For Ford, Finance Transformation Is a Way of Life

While many companies see finance-transformation efforts as finite projects, to Ford it's just the way to 'do finance.'
David McCannJune 10, 2014
For Ford, Finance Transformation Is a Way of Life

Bob Shanks, CFO of Ford Motor Co., doesn’t generally use the word “transformation” to describe the ongoing reshaping of the company’s finance department. Two things about that: Most others probably would call it such, even though in some ways it’s markedly unlike the garden-variety transformation. And, were Ford actually not transforming finance, it would be in the minority.

According to a 2013 survey of corporate subscribers to the services of CEB, the big research and advisory firm, 76 percent of respondents were engaged in finance transformations at the time. Many of them were driven by constraints on finance budgets. According to CEB research, in 2013 the average finance budget was 1.17 percent of revenue, down from 1.54 percent four years earlier.

But what constitutes a “transformation”? CEB says the term covers many kinds of change-related projects for a finance team. “It is most commonly used by finance leaders to describe projects including reorganizing finance, shared services, outsourcing/offshoring, finance IT or process improvement,” the firm says.

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All of those activities apply to Ford, which has been reinventing itself since 2006, when Alan Mulally took the CEO reins. Shanks, who joined the auto maker in 1977 and became its finance chief in April 2012, says the company had fallen out of step with its major competitors, which had forged a greater global presence. Inhibiting Ford’s progress in that regard was its tardiness in abandoning a very regional operating model. Mulally’s “One Ford” initiative aimed in part to standardize all manner of processes worldwide.

“The regional companies were very different in their processes, products, systems and even the metrics they used. We were like a confederation,” Shanks says. “That’s not so effective in today’s world because of technology, the way consumers are aligning and so many other things.”

In some important areas within finance, those differences were not easy to spot. For example, Ford’s profit-forecasting systems were out of whack, even though “on the surface, the processes and methodology we were using to put together forecasts region by region appeared to be the same, and all the metrics did too,” says Shanks. “But as I got into it, I found that how we calculated the metrics differed, particularly with regard to performance variances.”

It was a sharp wake-up call. “If we’ve got people speaking different languages about something as fundamental as our profit-forecasting system, and I’m presenting it with ‘one tongue,’ as if it’s all one thing, that’s very dangerous,” Shanks says. “We immediately looked into those processes and rewired them, which was important, because we found lots of issues with what we were doing.”

Since then Ford has standardized an array of formerly disparate finance practices. So why does Shanks shy away from “transformation” to describe the effort? “We think of it as more of a journey for the company,” he says.

But just that is a key reason why CEB, which has done extensive research on finance transformations and written a number of case studies about them, holds out Ford’s as one that should be emulated.

“When you ask CFOs about transformation, most of them tell you they engaged a consulting firm for a finite time to do a big benchmarking to identify areas where expenses were higher than those of their peer companies,” says Eisha Armstrong, a CEB managing director. “Then they launched projects to reduce those expenses, and when the consultants left they declared the transformation was over.” Such companies tend not to realize the expected cost savings or other projected benefits, she notes. In fact, 70 percent of finance transformations fall short, according to CEB.

Ford, on the other hand, makes a continuous effort to keep finance operating under the One Ford strategy, Armstrong continues. “Last year we did about 100 interviews with finance executives at large companies, walking them through our findings about what makes transformation projects go off the rails. And the Ford people said, ‘A finance transformation shouldn’t be a project. It should be the way of doing finance.’ ”

As the company expands its global footprint and grows more complex, standardized systems and processes are increasingly important. “At Ford, finance transformation is not about getting costs to match external benchmarks,” Armstrong says. “It’s about where the business is going, and what changes finance needs to make to keep up with that direction.”

Finance transformations often fail because it proves difficult to sustain momentum and focus as other events and circumstances distract the finance team, says Armstrong. “Ford has in place what we think is a very disciplined approach for monitoring all the different projects they have underway to become more efficient,” she observes. “In order to make transformation ‘the way you do finance,’ you have to have a strong governance system in place.”

Each month Shanks and other top Ford executives review a large, metrics-based, color-coded grid that tracks the progress and performance of transformation projects. Shanks’ direct reports work on it more often than that. “The whole senior team around the world is part of that process, so it’s really impossible for it not to receive the attention it deserves,” he says.

The grid tracks more than projects’ costs and whether they’re on schedule for achieving time milestones, which is where many companies stop their analysis, says Armstrong. Ford additionally focuses on any changes in the scope of projects and changing resource needs.

“Scope creep is a big danger, because it happens very easily,” says Shanks. “You’re saying, ‘We’re already doing this, so why don’t we do that too, and let’s add that,’ and you’ve completely lost control.” Sometimes, though, a project is legitimately more complex that was thought at the outset, requiring a scope scale-down. “In those cases you’ve simply got to look at what you can do for a certain amount of money and make decisions around that. So scope change can go in both directions.”

As for resources, the discussion isn’t as much about money as about deployment of human resources, especially for complicated IT projects. If the company is, say, implementing a new general-ledger system or upgrading its travel-reimbursement system, there are subject-matter experts in those areas within the company who need to be involved. “But those people have day jobs, if you will, so we have to manage the time they spend on those initiatives versus getting their jobs done,” says Shanks.

One of Ford’s most imperative strategic efforts, which has been ongoing for years, involves bolstering the company’s presence in the Asia-Pacific markets. Entering new markets with new products and building manufacturing plants in the region required a significant, transformational response from finance.

Ford realized that its financial systems wouldn’t scale up to support the kind of business growth it was planning in Asia. New systems were needed, but under One Ford, systems must be standardized globally to the greatest extent possible. To address that mandate, Shanks flipped his mindset.

“In the past, when trying to come up with a common system or approach to something, I would start with North America and Europe, because that’s where we’re most mature and developed,” he says. “But given our burning platform in Asia, with our systems just not being scalable, in some cases I opted to launch what would be the new global standard there first to support the increasing capacity before blowing it back into the other regions of the world.”

With operating companies in five global regions plus a sixth business unit, Ford Credit, the efficiencies gained from standardizing systems and processes are significant. It’s not just about doing the same things everywhere; where possible, it’s also about doing them one time in a way that applies to all the business units. That lightens Shanks’ load. “I’ve [focused] on how to stay common as people change and move to positions and so forth,” the CFO says. “Now I’m finding I don’t need to worry about that so much.”

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