Ep. 60: Chris Clulow - Embracing Technology to Lead in Accounting

April 18, 2020 | 18 Minutes

Chris Clulow has been the Corporate Controller of Cummins Inc. since March 1, 2017. As Controller, he is responsible for Cummins’ global accounting processes, financial reporting, accounting policy, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, and finance systems. In addition, Chris has oversight over global risk and insurance, government contract compliance and finance & accounting transformation. In this episode of Count Me In, Chris talks about how technology has changed the role of the accountant and controller, explains how strong leadership has helped him embrace technology and lead his team during the current crisis, and predicts what others will expect of the finance and accounting professionals in the future. Download and listen now!

Contact Chris Clulow: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-clulow-3832911/
Cummins: https://www.cummins.com/

Adam: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast of all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I am your host, Adam Larson, and today's episode covers a few different topics. Chris Clulow, Corporate Controller of Cummins, talked with Mitch about leadership technology trends in the industry and the combination of the two for managing challenges associated with today's crisis and its working conditions. At the end of their conversation. Chris also shares a unique perspective on the future of the accountant. Let's head over and listen to the conversation now. 
Mitch: (00:40)
So I know in recent times we've seen a number of changes to the role of the accountant and the controller. So from your perspective and your roles and responsibilities, how has technology really impacted the job that you do on a daily basis? 
Chris: (00:56)
Yeah. It has changed dramatically over the course of my career, particularly as within Cummins. I've been here about almost 16 years we've invested a lot in technology and using tools, where in the past, we may have, may have used a lot more human effort, a lot more things like Excel, a little bit, more archaic, technology tools to help drive our decision making and now we have tools and processes that enable us to spend more time doing analytics and doing, doing the work, doing the thought and I think that's really, really key where you spent a lot more time in the past, pulling information together, compilation, and you didn't have as much time putting the data to work and that's, that's the real value you can add, both in an accounting and a greater finance area where you provide, some, just some analysis to the business to help them drive better decisions, to make them aware of trends that maybe imperceptible, to those outside of the accounting or finance arenas. So it is really become quite powerful things that we rely on. And it's gradual in some ways. I mean, we've seen the change, but sometimes you don't even notice how much, you know, how different it is now than it was say, a decade ago. 
Mitch: (02:28)
Right. And you've just touched on it slightly where you said it's really about presenting this information to those who may not be as familiar with the financials. So from a leadership perspective, somebody who is, you know, in the front of the finance function, what is your leadership style in bringing other functions up to speed and how do you go about communicating this information, these new insights to them? 
Chris: (02:55)
Yeah, I think the key is to really understand what they need, what they really need to know. So oftentimes, you know, when you're working with business partners, they'll ask a question or they'll ask for an analysis, a piece of information, without maybe an understanding of the effort that is involved or really what they're asking. So being able to kind of dig into that and ask the questions back to make sure you understand what they're looking for, is really critical, to kind of come back and say, Oh, you're asking this question, but I think you really mean something quite different. Something that could take you, you know, right off the, off the top of your head, you can answer versus doing 40 hours of analysis. So I think being that good business partner really is, pushing back at times, and making sure you can provide things. But going back to the first statement with, with technology and tools, what I've found is they've enabled our business partners, people outside of accounting and finance to understand finances and even the accounting side, better because it's just more consumable. It's easier to understand when you see things in more standard formats or things that are just, calculate for you. People are more adept at, being able to understand those, what was very complicated finance and accounting. There's still areas certainly within accounting that, people do not understand and it's breaking it down to what do they really know, need to know instead of going into the depths and plumbing, the depths of what came out from the FASB and why these things are important. Oftentimes a business partner doesn't need to know that level of depth. You can just kind of bring it up to more of a 50,000 foot level of what they need to know and why. 
Mitch: (04:48)
That's great. And I think obviously today, everybody dealing with the crisis that's going on in the remote work, you know, I'm sure the technology that you're implementing has certainly enabled business continuity and you're able to just kind of go about your day, business as usual. But there is a little bit of a setback I would guess when it comes to the interaction and the communication and the leadership cross-functionally because you might not be able to have these face to face conversations or these explanations. So I'm just curious if you've noticed anything along those lines at Cummins and what your experiences have been since kind of shifting to this new remote work style? 
Chris: (05:34)
Yeah, you definitely miss out on the informal, communications and the, and certainly the nonverbal, oftentimes you may do some video conferences here or there, but you're oftentimes talking on the phone and talking on Skype or zoom and you miss out on the bumping into somebody in the hallway or just seeing somebody at lunch where you have the conversations where, you can actually keep things moving forward at a greater pace and you can kind of make sure you're understanding the needs of the business. I am at the same time, very pleasantly surprised at the continued progress we can make in that is somewhat open to technology, but also to the creativity of the people, of being able to continue to do their jobs, working remotely and finding different ways to connect. Whether it's, you know, just having informal zoom sessions daily with their teams, using WhatsApp or text or anything under the sun from a technology perspective. I know even teams, within my group are having FaceTime happy hours just to keep that connectivity together and making people feel like part of a team. And I think that's really important. it is definitely more difficult. I think one of the, this sounds strange to say it in this way, but one of the advantages we have colleagues, within China who've been through this, just very recently and they've been incredibly helpful in how they steer it through it. Many of them are still in lockdown for those. We have some plants in locations in Wuhan that are just coming out of it now after over over eight weeks, but they found a way to communicate, to keep the business going, and to really keep it moving forward and I think that was, their coaching has, has helped us a lot. 
Mitch: (07:37)
You actually beat me to my next question because I know Cummins is global and particularly your role. Overseeing a lot of the global accounting. You touched on it a little bit, but have there been any global challenges since going to this, you know, remote work and, I assume much of what you did was done obviously remotely anyway, but was there any part of this, that maybe your global offices are feeling the effects and you're kind of coaching them through it also? Is there any reverse to this, global relationship? 
Chris: (08:15)
Yes, there is. And I think, I mean there's challenges depending where you are in the world. I think there can be access to internet that's, spotty. You know, we have people, I mean the whole country of India is now shut down until at least April 14th and that's a very large population and they're really shut down and all working from home and they don't have the infrastructure capability. So they're finding different ways to, you know, schedule shifts and use technology in stages versus, trying to do it all at once. So there's, certain challenges as we go around the world, so you're trying to have to have, different ways to reach out. Just last week I had a call with all the controllers, in our Africa region, which are, you know, smaller countries oftentimes, and connectivity and infrastructure is not as not as advanced and just talking them through and what they need to do and what they should pay attention to and kind of, you have to have some understanding that people won't be able to execute to the standard that they were in the past, no one's going to get it right to the penny. And I said, prioritize and just kind of work on what's most important and, and kind of give yourself, I think there's an element of forgiveness of to say we're, everybody's just doing the best they can and I think that's what we'll have to do. Making sure we cover all the big issues, but just you have to be, the caring aspect, for people is critical at this point in time. You have to understand the pressures people are under, and offer some forgiveness. Just even, we're going through our accounting close this week. So we've added, added an extra day of close  and we're going to evaluate midweek and see if we have to add another one. It creates pressure in different parts of the flow. But it's really important for people to know that you're hearing them and understand some of their challenges. So there's, the, conversations have kind of graduated to a new level has worked. We're talking to people around the world is that everyone's facing similar challenges in some ways and unique challenges in particular areas. 
Mitch: (10:29)
And as a finance leader, I'm asking a lot of questions about what you've done already and how you're going about your business, but have any questions been directed to you that there may not be a clear answer at this point? Are there any questions or concerns coming from your team that you don't have a definitive answer for right now? And if so, you know, how do you go about responding to that as a leader and working with the team to maybe come up with an answer? 
Chris: (11:01)
Yeah, that is an excellent question and that's it goes well beyond accounting, but I mean the number one question I get and it multiple times a day is when is this going to end? And that's a, it's a human question. It's less of a work question, but it's, one that's ever present in everyone's mind. And it's important to talk it through and talk through how people are feeling. Cause a lot of people, myself included, or even our CEO expressed it on a call where he was kinda caught in, Oh, okay, what do I do? What do I do? Do I work on the longterm? Do I just work on the short term? How do I balance out what I'm doing? And in my advice to everyone as they're going through that is just keep moving forward. People working, you know, don't just think about today. You have to keep thinking about tomorrow and what was important three or four months ago. It's still important. You, we certainly have to take care of the critical needs today, but we'll have to keep moving forward as well, so it's easy to get caught up a little in a bit of freeze when you're in crisis mode. So I think for me it's helpful to express that everybody's really kind of can feel that at different points in time and to keep moving forward. Shifting back to the accounting side, there's, probably some things here that are getting questions from auditors or multiple, things in my email, it's full every day with, other people offering advice on certain accounting questions where it's hard to answer, ideas on the impairment,, how does this change in the future? And how are we projecting out in forecasting and things like that. Those are difficult to answer. I mean it probably becomes increasingly difficult over the next few weeks. So there's accounting questions that are coming up now that we're trying to just do best efforts and come up with a good position on where we, where we think we are as a company and where we are, expect to be in six, nine months and beyond. So, I think that's a tough question right now 
Mitch: (13:20)
That sure is. And, you know, this may be a tough question to answer because of that, but, you know, the challenges that you're realizing and really the productivity that you're maintaining in addition to everything that we already previously addressed as far as the changing role of the accountant and the controller, you know, how do you think the role in finance and accounting may evolve even more in the future? Do you believe that this has any kind of sustainability to it, that the whole remote aspect or do you see technology changing the role, in the office even further than it already has? What is your longterm vision for the finance function? 
Chris: (14:04)
Yeah, I think that's it. That's a very good question. I do think, you know the current crisis is unleashed the creativity, which I mentioned of people trying to find new ways to do things. And, some of those will stay, will be found even early on. People that found solutions to things that we're doing remotely that actually make more sense than what we were doing in the first place and they're more efficient. And actually more accurate. So we're finding some good solutions there, but I do see, you know, finance and accounting plays a really key role in running a business. And when you get into a crisis mode, I think people begin to see that and appreciate it to a greater level to where they can see the hard work, see the value and the importance of maintaining, you know, a strong financial as being kind of the backbone of a company. Both from an accounting and finance perspective. So I think that it does create an appreciation for, people in the functions and I think that helps, kind of raise the profile, I'll say, of the finance and accounting and company and people will kind of lean on them even more, but also appreciate, kind of the hard work that they're faced with. So I think that the key learning, so a little change. I would say the internal dynamics of how the function interacts with other functions, but how we work I think will change as well. I mean, I think we were trending already towards an environment where more people are working remotely and you didn't have to be in the same office, to be interacting in managing a team. I've managed global teams for most of the last 10 years. And you have people that you may not see, but once or twice a year wise, and it works out fine if you just take a different level of, attention and have some different tools in your leadership toolbox, to do that. But I think it's worked out quite well. So I think that's, something, I think we'll will, this'll be an accelerator for that where you'll have people saying, well, this seems to work and you know I worked better at home at times. So I'd like to do that, you know, a couple times a week or do it differently. So I think that'll rise kind of throughout the world. I think people will see that once we're free to move about it. I think people will be running all over the place. But, I think in the long run, I think people will see some value of working remotely and that it's a completely viable solution on almost every part of our function. 
Announcer: (16:53)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.