Safety First

How finance executives are keeping their companies safe and secure from accounting scandals and other material missteps.

“Only you can prevent forest fires” was the cautionary message of a long-running risk management campaign. An accounting scandal may seem much less dramatic than a wildfire — but to your company, it could be just as devastating.

Roger Friedberger has certainly been keeping a lookout. Since 1996, when he became finance chief of ILOG — a software provider headquartered in Gentilly, France, and Mountain View, California — Friedberger has been keenly aware of the possibility of a revenue-recognition misstep. The temptation for salespeople to boost their compensation by booking revenues improperly, before they’re fully earned, is famously strong in Silicon Valley.

The effects of overly aggressive accounting have a way of scaling the corporate ladder, leading to restatements and shareholder lawsuits — not to mention executive dismissals. “More software CFOs have bitten the dust because of rev-rec problems” than due to any other accounting issue, maintains Friedberger.

By putting preventive measures in place, however, Friedberger has helped ILOG steer clear of a restatement, or even so much as an adjustment by its auditors, since the company went public in 1997. That “safety first” approach has also found favor with many other finance chiefs, corporate risk managers, and internal auditors who guard against fraud, gamesmanship, and inattention, and keep accounting woes from their doors.

Spreading a responsible corporate culture, and using your powers of persuasion to keep employees and lower-level managers in line, has always been an essential practice. Today, finance executives are also launching enterprise-risk-management programs to take a comprehensive picture of corporate risk, and installing new software to get a clearer view of potential hot spots in even the most remote outposts of their organizations.

Sarbanes-Oxley compliance requirements have spurred these efforts, of course. But a look at how fast a company’s fortunes can plummet in the first blush of bad accounting news might be motivation enough. Indeed, a tarnished reputation can deliver a lingering jolt to a company’s finances, suggests a May 2003 study by Deloitte & Touche of a score of companies touched by corporate accounting scandal.

The companies — whose ranks included the usual suspects — suffered an average 50 percent drop in share price within 20 days after news of the scandal first broke, according to Rick Funston, national practice leader for governance and risk oversight at Deloitte & Touche.

At five of the companies, the share price fell by more than 90 percent. “Shareholder value is tried and [hanged] in the court of public opinion long before it gets to a court of law,” says Funston — hence the need to prevent financial scandals entirely, and not to “go to trial” at all. But can you guard against corporate scandal just as you would guard against wildfires?

The View from On High

Start by taking a comprehensive view of potential problems across your entire organization, say advocates of enterprise risk management, and set your priorities.

Some companies have begun to link their internal-audit functions with broader corporatewide plans of managing risk. “Risk management and [internal audit] were never coupled in the past as they are today,” says John Calkins, director of risk management at Masco Corp., a manufacturer of home-improvement and building products based in Troy, Michigan.

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