Caribbean vacation specialist Sandals says a move to a unified finance platform has eased a number of accounting headaches - and is also saving $400,000 to $500,000 a year by ending the use of external consultants to manage end-of-year consolidation and reporting.
Unable to resist the metaphor - and we’ll let him go for it - the firm’s Irish-born, but Jamaican-based, Chief Financial Officer, Conor Lawler, says that what was once a “rocky and rough” reporting situation is now as smooth as one of his firm’s famously sandy beachfronts.
Even though we've only got 20 resorts, we actually have 120 separate entities making up the group - so we needed to take everything back in house and simplify the process to get it up to date.
‘Many moving parts’
Founded in 1981 and with properties from Saint Vincent to Saint Lucia via Grenada and Jamaica, Sandals - more formally, Sandals International Resorts - is a market leader in the high-end inclusive resort space with its Sandals and Beaches brands.
The challenge is that after decades of organic growth, the company had ended up with many moving parts and multiple different operating entities.
That means, Lawler says, not just issues in connecting all the data from all those entities, but limited abilities for forecasting and budgeting.
Sandals uses an Oracle accounting system, but was having to plug gaps and do a lot of manual and Excel-based reporting off-screen.
Lawler says he’s worked with a wide range of accounting packages over the years, but the Sandals situation when he arrived five years back was far from optimal.
Apart from the core Oracle software - which was 2008 technology - the group had ended up with a mishmash of third party tools for export and import out of Oracle, including IBM Cognos Executive Viewer and others.
That meant that forecasting and budgeting was done completely externally in spreadsheets and uploaded back into Oracle, and not off one, reliably up-to-date, database.
Reconciliations and everything else were happening on different laptops and desktops and shared folders and not-shared folders. Reporting was also just too clunky. We really needed to get everything in one location and a single place of truth.
These and other kludges meant, Lawler says, that a point was reached where having one way to co-ordinate all the financial statements with management accounts “all the way up and down” the organization was identified as a necessity.
Why would a leisure company need to have such sophisticated back office processes?
People book and so pre-pay their holidays one or two years in advance with us.
So, the key is to try and run the business on a day-to-day basis in terms of fully accurate cost analysis - to not only just control our costs but to also improve the Sandals and Beaches product constantly.
We’re a long way from the all-inclusive breakfast buffet; we have a very wide range of bars and restaurants and concepts within our resorts that we need to constantly make better and fit with what people want today. I wanted one platform to be able to do all this consistently and transparently.
Step forward, corporate performance management
A more optimized way would also make the consolidation process a lot easier, which as noted above had historically been outsourced to third parties.
In the CFO’s world, consolidation is the process of combining financial data from several business entities and rolling it up to your one parent company.
In his first couple of years in post, Lawler saw how inefficient the then-Sandals way of doing this was.
As you go through this process with so many entities you recognize that there's gaps and holes and people do things differently. The consolidation process was an absolute nightmare, was run externally by external accounting firms, and just very haphazard across the group. Trying to standardize the whole process across the group was a big driver.
Lawler’s chosen partner in the rationalization of his organization’s core back office processes is corporate performance management (CPM) software specialist OneStream Software.
Lawler says he was attracted to a CPM approach as he liked the idea of a product with different modules rather than a set of separate ones as Sandals had been trying to make work.
He also liked the idea of his new system being a fully encrypted solution delivered over the cloud.
Like I said, we are a family-run business and so we always had our own databases, our own servers, and so on. They were always all backed up, but they were in one location so at the end of the day you're still vulnerable.
Now, with cloud we can go with the latest technology that’s totally secure. Since we started, apart from maintenance messages that it’s going to be taken down for an upgrade, we’ve had no downtime at all. And it gives me what I wanted - everything running off one database and only ever one source of the truth.
Live for 14 months after being implemented by an IT services company called Riveron Consulting, Lawler says the system has met all his original project aims.
To take just the consolidation side, that we could only do once at year end but now we can do it monthly and have completely taken out the external cost of doing that.
There's no point in waiting for six months after the year to try and start your consolidation process and get a report from some external auditor; you need to know throughout the year so that people can actually run the business on the data that's going to tie back to your year-end reporting.
Beyond that, he says, reports are standard and consolidated from the top down, and budgeting and forecasting processes now get done live on the system.
Finance did not have CPM in time to use it for its full budget for 2024 but is currently using it for all strategy and process, which is done on a quarterly basis.
Currently, Sandals has 50 users of the new system across the group: 40 in Finance and 10 for reporting.
But that’s just the start, as Lawler’s vision is to get every Sandals or Beaches restaurant and bar manager live data at their fingertips to make their jobs easier and make decisions on live, not historical, data.
Next up, Lawler plans to turn on more modules in the system - starting with workforce planning for the group’s 18,000 staff, tax, ESG reporting, and possibly asset management.
Summing up his move to a single source of accounting truth, for Lawler, he says:
This is about us serving our internal customers better—giving them a better working environment and also making us operate much more consistently.