Technology & Innovation

Ballard Brands: ‘In every disaster, you have to look for opportunities.’

Ballard Brands staff

In our Your Story series, we speak to business owners about the challenges they’re facing and the steps they’re taking to overcome them. In this interview, Jeffery Giavotella, CFO of Ballard Brands, a diversified hospitality business, shares how to use technology for survival when disruption is on the menu.

The minute the President said, ‘We’re going to shut everything down,’ the phrase ‘shut down’ frightens everybody, right? It’s worse than saying “coronavirus.”

This is when experience comes into play. You can’t place a price tag on experience. I have great respect for numbers, but when those numbers represent dollars, it becomes much more meaningful. Debits and credits work harmoniously, but the world around you changes every minute. Nothing can prepare you for the real world like the real world.

I became accustomed to working under pressure when I was a paramedic working for the New Orleans Emergency Medical Services in my early twenties. New Orleans is no stranger to catstrophe. The most notable was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Luckily, I made a complete career shift into the business arena a few years before the hurricane destroyed the city.

I joined Ballard Brands in 2006 and was tasked with building an accounting and finance division from the ground up. Our accounting and finance division is responsible for financial, risk, and treasury management of 68 individual businesses, ranging from retail coffee outlets, restaurants, coffee manufacturing and distribution, and two franchise concepts, one of which is now international.

From day one, I knew the vision could only be achieved by leveraging technology. We needed an infrastructure that could be scalable, reliable and create efficiencies. Minimizing manual entries reduced our error potential significantly.

I started with simple accounting software to bring the bookkeeping in-house. Then, as we began to purchase more coffee businesses and added 13 locations to the portfolio, I upgraded our system to a business management solution. I added a host of different technologies for document management, centralized email, POS systems, and sales retrieval from our franchisees so that we could process royalties every week.

Overseeing finances through this time has been critical. Our investment in technology infrastructure has given our leadership team the ability to manage every aspect of our business in real-time.

Champion infrastructure by challenging your provider to push boundaries

In my experience, having a strong ERP platform in place is the front line defense for business. You have to be able to dissect every process in a flexible and efficient environment. ERP software integrates all your business components into one, but choosing the right provider can be tricky. There are new SAAS companies every day promoting the next shiny object, try not to fall prey. They all begin with great presentations that are tailored to impress and comfort the customer. Be very upfront with what you are looking to achieve and make sure you are not teaming with a company that charges for tiered services.

These companies depend on tiered charges in order for you to get the functionality you need or desire. Support is critical. When you have several moving parts in a business, it is not uncommon to run into issues. Having an easily accessible support system in place is worth its weight in gold.

Creating an infrastructure leveraged on technology is no easy feat. The challenges you face when designing these ERP solutions in an existing business requires a wide range of resources. For example, cloud services have many limitations with regards to integration. In our case, the ERP software we chose was better suited to host in-house as opposed to cloud hosting.

Don’t be discouraged if a provider tells you “we’ve never experienced this before”–I hear that all the time. It’s the job of the technology decision-maker to challenge provider to push boundaries. Also, take advantage of being the guinea pig.

Use smart reporting to isolate data for improving cash flow

The economy shut down caught us all by surprise, and every finance leader began thinking about cash flow. Cash flow is the most important component of any business. A cash flow report is the most under utilized report of the reporting trinity, next to the P&L and balance sheet.

Our business doesn’t have the luxury of the Federal Reserve or a publicly-traded company, so we rely on daily revenue to sustain the business. The coronavirus shutdown placed immediate pressure on cash flow. All financial obligations had to be triaged and prioritized for payment. In late 2018, our company purchased a distressed business and right when we thought the rough patch was behind us, coronavirus hit.

Having a business management system in place during this time gave us the information needed to identify areas of weakness in which could be resolved and managed appropriately.

On April 6, 2020, the government announced it would begin taking applications for the Paycheck Protection Program. Within two days of the program launch, we submitted 30 applications. When faced with this level of uncertainty, everyday priorities become less critical. As our company grew in size, planning for economic downturns is part of the job, but this was unprecedented.

While our department heads were working diligently to manage their budgets, my thoughts were laser-focused on securing any type of funding available to keep up with payroll and essential expenses. The ability to generate reports within our business management solution helped us to isolate the data we needed quickly and easily.

The shutdown was the catalyst to prioritize efficiencies. In every disaster, you have to look for opportunities. In this specific situation, our leadership teams were challenged to revisit existing operational processes and determine if greater efficiencies were needed. It is amazing when everyone works together for a common cause because you feel part of the bigger picture.

Cement remote connectivity to be a permanent, positive legacy of coronavirus

To have the ability to communicate and stay informed through reporting has been vital. It enables our staff to work efficiently and allows me to focus on company strategy and treasury management. Funds received through the Payroll Protection Program require strict internal oversight to ensure we conform to the guidelines set forth by the SBA. Our ERP accounting software has multi-company (GL) capability. The ability to track cash is effortless compared to traditional accounting platforms.

When I first started with the company in 2006, my first thought was “Okay, how do we leverage technology in case of disaster or staffing crisis?” People laugh when I tell them I designed the department to be fully accessible from anywhere in the world 24/7/365.

Another major component of an ERP is document management. I started scanning documents into my computer before scanners were mainstream. I never fully understood the need to print a document when you can have it accessible at a moment’s notice wherever you are. It has taken some time for adoption, but once you get it established in your business, you will never look back.

Now is the time to invest in simple technology. This critical investment will lessen the need and stress for your staff to learn new methods. Once the team experiences the efficiencies, they will appreciate making their job more manageable and streamlined.

Scanning has now changed accounting processes dramatically. Many ERP solutions have built-in document management modules, so you do not need a third-party software. We ask our vendors to email invoices to us rather than send them using traditional methods. Once we receive the invoice, we use an integration tool to perform the actual accounting entry into the accounting software.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has been around for decades, but now it has become the backbone of this process. Of course, you always need to have someone review the entry before posting it into the general ledger. You cannot place a value on digital archives because you never know when you will need that documentation in time-sensitive situations. Having archival information is vital as it is all about being organized.

My top takeaways

Here is what worked best for my business:

1. Choose your software wisely

The best use of technology is not just to have a new shiny object. Technology is designed to make your life easier, not more complex. So, you have to be able to trust the technology and what it does. Spend time researching providers and be willing to work with them to customize your service as needed.

2. Minimize human error

This is key. Leverage automation in software technology to improve the management of administrative tasks where you can. Let the system do the work for you.

3. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed–so start small

A simple accounting platform is an essential tool for business. It’s better than Z tapes and paper receipts and will save you time, energy and money. This is especially important if you are applying for government relief. Work to implement this level of digitized organization, and it will help you to find the required information quickly and prepare you in case of an audit.

4. Accept digital payments

The way we do business has changed forever and we are going to see continued demand for cashless payments, so it’s wise to get a jump on this now. Plan to integrate your accounting system with your payment system so all the data flows into one place for better cash flow management.

Jeffery Giavotella spoke with Sage Advice’s Ashley Hindsman.