The era of grey-suited accountants poring over spreadsheets, tapping numbers into a calculator in the bowels of a company’s head office is long gone, according to Alan Connor. The commercial director of Exchequer Software, a leading distributor of mid-range financial solutions, talks about a changing role that has seen accountants become more involved in company management as traditional accountancy software has evolved into business software for the entire operation, linking to everything from sales to stock control.
“The past decade has seen the software’s tentacles reach out into every department and the accountant has been running it. So they have become active players in the management of the company rather than a provider of an after-the-fact service dealing with credit control and final accounts,” says Connor.
Because of Y2K and the euro conversion, there has also been an increasing onus on IT in their jobs as they become responsible for investing in the tools to take the pain out of changes that have been forced upon organisations of every size. This learning curve has stood them in good stead for the onslaught of regulatory requirements that has come their way in the past couple of years. Understanding compliance is now key to the profession, shuffling the accountant further into the spotlight.
“Regulatory requirements put an onus on the accountant and company directors to be more visible in everything they do,” says Connor. “With the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 2002, for example, they have to know and be able to prove that what they have seen, witnessed and agreed is valid. You can’t do that unless you’re getting the right information out and unless you can check to your own level of comfort that what you’re being told by your board and departments is correct. The ‘I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me’ Enron excuse doesn’t wash any more.”
Financial information has to comply with universal accounting standards that makes the information readable and understandable to both internal and external parties, explains Connor. He says the new landscape has helped Exchequer Software flourish because the company has excelled at developing products that anticipate future needs.
It could be expected that mid-range players such as Exchequer would have been gobbled up by larger enterprise resource planning (ERP) specialists such as SAP and Oracle that are seemingly better positioned to provide enterprise-wide financial solutions. Not so, according to Connor.
“There is a perceived threat out there but at ground level we’re not finding it in any physical or financial form. Prior to 10 years ago there was a short lifecycle for mid-range software before you had to upgrade to bigger more expensive products,” he explains.
“But we’ve now had customers for over a decade because our software keeps moving ahead of their needs. We now have a 97pc client retention rate, which is unheard of in this industry. Companies such as Oracle and SAP have spent the past 10 years waiting for customers to outgrow the mid-range software but they haven’t.”
According to Connor, the software giants subsequently woke up to the new landscape and began releasing mid-range solutions. He’s not impressed. “It’s like asking Boeing to develop a bicycle,” he says. “You can’t parcel those systems down and give them a finite delivery cycle. All the customisation and configuration is still in there, as opposed to having a Windows application that’s easy to install, easy to use, easy to support and futureproofed.”
He argues off-the shelf products are also more likely to be delivered on time. “We could be in and out of a client within a month to three months. That requires a different focus. If you go to the top tier companies, the larger million-plus solutions are amazingly productive in those top tier environments but it’s very hard to take those implementation processes and consultancy cycles and pare them down to something that’s suited to mid-range business.”
The irony of all this is that Exchequer is now finding itself moving up into ERP systems as customers see the value in off-the-shelf financial products, which Connor says are more cost-effective and much simpler to install. The era of the grey-suited accountant may be over, but the specialist financial software provider is clearly thriving.
By Ian Campbell