2020 financial crisis: how CFOs and controllers respond

Patrick Whatman

Published on April 7, 2020

The current health and economic crisis is hitting companies everywhere hard - including in the UK. For most, this is far from business as usual.

Finance teams have a particularly large and critical role to play. You have to do whatever’s possible to keep the lights on - even if there’s nobody in the building.

That means creating models, monitoring cash flow, and managing budgets. But it also requires clear communication, great interpersonal skills, and a renewed focus on health and wellbeing.

To see how real UK businesses are handling this situation, we invited two finance leaders to speak in a live information session with CFO Connect.

From their experience, here are seven key ways to keep the company running, and also to get prepared for sunnier days ahead.

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Re-forecast and re-budget early and often

Spendesk CFO Fabien Dawidowicz presented his own crisis action plan in a previous post. In it, he put re-forecasting at the forefront:

“We spent the first few days of the crisis building our refocus plan. This included looking at the likely costs we would incur - both through new inefficiencies as well as potentially reduced revenue. And we also identified potential savings we might see as a result.”

Julie Oey, Financial Director of WeGift, goes into more detail. “The first thing I did was put together a table of all the first order impacts that I could envision from coronavirus. Trying to think through everything including the sales funnel, conversion rates, our suppliers, and especially our customers. From a cash flow perspective, would they start asking for payment holidays, and would suppliers start asking us to pay earlier or give them bigger floats.

"Then I went through our costs base, looking at our lease, and all of our budgeted items.”

CFOs need to look into every tiny detail - anything that could alter previous budgets and forecast created in easier times. And Julie thinks that they should be bracing for a lengthy down period.

“I’m mentally preparing myself for maybe six months of self isolation. For the business, I think the bottom of the economic downturn will come in about nine months. So we’re preparing ourselves in medium terms, looking for costs we can cut in this period that we can then switch back on when we see signs of recovery. Otherwise, I’d be very careful about planning for any kind of sharp ‘V,’ thinking that things will turn around any time very soon.”

Aaron Townsend, Financial Controller at Habito, has been constantly updating models for the past few weeks. And using Sequoia Capital’s Decision Matrix as a good starting point:

“The housing market has definitely been hit,” says Aaron. “Our assumption is that ‘first-time buyer’ and ‘next time buyer’ markets will be reduced by 60-90% over the next three months. Our remortgage market will maybe reduce by 30-40%. We also do life insurance, which maybe won’t reduce by as much. And we do our own buy-to-let lending, which will probably hold up with some reduction.”

As a result, Habito has updated forecasts based on different lengths of lockdown, and different impacts on revenue.

But more than simply extracting data, you need to build a plan. As Julie continues, “my goal was to forecast all of these issues out, and assign owners in the leadership team to each item. Plus rough action points. This gave us something to go to our board and investors with, to get their feedback and give them comfort that we were on top of things.”

And speaking of investors...

Talk to investors and key advisers as soon as possible

Startups hoping to raise funds during this period may be seeing their plans change. There’s less money in the market - at least in the short term - and investors have to take care of their own funds at the moment, too.

But that doesn’t mean that business leaders should go into hiding. Now is a great time to talk to investors, get their views and advice, and come out of this period in a stronger position to raise money.

“We’ve been extremely quick off the mark to communicate with our board about our coming plans,” says Aaron. “We’ve examined scenarios and forecasts from lots of different points of view, and tweaked them as new information has come out. This makes it a lot easier to have these fundraising conversations.”

“I also had a conversation with an old VC friend of mine who told me that they were asking every single company they saw to redesign their models from scratch. So over the past two weeks we’ve been building and rebuilding models based on the information coming out.”

For Julie, these stakeholders are a priceless resource. “We’ve been sharing notes and having conversations with our board chairman and our lead investor. They’ve given us updates on the market as they see it, and sharing details from their own forecasts.”

“We’ve also been talking to new VCs over the past few months. We want to stay warm with them, even if they’re not looking for investments at the moment. They’ve been able to give us advice and tell us what they’ve been seeing in the market, linking us with connections in their portfolio, and other nice things like that.”

Keep the runway as long as possible

For every finance expert we’ve spoken to here and at CFO Connect (our community of finance leaders), the number one priority has been cash. The company needs spending money for the future, even if that means reducing budgets and cutting back today.

So how long do those runways need to be? “12-18 months,” says Julie, “which is in line with what we’ve talked about with the board and our investors. That has required a definite haircut to our topline. We’ve looked at opportunities in the market and likely areas of downfall, then identified key steps in the sales funnel and found areas that needed to be cut to be more realistic.”

And for companies like Aaron’s, the runway isn’t really negotiable. “Habito is a regulated business and we are audited, so the minimum for us always has to be 12 months runway from the day of signing. We’re looking at cutting costs in line with lower revenues, in order to stretch our cash out as much as possible.”

And Aaron has more to offer on the subject of audits. “Auditors are likely to be quite detailed with forecasts at the moment. For most startups, auditors really only care about cash in the bank and the fact that you have a history of fundraising. If you can prove that you’ve got money coming in, they’re pretty likely to sign off. But today, they’re more likely to be hesitant in signing off an audit report where the business might go under in the next 2-3 months.

“So if you’re in that position, be detailed, lay out your assumptions, present a number of scenarios, and show that any cash you have coming in can be proved during this period.”

Investigate special government grants

In the UK - as in many countries around the world - extra funds have been made available to companies who might otherwise let employees go. The Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme lets employers furlough staff and apply for a grant of 80% of each employee’s salary - up to £2,500 a month. The employee still receives income, and the company isn’t forced into redundancies.

Wired.co.uk has a good explanation of the scheme here.

Whether or not your business relies on these grants really depends on the market and the company itself. For example, WeGift chose not to furlough any staff. “We’re still quite small - about 35 people. We looked around to figure out whether out whether it would make sense for us, [but] it was better for us to redeploy or refocus our people.”

Aaron’s team did a similar exercise, and came to a slightly different conclusion. “Broadly, we looked at the people who would be most impacted by the decrease in volume we’re going to experience. Those are probably people directly involved with customers. Of course they’re still our staff, and we want to make sure that they’re still part of our family and they can jump straight back in when we’re back up and running. So yes, we’ve looked at it and we have used it.”

If you believe that employees (and the company) can still be productive during this period, it may be best to redeploy them elsewhere. It’s still not entirely clear how these grants will be administered, or how the money will be received and booked by companies.

Pay special attention to new finance team members

The crisis caught everyone off-guard, and many businesses were in the middle of hiring drives. At Spendesk, for example, we welcomed 10 new staff on day one of lockdown, and then another 11 two weeks later.

Going fully remote doesn’t mean you can’t successfully onboard new staff. But it might take a more mindful effort than you had previously planned for.

Habito was also in this position. Aaron welcomed a new accountant into his team once the lockdown was in full effect, with another member to join in May. “All of our interviews were done over Google Hangouts or Zoom anyway, so we already have this digital relationship. But I’ll certainly need to make sure I’m talking to them at least twice a day - maybe more - to ensure that they’re coping well.”

“And as the restrictions lighten, it might be helpful for us to meet in person as soon as possible in the office, even if the whole company isn’t back yet. We’re a small finance team, so I think this is important.”

For finance teams still actively hiring during this period, what kind of profile should they look for? “Target people who jump into the role right away,” says Aaron. “You’re not going to be there physically next to them, so it’s more important than ever that they can pick up the role and run with it. I would even say it’s worth paying the person more if you’re going to get an easier experience out of it - if they’re going to make your life easier in the short term.”

Julie thinks this is a smart approach, crisis or no crisis. “Hiring somebody who’s a little overqualified is always nice. If you expect the company to grow, find someone who’ll suit the role in a year’s time. If the company grows quickly, it’ll grow to suit them.”

Think about physical and mental health, as well as financial

In stressful times, it’s important to remember that work relationships exist beyond KPIs and other metrics. Workplace interactions are some of our strongest connections, and teams will go from seeing each other every day to only meeting online.

This would be a challenge under any circumstances. But there’s also a major health crisis unfolding on our doorsteps. So to keep people happy and healthy, bridge that gap with communication and extra attention.

“I had a new starter two weeks ago,” says Aaron, “the week we went remote. And I had another colleague who left the company at the same time. So I had to check in early and often. And that’s the case for the whole business. Communication has been done very well.”

If the company’s finances are under pressure, that means the finance team is too. So finance professionals have to take special care of their own wellbeing. As Julie adds, “being a finance leader in a small company, you can’t help but think that if you let the company run out of cash, that’s your fault. So I’m trying to not get stuck in that kind of thinking.”

“We’ve also set up quarantine goals. Everyone has a small budget to spend on a new hobby or skill to focus on for the next few months. That language class or musical instrument that people may not have had time for in the past. People are posting pictures in our Slack channels about their progress and keeping everyone updated. That’s been a fun focus for everyone.”

This isn’t business as usual. So to keep everyone engaged and enthusiastic, you’ll need to go a little further.

Embrace technology, if you haven’t already

One point our experts really emphasized was how much new finance tools have made their lives easier. Specifically, online, decentralized tools like Xero, Netsuite, Notion, and Spendesk.

“The fact that these tools are online makes such a difference,” says Aaron. “People can access them from anywhere. I can share a link and we can be looking at the same thing at the same time.”

“It means that finance don’t have to do a lot of work if our team members want to buy something. Slack, Zoom, Netsuite/Xero, and Spendesk are making this period so much easier.”

When times get tough, companies should know that they’re not alone. Whether it’s to enable remote work, asynchronous project management, or simpler spending, modern technology has your back.

For a few ideas, here are 30 of the top tools for finance teams, as recommended by CFOs from modern companies:

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