Finance: A strategic role for cashbox guardians

JUST AS finance directors in Britain's largest companies spent the early part of this decade taking on a wider role, their counterparts in smaller organisations are having to become more than mere guardians of the cashbox.

Research from Deloitte & Touche, the Big Five accountancy firm, shows executives responsible for finance in companies with annual sales as low as pounds 5m find business strategy, development and general management are competing for their attention alongside such traditional responsibilities as cash management, cash-flow forecasting and the annual budget.

The shift in priorities is being driven partly by changes in the business environment. Peter Morgan, a partner in Deloitte's mid-market section who helped to organise the survey Bean counter or business strategist?, says: "The basic business proposition of most companies is undergoing a total transformation, largely due to e-commerce."

But some of the impetus is coming from the finance specialists themselves. As Mr Morgan adds, all directors are having to adjust to this new situation, but FDs are perhaps leading the charge. "I think it's the desire to get involved in the strategy area, which is key to most companies. It puts them at the heart of what's going on," he says. FDs increasingly find this aspect of the job more interesting than traditional duties. Developing the business, achieving goals and strategic development had the survey's highest job satisfaction ratings. At the same time, government bureaucracy and administration were among the biggest causes of frustration.

The only real problem with all this is that it is - in the language of the accountants who produced the report - having "an increased impact on time". Indeed, "lack of time and pressure of work" was rated the most frustrating aspect of the job by 23 per cent of respondents, the same proportion that cited government bureaucracy.

Again, this is a situation that echoes that of the FDs' counterparts in larger companies. The difference is that in growing businesses there tend to be far fewer resources. Mr Morgan's colleague, Andrew Gordon, says: "In a small to medium-sized business, the demands on the FD are particularly exacting given the essential requirement that they understand the detail of financial management and provide the CEO and board with sound strategic and commercial counsel." The problem is made worse by the emergence of information technology as a significant task for FDs.

The Deloitte team, which received completed questionnaires from more than 150 companies with turnover of between pounds 5m and pounds 100m earlier this year, found new opportunities were developing for smaller companies in the IT field through enterprise resource planning and other forms of management software becoming more available.

Growth companies are constantly upgrading and improving their systems, with 44 per cent of respondents saying the commitment to IT strategy and to new systems implementation was increasing. What is more, the millennium bug issue is clearly significant for FDs. With the crucial date rapidly approaching, the survey finds the time commitment required to deal with the problem is still increasing for nearly half of the FDs questioned. The Deloitte report adds: "We would like to see FDs focusing more on the strategic aspects of IT, to ensure that the opportunities presented are fully exploited, and less on implementation." This is likely to be welcomed by the FDs, given their greater interest in strategic thinking than in the minutiae of finance departments with which they have long been associated.

But even moving in this direction leaves questions about skills gaps that must be addressed if FDs in companies acknowledged to be the growth engines of the economy are to perform the increasingly diverse roles expected of them. The traditional tasks of financial management and budgeting are also making increasing demands in the highly competitive world of finance specialists. So the Deloitte team suggests they avoid overstretching by keeping their growing workload under continual review to delegate or even outsource the more detailed or specialised tasks.

The danger is that many growing companies - which are often strapped for cash - will not welcome such additions to their costs.