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GM Controller to Peers: Watch Your Assets

Hidden impairments and illiquid assets keep Nick Cyprus awake at night.
David McCannNovember 20, 2008

Being a controller has to be one of the toughest executive jobs right about now, depending on how your company and its industry are faring amid the general chaos. And the job at General Motors has got to rank among the toughest of the tough.

That didn’t stop GM’s Nick Cyprus from showing up to participate in a controllers’ roundtable at the Financial Executives International financial reporting conference in New York on Monday. That was the day before his boss’s boss flew to Washington to ask for billions of dollars worth of government money to keep the company going. The audience certainly appreciated the irony.

When moderator Thomas Tefft, the controller at Medtronic, asked his first question — “What keeps you up at night? What are the challenges you’re seeing and how are you dealing with them? Let’s start with you, Nick” — the hearty laugh that rumbled through the 750-person crowd could have been interpreted as anything from simple mirth to nervous relief to a touch of sadism.

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His answer was not all that surprising. With sales way down in the high-fixed-cost automotive industry, “understanding where you might have hidden impairments that you didn’t think about in the past is a trick,” said Cyprus. Where most companies look at impairments annually, GM now is doing it continuously.

His advice to others: make absolutely sure you know what assets might be illiquid and how long they’ll be staying on the balance sheet — and with the end of the year approaching, if you don’t know, find out as soon as possible. “The only way to maintain credibility with the audit committee is to give a heads-up of where you have trouble and not let the auditors catch you at the end,” he said.

A fundamental change in the way GM operates these days is “managing the business for cash.” Assets that the company previously would have held onto are more likely to be sold. “If you need to make payments, sometimes you’re taking dramatic actions to sell assets,” he said.

At the same time, Cyprus said, it’s not a time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish — to say, for example, that you’re not going to have any more continuing professional education for accountants. The big picture still counts.

Seismic shifts are not particular to huge companies like General Motors. Another panelist, Joseph Durko of Standard Microsystems Corp., a $370 million semiconductor company, said the current financial environment has dramatically changed its risk profile. “We had always had limited receivable exposure, and we’re worried about that now,” he said. “We’d always had limited inventory exposure, and we’re worred about that too. We are reinventing some of our most basic views of balance sheet risk.”

Like GM, Standard Microsystems has moved to quarterly risk assessment, and at the same time is retrenching on resource deployment for future planning and business process improvement projects. “I’ve taken a lot of my talented accountants that were working working on building for the future and put them back on managing the present,” Durko said.

The company has some staffing challenges because it is based on Long Island, New York, far removed from most of the high-tech industry. The scarcity of talent is especially acute for specialty functions like cost accounting, and one solution is to be creative about where to deploy staff. Durko recently hired a senior staffer in Austin, Texas, where the pool of talented people who know the industry is far stronger than in the New York area. “That will be a footprint for us in terms of where we ultimately decide to base our cost accounting function going forward,” he said.

To Durko, that orientation dovetails with what he called an opportunity for both small and large companies to empower their employees at all levels. “I think the notion of having professional staff, particularly CPAs, coming on board as doers as opposed to leaders is an old model that doesn’t work anymore,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tefft asked the panelists whether they consider FAS 157, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s controversial standard for fair-value measurements, “the source of all our problems or the cure.”

Cyprus said that while serving a stint on the standing advisory group of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, he was very outspoken about his belief that “it would be a real problem trying to get good values around fair value, especially when talking about mark to model.”

But after implementing FAS 157 not only for GM’s financial assets but also for three separate remeasurements of its pension assets, Cyprus found that “it ain’t so bad once you understand what you need to do and put your mind around it.” He added that he doubts the blame for the financial meltdown lies with FAS 157. In fact, he said, if not for the standard, the mess could have been even worse because it would have taken longer to see it. Instead of the fair-value standard, he blamed failures by regulators, rating agencies, and lenders.

In addition to those culpable parties, panelist Talia Griep, controller at Honeywell International, said not to forget investors themselves. “There’s never an excuse not to understand what you’re buying,” she said.

Explaining the nuances of FAS 157 to companies’ non-finance leaders can be challenging, noted Tefft. The same is true of other hot topics such as FASB Statement 141(R), the board’s revision of its standard for business combinations, and the conversion to international financial reporting standards. He asked the panel for tips on making these notions clear.

Durko said Standard Microsystems is planning acquisitions, so it’s conducting a series of educational meetings with the audit committee and board on the business-combinations standard. “We first tried the ‘sleeper approach’ and bored them to death with slides,” he quipped, showing a blow-by-blow comparison between 141(R) and 141.

The next experiment, in a couple weeks, will have more context. Durko said he’s creating a view of what the accounting for a recent acquisition would have looked like under the revised standard. “We road-tested this against one of our [board] members and it seemed to resonate pretty well,” he said.

Cyprus advised keeping it simple. “Don’t explain it like an accountant — explain it like a peer,” he said. “Boil it down to the rudimentary changes so they can grasp it. If you get too technical with them they will shut down, they won’t even listen.”