Management accounting and finance leaders face a plethora of challenges heading into 2023, from the continued effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—including the lingering impacts on health and wellness issues—and various geopolitical conflicts to repeated interest rates increases as central banks combat inflation. All those factors affect the finance function and organizations’ budgetary priorities and strategic planning. During tough times, it becomes even more important for CFOs and other senior finance executives to display strong, effective leadership.
The third-quarter 2022 Global Economic Conditions Survey (GECS) from IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) and ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) found that accounting and finance professionals’ global confidence rose slightly after dropping significantly in the second quarter of 2022, but all other indicators gauging the overall performance of the global economy were far gloomier. Customers’ and suppliers’ fear indices measuring concern that respondents’ employers may go out of business were basically unchanged, remaining above pre-pandemic levels.
Regionally, confidence in North America remained historically weak despite a slight improvement, whereas the effects of the continuing war in Ukraine, including rising gas and electricity prices, are continuing to put a damper on confidence in Western Europe. The Middle East and South Asia region was the only one to report an improved number of new orders.
Rising costs, inflation, and market volatility all continue to sap confidence worldwide and prevent the global economy from improving, according to GECS. Those headwinds and other trends will impact CFOs at companies around the world. CFOs will need to adjust their teams’ and organizations’ tactics and strategy in response to such challenges, making difficult choices and seeking opportunities for increased efficiency, innovation, and growth despite various hurdles.
CHALLENGES ON THE HORIZON
Steve Priest, CFO of eBay, singles out the macroeconomic environment as the biggest challenge that eBay leadership anticipates for the company in 2023. From the conflict in Ukraine to rising interest rates, major events and trends around the world combine to ultimately have a tremendous impact on not only consumer confidence but also the levels of discretionary spending that individuals have across the major markets. CFOs must adjust their internal directives so that their finance personnel react promptly and appropriately to external factors.
“For us at eBay, it’s making sure we navigate that effectively and put adequate plans in place to drive operational efficiencies in the short term to bolster the financial architecture of our company, but as importantly, to continue to invest in the future to drive our longer-term strategic goals,” Priest says. “I always think about this concept of balance, which is keeping a very strong hand on the tiller to make sure that we navigate these choppy waters, but at the same time, leaning in, as we see fit, to continue to drive the investments we need for sustainable long-term growth.”
Particularly in challenging times of crisis, most organizations lean on their accounting and finance functions. Priest says that he always talks to all eBay teams, and particularly his finance people, about the importance of financial safety and integrity in challenging economic times as well as the importance of partnering with colleagues in other departments.
“We can help to advise and counsel our partners across the business, and it’s about finance having a seat at the table,” Priest says. “I always talk at length to the board of directors and the finance organization about these concepts of leaning into safety and partnership to help the company drive sustainable long-term growth.”
The biggest challenge in 2023 for Weis Markets, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based food retailer that operates 197 stores, a distribution center, a store support center, and manufacturing plants for meat processing and dairy products, is record-high inflation, which impacts the company’s business, associates, and customers. At the same time, says Michael Lockard, Weis Markets’ senior VP, CFO, and treasurer, the company continues to deal with ongoing supply-chain disruptions that result in out-of-stock items and significantly longer lead times for essential supplies and equipment orders. The retailer also faces the continuing challenge of recruiting and retaining talent in the pandemic-impacted marketplace across all its facilities.
“To address these challenges, we’re focused on improving efficiencies and our understanding of customers’ evolving needs and expectations. In addition, we continue to work on being an employer of choice,” Lockard says. “Our company has a strong balance sheet, an experienced management team, and stable third-generation family ownership, which allow us to focus on sustained long-term growth.
“We continuously reinvest in our store base, [including] new stores, remodels, store projects, [as well as] e-commerce and company-wide technologies that improve efficiencies and offer a consistently strong associate and customer experience,” he says.
TRENDS CONTINUING IN 2023
Brian Wenzel, CFO of Synchrony Financial, which spun off from GE Capital and went public in 2014, notes that key challenges for CFOs will also carry over from 2022. A big one for CFOs is the continued year-to-year growth in data volume. Deriving insights from data has always been central to the role of the finance function, Wenzel says, and CFOs will continue to play a key role in data analytics by leveraging data and insights to understand all aspects of the company’s operations, not just the financial bottom line.
“To date, Synchrony has the largest number of accounts in our history—65 million active credit card accounts and seven trillion data points,” Wenzel says. “To make the best decisions, we need to analyze as much trend data that is available to us from both internal and external sources.”
Other companies are in a similar situation. That’s why it’s essential for the CFO to work across business lines, partnering more deeply with other executives to integrate data in a holistic manner, Wenzel says. He predicts that CFOs will be more important than ever in 2023 as they develop and maintain a data-driven culture across their enterprise, helping to drive a competitive advantage.
Another continuing trend is remote or hybrid work environments. Compared to before the pandemic, a significantly higher percentage of the workforce has the option to work remotely in some capacity these days. According to Lockard, Weis Markets’ leadership predicts that work from home will continue to be a key driver in increased eat-at-home spending and decreased eat-away-from-home spending. It also expects increased customer adoption of e-commerce solutions and preference for a unified omnichannel experience. As a result of pandemic-related supply-chain issues, more companies are investing in end-to-end manufacturing and distribution to minimize service disruptions.
“As CFO, I work with a team that anticipates and adapts to these emerging trends—our management team understands the need to stay competitive in total compensation while offering flexibility to the entire workforce where possible,” Lockard says. “We support these efforts by helping them set targets and goals, which factor in increased investments in talent, e-commerce, omnichannel and digital marketing, and supply-chain solutions.
“This includes analyzing available trend data and providing relevant insights to help decision makers at every level of our company,” he says. “The goal is to understand how our business is doing, identify where performance can improve, and then clearly communicate needed adjustments to achieve success.”
Priest reveals that eBay is going through a transformation that he calls “the tech-led reimagination” of the company. The goal, he says, is to take a declining business and turn it into a sustainably growing one. Strategically, he and eBay’s other senior leaders are focused on changing the financial trajectory of the business. The finance function continues to take a partnership-oriented approach and serve as a strategic advisor to the CEO and the rest of the leadership team.
“We’re leaning into what we term ‘focus categories’ and building trust on our overall platform, because we continue to create economic opportunity, particularly for small businesses and sellers on our platform, to help them grow with eBay and bring extremely strong levels of trust to eBay for the buyers who want to find unique or value items on eBay or collectors of difficult-to-find items,” Priest says. “It isn’t about looking in the rearview mirror; rather, it’s anticipating trends, advising the rest of the leadership team, and not only helping them navigate the choppy waters ahead, but also providing insights about where we should invest and how we should go forward.”
WORKING TO ACHIEVE SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is top-of-mind for CFOs due to the Paris Agreement, the European Commission’s Sustainable Development Goals, the launch of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and, more recently, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), and the proposed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule changes that would require companies to include environmental disclosures in their registration statements and periodic reports.
“If you think about our impact on the planet, both from an environmental standpoint and the communities we continue to represent and serve, it’s a very important ingredient to everything we think about day-to-day at eBay,” Priest says. “It isn’t just about an initiative, but it’s really part of what we do.
“Sustainability through refurbished and pre-loved goods and thinking about our impact on the broader economy and the planet are incredibly important to us,” he says. “As we think about how we navigate our business going forward, that’s a key cornerstone of everything we continue to think about.”
While achieving sustainability is complicated, with many moving parts, Priest says that it starts in-house with a sustainable workforce that works to contribute to sustainable communities. He says he makes it a priority to ensure that there’s diversity of thought within eBay’s finance function and that the company’s employee base is representative of the communities in which it operates. He challenges his team to think more broadly beyond the numbers to evaluate the impact that the company is having on the planet.
“We think about the energy we consume at our data centers and office buildings, etc., and leaning into ensuring that we use renewable sources of energy to power the eBay footprint, and we’ve committed to a 90% reduction in [those],” Priest says. “For value-chain emissions, which for eBay is primarily emissions from the shipping of products, we’ve committed to 20% reductions in these emissions by 2030.
“Our biggest focus is eliminating emissions, but as we migrate the next few years, we’re continuing to pay to offset any remaining emissions to make sure that eBay continues to be a carbon-neutral company,” he says.
Beyond that, the CFO is charged with leading the way on sustainability from a reporting standpoint, ensuring the integrity of climate risk disclosures and compliance with any relevant standards, and charting the organization’s progress on nonfinancial metrics.
“Integrity is everything to me and eBay, making sure we take full accountability and responsibility for the impact we have on the communities we serve and the planet,” Priest says. “We’ll continue to be very thoughtful and be a leader in terms of our sustainability reporting, and, last quarter alone, we facilitated $33 million of contributions to charities.”
As reporting obligations increase and the investing community’s scrutiny of sustainability disclosures ramps up, eBay’s chief sustainability officer works within the finance function and across the business to make sure that the company’s nonfinancial reporting is adequate and effective.
“It’s very important for any company to think about the importance of being part of ESG [environmental, social, and governance] funds,” Priest says. “The companies that continue to lean into these items are ones that will be thought about a lot more when you’ve got investors leaning into [ESG and sustainability]—all companies have an obligation to really lean in here, and the finance function is a critical part of making sure companies do the right thing.”
As a U.S.-based publicly traded company, Weis Markets’ leadership closely monitors the evolving climate risk and ESG regulations and has committed to fully comply with any updates to those standards. Its senior management team and board of directors already integrate ESG issues into the company’s culture with a mission statement that includes being good stewards of the environment.
“We have a robust sustainability program, which started in 2008 and has resulted in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55%,” Lockard says. “It also helps to reduce our impact on the communities we serve and improve efficiencies that often result in significant cost reductions, as detailed in our annual sustainability report.
“Associates at every level of our company—store, supply chain, manufacturing, and support—have supported the growth of our sustainability program,” he says. “Our accounting and finance associates are now more involved in this space, particularly with the reporting of sustainability metrics and disclosures to the SEC just as they do with financial metrics and required disclosures.”
As for corporate social responsibility (CSR), Weis Markets makes substantial corporate donations to regional food banks, schools, healthcare organizations, and animal-rescue organizations. It also has a cause-marketing program where customers can donate to support designated causes at checkout, which the company supplements with corporate donations.
Synchrony’s ESG and CSR work dovetails with the company’s strategy and its financial planning and analysis (FP&A). In 2021, the company added diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) to its strategic imperatives to further deepen importance of DE&I for the business, with the rationale that progress in that area should strengthen its workforce and company culture as well as improve recruiting and retention in the tight labor markets in which the company competes for talent.
Another example is internal equity, which plays a key role in its compensation policy. Each year, Synchrony works with an independent third party to review the company’s pay equity for all employees globally with respect to base salary and bonuses controlled for variables that impact pay, including level, geography, function, and experience. The 2021 analysis identified an overall pay gap of 1% for women compared to men globally and an overall pay gap of 0.7% or less for racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. As a result of this analysis, Synchrony invested more than $5 million in pay adjustments to meet its goal of 100% pay equity.
“Doing what’s right often reduces risks and creates opportunity,” Wenzel says. “Synchrony seeks to be transparent on ESG topics that are significant to the company and our stakeholders. We’ve published a CSR or ESG report since our inception as a stand-alone business that focuses on governance, human capital, environment, supplier diversity, compliance, and more,” he says.
Synchrony has responded to industry-based disclosure guidelines, SEC reporting requirements, and SASB standards, and last year it published its first report built around the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework. Wenzel says that the company’s ongoing efforts to meet the TCFD’s recommendations and the SASB requirements aim to provide a solid foundation for Synchrony to align with future ESG disclosure expectations and requirements, including those formulated by the ISSB.
NAVIGATNG SUPPLY-CHAIN CHALLENGES
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested every industry’s supply chain, but so has social and political unrest across the globe as well as the war in Ukraine. Synchrony combined the supply-chain risk management and procurement teams together under the finance umbrella to ensure that those functions are reviewing supply challenges holistically.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have been working with our suppliers to understand any supply-chain disruptions and economic volatility,” Wenzel says. “We’ve renegotiated contracts, strengthened partnerships, brought on new suppliers, and, in some cases, made future strategic commitments.”
Though the pandemic has heightened awareness of supply-chain disruptions, there are always pressures on supply chains. Wenzel notes that CFOs need to be ever vigilant, ensuring that overall supplier risk doesn’t increase and staying ahead of any potential impacts on the business.
Weis Markets’ accounting and finance team members have worked capably in support of the retailer’s dynamic supply-chain and procurement processes. This has allowed the company to stay agile and quickly adapt to an evolving business landscape.
“We’ve streamlined our procure-to-pay cycle for vendors by reducing prior inefficiencies in due diligence setup, purchase-order creation, and invoice processing,” Lockard says. “We’ve also increased electronic disbursements and remittances.”
Supply-chain disruptions are ongoing due to world events and inclement weather, but Weis Markets’ leaders strive to be adaptable and provide customers with alternative product options. The retailer is also investing in software and facilities to stay ahead of the disruptions within its control.
The persistent supply-chain challenges as a result of the pandemic had a negative impact on eBay’s international business into 2022, but those effects are starting to dissipate, according to Priest. The company’s leadership predicts that those challenges will continue to subside over the course of 2023. That doesn’t mean that the global economy is in the clear, though.
“If you think about the workforce, transportation networks getting impacted, the outputs from some of the industrialized countries, the impact it had on greater China and some of those exports, that was certainly creating a challenge in terms of supply chains,” Priest says. “As the global economy slows, and we start to see rampant inflation and an increase in interest rates, and consumer demand starts to soften, the supply-chain challenges become less onerous, and so unless there are other significant blips on the horizon going into 2023, I don’t see supply-chain challenges as being as meaningful as some of the macroeconomic challenges we’re facing at a global level.”
Having said that, eBay leadership took action early in the pandemic after thinking through potential implications of supply-chain disruptions on its business. For example, as a tech company, it needs servers and access to chips, and it needs to make sure that its data centers have adequate resources.
“We got ahead of buying some of those items that we need up front and being very thoughtful about the impacts of the supply chain on the continuous planning of our business,” Priest says. “The biggest thing for us is making sure we keep the overall business safe and secure from an operating standpoint.”
TECHNOLOGY’S IMPACT ON FINANCE
There are various ways for finance professionals to leverage technology, and many CFOs are tasked with doing cost-benefit analyses for implementing AI, automation, data analytics, and other recent advancements. There are new technologies and new applications of existing technology that crop up all the time, and it can be challenging for CFOs to keep pace.
“Often people think about technology through a customer or product lens, but we’ve actually taken that and [applied it to] tax. As we think about our obligations in indirect tax collection, like collect and remit, we’ve been using AI to basically ask, ‘What sort of product is this, and what sort of tax implications are there?’” Priest says. “For example, someone is selling a pair of boots on eBay—are they working boots or are they just casual boots? Based on the brand, the type of boot that’s bought and sold on eBay, we can identify through AI whether it’s applicable for a certain tax collection or not.
“When you’ve got 1.7 billion listings going through your platform, embracing that level of technology to simplify our processes, making sure that we’re compliant and meet all our obligations to the tax authorities, it’s been truly transformational in terms of how we think about taxes,” he says. “Every day we wake up, we think about how embracing change within technology can help our processes and make us a stronger finance department.”
At a store level, Weis Markets has invested in dual-use checkout lanes, shifted from mainly paper ads to more personalized digital marketing and coupons, and provided more e-commerce choices for its customers. This year, Lockard says, the company will realize benefits from investing in new software, including Invafresh, that will upgrade the retailer’s entire fresh-food operations life cycle. Also in 2023, Weis Markets’ Project Sunrise, which involves the implementation of Workday software, will transform its legacy human capital management and financial systems and processes, according to Lockard.
Digital technologies are transforming corporations from top to bottom, so it’s essential for all C-suite executives to have a grasp of these new systems and capabilities. And it’s especially important for the CFO, who plays such a big role in overseeing spending.
“Synchrony continues to digitally transform across the company—both in how we work and where we work,” Wenzel says. “We continue to improve our processes by increasing automation—Synchrony’s AI tools help the team spend less time prepping data and more time analyzing it.”
For example, Synchrony has created an AI bot that helps to automate part of the account reconciliation process. Every transaction within Synchrony—such as paying clients, accounts receivable, retail deposits, credit balance refunds, and so on—is now automated.
“This allows our employees to concentrate on higher value work,” Wenzel says. “AI will continue to play a key role in our process, and we’re also exploring how emerging technologies like the Metaverse and the smart cloud can accelerate innovation.”
All industries continue to grapple with global economic and societal upheaval, from the war in Ukraine and social unrest worldwide to rising interest rates and growing debt burdens. Finance leaders are tasked with gauging the potential impacts on their particular organization and industry. This unprecedented combination of factors leading to uncertainty and unpredictability is challenging CFOs to respond to massive disruptions and volatility and plan for various possible scenarios. Finance leaders will continue to apply data analytics and FP&A insights to guide their companies to invest for the long term while evaluating and reacting appropriately to short-term risks and setbacks. The best CFOs help their organization’s finance function to lead the way through choppy waters, overcoming challenges to achieve stability and sustainable success.