Sarboxing

Finance executives continue to grapple with Section 404 of Sarbanes-Oxley. So far, it's unclear who's winning.

When last we left Mark Thompson (“Drowning in Data,” November 2003), the senior vice president of finance and information technology at Crown Media Holdings was shopping for software. Specifically, he was looking for an application that would help him manage the company’s international contract rights. Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark Channel, operates in more than 120 countries, where it buys and sells thousands of broadcast rights to more than a thousand films. Overseeing the contracts that govern the payment schedules for those programs is a herculean task. Says Thompson: “International rights is a huge portion of what we have to manage.”

Three months later, the finance executive still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. “I haven’t come across the right fit yet,” he says.

He may have to settle on one soon, however. Handling contract rights is one of the 25 or so activities Crown Media’s management deems key to the company’s business. As such, the process is subject to the provisions of Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002—meaning Crown Media must demonstrate sound financial controls governing that business process and then test those controls quarterly. Manually documenting and testing those controls, while doable, would be a real pain. Consequently, says Thompson, “the reporting deadlines and 404 are leading us down the path of automation.”

Finance executives at other companies are headed down a similar path. Despite the fact that the Securities and Exchange Commission pushed back the filing deadline (accelerated filers must be in compliance after June 15), many corporate managers are fast discovering just what a bear Section 404 really is. The biggest hurdle: few businesses operate off a single information platform. In fact, The Hackett Group estimates that the average $1 billion company maintains 48 financial programs, along with nearly three enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. So it’s little wonder, says Randy Whitchurch, CFO at bar-code maker Zebra Technologies, that “if you’ve got a lot of far-flung locations on disparate accounting systems, [documenting controls is] a problem.”

Not surprisingly, business-software makers—many of which see Sarbox as the next Y2K—have flocked to Section 404 like alley cats to albacore. John Van Decker, vice president (technology-research services) at Stamford, Connecticut-based Meta Group Inc., reckons there are now 50 or more vendors flogging software aimed at Section 404 (see our vendor directory). The long list includes ERP vendors, content-management and business-process-management specialists, start-ups, upstarts, and industry giants (read: IBM and Microsoft). And in a survey conducted by Meta, fully 92 percent of those IT product and service vendors said they expect Sarbox to boost their year-over-year sales.

To date, however, companies haven’t fully embraced the vendor offerings. In fact, in the same Meta survey, 57 percent of the vendors said that sales of Sarbox products so far had not met their expectations. Part of the problem is that the early work on Section 404 is a decidedly in-house affair, with many companies tapping controllers and internal auditors to handle the initial documentation. What’s more, of the $5 billion or so that publicly traded companies will spend on Sarbox projects this year, only about 20 percent will go toward software purchases, with the rest spent on staff and consultants.

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