Smith Systems on driver safety, autonomous vehicles, and cloud ERP with Intacct

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 3, 2016
How is driver safety faring in the age of the autonomous vehicle? That's where my chat with Douglas M. Boughton, CFO of Smith System Driver Improvement Institute started. Then we moved on to discuss what he learned implementing cloud ERP with Intacct - including the hot issues of security, cloud integration, and revenue recognition.

When you end a conference with a customer interview, you get the chance to run all the hot button issues by them. That was my chance with Smith Systems at last week's Intacct Advantage show.

In the nearly-empty media room on the wind-down, Douglas M. Boughton, CFO of Smith System Driver Improvement Institute, Inc. joined me to address questions raised about reporting, security, and cloud ERP integration. Boughton, who serves as an Intacct MVP (customer advocate), managed Smith System's transition to Intacct.

Boughton shared the story of their go-live, as well as the evolution towards a more strategic CFO function. But first - with an executive of a driver safety company across from me, I couldn't resist asking Boughton about the impact of device distractions on driver safety, and looming threats to his business model via so-called autonomous vehicles.

Boughton was the right guy to ask. Smith Systems is about to celebrate their 65th year in driver training. The founder of Smith Systems created "five keys of space cushion driving," which remains the foundation of the training Smith Systems offers today. Smith Systems focuses on training business drivers, where the safety stakes are even higher. Boughton:

It's about changing your habits, getting inside your head, and trying to make you realize when you're driving for a company, you need to realize you're in public. Safety needs to be top of mind.

80 percent of Smith Systems' revenue still comes from a classroom session model:

We equate it to a golfer taking a day with Hank Haney. It's really the only way to change your behavior.

On driver safety, technology risk, and autonomous vehicles

Thanks to text-and-drive disasters, we all know about the dangers of distracted driving. But what else should experienced drivers know?

What's amazing is the five keys we developed back in the 1950's have been relevant regardless of the changes. It's about eye movement. It's about awareness of the world that you're in within that environment. Are you in intersections, are you in narrow streets, wide streets, heavy traffic, light traffic, bad weather, good weather? Are you fit for duty? Are you tired, groggy, paying attention to your own stuff?

Driving home groggy from overseas flights is an issue I personally need to avoid. What about the new generation of tech distractions?

Think about the electronic distractions, both your personal items, your GPS, and now the driving aids. Your lane assist, your braking assist - all that stuff. Are you letting them take over, or are you still being attentive? The keys we use are all about awareness, and creating space, and making sure when you're doing something that everybody else knows you're about to do. Honking, blinkers, all those kinds of things. It's not about how to operate a vehicle; it's about how to think while you're operating a vehicle.

I assumed Smith Systems would be threatened by the push to autonomous vehicles. I was wrong - they are seizing these trends as training opportunities:

We're coming out with a DVD in December called Driving Technology. All the things autonomous vehicles bring on are great. They're going to help reduce incidents and accidents. They're going to make the driver more aware, but I think the public is realizing they're just an aid. They're just a tool. The driver is still driving the vehicle. That's how we're approaching it.

The stakes of over-reliances on driver assist tech are high:

It's a very touchy subject with some people - for instance the Tesla incident. A gentleman lost his life because he over-relied on his technology. Just two days ago, there was a Wall Street Journal article about the excessive increase in distracted driving because of technology.

From zero flexibility to modern ERP

Boughton at Intacct Advantage

When Boughton joined Smith Systems in 2009, their internal software wasn't road-worthy either:

Their system was aging. It had zero flexibility. Reporting was hard. The database was clunky. We wanted to do some new things with technology to add to our product lines. We wanted to do some things that expanded how we operated, and we wanted to start gaining more efficiency. We couldn't do that because of the data that we lacked, and we knew it. We were running spreadsheets and doing things outside of the books.

Boughton had prior experience with NetSuite, but upon further digging, Intacct stood out. The tight Salesforce integration was a standout:

We had just started on Salesforce when I joined. With the integration between Salesforce and Intacct, we had an immediate dialogue change within the building. Instead of two sets of books if you will, two sets of revenue records, we were now speaking to the same language.

By the end of 2012, Intacct was selected. Implementation began in 2013, with a go-live later that year. At that time, cloud financials were not as widely adopted. So what led Smith Systems to cloud ERP?

You're right. cloud was new. For a company as old as Smith, new is a big challenge for us. But having had Salesforce in-house made it a little easier to jump that gap mentally. Not increasing our IT footprint internally was definitely something we liked. And the cloud integration with Salesforce was big.

At Intacct Advantage, customers consistently told me that cloud integration with Intacct was smooth. I always expect to hear about integration headaches, even with cloud products. What about Smith Systems?

It's absolutely easy, and nicely customizable. If you have a custom field or a transaction that you need, the APIs are easy to manage. We do use a consultant from Leap the Pond to help us. They've done things for other customers we would never approach. When they do them for us, they're slam dunks.

Managing change, security and customizations

Boughton said with a small team, change management wasn't really a problem for them. Their biggest challenge? Prior to Intacct, they had over-customized their Salesforce instance:

That's where we had to change some processes, get us back into native Salesforce objects... Once we cleared that back to native, it was actually simple after that.

Boughton's team still does more work in spreadsheets than he'd like, but he says that's not about Intacct. Some of the companies Smith Systems owns are not on Intacct, which entails financial reporting in Excel. Each time Boughton attends Intacct sessions, he learns about more capabilities Smith Systems can apply:

Every couple of months, there's breakthroughs in how we're using the data where we realize, "Okay, I don't need that spreadsheet any longer." I just came from a session with Ask the Intacct Expert, where he helped me clear my mind as to how I can pull another thing I've been doing in a spreadsheet into Intacct.

Intacct's announcement on reporting enhancements has customers geared up, including Boughton:

I am excited about the report writer ease-of-use factor. Not that the prior one was terrible. Once you learned it, it was pretty good, but they have definitely taken the ease of use factor to heart.

Finally, security was a big theme amongst the CFOs at the show. Is that the case for Boughton?

It was something that drove our decision. Again, not wanting to add a bunch of new systems to our footprint internally. Knowing that Intacct is investing in and handling security at a level I would never be able to provide my own company, was a very big factor in our decision.

The wrap - dashboards and collaboration ahead

So can we count Boughton amongst the CFOs with a strategic focus? Yes, though the transition is gradual:

I think it's coming. As a smaller organization, I still have to have my hand in some of the day-to-day. Slowly, I do see myself freeing up more and more. Certainly with Intacct's ability to get to the data quickly and turn it into meaningful information - that has helped tremendously.

Does that mean the dashboards other customers swear by are in Boughton's future?

It's something we are moving into next. I've built some dashboards for myself, to learn and manipulate and get used to. Some of the roadblocks and some of our processes we recently changed will start giving that higher level executive dashboarding we're really interested in.

One more hot button CFO issue to go: revenue recognition. Boughton says Smith Systems has a pretty simple sales model without a big pipeline of deferred revenue. That said, revenue recognition is one more issue that gives Boughton confidence in Intacct, which focused heavily on their automated revenue recognition capabilities this year:

They clearly have a stronger understanding than most anybody else I've spoken with. Just like on security, scalability, transaction load. It makes it very comfortable for me to not have to worry about those things.

That brings the focus back to one thing: execution. Let's see how they do.

End note - my other customer use cases from Intacct Advantage:

Updated 10:30pm PT, 11/4/2016, with minor tweaks for readability.