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My journey to financial consolidation freedom

By Wessel van Zyl CA(SA) and current CFO at listed civil engineering and construction group Esor

With a career spanning over 20 years, it seems like yesterday that I was faced with the laborious task of compiling group financial accounts from leather-bound, hand written general ledgers, and let’s just say that this is not a memory that I think of with nostalgia.

After all, what person in their right mind would long for a process riddled with risks and potential errors that could have them hauled in front of the board to explain how seemingly simple errors managed to creep into management or financial accounts?

Instead of nostalgia I now take solace from the knowledge that never again do I have to spend days pouring over multiple accounts, checking and cross-checking columns of figures to find misallocated items or inadvertent errors.

My 17 years in the construction industry have certainly given me more than enough exposure to complex accounts, construction industry peculiarities, as well as a myriad of operational structures - often across borders and currencies. I can therefore safely say that I have a rather special appreciation for the benefits offered by a solid financial consolidation tool.

And while I am now at the point where I can easily compile month-end consolidations comprising 250 reporting packs, it has however not by any means been an easy road.

Forever etched in my memory is the significant challenge I faced when compiling monthly accounts as General Manager of Shared Services at Aveng Africa.

At the time in around 2003 we operated five divisions using a DOS-based consolidation tool that didn’t run off a central database or have import capabilities. Each division therefore had to be consolidated individually and signed off separately by the auditors. This understandably cost us a fortune in time and money to finalise.

I would then take the five printed and signed reports that at the time were delivered by disk, and then again check them against my versions to make sure no-one had changed anything. This task was especially cumbersome given that each reporting pack could represent as many as 100 contracts for each division across 30 tabs and 60 columns in each tab.

The auditors would then again have to be remunerated to check the consolidated figures. And if by chance during the course of the audit somebody had made further changes, it would all have to be reconsolidated and we had to go through the whole process again, something that can only be described as nightmarish and something I would not wish on my worst enemy!

Despite the intricacies of trying to present a single view of the group’s accounts via this system, it was still streets ahead of the previous method that consisted of using spreadsheets to compile and consolidate reports.

While this has been the go-to tool for many accounting functions, it is limited as far as financial consolidation is concerned. Especially when trying to receive multiple reports from operations across Africa. Here the process was restricted by connectivity issues, the need to password protect documents and the fact that version control was non-existent.

Given these challenges, especially the need to collate and consolidate such huge volumes of financial data, I have over the years looked at many different solutions from a wide range of providers. Here the idiosyncrasies inherent in the construction industry model have certainly not made the search any easier.

For a long time we found ourselves stuck in a situation where we just couldn’t get reporting packs that delivered the information in the form we wanted. Instead we were informed in various forms by numerous service providers that it couldn’t be done, that it was just the way it worked, and that they would have to take our pack and rewrite it in another language.

Opting for this type of solution would have seen us having to seriously compromise on flexibility, where the nature of our business is such that we often work in areas where teams don’t necessarily have connectivity to work on a live, online system.

This undesirable outcome has however been successfully resolved through the deployment of a specialist construction enterprise accounting system that integrates costing, project and enterprise accounting that can be rolled out as a stand-alone installation.

Data captured via this system is then incorporated into the group’s chosen consolidation system, Rollupsheets from Infinitus, without any of the headaches or jumping through hoops that we had encountered previously.

As a supplementary consolidation software solution it is both cost effective and time saving requiring very little change management and thereby training. In addition because it is self-maintainable there are no hidden maintenance costs.

My faith in the system is so great that I have insisted on the tool ever since my departure from Aveng to join Grinaker LTA and now Esor.

The big attraction of a flexible, customisable financial consolidation tool is that there is no need to re-audit financial accounts from group operations that have been audited at company level.

This has provided significant savings in time and effort, while providing peace of mind that the financials and reporting packs represent a true and accurate position that business executives can confidently use to make decisions.

These time savings are considerable in the life of a group accountant who can now spend time on more valuable, big picture planning and strategising rather than having to churn our reports using convoluted methods and multiple systems.

Nowadays, thanks to RollupSheets, I have replaced the shoulder slumped dread that used to come with consolidating financial reports, with an extra spring in my step and a glint of relieved glee in my eye.