We sit down with EBM Software CEO Mike Skillingstad to discuss how technology can transform the reporting process.
Nearly every finance person has at least one, if not many, reporting horror stories. EBM Software CEO Mike Skillingstad is no different. “It was 1999, and I was working at ConAgra at the time. I had a new boss, and of course I wanted to impress him,” Skillingstad recalls. “I spent about 3 weeks preparing quarterly reports for him and then proudly presented this great reporting package. In the report, I had calculated everything as a percentage of net sales. As it turned out, he wanted everything in gross sales. So, I basically had to start over.”
However, this fateful incident would lead to a huge revelation. “I decided right then and there, this was never going to happen again. At that point, in 1999, the technology behind data cubes was brand new – and we may have been one of the first, if not the first, company to tap into them for business purposes. We began building the seeds of what would eventually become Catalyst and all of a sudden, our people knew every margin, all the customers, all the sales, etc. Our profits started growing by about 23% year-over-year, and ultimately, we became one of the best divisions in ConAgra.”
Over the next two decades, Skillingstad continued to push and evolve the Catalyst software into what it is today. Reporting, however, still remains one of the core pieces and one of the most frequent reasons new clients bring Catalyst onboard. We recently sat down with Mike to ask him about the reporting challenges midmarket companies are facing today, and how technology can help.
Why is reporting such a huge pain point for so many mid-market companies?
Reporting is a problem for quite a few companies because it’s a really tedious job and it has to be done right. If it’s not right, oftentimes that’s the quickest way out the door. Any amount of movement, and you quickly lose trust.
The other element that makes reporting so hard is that the close cycle is so long. So, we started talking about what we could do to reduce the time to close the books and tools that could make that reporting process smoother.
Ideally, you’d want to close the books on day one and report on day two. Then everybody knows what happened on day three and they can make adjustments. But if you think about it, if it takes 30 days to close the month and 15-20 days to report, now I’m two months from when the numbers came in. So, what naturally happens? People start to form gut opinions on how to guide the business, instead of being able to operate off the facts.
Tell me a bit about what typically goes into month-end reporting for most companies, and some of the jobs we’re able to minimize or eliminate.
With most companies, their ERPs don’t report at all. Unless they’re using a bolt-on system, the ERP only produces the trial balance. So, if you’re a small or midmarket company, you’re going to take that trial balance data and structure it in Excel. Right there, you already have room for error in the data entry.
Once you have everything in Excel and structured properly, you’re going to do variance analysis. Why are we up or down vs. the previous year? Why are we up or down vs. the plan and/or the forecast? Oftentimes, that information lives in different files and/or different formats. So, now you are comparing multiple files, sometimes apples and oranges, and trying to make it all work together.
So, once that is all married up, you start to look at variances. Well, if you didn’t create the plan in the same level of granularity as actuals, you can’t really tell why it’s different. You spend all this time going back and forth between the plan and the actuals trying to figure things like this out – but if the reporting comes out two months after the fact, how relevant is it?
You get through all of that, finally publish the report, and then the questions come. Maybe you already looked into them, or maybe you’re in for some more long nights trying to get all of these new questions figured out.
And if I’m in private equity, that’s just the financials. I still have to do all of the customer reporting and product line reporting. I have to look at gross margins and profitability. And reporting on those has all of the same problems we just talked about.
How is our Catalyst software able to minimize or eliminate many of the various tasks and pain points from that process?
First off, Catalyst automates all of that heavy manual “busy work” we talked about – it pulls all of the data and structures it for you. You don’t have to worry if it’s been grouped the right way or if it’s summarized correctly. You don’t have to worry about ticking and tying all the data. All that has become literally one push of a button.
Secondly, it lets you plan and forecast at the same levels as your actuals and marries them up in the same spot. So, there’s no need to juggle multiple files, no struggles with the budget being in the wrong format, for example – everything lines up and it’s already in one place.
With that all out of the way, we can get right into the analysis. We can start drilling down to the account level, we can look at the journal entries and we can quickly explain any variances–instead of wasting all that time ticking and tying and aggregating everything in Excel, you can focus on the more important part, figuring out the “why.”
What sort of improvements and time savings do we typically see when our clients start using Catalyst?
Typically, accounting and finance departments spend 80% of their time just dealing with the busywork. Then they might spend 20% of the time explaining what happened, with no time spent actually helping their business partners do something better.
By automating a lot of those activities now, they can now spend a lot more time analyzing the business and asking, “what can we do differently?” They can make recommendations that have a lot more impact on the business, rather than just reporting the weather from two months ago.
So how much better and faster? I would say, at a bare minimum, their reporting should be 50% better. In most cases, I would say it’s upwards of 80% faster. When you standardize something and then automate it, you’re removing the tedious, time-consuming part and a lot of the room for error. So, this is one of those rare situations where you are able to get both better and faster at the same time.
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