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Alanna Abreu, Senior Consultant Manager, UHY Advisors NY
Alanna Abreu_UHY Advisors NY

Alanna Abreu: My path from audit to consultancy

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Accountants and specialist software developers have devoted a lot of time and energy in recent years to debating the merits of consultancy work versus compliance. But for UHY Advisors consulting manager Alanna Abreu, the two disciplines are inextricably linked.

12th Oct 2022
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“I was an audit manager for 15 years at a regional firm in central New York, doing audits, reviews, and compilations. I really do love accounting and the diverse things you can do, and helping people understand those numbers,” Alanna Abreu told AccountingWEB at the recent SuiteWorld conference.

“As an auditor I was the gap for people between the numbers and I used to do consulting on top of that.”

The consulting side of her work grew naturally out of audit, she continued. From the lists of issues handed to audit clients in letters to the management, Abreu would pick out areas such as bank reconciliations, cost analysis or capacity restrictions that needed attention and go home to research them. She would then show the client how to improve those aspects of the business.  

“I love it when clients pay me now to find out to do things better,” she said.

Having worked on both sides of the fence, while observing all the relevant independence requirements, Abreu struggled to maintain the long hours involved.  So when the opportunity came up last year to work for UHY in Melville, Long Island remotely from her base in upstate New York, she jumped full-time into advisory.

How to approach advisory work

When it comes to advisory work, “My favourite part is the first informational drive,” said Abreu. That’s when she gets to know what the owners want and what they are looking for. Once she can understand what their angle is, “Then I can fix the system to do that and then get the data correct so that way they can focus on what they wanted to do.”

While she has experience with QuickBooks and Peachtree systems, most of Abreu’s work these days is around implementing and improving Oracle NetSuite systems for some of the firm’s larger clients, many of which need help getting to grips with a full enterprise resource planning (ERP) product.

Nevertheless, whatever the system her working methods go back to the same audit-based principles and data management principles she learned on previous accounting systems: “I just start pulling reports and putting data together.”

Her first NetSuite client presented a good example of how she goes about her work.

Initially, she came in to help the client deal with an inventory system that was not working. Her attitude was, “Let’s go back and find out why.”

With the NetSuite inventory reports in her hands, she could see where people were going wrong in the inventory recording processes. Referring to the suite’s built in Q&A knowledge system, she was able to figure out which commands within the system were being missed and translate the requirement and terminology using terms the employees would understand.

“They really did all the work and I just showed them and guided them and ran reports – ‘That’s still not working, this is why, let’s go back and fix it...’

“I’m really good at tech jargon. I figure out what to use in NetSuite and use the client’s terms when showing them how to do it. You’re not learning my system, you’re showing them how to improve their system.”

Having built up a track record on a small inventory issue, her involvement with that client has grown as the company scaled up from being a $100m operation to a $1bn one. That leap was possible, she explained, “Because their owner could stop focusing on the day to day data and could focus on the reports in the system because he trusted them.

“He was from New York and moved across the country to open another facility. That way he could expand the business and be across different time zones to be open longer and focus on what he came into business to do and let me do the numbers.”

Abreu’s resume includes a period working as an external chief financial officer for a membership-based organisation, where she led a full accounting team that put together budgets and cash projections for the client. True to form, she said of that job, “I learned their Microsoft Dynamics system and how to fix it.”

Virtual opportunities

Working in tandem with colleagues at UHY, Abreu continues to do external CFO work. One colleague does controller work, keeping the current approach going while Abreu figures out improvements they can make in the back end that will feed through to better efficiency and visibility.

AccountingWEB has been tracking the growth of such client advisory and “virtual” finance management services on both sides of the Atlantic. While the service model is definitely growing, there is a noticeable resistance among some businesses and finance departments about giving up control of “their” data.

Abreu is familiar with some of these territorial issues, but has found ways to manage her way around them.

“I’m not doing an audit I’m not doing a review, I’m just educating myself on what they’re doing and I’m correcting it,” she explained. “Some operational managers sometimes resist because I’m changing the way they think about what’s happening. But generally in the end they come around...

“‘Oh, I can get that? I don’t have to spend four hours a day pulling all the stuff together?’

“No you don’t… here’s how.”

She continues to see opportunities for growth in this area. “With remote environments, you don’t have to be in California and work for a Californian company. Because of that, people are going to leave for a job that fits more with their lifestyle and Baby Boomers are retiring. They have a huge amount of institutional knowledge and that’s going to create a huge void in the market… People forget that.”

As a consultant, Abreu said that her goal was that her clients become self-sufficient over time. But most continue to work with her team to make improvements. The knowledge and skills she gained as an auditor to extract information and use it to correct unwanted exceptions and blockages mean that clients are always likely to need access to those talents – particularly as the economy downgrades and cashflows get tighter.

Other accountants who are interested in doing this kind of work don’t have to love technology as much as Abreu, but they do have to “understand how it works and have an open mind”, she said. “You have to do the preparation work first, learn the software and learn by doing it.”

Replies (3)

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By johnjenkins
13th Oct 2022 09:04

Wow a younger female version of myself. This is one of the best articles to come out of Aweb in a long time. John. you've excelled yourself. Having trained as as audit clerk I automatically do an audit on every job I do so I instinctively have that link between compliance and advice. Yes, Abreu, so much can be gleaned from that first meeting. If it wasn't for IR35, MTD and QU I don't think there would be that exodus of baby boomers.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
13th Oct 2022 11:13

Thanks for the praise, John - but to be honest, all of the wisdom comes from Alanna herself. We could have talked for hours, but what you read was what I distilled from a very informative half-hour chat.

I was particularly fascinated by how the audit disciplines steered her into building and managing databases - and from there into the consultancy side of things. A sign of how the profession has changed, and will continue to change as all those machine learning data ingestion and analysis tools move into the frontline of audit.

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Replying to John Stokdyk:
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By johnjenkins
13th Oct 2022 11:41

I'm not so sure that the profession has changed. Yes more people are using tech rather than their brains but in the end you're the one giving the advice. You can't just say "computer says no/yes" which unfortunately those that don't have the adequate training rely on. I've a very strong feeling that Alanna doesn't need all the high tech stuff to advise but no doubt it will earn her a few bob.

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