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Planful Virtual Tour 2020 - how the Boston Red Sox finance team uses modern planning tools to rethink a disrupted market

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 21, 2020
Planful's Virtual Tour is underway. One standout so far: an unflinching story from the Boston Red Sox - and how their finance team is responding. Planning amidst uncertainty? Here's the questions they are tackling.

red sox questions - new
(via Planful)

To kick off Planful's ongoing Virtual Tour, I looked at how finance teams have been disrupted: Finance leaders had to toss their pre-COVID-19 plans, so what's next? Continuous planning, says Planful's CEO.

As the Planful sessions launched, I stuck into the customer presentations. My goals:

  • Document the push to modern financial planning tools - and how to get it done.
  • Learn more about Planful Now, a new set of tools/methods to get impactful use cases live quickly.
  • Hear from finance leaders on the critical questions they are asking now.

The Boston Red Sox are my local baseball team. I know the types of scenarios sports teams are running, and how crucial those answers are (example: what are the different revenue models, depending on social distance guidelines and truncated seasons?). At the Planful Virtual Tour, I had the chance to dig in.

From stressed-out Excel junkies to financial planners

My concern about pre-recorded sessions: sometimes they are far off the mark of audience interests. When recorded content is tone deaf, there is no way to course correct. But in his Wednesday session, Tim Zue, Executive Vice President/CFO at the Boston Red Sox did not disappoint. Zue gave a jugular view of how the Red Sox are impacted - and how modern FP&A tools are helping them figure out what's next.

Zue started with a pre-COVID-19 storyline, how the Red Sox have modernized their data platform. Short version: over the last decade, cumbersome paper-based finance processes have been converted into cloud workflows - with a variety of tools in play. How does Planful fit into that story? By providing Zue's team with a viable transition from the headaches and perils of coordinating Excel spreadsheets - while giving his team an Excel-friendly Planful UI.

Zue emphasized: he could not have gotten his team from Excel to cloud planning without an easy UI transition. We've been documenting Planful's ability to move finance users from stressed-out Excel junkies to planners for years now. That leads to user testimonials, like the one Zue showed us from his VP of Financial Planning and Operations:

The Planful platform has helped transform our Finance organization into a trusted team of advisors for our executives and senior management team. Additionally, it has enabled us to provide information in a timely manner that is necessary to make critical business decisions that put us in the best position to succeed both on and off the field.

Facing disrupted markets means asking the hard questions

Fair enough, but with the Coronavirus disruption, that really gets put to the test. How has the move to Planful held up under these market conditions? Zue didn't sugar coat what sports teams are facing:

I think all businesses are facing incredible challenges. I don't think there's a single business that's not rethinking their business plan and rethinking what this post-COVID world looks like, whether you're the Boston Red Sox, obviously we're in an industry that is heavily affected, given that our business is defined by large gatherings, and it's going to be a challenge for us, not just this year moving forward, as revenues get challenged in a post-COVID world.

Zue pointed out that even e-commerce behemoth Amazon has plenty of adversity on its plate, addressing worker safety, logistics and distribution center issues.

All companies are asking themselves questions as to how they can navigate this crisis.

What are the top questions? Start with revenue impact:

We're trying to understand our revenue outlook for the 2020 season. As a company that derives all of its revenue from hosting baseball games... our revenues are incredibly challenged this year. The players are working through, hopefully, a plan to play some baseball this year, and we're all optimistic that there will be some baseball, but it that starts there.

Crunching scenarios goes beyond this season:

We're thinking about "What about 2021," even in a post-COVID vaccine world, certainly people are going to have different ways that they view things... So we're trying to think through, "What does that look like," and trying to think through all the different scenarios, and the uncertainty on the revenue side.

What's the top cash flow question? For Zue, it's about quickly classifying expenses into "essential" and "non-essential," and hashing that out with line managers. Then the right actions can be taken. Planful played a key role:

On the spending side, we're quickly moved to eliminate all non-essential spending. When it became clear, back in March, that we weren't going to be playing baseball with fans anytime soon, we realized we were going to have to get our expenses down to the bare bones of our organization. 

Using Planful to do that was really valuable, because we were able to categorize different expenses as essential versus non-essential. We were able to roll those reports up quickly, and show the department managers what we considered essential versus non-essential, and work with them to have an agreement that, "Hey, we're not going to spend this particular expense that we thought we were going to spend."

In this situation, hard choices are inevitable. But you need to make them in an informed way - and quickly.

We've been able to run scenarios and run reporting on the expense side; putting those into buckets was was incredibly valuable as we tried to manage revenue decline, and hopefully mitigate some of those losses with expense [classification and management].

My take

Zue's team knows they must go beyond the purview of finance. Job one: employee well-being.

Planful - Red Sox questions two
(via Planful)

As he told us:

Obviously, this crisis is placing an incredible amount of both physical and mental stress and anxiety. We try to stay connected to our employees, and our employees are obviously the most important people in our organization.

Virtual community makes a difference:

We used to host quarterly in-person town hall meetings... We're now doing those virtually once a week, and we're trying to regularly communicate with our people to make sure they feel in touch. For my own department, every other day, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we have a Zoom meeting with my team. So forty or fifty people get together, and share, communicate, but also check in on people and just make sure that they're feeling okay. That's a really important part of our plans right now.

But how do you plan for long-term sustainability amidst this type of uncertainty? Zue didn't offer any glib answers. He starts with multiple "What if" scenarios:

We really don't know what to expect. Because of that, trying to answer questions from ownership about "What does this mean for our business?" is just really challenging. We're working through that; the scenario planning we're able to do in Planful has been tremendously valuable.

One cloud benefit finance teams are learning about now: ease of remote access. This might seem a no-brainer, but finance folks are often central office workers. Lifting that IT burden is nice, but now, remote access is everything. As Zue said:

As long are they have an internet connection, and they can get online,they can work and access reports. And so they don't have to be in the office; they could be on the beach; they could be with their family. Certainly now at home, it's invaluable.

Modern planning tools don't suddenly eliminate industry roadblocks. Just because you can run multiple scenarios with ease doesn't mean the scenarios are appealing. But the way I heard Zue's story, his finance team feels like they're not on the sidelines - they're in the game. And you can't put a price on that right now.

With one more day of Planful's event to go, I'm still gathering stories on the journey to continuous planning (If you want a head start there, check CEO Grant Halloran's diginomica piece, How to build a culture of Continuous Planning in your business). In truth, continuous planning is a continuum, not an end state. For some companies, just getting to a monthly planning cycle is a huge step forward. Then you push further.

I'm also looking into stories on Planful Now - how customers are moving quickly to high impact use cases, and the challenges of moving systems in just a few weeks are.

Planful adopted an interesting format for their Virtual Tour, opting for (mostly) pre-recorded sessions, interspersed by a duo of live moderators who set up each session. So far, I have mixed feelings about the format, but then, I am a very tough grader when it comes to my expectations for interactivity at a live event. To address that, Planful has also rolled out an FP&A Slack channel. I'll look forward to more from attendees on whether that Slack channel enhanced their experience, but in spirit, I like that effort to move beyond passive content consumption.

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