The second of our Controller’s Perspective series focuses on Airbase Financial Controller, Kelly Hicks. Kelly was previously at Anaplan and brings the experience of that fast-growing company with her to Airbase.
Q: Let’s start with the basics. What does the controller at Airbase do?
A: I take care of the day-to-day accounting and finance operations — I support other departmental leads, assisting them through their financial metrics and providing insight into their departments’ costs. I also review our internal processes and systems of the accounting team to ensure we’re set up for scalable growth.
Q: I imagine managing the cash positions of the company is an important part of your job. Can you describe that process?
A: Cash management varies, depending on a company’s stage. But on a day-to-day basis, it requires monitoring and balancing cash flows, both in and out of the business, to meet obligations and optimize investment.
As a controller, I reach out to customers to make sure they have what they need to pay on time and follow up on open balances. I’m also trying to understand from an AP and payroll perspective what your outflows look like.
I ask myself on a daily basis: Is cash from customers coming in as expected? What are my upcoming bills? What are we paying for them? What’s my corporate card spend? When am I going to pay that balance?
Staying on top of these elements is crucial for me.
Q: You mentioned getting paid on time. Can you talk a little bit more about that process and how you manage the risks of late payments?
A: AR is all about billing your customers and then collecting on time. I’m mainly responsible for setting our systems and teams up to get those bills out in an automated fashion and ensuring the proper cadence around dealing with the collection.
A lot of time, you’re working through your processes on any escalation points. If things don’t get collected for some reason, you need to find out what is going on. That varies by business, but typically, it’s a 30–90 day escalation process that involves higher levels, both within your organization and the customer organization.
Q: Which task do controllers spend the most time on?
A: This sounds like an obvious one, but I spend a lot of my day reviewing copious amounts of data. As financial controllers, we often derive extreme satisfaction from developing the data that guides strategic decision-making.
There’s a high level of pride-of-ownership in the accuracy and timeliness of the company’s books, combined with four-star ethics, which are necessary characteristics of successful controllers. It’s vital to successful controllers that their resultant financial data be correct. I’m very driven to make it so — because senior executives must trust it, and they will base their critical business decisions on it. For me, it’s one of the most rewarding and important elements of my role.
I’m enjoying the high-growth environment at Airbase, where things are changing all the time. We’re trying to align on what data we want to be reporting on, and I’m partnering with people operations and other departments on how we want to plan for the business and what level of detail we wish to report.
Q: Presumably part of your role is to evaluate the company’s performance. How do you do that?
A: The culmination of everything I’ve spoken about so far is packing all that together to evaluate the company’s performance. The financial statements I prepare provide insight into how the company can plan and think for the future.
As a controller, the faster you can get that data back into the business, the faster they can react and tweak how we need to plan as we grow.
When working at a high-growth startup like Airbase, where the pace can be relentless and things can change quickly, this element is even more important.
Q: You must rely on various systems to be effective in your job. Can you describe your approach to the financial tech stack?
A: The shift to remote working has driven finance and accounting teams to take a deeper look at the tools they are leveraging, and how their systems, processes, and controls are set up. The systems a controller uses can significantly affect their output. Many processes that were previously manual and often time-consuming were possible in an in-person setting — but not ideal. When I started with my prior company eight years ago, we didn’t have a tool or system like Airbase that could handle all non-payroll spend. Instead, we had stand-alone platforms for bill payments, employee expense reimbursements, and corporate cards for our US entity, and completely different tools internationally. It was hard for the finance and accounting teams to maintain multiple systems.
From a controller’s perspective, it’s pretty incredible to have a tool like Airbase to handle this in an all-on-one spend management platform. Controllers spend roughly 70% of their time closing the books and managing compliance — having this level of automation and efficiency in these processes is essential.
My main passion as a controller is driving a business forward, and if I’m only spending 30% of my time working on the most critical area of a company, then that’s not the best use of my skills. The more you can drive automation and efficiency to drive that 70% down, the less time you spend crunching numbers and the more time on analysis and partnering with the business.
Spend management allows finance and accounting teams to add more value to the organization and have more exciting careers — and that’s definitely what I’m doing here at Airbase.