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The CFO and automation: From spreadsheet to AI

by Guest

When Helen Morgan started working at character clothing retailer Character.com in June 2020, she embarked on a digital transformation project, building the roadmap to financial automation.

“When I joined, everything was done pretty much on Excel. There had been outside accountant support and a finance employee. So it was really about starting from the ground up and building our automated AI solution.” says Helen. “We had to move from an Excel-based model of accounting to that of a digital finance model.”

One year later, the business is now working with an AI finance solution and automated processes for its day-to-day business.

“What we were able to do was start building, working with eCommerce platform providers, software solutions, and we integrated software to create seamless finance processing,” says Helen. She spent eight years with a telecommunications company before becoming a financial controller and then finance director.

The point of no return

The point at which Helen realised the need for this digital transformation was when the volume of data received from multiple agents was of a very high volume, with significant numbers of transactions needing to be recorded, with an automated streamline solution.

“That was my moment when I really had to consider how we were going to do this and the support and team required to get there,” says Helen. “I also want to be able to grow with the business, so if we launched in a new country or a new product, I didn’t want to be there for extended periods of time integrating the systems or manually inputting. I wanted to have something that I can turn around very quickly.”

It took three to six months to establish an automated financial system. Still, Helen believes it’s worth it to enable the finance department and accountants to have a more active role within the business instead of being at the back and on spreadsheets.

“If you’re not manually inputting, you’re able to support the business in different ways. Providing real-time and business-critical information, giving the business data that allows product and channel analysis to support the growth of the business and give answers to questions that haven’t as yet been thought of,” she says.

Changing for the good

After the Covid pandemic, where everyone had to embrace technology in some form, Helen says it’s even more important to be freeing up this time.

“It’s really hard to get ahead of the curve now,” she says. “Everyone’s looking at technology. Everyone’s on that transformational roadmap. But it does provide opportunities. By us all becoming a bit more digital and technical-minded, it allows automation and AI. It encourages finance departments to pause and evaluate how they are running their accounts and how they can make this more efficient and integrate with the business and its solutions.”

However, that transformational change can be hard to manage. You have to encourage and bring your team with you. Helen suggests it’s vital to support people through every step.

“I’m a big believer in education and actually supporting people and giving them the opportunity,” says Helen. “I think it’s really important to let people have a go at things, and if it goes wrong a little bit, you can fix it. Show them how to do things, leave them, give them advice, but never not let people try.”

Life lessons

That belief in education comes partly from her journey to her role. Helen left school at 18 to work in a postroom but realised that she wanted more from her career.

She fell into finance after a role came up in customer accounts. She studied in the evening to get her accounting qualifications and then worked her way up to finance director.

“I went back to education myself, but I think it’s really important to allow your team to educate themselves also. Not just in terms of academia but in how they do different tasks, do different jobs, the environment they work in,” says Helen. “How can my team all become experts in their field? It’s all about education, support and coaching.”

Helen’s career success is matched by her passion for helping others, which has led her to the role of non-executive director for a large charity.

“I think it’s important to put back into society things that you learn, or any skills you have. I felt like it was something I could do to support during Covid because everything was under such strain, and I just wanted to give back in some way,” says Helen. “Everyone has a different skill – mine is accounting.”

Christopher Argent is founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model.

This article is previously published here by our partner Generation CFO

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