to themselves.