Today’s offering comes indirectly from one of the greatest business partners ever, Kent Thomas, and an Ascent Advisors interview they held with him. It is worthy of a post.
Advanced CFO Solutions (http://www.advancedcfo.com) is based in Cottonwood Heights, UT. Advanced CFO Solutions (@AdvancedCFO) provides outsourced CFO’s for companies that don’t want to hire a full-time CFO. Founder and CEO Kent Thomas sat down to talk with Ascent Advisor (@AscentAdvisor).
Ascent Advisor: What role is your company filling for up and coming companies here in Utah?
Kent Thomas: The short answer is that we are the outsourced controller or CFO for smaller companies [usually under $30 M] that don’t need or can’t afford a full time CFO.
We have two basic offerings: The first is a turnkey accounting service that started several years ago when we started to do bookkeeping because we realized our clients couldn’t find a competent bookkeeper for 5 hours a week. It wasn’t a profit center for us because it’s so labor intensive. When I learned that companies in India were offering bookkeepers for $3 an hour, I thought to myself: “How do you compete with that?” Technology is the answer, so we have integrated a mix of proprietary and third party technologies (all web-based, SAAS technologies that include expense reporting services, bill pay services and others) all done on the cloud, available 24/7, and paperless to provide everything from bookkeeping to reporting to CFO work for a flat monthly fee that is a fraction of the cost of a full time accountant for over 30 clients.
The rest of our 100+ clients range from $5 to $50 M in annual revenue and they hire us because they need strategic financial advice, budgeting, and cash flow management but don’t need or can’t afford a full time CFO. Companies come to us because they don’t have information and are afraid to make important decisions about expansion, growth, product, pricing and a lot of other things. Their existing accounting solutions do not provide what they really need or want. We provide a part time controller or CFO with 15-30 years of experience who helps them see what is really happening in their business.
Our philosophy is that a set of financial statements, regardless of how timely and how accurate, is worth almost nothing to a CEO. The financial statements typically come 15- 30 days after the end of the month. They are a snapshot of what happened last month and usually have no context and don’t tell you anything about what is going on in the business today.
When I meet with CEOs, most say they only looked at 5-6 key areas on their financials on the day their accountant provided it and they don’t look at them again. I ask them: “Have you thought about how much it costs you to produce that versus the value you received?” The response I typically get is, “I don’t like where this is going.” Then we talk about where the real value is and how to get really valuable information about the business so that the management team can make informed decisions. Our consultants go through a process that includes the people and the processes in the organization, the controls in place, whether there is accountability or not and their use of technology. When you bring those parts all together and get them working, you build a foundation of good information that you know that is controlled and the natural results are accurate and timely financial statements.
More importantly, however, if you can produce good information at the end of the month, you can produce it at the end of the week or every day, and now you have information around what is going on in your business. Then we’ll help drill down into key metrics: what are the drivers of your business? This is the real the value of a CFO, someone who goes beyond financial statements and gets you good information to help you manage your business. We also work with clients on their cash flow management by preparing cash flow forecasts. We help if they need equity financing; we’ve closed 160-170 transactions with clients totaling almost $750 M so we’ve had a lot of experience doing those kinds of things.
We have many clients who we’ve helped develop pretty extensive dashboards of key metrics around their businesses. Whether they sell into retail or manufacture or provide services, the cool thing is that we can dial in anytime and pull up all the key metrics of what is going on in the business, the number of products sold over a period of time, by territory or by account. We know all the key information that you need in order to know how you are doing.
Ascent Advisor: In 2010, you added “Advanced” to your company name. What was happening in your organization that prompted you to make the change?
Kent Thomas: When I started this business in 1996 it wasn’t even CFO Solutions, it was “Business & Financial Solutions”. My second client asked me to consult with him on the purchase of a company and when we were about to close he said to me, “Kent, if we settle on the purchase of this business, I will need a CFO but I can’t afford you full-time, would you do it part-time for me?” That was the genesis of the outsourced CFO model for us; there was no one in Utah doing this at the time. I would love to say I was a visionary and I saw this incredible niche, but it was a client who identified it for me. As I was driving home that night I looked out over the valley and thought: there are 10,000 companies that need a part-time CFO, this is a great idea!
The addition of “Advanced” to the name was really a marketing issue. Prior to that our name was CFO Solutions and my marketing guy told me there needs to be a relationship between the url for our website and the name of the company – our url at the time was utahcfo.com. I fought it because I had been in business for 15 years and had a great brand reputation with CFO Solutions and I didn’t want to change that, but we found that www.advancedcfo.com was available and Advanced CFO Solutions became the new name – I like it a lot now. What really sold me on the change was that we offer advanced CFO services: we look at technology, we look at different and better ways of doing things, and we are constantly out there checking what is going on in the marketplace.
At the end of the day, I say that one of the biggest problems with accountants is that we tend to not stay current with what is happening because things change so fast. I am the president elect of the Utah Association of CPAs this year, so I am heavily involved in that and I am constantly telling people we need to stay competent if we are going to remain relevant as CPAs. That was my vision around the “Advanced”, we are CFOs and what we offer is advanced technology, capacity and analysis/ understanding beyond what your typical accountant will provide.
Ascent Advisor: What is the difference between a good CFO and a great one? As an organization that is constantly on the look for additions to your team to service your customers, it must be a constant struggle for you.
Kent Thomas: The number one distinction between an average CFO and a great CFO can be summed up in one word: “strategic”. You have to be able to see strategically and understand the strategy of the business. I teach continuing education classes for the Utah Association of CPA’s and two years ago I taught a class on advanced CFO and controller skills. There were twenty-three CFOs and controllers; they were the chief accounting/financial officers at their companies and all of their businesses were over $10 M. I asked: “In 60 seconds or less, who can tell me your company’s strategy?” I had 3 hands go up. I was shocked because these are C-level individuals, and I offended everyone in the room by blurting out: “How in heaven’s name can you provide any information of value about the business and where it’s going if you don’t know where it’s going? I hold you responsible for not knowing the strategy of your business.”
The interesting thing is how many times you will find CFOs who don’t pay attention to strategy because they don’t get it. The first thing I look for is those who get the strategy. The second is those who are willing to make the investment to keep themselves competent. Things change so fast in our world that you have to keep up, you have to know what you are doing and you have to be able to ask for and get help if you need it. We have 110 active clients, in all different kinds of industries; we will sometimes take on a client in an industry where we don’t have a great deal of experience. The reality is that 80% of what we do is the same from company to company: we work on the people, process, control, culture and technology. Getting that fixed is the first thing we work on, and then understanding strategy to translate it into a plan for the business. I need someone who is capable of looking at the industry and saying, “I have never served anyone in that industry before but I can figure it out.” They’ll go to work and make the investment to learn about the industry just so we are competent – that’s not something I can charge the client for.
The third thing I’m looking for is a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in our CFOs. We pay on a performance compensation model. The reason I do that is it puts me, the company and the CFO on the same sheet. We have shared interests in what we want to accomplish. If the CFO is doing work for a company, he needs to make that company happy. I have a motto: “We will always make decisions in the best interest of the client, rather than ourselves – Always”. There can never be an exception to that in our case. So if someone comes to us wanting to be referred to our clients and offering us a finder’s fee, I tell them I can’t take the finder’s fee because it’s a conflict of interest. We will always make that decision. I am in the business of selling trust. I need my CFOs to be in on that philosophy and the fact that it is our job to delight our clients and leave them happy.
Ascent Advisor: At what point should a company look at an in-house CFO vs. an outsourced CFO?
Kent Thomas: We have found the general rule is somewhere between $20-40 M in revenue. The three things that trigger the need are the activity, the complexity and the growth of the company. I was the CFO for Skullcandy from 2003-2008. For six months, I was begging them to replace me because they were growing at 300% a year. Rick Alden was paying me more to be there 3 days a week than he would have been paying a full time CFO. I had told him this multiple times, but he didn’t have time to worry about it. I actually recruited my own replacement, I had two top-notch outdoor industry expertise CFOs. One day I walked into Rick’s office and put 2 resumes on his desk and said “At the end of the month, I resign. One of these guys is my replacement.” Rick said, “You are my Rent-A-CFO, you can’t resign!” I explained why and they were very appreciative. They hired one of the guys and it was great.
The reality in our business is that when we are working with the client, we are almost always the ones who go to them and tell them it’s time to transition. We try to give them a 6 month lead because it takes time to find the right person. I’ve had companies at $15 M say, “I know I will be overpaying but I need someone who drinks the company’s Kool-Aid and will be in the office everyday that I can walk into their office and have a conversation.” If that is the case, even though we could continue to serve their needs well, we will help them find and transition to our replacement.
Ascent Advisor: What is the next hurdle for the company?
Kent Thomas: I think there is a trend for outsourcing everywhere, and the good news for us is we were on the first wave of that and were the first group in Utah, and I suspect we are still the largest. I watch what the competition is doing. When I started there was none, and since then there have been as many as thirteen other firms doing much of what we do in Utah. Many of them now have full-time jobs and have left the market. I remember one who had three clients called me saying he got a full-time job and asked if I could take his other clients. The next hurdle for us is controlling the quality of services with rapid expansion, with more partners, more clients and more consultants.
Ascent Advisor: What is the vision for your company in the next 5-10 years?
Kent Thomas: Our goals are to continue to use technology to better serve our clients. We will expand geographically outside ofas well as in Utah, about 10% of our clients are out of state already. In today’s world, it is easier to work remote; you don’t have to be onsite. We’ve been approached by people from other states that really like our model who would like to partner with us and take Advanced CFO different places. When we have more partners, it will be possible. That is where we intend to go, and the big issue for us is getting more companies to understand how an outsourced CFO works and why it makes sense. About 90% of our business is from referrals, and the vast majority of those referrals come from existing and prior clients. You take good care of our clients, they talk to others and it all comes back.