Ask Me Anything: end-of-year planning with FP&A expert Nicolas Boucher
In early December, CFO Connect had the pleasure of hosting an “Ask Me Anything” chat on LinkedIn Live with FP&A and finance expert Nicolas Boucher on the topic of end-of-year closing for finance teams.
The AMA chat drew nearly 1,000 registrants from all over the world, who tuned in to hear Nicolas share his financial wisdom and practical FP&A tips. The audience had a lot of thought-provoking and diverse questions for Nicolas, which we will cover below.
Watch the full discussion here, or read on for highlights from Nicolas’ AMA chat!
Nicolas Boucher is a thought leader on finance topics such as FP&A, Controlling, and Accounting. He is a 14-year finance industry veteran, having worked at both multinationals and audit firms around the globe. He currently works at Thales as Head of Finance & Controlling.
Nicolas leads a community of over 50,000 on LinkedIn. He also sends out a regular newsletter to community members who get his best tips sent straight to their inboxes.
He started this community because he himself was keen to learn! In his words, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” So, he set out to learn about subjects that interested him. By learning more about finance and FP&A subjects, he was able to share this knowledge and grow a large following.
Nicolas also created a course for finance professionals who are looking to level up in their careers. The course provides resources and helps sharpen skills that all finance professionals should know; it’s something that he would have liked to have when he started his career.
Now let’s dive into the highlights of the AMA chat.
3 golden rules for end-of-year planning
Nicolas started off the AMA session with his three top tips for end-of-year planning.
Let’s take a deeper look into the details:
Review your balance sheet
Nicolas’ first rule: reassess all of your significant balance sheet positions.
On our balance sheets, we may have some positions, such as stocks, that are no longer the right value. And if you reassess too late, that will have an impact on the next year.
Review your assets:
Tangible: for example, a machine that you don’t use anymore
Intangible: software or licenses that you don’t use anymore
Is the stock you have still valuable? Are you going to use it in the next 12 months?
You need to review your receivables from your clients. Book a provision against these receivables if you think you won’t collect the receivables from your client.
All of these assets will have an impact on your P&L. You need to make sure that the impact falls under this year, and not next year.
Next, review your liabilities and provisions:
Working closely with the HR department, review the following:
How many holidays weren’t taken?
How many hours need to be paid?
What is the bonus provision? This is one of the most complicated provisions, because you need to estimate the year-end financial results; bonuses are based on these results.
Warranty risk (better to do this every quarter)
Create a landing scenario
November has passed, and now we’re in December. You have 11 months behind you; they are done and closed. But what should you do for the final month of the year, December?
Take the actuals from these 11 months, and estimate what will happen in December to calculate your landing scenario. Based on that, review your risks and opportunities, and what it would take to get to this scenario.
Talk with other departments and management about what to do to reach this landing scenario; how do you make the opportunities happen and how do you mitigate the risks?
This conversation is strategic; maybe you’ll focus more on sales or cost, depending on your company. Finance has a huge role to play in this scenario.
Collect the last of your cash
Go through all of your unpaid or unsent invoices. Try negotiating with your client, even if your present terms and conditions give you only 30 to 60 days to send the invoice and collect the cash. They may be open to negotiation.
Do an 80/20 analysis: what are the main clients and invoices to work on before the end of the year?
This rounds out Nicolas’ golden rules for year-end planning. Next, he dove into questions from the audience!
Questions from the audience
In the next part of the chat, Nicolas answered diverse questions from the audience about everything FP&A, finance, and accounting!
“How difficult was the accounting process this year, considering the economic uncertainty?”
According to Nicolas, this year, and actually every year since Covid, has been particularly opaque. Assumptions are changing every month.
When you are planning a long-term project, it’s difficult to know the costs for the next three years when you can’t predict inflation. Will the project stay profitable or not? If you see that it’s not going to be profitable anymore, you need to book a loss right away.
You must reassess the way you work and keep an eye on the latest economic conditions.
If you find this difficult, you’re not alone. Nicolas said that he, too, has had difficulty in the past six months to accurately manage inflation and plan for the coming years.
“How does the year-end process differ for nonprofits?”
Nicolas thinks that nonprofit organizations should focus more on having a clean financial statement, rather than be driven by achieving objectives. Whereas in a private company, there is a lot of pressure to achieve profits and results for the year. So it’s a matter of where you put your focus.
But just as a reminder, all companies, no matter the sector, are subject to laws and regulations.
“How can we avoid ESOP provisions?”
ESOP, or Employee Stock Ownership Plans, are part of the bonus provision, linked to remuneration. Because you disclose it to the public, you must review it publicly.
It’s part of the remuneration package, linked to the year and results. Treat it like a bonus! Ensure your calculation model is correct, especially if next year’s bonus and stocks are based on this year’s results.
“What’s your favorite FP&A software?”
In short: Excel!
In a small structure, start with Excel first before investing in dedicated FP&A software. Once the budget and processes run well and the company starts growing, then you can think about implementing FP&A software.
Useful FP&A software will have collaboration, cloud, and versioning capabilities, and will allow you to pull data from the past and from different departments.
“What’s the best budget approach: zero-based, actual-based, or hybrid?”
If you are in an environment that doesn’t change much, you can take the actuals from last year and use those as the basis for your budget.
If you need to reduce costs, find new ideas, and innovate, then you want to use a zero-based budget model. It takes more time, but the goals are different. It helps you find places where you can reduce costs.
The zero-based approach means starting from scratch, or from zero, and reviewing what you really need to make the business run and achieve your goals.
“How challenging is it to collect all required data for FP&A?”
Nicolas says that there are three questions to ask: how quickly do you need the data, do you need high-quality data, and how many people are involved?
If there are a lot of people involved and you have the time to set up a good process, find a collaboration tool where people can enter their data in a file that everyone has access to. Think Sharepoint or Excel, although there are a lot of solutions.
If only one person is sending you data, first ask them what they have at their disposal. If they already have a file with the data inside, they can simply share it with you. This saves time and ensures that you’re seeing the same data.
“What are the key elements to report to investors and associates?”
This depends entirely on the country you’re in. However, Nicolas says it’s best to just use common sense. If you think your investors need to know about something to understand the financial statements, then you should include it.
For example, you must report litigation. You also must report if there was an error in the accounts at any point in time.
Beyond that, there are some rules around how you present the data. Again, this will depend on your region and local laws.
“What software do you use to help with the closing process?”
Nicolas doesn’t use any special software, rather, he suggests using a checklist. Ensure that all team members know what to do, and especially when to do it.
Pro tip: be aware of schedules around the end of the year; many employees take time off to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. If you leave tasks to the last minute and your colleagues are already on holiday, then you might be in trouble.
“What are key improvement areas in a factory?”
Here, Nicolas was able to draw on his experience working in finance for a factory.
He suggests that you focus on making your product and process leaner. The difficulty with factory work is that you might not see defects or problems until the end of the production cycle. If you spend 100 hours working on a product, and you find out at the end that there is a defect, then the whole product has to be scrapped, and you lose 100 hours.
However, if you detect the defect in the first ten hours of production, then you only have to lose ten hours of work. Detecting problems at the beginning is much more time- and cost-efficient than waiting until the end.
Use the stop-and-fix method: don’t let production continue if there are concerns. First, stop and check to see if there are other products involved. Then, fix the problem before starting production. Otherwise, the problem may impact other products within your brand.
In short, try to be agile and lean. Take the time to stop and find the problem to avoid wasting countless hours, and protect your other products from the same mistakes.
“What metrics are most valuable when evaluating the health of a small/growing company?”
A big risk when a company is growing fast is running into cash problems, according to Nicolas.
Always follow your cash, and have a plan for future cash flow. When you start to grow, look where you can streamline processes.
When small companies fail, it’s not due to a lack of clients or growth; rather, the big problem is not being able to finance this growth. There is a point when the problem is too big and too late, and the company risks failing.
“How do you avoid drowning in Excel files when prepping for multiple scenarios?”
According to Nicolas, keep it simple. Don’t make too many scenarios, because people will get lost in all the possibilities. Remember, these Excel files are a way to explain scenarios to non-finance colleagues and executives so they can make strategic decisions.
Our brains work in series of threes. So limit yourself to just three scenarios: a normal one, something better, and something worse. Avoid information overload!
“What are the best KPIs for FP&A teams?”
One good KPI that finance teams don’t use enough is comparing your budget from six months ago to your current situation. Check in to see what you got wrong or right; compare and measure yourself.
Also, think of sending a questionnaire. Ask people: what do people think of the value you provide? How is your communication? And your relationships? You can compare these answers year after year and see how you evolve and improve.
Third, evaluate your activities. Look at the time you spend on your activities: which are high-value activities? Which are investments for the future? Which are back-office activities that could be delegated? Every six months or year, check and see if you’re improving or deteriorating. Are you doing more or fewer high-value activities?
“Your thoughts on machine learning tools for finance departments?”
According to Nicolas, machine learning is most useful for accounts payable. Companies receive tons of invoices; even just one supplier can be responsible for thousands of these every year!
Using machine learning to recognize the name of the supplier, amount of the invoice, purchase request, date, text, etc. can eliminate the need of a human between the invoice and the ERP.
Machine learning is a huge help when there is too much data for a human to handle all of it.
Need more finance guidance?
And with that, the AMA chat was over! Nicolas answered a number of diverse questions, and provided actionable solutions and evergreen tips. If you want to hear more from Nicolas, you can join his community on LinkedIn, read his new guide to ace your next interview, or sign up for his finance courses. Members can get 20% off on the course and the interviews guide with the code CFOCONNECT.
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