“Trust-me companies are companies whose financial results gallop ahead of their businesses, companies with seemingly perfect control over their quarterly sales and profits.”
—Alex Berenson, New York Times.
Although used as a cautionary tale, the above quote points to how tricky gaining such control over financials truly is. Finding the right financial analyst can be a major step in that direction.
That can be a tricky proposition as financial analysis has become increasingly refined. The number-crunchers of the past are now becoming data scientists. Applying the scientific method to finance, they test out different hypotheses, whittle down the data, and reach conclusions for any questions a CEO needs answered.
The skillsets outlined below provide a strong way to test whether a financial analysis candidate can truly offer you that added value.
The days of a financial department being siloed are progressively being consigned to the scrap heap of business history.
Companies that do not view their finance hires as integral to future strategy operate at a real disadvantage. This is reflected in the way financial analysts are often company historians, understanding vertical and horizontal trends on financial statements as well as the evolution of different departments.
Such a breadth of vision can be tested in the right candidate with a well-chosen case study.
Q: The client is a multinational firm operating in 25 countries. As payroll costs continue to rise, they are considering pursuing a location strategy by shifting workforce to cheaper areas. However, sacrificing staff efficiency for cost savings is not an option. How would you assess that enough talent is available in the cheaper regions and how much the firm would ultimately save?
Any conclusion here requires a thorough understanding of the company’s trajectory and future objectives.
These issues will require a financial analyst to move across different departments, interviewing managers and department heads. This is the only way the full measure of their recommendations can be understood.
For this particular case, candidates will need to see specific financials and ask very targeted questions, including but not limited to:
- Which markets that the company operates in offer the most cost-efficient options?
- Which critical department areas are ring-fenced and cannot be moved?
- What metrics need to be matched in the alternative markets, besides lower salaries, to consider a move (access to technology, productivity, language skills, cost of training, installation costs, etc.)?
- How would integration be facilitated if one department, such as IT or accounting, works across a number of countries?
- Once the departments to be moved are identified, what relevant higher education institutions exist locally to provide a stream of candidates?
Trackers of Influence
Companies don’t operate in a vacuum.
As much as companies may desire a state of isolation from outside influences, great financial analysts understand how external factors affect companies
Real experts will anticipate how changes in the economy or industry will affect relevant businesses.
They realize that political legislation, geopolitical risk, and competitor responses not only have a material impact on businesses but also change how they are perceived by analysts, shareholders, and the general public.
Q: The client is a large mutual fund company. Recently, the Department of Labor (DOL) has delivered its final fiduciary rule. If implemented, the fiduciary rule will likely expedite trends already afoot in the industry. As the industry is moving away from brokerage and toward advisory, what does it mean for our company and the industry in general?
Strong financial analysts will recognize that this ruling is a potential game changer that would disrupt the investment management industry. However, no such assumptions are valid until fully verified within the company. As such, the analyst will ask critical questions to other departments to assess the likely scale of this change before creating models.
In an interview setting, the right candidate will rattle off questions that need input from teams across the company, such as:
- How many and which accounts are we expected to lose due to the rule change?
- Does the firm have a team in place to manage the new requirements going forward?
- Has the sales team met with key distribution partners to learn about possible changes to the fund-advisor-distributor relationships?
- Does the operations team expect a change in mix related to advised and orphan accounts?
- Are our product capabilities aligned with the new business model once the new rule is implemented?
- What share classes will grow or decline in the new environment?
This example can also be used as a platform to test the financial analyst’s abilities through a longer assignment. aTo test their abilities further, the analyst should also provide models based on various outcome scenarios and share them with management.
Sticklers For 80/20 Rule
Big data is rightfully celebrated but it can easily lead to data overload.
Good financial analysts know that most results in any particular situation are determined by a small number of causes. They will not allow themselves to get bogged down by useless information or waste time analyzing information that provides very little benefit.
They are fully able to hone in on materiality and have an educated feel for when information is relevant and when it isn’t.
The question below covers one such example:
Q: Your client is a subsidiary of a $20B consumer products conglomerate, specializing in baby products. Sales over the last five years have been steadily growing in North America, and they are now looking to expand internationally. How would you assess whether or not international expansion is a good idea? If it is, which countries offer the greatest five-year revenue opportunity?
Good financial analysts will recognize that a market entry case will have critical data scattered across a number of inputs. They will be on a mission to find certain facts and pull the pieces together.
Financial analysis experts will be able to assess the situation and integrate the findings by focusing on the most relevant questions:
- What is the annual revenue growth target and a minimum sales target?
- Does the company have sufficient internal resources to handle this launch?
- Will the parent company provide any support in regards to capital, production, and distribution?
- What is the price, volume, and usage by targeted country?
- Are there any country-specific issues, such as advertising, product name, or perception of product?
- Are there significant barriers to entry that would prevent the company from ensuring good distribution?
Agents of Change
Financial analysts who want to make the greatest impact must look beyond their strict mission statement.
Experts in this field will come up with innovative ways to tackle difficult questions while constantly inserting themselves in business discussions to assert influence. They live by continuous improvement principles and regularly finding ways to improve upon the current processes and KPIs.
This question provides an example of how financial analysis can be used to answer seemingly unconventional questions that are equally crucial to the business’ long-term profitability.
Q: The accounting team has been unable to consistently close their books on time. In turn, this has delayed the company’s financial reporting process. The CEO believes the answer lies in hiring additional accountants in order to speed up the process. How would you identify if growing the team would actually improve this process and ensure the timeliness of reports? Will this improve the process and timeliness of reports?
Strong financial analysts are expected to never appear happy with the status quo. Their answer to this question needs to show an entrepreneurial spirit, namely a mindset that embraces innovation and critical thinking. A financial analyst should never simply agree with the CEO but be an active agent of change, when necessary.
Questions that showcase this spirit include:
- How were current accounting processes decided upon?
- Why are they being clung to if they have demonstrably failed?
- How could the existing accounting staff be retrained/reorganized to maximize the use of current assets?
- Has the right technology been leveraged to improve productivity?
- Can certain reports be eliminated or combined with others?
- Can certain processes be eliminated, allowing for books to be closed sooner without compromising the integrity of the financials?
The above questions are not enough, however. Financial analysts cannot simply find faults in an established department without providing solutions. The right hires would combine the information gleaned above to rapidly sniff out unnecessary processes and present their recommendations:
Some of the solutions proposed could be:
- Implement strict cutoff days. Accounting delays can cost a company millions. To remedy this, a financial analyst can suggest a firm deadline, after which reports and invoices can no longer be submitted.
- Automate. Some companies may feel that a cloud-based software solution is as far as automation should go. But a good candidate will demonstrate technological savviness, such as the ability to sync data between your CRM and accounting software (eg: Salesforce + Quickbooks).
- Lead from the front. Financial analysts should be expected to have a strong background in accounting. This will allow them to design a training program and lead the adaptation period for existing accountants while facilitating the onboarding for new hires.
Naturally, the level of engagement and the scope of this process will vary depending on whether the financial analyst is acting as a full-time team member or an external consultant. However, the way in which an analyst solves problems is a key component in finding an expert.
Solid Track Record
Influential financial analysts will readily embrace and utilize their analytical skills and experience to find a win for their company, no matter how adverse the situation.
In-depth case studies can be useful to test a candidate’s ability across an entire process, from looking at financial statements, identifying a specific problem, understanding management concerns, isolating the cause and delivering an actionable solution.
Q: The client is a multinational firm with various product lines. After twelve quarters of continued growth, last quarter saw profitability take a sharp dip. The CEO needs to know whether this was due to an operational issue or is an ominous sign of future profitability.
For a complex question like this, strong financial analysts will break arguments into smaller parts, conceptualize ideas, and devise conclusions with supporting information. When identifying the main parameters, candidates must leverage their past experience to decide which factors are key to solving the case study.
The right candidate would be expected to apply the following thought process:
- Identify the main parameters (total revenue, total costs, etc.).
- Identify factors influencing these parameters (average selling price and volume, fixed and variable costs).
- Seek to answer the question at the highest level (overarching company strategy, financial history, marketing plans, pricing changes).
- If unable to do so, narrow down issues by investigating specific product lines or geographic regions to find the root cause.
Let us imagine for this case that the financial analyst concludes that while total margin slightly improved, volume for a high-margin product declined significantly due to a lost customer.
While this is an isolated area, it will lead to an expected continued decline in profitability going forward.
At this point, the candidate’s problem-solving ability again comes into play. The candidate can then detail steps as part of a precise plan of attack:
- While the root cause of the dip in profits has been identified, a more detailed framework is needed, with the analyst presenting all relevant influencing elements.
- A qualitative analysis must be recommended to fully understand what led to the issue and how to address it holistically.
- Specific recommendations need to be made to allow management to understand why the customer was lost, whether it can be regained, what alternative customers could be claimed, what the market perception of the brand is, and more.
For such specific case studies, the industry experience of a financial analyst will shine. While a run-of-the-mill candidate can provide general recommendations, someone versed in the nitty-gritty of the retail or pharmaceutical industries will be able to anticipate problems faced by management without being told.
Find the analyst that answers your needs
Good financial analysts are made, not born. While financial analysis is a broad field, an expert financial analysis only becomes an expert after crafting a rock-solid track record.
Testing a candidate’s experience is vital, yet brings us to another X-factor. Finding the right financial analyst will ultimately depend on a company’s specific needs. It is important to foresee that the crossroads between those needs and a candidate’s relevant experience may be narrow.
If a company is unclear about where a financial analyst can provide crucial added value, the input of any hire may be muddled. Our recommendation: understand fully what a financial analyst can do for you and what profile suits you best before committing to a hire.
This guide should then take you the rest of the way.