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Staying on Course

It's hard to weather an economic slowdown without a sound budget to steer by.

CaseCentral, a San Francisco–based litigation support firm, may seem as recession-proof as a business can be. It provides an electronic platform for evidence management to companies battling lawsuits — not a sector likely to see a precipitous falloff in business. Even so, CaseCentral isn’t immune to corporate belt-tightening, says CFO Terry Wynn. “Legal fees have acquired a high profile,” he explains. “There’s greater pressure on corporations to look harder at overall litigation costs.”

Thus it’s no longer unheard of for the company’s customers to try to renegotiate their contracts. While Wynn can’t ignore their phone calls, he can readily estimate just how a change in terms will affect CaseCentral’s projected financial performance. For that, he credits the firm’s robust budgeting-and-planning (B&P) process.

CaseCentral prepares an annual budget in the fall, laying the foundation for performance goals and compensation for the coming year. But that’s just the beginning. Each month, departmental leaders review actual results and re-forecast 90 days out. If the forecast is diverging from the budget, they’ll take corrective action. Once a quarter, senior management makes new forecasts for the rest of the current year and all of the following year, looking for trends in pricing and revenue.

Because he continuously links budgeting to planning, Wynn can quickly estimate the financial impact of every decision, be it a price cut for a large customer or hiring a senior employee. The B&P process enables managers “to see how the decisions they’re making impact the bottom line,” says Wynn.

From Burden to Boon

Sounds sensible enough, but it’s far from common. More than half the respondents to a 2008 survey by the BPM Forum, a business performance management group, said that their budgeting process is overly burdensome. In general, employees “don’t buy into the fact that [budgeting] is an important part of the strategic-planning process,” says Daniel A. Szpiro, professor of accounting at Cornell University.

That apathy can exact a heavy price when the economy hits a rough patch. To navigate a downturn, Szpiro says, managers and employees need to understand the key activities that drive financial results. If sales are trending flat, how will expenses change? How will rising fuel prices pinch gross margins? Can the organization afford a new salesperson? What if he or she needs six months to ramp up?

To get employees more involved, try speaking their language, advises Bryan Hall, practice leader in the finance advisory group at consulting firm The Hackett Group. Rather than asking plant managers about financial ratios, talk instead about the number of overtime hours or level of scrap materials they are anticipating, he says. Focusing on the data points that are most top of mind for them can be a starting point for developing a budget that better reflects actual performance.

A budget should also be aligned with a company’s strategy, says Samuel Weaver, a finance and law professor at Lehigh University. This can temper the urge, especially strong during a recession, to make sweeping cuts across the board. The problem with that common response is that most strategic undertakings are cross-functional, points out Philip Peck, director of the Palladium Group, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “A simple directive to cut R&D by 10 percent over six months may chop the legs off a major strategic initiative” that involves the entire company.

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