The power of analysis

Do you have a checklist for your month end closing process?  Have you added running analytical testing to your checklist?

Managing multiple association accounting systems does not leave a lot of time to thoroughly review everything, which is, of course, why we created our checklist in the first place.  I can determine what has been completed and by whom and then spot check their work.  It also helps that we have solid systems to fully vet transactions as they are incurred and which work hard to detect and prevent fraud – but still, the goal is to provide full information for the month and year-to-date so we struggle with determining what might be missing.

First, look at some relationships between your balance sheet and your statement of operations.  Certain accounts have very comfortable relationships – think inventory and cost of goods sold while others may be more tenuous.  Also, keep in mind that the purpose is to help you determine if the statements appear reasonable; so don’t overdo the number of calculations.

Some key ratios you should consider running at month end to help you pinpoint potential problems:

Days in Accounts Receivable

This will give you a sense of potential collection problems without having to dig into the aging: Take your monthly revenue and divide by 30, this is daily sales.  Then divide this amount into your accounts receivable balance.  Now, the two most important questions you should ask yourself: Is it over 30 days?  Is it higher than prior periods?  If it is more than 30 days, you have sales from prior months which have still not been collected and if it is increasing, then you have many sales which are not being collected and you might need to consider increasing your allowance for potential bad debt.

Days in Inventory

This will give a good idea if inventory is being handled well without worrying about a potential physical count of inventory.  Take your cost of goods sold and divide by 30, which is the daily cost of sales and then divide this amount into inventory.  Is the pattern consistent with prior months?  Did you see an unexplained change that skewed the results well beyond prior months?  A large increase could indicate that some CoGS were not adjusted properly or that potentially you have inventory which is not turning over, potentially indicating obsolescence.

Sales Growth Rate to change in A/R

Comparing the growth in sales to the change in accounts receivable can also provide an indication of deteriorating a/r quality.  If your sales increased by 5% from the prior months but your accounts receivable increased by 25%, it could indicate that collection problems might exist.

Gross Profit Percentage Month Over Month

If your company sells products, this could help you address a change in your business or in customer demand – either of which could indicate other potential problems.  You will want to map out your gross profit percentage – which is revenues less cost of goods sold and divided by revenues – for each month over the past few years.  First, compare it to the past few months, is the trend consistent?  Then compare it to the same month in prior years.  If you are trending downwards both over time and in comparison to the same period in prior years, this could indicate possible issues with the costs of materials or production issues, both of which can have long-term impacts to your business.

Labor Costs to Revenues

One area where a small business can be caught off-guard is in labor costs.  Unplanned overtime can be especially painful so always watch to ensure that overtime is planned and paid for, either in revenue premiums or in additional sales.  If labor is consistently increasing during months of slow or no sales growth, perhaps your overtime policy needs to be re-evaluated to ensure that it is not out of control.graph hr rev to ave

In this example, taken from a client who was experiencing reduced profits, we were able to identify the driver was in fact over 1,400 overtime hours.  There were two primary drivers of this, first was that department managers did not actively plan work for the week, leaving things to be completed on Wednesday and Thursday so they could be shipped on Friday.  Since there was always a lot of work to complete, the teams were working 2-3 extra hours on those two days, even if Monday and Tuesday had the teams with substantial idle time.  Second was that there was no policy to require the manage to authorize the use of overtime in advance.

Analytics can help you understand how your business operates.  It can point out areas where additional effort might be called for and also help management isolate and test potential issues to see if a change can help improve performance.

 

 

Supplementing Your Accounting System

At a meeting last week, I was asked what software we recommend for accounting.  The owners runs a small business, fewer than 10 employees and sales in about a dozen states.  They are currently using QuickBooks but it doesn’t track everything they want easily, especially their inventory which is often stored in multiple locations.

I suggested keeping QB but supplementing it.  “With Excel?” one of the owners asked.  No, I replied, with Access.

I am a big fan of doing work, especially accounting work, in database systems.  This isn’t to say that spreadsheet’s don’t have a place, they do, but in a lot of cases, a well structured database enables a company to run complementary systems with minimal investment or complexity.

For example, we use Access to manage the complex owner payments for a condominium project we are managing.  The system automatically generated the assessments to each owner and we can receive payment and split the payment up much easier than in Excel.  Plus, we created a series of sub-tables which allow us to set up and create daily ACH files to upload to the processing system.  In the 3 months we have been using the Access system, we have cut our time to record and reconcile deposits about 90%.  And we know so much more about who, when and how owners pay their assessments than you could ever get out of Excel or even QB.

We set up the deposit form with a series of check boxes which allow us to manage payments to the special assessments – and allocate interest to the payments – as well as flagging us to record the deposit in QB.  Every week, I can run a specific query which searches the deposits table for unrecorded deposits and create a matrix table showing me how much to record as a deposit in QB to each owner receivable GL account as well as the amounts which were deposited to the various bank accounts.

We can track significant detail for each owner, including multiple emails and phone numbers as well as setting which method the owner prefers their information.  And, because we know how important it is to know when one owner’s responsibility ends and another’s begins, we created a specific process to track unit sales and split the transaction up to help both the buyer and seller know when and how much they owe at time of closing.

And the best part is, when we need something kicked out to Excel, we can create a routine which gathers the information in a query and automatically creates an Excel workbook.  Doug used this feature to help with the budgeting process to ensure that the allocation percentages were accurate without having to rekey data for each of the various scenarios.  And, once the budget was approved, we could reimport the Excel file to create the new year’s assessment charges for the Owners statements.

Excel is great.  We use it extensively, especially for financial statements and analysis.  But when you need to control data entry and you want to ensure only approved data are used, I strongly suggest you consider Access, or any other database application you like, as it is superior than Excel for multi-user and data management.

 

An Uncomfortable Moment

The other day I was speaking with another CPA firm’s leaders about opportunities to cross-refer – they don’t do audits or reviews and we don’t do taxes – and I was asked what one of my most uncomfortable professional issues was.  I dislike airing my dirty laundry but at the same time, I have found that being forthright about these things helps me heal as well as hopefully provide a lesson for other professionals.

In 2002 I was “interviewed” by a joint task force investigating abusive tax practices.  Even today I am upset with myself for having put myself in that position.

I was in my 7th year (2000) and was recently given responsibility for managing the tax team along with the accounting and auditing team.  Beyond knowing what was, and more importantly wasn’t, allowed, the owners felt I could apply some of our audit processes to tax.  It was fun redesigning the entire workflow to streamline the processes.  I was also part of the local chamber and about that time I was asked to give a presentation on tax planning for small businesses.

After my presentation, I was approached by two gentlemen who wanted to discuss an idea they had.  I am always game for a business conversation so I set an appointment with them.  They gave me some materials they put together and asked if I would read them to plan for the meeting.

As I read their stuff, I became concerned about what they were trying to do.  I made my notes, did lots of research and came to the conclusion that what they wanted to do wouldn’t fly.  But…

And this is where things went sideways for me.  I love a challenging problem.  So I decided to change the scenario, restructured how it should work, Identified potential pitfalls and even created the basic literature to help them with sales.  All told, I invested about 20 hours into this before we even met.  But I felt good – I took a problematic process and modified it to where it would work.

When we finally met, they appreciated the information but were disappointed that I felt their plan wouldn’t work as they had originally conceived it.  I walked them through my analysis and they seemed to have a response to every point.  This seemed odd, so I asked them about how they had come to so much knowledge about this… and they divulged that they had been to 3 other firms who each had found flaws in their plan: I was the only one to offer a full rebuttal and a new concept though.

They asked me how confident I was in my research and I told them very confident.  They then offered us $15,000 to help them formalize the documentation and issue a tax opinion on the plan.  That was a good sized engagement and I felt I had convinced them that my way was superior to theirs – even if they couldn’t offer a huge tax benefit to participants.

The next week I met with their in-house accountant and their attorney, along with the owners.  Once we got going they kept pushing to use their original plan as they felt it was bullet-proof.  I told them that if they felt it was bullet-proof then they didn’t need me.  I explained that their plan would never fly; they kept saying that it was being done by this firm on the east coast.  They got another lawyer on the phone from back east who allegedly represented the firm who was “killing it”. He agreed that it was a “gray area” but he was certain it could pass an IRS challenge.

I did a lot of soul searching on the matter.  They were certain they were right and I was certain they were too aggressive.  I felt our more conservative approach would survive a challenge, which was most likely to happen since they were targeting larger corporations with their plan.  In the end I wrote the opinion letter based upon the plan I outlined, not theirs.  I wrote them a separate letter stating why their plan would not work, quoting chapter and verse of the tax code.

They thanked me, paid our bill and I never heard from them again.  But I did hear from the task force about 2 years later in 2002.  It seemed they decided to use our tax opinion letter to support their more aggressive plan.  One of their customers used it to justify their participation, were audited, and showed the IRS auditor our opinion report who then pointed out that the plan they put in place was not the plan I wrote an opinion on.

Which led to my being interviewed.

I missed the warning signs.  I understood opinion shopping but hadn’t really faced it before.  I was quite proud of that research and how well we documented the situation.  It was complex and challenging.  But I failed to heed my own warning signs.  I saw the problem and thought they could see the elegance and superiority of my plan.  In the end they saw their greed and willingness to use people to get the results they wanted.

It was an uncomfortable experience and I don’t recommend it to any professional.  It did, however, give me great life, and business lessons that I still use to this day.

  • Go with your gut.  As a professional advisor, you have to trust your instincts.  Not every client is a perfect client and if you feel they are not a good fit, go with it.  There are other client opportunities out there.
  • Be wary when clients shop other advisors.  I think a client interviewing several potential firms is a smart move, especially for business clients.  I encourage it.  But it is entirely different when they seem to have paid several firms for advice they don’t seem interested in heeding.
  • If a client plans on using your work to stay out of trouble, make sure it is effectively documented.  We had an engagement letter and I kept copies of all our drafts and research.  We also kept all their correspondence which showed their thoughts and plans.
  • Finally – slow down.  I love a good juicy complex problem.  I enjoy research, writing and presenting.  But I jumped into it before I knew the client.  I inadvertently talked myself into this engagement by buying into the solution I presented.  Had I gotten to know them a little better, we would have likely turned down the work.  Yes, a good sized engagement is always hard to turn down, but having to sit for an interview with law enforcement is almost always going to be uncompensated.

Be selective.  I have come to understand me and my passion for problem solving.  But I have also learned that not everyone’s problem is worth the energy.  I like underdogs, I love winning.  I have learned to love learning (losing) by choosing the work I want to do for clients I am passionate about working with.  Having fewer, more engaging clients who value your input and expertise is much better than tons of clients who treat you as a commodity.  Quality over quantity every time will help you become healthy, wealthy, and wise.

 

Understanding Why Financial Reporting Exists

I was asked to answer a question on financial accounting concepts on Quora.   I felt that it is an issue worthy of sharing on my blog as well as we don’t often discuss why we have expectations when we prepare and audit financial statements – other than to say GAAP requires it.

The most basic concept underlying financial reporting (and the accounting procedures used to accumulate the data) is investment decision-making.  Everything Mahesh spoke to, and what I am going to elaborate on, is premised on the need for some information for investment decisions.

FASB and IASB have concept statements.  I am most familiar with US GAAP which is put out by FASB.  But I believe both standards setters agree overall on the concept of information necessary for decision making.

Ask yourself, if you were ready to make a decision to invest in a company, what information would you like to know?  Conceptually, the argument goes, you would like to know the business’ financial position – its balance sheet; its operations – profit and loss statement; and its cash flows.  These collectively make up the general purpose financial statements.
Oftentimes, the information presented on the face of one of those statements does not tell the whole story.  Take inventory as an example.  Lets say the statement of financial position says only that inventory is $1.0 Million.  As an investor, your decision to invest might change if you knew that the inventory was all finished goods: Or perhaps it is all work-in-process.  Knowing additional details which can impact an investment decision might still be necessary, the standards require additional disclosure – footnotes – to help investors put those statements into context and provide details that otherwise do not exist.
These statements do not exist in a vacuum.  They are the accumulation and summarization of thousands and millions of transactions.  And to ensure the necessary information is presented timely, is a faithful representation of what actually happened, and is relevant, the standard setters created accounting principles.

And to ensure that investors receive accurate information based on these guiding concepts, it is important that reported information be verifiable (can be audited successful) and comparable to others in similar situations.  This is why there are industry-specific principles and there is a focus on establishing an effective audit trail.  Investors should be wary where there is first, not an independent examination of the statements and second, where the underlying accounting is totally dissimilar to everyone else in the industry.  Sadly, it happens all too often.

If you are a small business and your bank requires you to prepare GAAP financial statements, it is important to understand that this is what they are looking for: Investment Decision information.  It doesn’t matter if the financial statements are prepared by your bookkeeper or audited by an independent CPA.  Your business is responsible for sharing financial information that the bank can use to make an investment (loan) decision.  You have an obligation to ensure it is accurate, tells the whole story, can be compared to other businesses that are in the same industry as you, and ensure that whatever is recorded can be independently verified.

You, management, are responsible for the accumulation, summarization and reporting of the information.  Management decides when to recognize revenues; or to have it be reported as unearned because the job isn’t done; Management decides if a product was actually sold; or was actually shipped to another warehouse across the country.  There is an undeniable tension between management sharing accurate accounting information and investors receivable actionable investment information.  You see this played out frequently in the press when you see a stock slide because a company missed its revenue target.

Accounting principles exist to put the concept into context.  Accounting principles are not complex or difficult to employ, business is moving farther and farther away from simple transactions of shifting values from producer to consumer.  Complex transactions make for challenging financial statements as investors cannot see where value begins and ends.  So ask yourself, do you really want to invest in a company where you can’t tell who owns what and who is owed what?  If not, demand that GAAP be followed; otherwise:

Caveat Emptor baby.