AccountingWEB caught up with John Dickens, head of finance operations and shared services at British Gas, to find out more about his strategic vision and ability to execute.
In his role as head of finance operations, Dickens is responsible for the offshore shared service activities for BG, encompassing payment processing, accounts payable and general accounting.
Dickens doesn’t come from an accounting background, but takes a strategic view of finance and helps drive efficiency across the company’s different business units.
As a non-accountant in the finance function of the business, he says that while he has to have an understanding of what finance staff are actually doing he leads by being more challenging. Rather than being process and delivery-driven, his job is about asking why they should carry on doing what they’ve always done.
“This whole notion of being 'penny perfect', I can see the desire, but what’s the value of being penny perfect? I try to change up the debate a bit,” he said. “What are our operating services, what is our finance offering and what is our shared services strategy across the company?”
As roles evolve and new technology streamlines previously manual processes, large companies like BG are moving towards a more 'modern finance' structure of business partnering and shared services.
Dickens is squarely in the shared services delivery camp, having spent the last 20 years in the shared services arena, and has already made an impact at BG since starting a year ago.
In the last six months Dickens said BG has been more on the front foot compared to previous years by challenging what they’ve always known, bringing value to the business and facilitating the decision-making process.
In the new BG world it’s now about business partnering and shared services, moving from P&L to balance sheets and sharpening their tech tools.
A tool or part of the strategy
One key piece of kit in the toolbox has been BlackLine - a cloud provider of enhanced finance controls and automation software.
Dickens said that normally he would arrive at a new business with great ideas about how to be more efficient and deliver economies of scale through standardisation and common thought, but on arriving at BG he discovered they had already bought into BlackLine.
BlackLine was already deployed on to the SAP system, providing balance sheet reconciliation service to all BG business units. BG is a highly fragmented operation wrapped around substantial business units, so there’s a lot going through its 1,600 balance sheet reconciliation accounts.
“I wouldn’t say it stole my thunder; it was a bit of a relief really. 80% of the effort is trying to convince people that it’s worth investing in these tools as a play towards maybe two or three different objectives,” he said.
The integrity or risk in the balance sheet had not previously been a major concern, but Dickens added there were some governance challenges they we were trying to get ahead of: “Nobody, hand on heart, could say we actually had a common view across the landscape to what we were reconciling and to what degree, what accuracy and quality.
“Nobody was calling it out as a problem, but I think we were proactively trying to get into a position where we could stand up and say this is where we are. That was a big part of the business case and most CFOs will listen to that,” he said.
From the financial shared service operation viewpoint, there was an opportunity to bring in some standardisation and reconciliation.
The ambition was to have a landscape where all the reconciliations were prepared offshore and then the review and approval done onshore.
Dickens explained the balance sheet reconciliation was the first objective, of which a thousand were auto-certified on a reduced review, so once a year or every six months.
“We risk categorised those balance sheet accounts and pinned on it a timetable that reflects our own perception of where the risk and value is on.”
The second part was to look at the improving functionality within BlackLine so its next consideration is to move around putting more of the journals in that environment and leveraging the workflow to have visibility across the whole landscape.
“At an operator, FC, FD and CFO level they can all have a view of where we are in that close process,” Dickens explained. “We can drive some acceleration if we choose to. If we can get more efficient and better it will get done quicker. We’re starting to see some of that with a year’s operation under our belt, and we are well advanced in our quality project.”
It also enables BG to grade how each unit addresses each balance sheet account and what the minimum requirements are. The use of BlackLine has raised the bar and they are now thinking of rolling out to Centrica.
On whether it’s a tool or part of the strategy, Dickens sees it morphing into something else.
“Where I see cloud products going, it’s not just the entry point that’s important. The inter-company hub will save us a lot and it’s driving how we think. After the balance sheet rec it’s about asking what else it can do and where we should put the effort to get the return.”
He added that they are also looking at opportunities for robotics and RPA [robotic process automation] technology, but rather than replacing they will be complimentary.
However, when asked how technology is influencing the role of the finance department, Dickens said that for most people they can see technology replace them eventually.
“We’re encouraging some of our senior guys to find out more about what’s going on in the outside world and to keep an open mind. A lot of our really clever people have come from a Big Four firm and they’ve spent a long time at BG. It’s about introducing some of them to new technology where they can definitely see the value. We’re replacing the mundane and driving efficiency,” he said.
About Robert Lovell
Business and finance journalist