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“My priorities aren’t necessarily the priorities for everyone else”

As she marks her fourth anniversary at CPL, director of finance Laura Saunders reflects on the range of behind-the-scenes changes that have taken place at the agency during that time

I joined CPL four years ago just as we were completing a succession buyout. Starting at the agency at this time was an exciting experience; the team was highly motivated and with lots of energy. 

My background is mainly in manufacturing accounting and, as I’ve shared before here, working in a service business has been quite a different experience.

The company is, rightly, a very client-focused environment thus, often, the things that are my priorities aren’t necessarily the priorities for everyone else. In my team, our ‘clients’ are mostly others within the agency, and we do our best to be responsive and helpful, by providing useful information to make life as easy as possible for those in the client-facing roles.

The finance team at CPL, in a similar way to many small businesses, scoops up the accountability for all the non-client operational stuff, including HR, IT and facilities management, although we do, of course, receive support from others in house and from a team of external advisers.

Technology’s important role

Technology is key to making sure that we manage all these functions in an efficient way, thereby minimising the burden on people in the rest of the business who (understandably) aren’t always very interested in it.

When I joined, many of our key functions were managed through spreadsheets, common to most small businesses. These were all well organised and comprehensive, but there was an ever-present risk that things would get missed or forgotten about.

One of the first pieces of work we carried out was to implement an end-to-end project and invoicing software tool called Synergist. This had been started before I joined, but needed a certain amount of oomph to get everybody fully trained and to input the data. 

The system involved bringing in timesheets and billing information, so it was far-reaching and culturally challenging. We took a managed approach and kept the rollout high on the agenda of our weekly company meetings. Three years later, we’re benefiting so much from the extensive data we have on individual client accounts.

Easy-to-access HR information

Other areas managed through spreadsheets included much of our HR system and annual leave recording. We researched a number of cloud-based HR packages and settled on a programme called Appogee. This manages our payroll information, performance review process, training, leave recording (which integrates with the company calendar), and much, much more. 

We started the implementation with annual leave, and gradually increased our usage of the system across other areas. There are still more features that we’re looking into, but the single biggest benefit has been having all the information in a secure, easy-to-access location, which everyone can view and use.

One other big project has been to implement a new financial system for CPL. We’d previously used two different versions of the Sage accounting package and, to put it mildly, the system was creaking. This was both in terms of the volume of data and because it was no longer aligned to our business model. 

Frazzling implementation

We needed new, agile software that better reflected our business. We chose Access financials and went live in October 2019. Thankfully, this project was mainly contained within our finance team, so we required limited input from the rest of the business, but we did need their patience while we looked pretty frazzled for a few days (and weeks)!

We required limited input from the rest of the business, but we did need their patience while we looked pretty frazzled for a few days (and weeks)!

I’ve mentioned the major software implementations above, but there have been other systems that we’ve brought in for managing other areas of our IT and facilities. 

One key goal in everything we have done has been to sign up for cloud-based software, available on a subscription model. We use G Suite as our calendar and email client, and in 2020 we moved the majority of our network server onto Google’s cloud storage. This has initial cashflow benefits and supports our goal of having less physical IT ‘stuff’ to maintain. It has also been very useful throughout the coronavirus pandemic while we’ve all been working remotely. We’ve certainly been using many more of the features of G Suite over the past few months to keep close to our colleagues and clients.

One step at a time

Throughout all our software implementations, the key has been to do things in a managed, step- by-step way. Apart from the finance system (which was a bit more all or nothing), for everything we’ve brought in, we haven't unlocked all the features at the start – rather we’ve tackled and rolled bits out section by section. 

This resulted in less of a burden within the finance team and for the wider company. And it has also really helped improve engagement in the wider organisation – as evidenced by our engagement scores garnered from the employee opinion surveys we’ve conducted.

In each implementation, we communicated regularly with the company, talked about the benefits (arguably to the point of boredom), carried out lots of training, listened to people’s concerns and identified superusers to help us drive things on the ground.  

So what next? Our immediate plan is to keep building on the functionality within the software that we have, and make use of some of the areas that we currently ignore. We also intend to keep close to new software releases: G Suite, for example, is regularly rolling out new features, many of which may help our business as we adjust to whatever the ‘new normal’ turns out to be. 

I am excited about what future years will bring, and the changes that will come along. 

In CPL, we have a mantra of always asking ourselves whether the way we do things is the best way, or if it could be achieved better via another route. With that always in mind, we have grown a creative, people business and the way that we’ll continue to delight our clients – and win new ones – is through our people and creativity. 

Technology is fantastic, but it is merely the behind-the-scenes enabler.

Laura Saunders
is director – finance
at CPL

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