On Finance

Dec. 21, 2004
Priorities for the new millennium.

Many CFOs are counting on the start of the new millennium being a nonevent. To that end, most have helped put in place the systems that they hope will keep Y2K from generating all sorts of problems for their companies' accounting and financial-reporting systems. But CFOs do not live by ledgers and IT systems alone, and it's appropriate to highlight several other finance and accounting issues that finance types, as well as their senior-executive colleagues, need to pay attention to as a new millennium approaches. The 'Net. Manufacturers will find opportunities to exploit the considerable potential of online business. In order to do that, finance will need to work with sales, marketing, IT, and engineering. You'll need to dismantle any "silos" in your company, advises Len Muscarella, co-author with Christina Ford Haylock of Net Success (1999, Adams Media Corp.) Performance metrics. Economic value analysis (EVA) and similar metrics have moved to the performance forefront during this decade. And the heart of EVA -- the notion that businesses need to cover their costs of capital -- will beat strong into the new millennium. Nevertheless, companies now are looking for a mix of measures, says Richard Wise, a Boston-based vice president with Mercer Management Consulting Inc. The reason? "Any measure that's slavishly adhered to can produce results counter to what you want," says Wise. What's more, there are a couple areas where new measures would be useful. One is in the trade-off between inventory and plant capacity, says Eric Johnson, professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. "In the past, companies would require a vice president's approval to spend $1 million on capacity, but a low-level planner could add $10 million in inventory overnight," he says. Executives also need a new way to measure the probability of a successful merger or acquisition, says Fred Zimmerman, professor of manufacturing engineering at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul. "We often don't understand the true economies of scale or if expertise can transfer from one group to another." International accounting standards. As commerce crosses more borders and companies seek to raise capital around the globe, the idea of financial statements that are consistent from country to country is no longer farfetched. Indeed, the International Accounting Standards Committee, a group of accounting organizations from about 100 countries, has drafted a set of core standards that's now under review by regulators from around the globe, including the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in the U.S., confirms Carrie Bloomer, assistant project manager with the Financial Accounting Standards Board, Norwalk, Conn. CFOs need to join the dialogue, she stresses. "If foreign, but not U.S., issuers of stock are allowed to use international standards, that may create an unlevel playing field." U.S. accounting regulations. Managing earnings to meet or beat Wall Street's expectations may come down a peg or two as regulators, such as SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr., take a harder look at the practice. Although companies contend that not meeting investors' expectations puts them at risk of lawsuits, Zimmerman argues that the opposite is true. "Lots of companies manage the hell out of earnings, with the result that the stock is maintained artificially [high] for a period of time. But then it will tank," he says. Pay for performance. Stock options link executives' pay with the performance of their companies, but options alone have shortcomings, says David Rhoads, a Chicago-based consultant with L.E.K. Consulting, London. His reasoning: In a booming market, even poor performers can get rich as the company's stock price rises with the rest of market. One solution proposed by L.E.K. is tying options to an index of a company's peers. "If your stock moves from $10 to $15, but all your peers went up 300% or 400%, your shareholders would have been better off investing elsewhere," he says. Karen M. Kroll, president of Kroll Communications, Minnetonka, Minn., covers finance for IndustryWeek.

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