Ep. 99: Andrea Williams - The Future of Accounting Work

November 23, 2020 | 17 Minutes

Andrea Williams, Sr. Vice President and Controller at Perdue Foods, joins Count Me In to talk about the future of accounting work, ethical considerations, and the impact of technology on the profession. Andrea is an experienced Senior Vice President with a demonstrated history of working in the food production industry. She's skilled in Food & Beverage, Budgeting, Food Processing, Manufacturing, and Consumer Products, and has a strong professional graduated from Salisbury University. Andrea explains how she has seen the management accountant's role evolve over time, what she expects to see from finance and accounting professionals in the future, and shares some advice to listeners for their own future considerations. Download and listen now!

Contact Andrea Williams: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrea-williams-201a9a12/

Mitch: (00:05)
 Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong, and this is episode 99 of our series. Today's conversation features Andrea Williams, Senior Vice President and Controller at Perdue Foods. In this episode, Andrea talks with Adam about the future of accounting work and the ethical challenges management accountants need to be aware of as their roles continue to evolve. Let's get over to the discussion and hear more about the topic now. 
Adam: (00:40)
What do you see as the differences between management reporting and financial reporting? 
Andrea: (00:45)
Well, financial reporting certainly has to follow all of the accounting roles that we were trained on as accounting professionals and those roles continue to evolve over time. Management reporting should certainly follow all those rules, but normally management reporting looks at slices of the business and targets insights into subsets of the financial statement. And so it's really important for the management accounting teams that are preparing that information to keep the financial reporting in mind and certainly tied to it and every possible way that they can, but to recognize that they're peeling the onion and that they really need to be careful in how they represent those pieces, that they would still represent what is in the ultimate financial statements. In our business, we have, we use management reporting for certainly for what I  would call, accountability reporting. We provide levels of reporting for all layers of management, from folks that are running a subset of the production floor all the way up, of course, to the executive. And we also provide reporting that is targeted to certain functional areas, you know, the sales teams and the marketing teams and the, the critical aspect of this is that as management accountants, again, we need to really be sure that ultimately these are subsets of the financial reporting and be really careful that we don't mislead folks as we're just providing their slice of the pie.


So how do those differences, provide some additional ethical challenges that management accountants need to be aware of? 


Well, providing the multiple views, doesn't always easily coalesce, into the total. And so an example of that is, we actually provide, what we call sales value of production to each of our plant facilities. Sometimes they like to call them income statements. We always correct them and say, no, this isn't an income statement. This is a sales value of production. And the critical difference there is that from a production perspective, they're interested in understanding a margin related to products they produce that week or that month or that quarter, even. And of course we are as many businesses, we don't sell out everything that we produce in a particular alignment with a financial week or financial close, and so consequently, we are put in a position of bringing in what we call a representative sales value. It may end up being more or less than what we ultimately realized as the invoice value. And so where this becomes an ethical challenge is that, of course we have algorithms that go out and choose what sales value to use, for example, that's based on history. And so everyone's happy to use that sales value when it, when we're in a rising market, unless happy to use it when we're in a declining market or in a business that is impacted by some commodity values. And, that becomes, can become an ethical challenge because obviously you can't play both sides of the coin and because it isn't, tied to invoice sale, we get into very interesting conversations with our production folks, and we all just need to remember what was the point of what we're trying to represent and be as honest as we can with the business and ourselves and what we're representing. 
 Adam: (04:35)
 Definitely. So, you know, you're kind of referring to how, you know, things are constantly changing in the industry and all over the world, and obviously we're still in a pandemic that's happening. how have you seen like the management accountant role evolve over time, especially with all the, everything that's been happening? 
 Andrea: (04:52)
 Well, in the most recent day, I would say the, just like everyone else, we all have to learn how to work from our homes, where we were traditionally more used to being in the offices or in the plant, the plant, buildings. So certainly our technology skills have had to improve and our collaborative skills, you know, building  itand, you know, as everyone in the world that seems to be doing as our zoom meetings. So that's in the more recent, the more recent days of how we've had to evolve. I would say over time in my career, there's really been an evolution of what the management accountants are expected to do. When I started, the roles were very, closing focused. The closing calendar was paramount. We, you know, work through task lists that were either leading to, or coming out of closing cycles, and it was still very much, an accounting role. And although we still have those responsibilities, our business partners really, don't expect to live and die by a resource that is connected to closing calendars, and consequently we've had to smooth out our tasks, and actually provide information in a more consistent basis every single week. And then some, some cases every single day. That is not really impacted, by the strict financial reporting. And what that means is then we've added to our plate, a significant amount of what we call estimates. We do a weekly estimate, all throughout the entire business of what we based on information that, you know, certainly happened in that prior week. But, you know, we're making, you know, educated guesses of what something will actually realize based on education and history and foresight and those types of activitieswe're not anywhere in the role when we, when I first started. And so then that's transitioned to not just, you know, that's still looking backwards, and so in the last several years, of course, then now we're being asked to look forward and providing, much more of our time is providing information of what we believe will happen, not reporting on what has happened. That's a significant shift and it requires, um, very demanding skills on, on accounting folks, very different than, you know, the traditional auditing skills or traditional just financial closing skills.
 Adam: (07:39)
 For sure. So you, you know, you've described kind of how the roles evolved for that you've seen over time, but where do you kind of see it going in the future? 
 Andrea: (07:47)
 So, interestingly enough, I feel like the profession's at a crossroads. A  crossroads being that, are we going to continue as management accountants covering both roles? Are we going to continue to be the ones that, you know, shepherd the books and really make sure that things are tied out, in addition to all the analytical demands, or are we going to split into separate groups? That one group is handling the accounting and one group is deeper into the analytics. I've seen that certainly some of the other bigger companies as they, as they create separate FP&Agroups. and I feel like I'm seeing a trend of that, that's more and more what's requested, certainly at the, at the bigger, at the bigger companies. And so what happens there is that then how do those teams work together? We see additional rolescoming in for folks that, are more data analysts. I would say, and their background isn't necessarily accounting. Certainly the folks that we've been hiring are more IT related, but instead of a management accountant, attempting to cover all those bases themselves, they're becoming part of perhaps a bigger collaborative team where there's an IT skill set that's coming in that, you know, working with these big data pools and using, you know, increasingly new tools to access more, concrete data, and then collaborating with folks that really do understand the accounting and how things need to come together and can represent a, you know, element of this is absolutely the truth of what has happened, but then, enhancing that with skillsets of these folks that are more analytical in nature that are more closely aligned with the businesses and explaining what has happened and also being able to do that forecasting part that we talked about earlier. 
 Adam: (10:02)
 So with that evolving role that you just kind of described, are there additional challenges that could impact ethics with as the role evolves? Because you know, with new roles comes new opportunities, I guess. 
 Andrea: (10:16)
 Well, I agree, and I think there's the additional ethical challenges are that anytime that you are springing away from reconciling to something, you know, is absolutely true, then you are moving out on a, on a journey of, potentially being influenced to represent information that is not as true as maybe it should be. You know, the closer that, you are subsetting information or filtering information and not being required to fully reconcile it back to a base that everyone agrees is facts. It really poses ethical challenges for folks. You can filter, you can take a big data pool and filter and tease it out to say what you want it to say, if you're, if you're not careful and if you don't have the right, guardrails in place. I once worked for a, a plant manager and he, you know, would be frustrated sometimes. And he would say, well, I really, I really wish that you were more of   a statistician sometimes than an accountant. And I, you know, I asked him, I'm not sure if what you mean by that. And he said, well, a statistician knows that you're supposed to provide the data that I'm looking for an account and always wants to provide the data that actually is true. And so I was like, Oh, well, okay, I'm glad I don't fall into the statistician description then, because I'm not comfortable with that. But, you know, especially when we are mining this data and perhaps folks that are, you know, using greatly expanded tools are doing it, you have to be really careful of, you know, what, what was put in and filters. What was the ask, especially if, if, when you bring that, that answer back, you're not making, you're not absolutely making sure that all of the pieces add up to the total. There's, there's some risks there and some ethical challenges in making sure that it is done properly. 
 Adam: (12:22)
 Do you think in this world of big data, that there's going to be more people wanting to look for that person to be the statistician  since there is so much more data at our fingertips? 
 Andrea: (12:32)
 I hope not, but I think that, you know, when we all have to watch out for, as accounting professionals and, and even a professional, working on an collaborative team like that is that one, the business decisions that will, resolve from what this information is provided can be really critical to a business. So you, you would hope that everybody is in it for the same mission that they want to, to realize the best information possible, but sometimes that those activities can also be used to report out on how business has done. And that's where you really have to be careful because, in many cases, those subsets are linked to people's incentives and their bonuses, and as soon as you're touching someone's results that relate into an alignment with their pocket book, you have to be really sure that, you know, the information is buttoned up and that we have the right safeguards in place. 
 Adam: (13:35)
 So what advice would you give to management accountant who's listening to this as they consider their own future? 
 Andrea: (13:41)
 Well, I would say that, still really important, the fundamentals are really important. Understanding in a great variance analysis, understanding and keeping up with the financial requirements as they change over time. Those fundamentals never change, and it shouldn't be overlooked, as we're, as we evolve in our careers. I think that the other part that is really actually exciting for the profession is this opportunity to work more closely with the businesses and become more and more and more that business partner that sits at the table, and is part of this conversation of where do we go from here so much more exciting to being in those roles quite honestly then, and just the roles that are talking about what has happened and reporting out on what has happened. So to, someone that's working on their career now and thinking about how can I get from maybe a more junior level into something more senior. What I would say is, certainly work on your skillset and work on it from a, from the fundamentals. Like I said, the certifications, making sure that you really, you know, know the core of your profession, but then also spring from that. And, you know, read, you know, read, read read, you know, we have great accounting publication to keep us up to speed, but I would say, you know, we need to be accessing all of the business resources we have. The Forbes magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and, you know, acquainting yourself with the world of business. Don't stay in your little silo of your own company, or, through an experience because the more that you understand about how business works in a, in a greater global setting, the more valuable you will be to the business that you're working in now, and also more valuable to perhaps the business that you would like to move to in the future. It's those folks that have a curiosity and a desire to really understand where the world is going are the ones that are really, you know, springing ahead of their peer set. 
 Closing: (16:00)
 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.