Your Finance Department Is Second-Rate

Not certain how your finance department stacks up? Here are ten markers of mediocrity.

You can’t benchmark the performance of one finance department against another, says Blythe McGarvie, CFO of the Paris and New York-based BIC Group. The same numbers, she argues, are handled by different companies in too many differently nuanced ways for direct comparisons to be practical. Many finance chiefs, consultants, and academics are willing to make those comparisons — but they disagree on where to draw the lines.

McGarvie and the others we interviewed for this article, however, all agree on several indications that do provide a certain measure of a finance department’s effectiveness. (Within this article, “finance department” refers to all those areas over which the CFO holds sway.)

Steer clear of these treacherous areas, and you have no guarantee of success; run afoul of them, on the other hand, and your finance department simply cannot be considered among the best. Your company and your career may fare poorly as well.

1. Slow Closes

A properly skilled staff should produce a complete financial statement within ten days of the quarter’s end, says Miles Stover of Crossroads LLC in Irvine, California. Seven days, he adds, should be long enough to produce a preliminary “flash” report suitable for internal distribution.

Stover, who’s been an interim CFO on behalf of Crossroads at multibillion-dollar conglomerates and at tiny private concerns, grants an exception for companies with annual revenues under $50 million — but even for these companies, he maintains, the quicker the better.

Dave Peralta, CFO of software provider Arbortext in Ann Arbor, Michigan, doesn’t hold to such a strict rule of thumb, but he agrees that “the longer it takes to close, the more inefficient the department becomes.” Tasks tend to expand to fill the available time unless the finance chief has the discipline to fix a date, then push the department to meet it.

Efficiency aside, why else should you concern yourself about a leisurely close? It can be a sign that policies may need some tweaking — say, because closings are held up by laggard invoices that trickle in on the last day of the month. There’s a simple remedy for that one: Move up the deadline to earlier in the month to give your staff some breathing room.

Sometimes, of course, appropriate policies and procedures are in place, but they’re being ignored by employees outside your department. “That’s when the CFO needs to put in some calls to get things back on track,” offers Peralta. (For more on the efforts of CFOs to close the books more quickly, see “Virtual Close: Not So Fast.”)

Now there’s slow, and there’s very slow — it’s not simply a process problem when the close is a full quarter behind. Witness power producer Mirant, which filed its 10-Q for the period ending June 30 on November 7, and pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, which plans to file its third-quarter 10-Q in February 2003.

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