Tuesday, September 4, 2012

5 Steps You Can Begin Today To Be a Better Financial Analyst

Financial Analysis is a core Finance / Treasury organization function that serves a number of purposes, including:
·         Project Analysis
·         M&A Valuation
·         Peer Group Studies
·         Financing Structures
·         Operations Support
·         Market Analysis
While this is not an exhaustive list, a large proportion of analyst projects will fall into the above categories.
The Power of Numbers
Because Financial Analysis is such a prevalent activity, a finance/ treasury organization will have a large contingent of analysts on their staff, and it would not be uncommon to see more employees in this role than any other in the organization.
This being the case, if we can improve the financial analyst’s skill set across the board, then we can achieve a multiplicative impact on our group’s effectiveness, efficiency, and ability to fulfill our mission.
While long-term activities, such as going back to school, are legitimate and valuable ways to increase skills, these initiatives will take a while to translate into higher performance.
However, there are activities that an analyst can begin doing today that will increase their skill, ability, and value to the organization.
1. Ask Questions
As we perform our tasks during the day, there are endless opportunities to ask questions and seek further insight about what we are doing. The act of questioning data and getting answers changes the role from one of reporting to one of insight generation.
For example, if one is working on assessing the working capital of the firm, it is one thing to note in your report that receivables over 30 days past due increased.
It is quite another to pick up the phone, contact your collections area, and inquire as to what they are seeing that has prompted the data you are looking at. You might find that there was a problem with equipment that resulted in delays in invoices going out, or you might find that the data is a result of new customers recently added as part of a new promotion effort that began the quarter before.
Each of these answers will point to a different action that needs to be taken (e.g. repair or replace equipment, start targeting different customer segments). By asking question, you have changed a piece of data or a fact into an actionable piece of information.
Actionable Intelligence is valuable, data is meaningless.
2. Learn Your Tools
The spreadsheet is everywhere - almost everyone uses them at some point during the day. My own sense is that spreadsheet usage is probably similar to our use of our brains - most are operating at 10%-20% capacity.
A superior craftsman knows how to use their tools inside and out, and our usage of spreadsheets should be similar.
How can we improve our ability with spreadsheets without some training? There are several possibilities.
First, the next time you open one, go into the function section and pick out one you have never used before. Play with it and learn how it works. Using suggestion #1, ask yourself “how might I use this function?”
Figure A
For instance, in “Working Capital Primer: How is it that this Capital Works?” there was a graph used to discuss the working capital cycle (attached here as Figure A). In an effort to make smoothly curved lines, I used trigonometry functions (sine formulas using radians) which one can find in Excel (the SIN() function and the RAD() function).
Sine and radian functions are not the first things one would think of when depicting a graph of assets, but because I was familiar with these functions in Excel I was able to use them in a different way.
Second, the next time you are working with spreadsheet data and need to perform a calculation, try and perform it in three different ways.
For instance, if we have three cells of data (A1, A2, and A3) that we need to multiply by three factors (B1, B2, B3), we could simply use the formula “A1*B1 + A2*B2+A3*B3”. Or we could use the SUMPRODUCT() function “sumproduct(A1:A3,B1:B3)”. Finally, we could store results for each multiplication in column C, and then use the sum function “=sum(c1:c3)”.
Doing this will challenge you to remain versatile and creative in your usage of this common tool.
3. Know Your Organization
In the first step we noted that insights are valuable commodities within a firm. Our ability to deliver actionable intelligence will greatly increase if we learn how our firm works, what it does, and the groups involved.
If you make a product, take a tour of the factory floor. If you are a retailer, spend some time in the stores with the folks, have them show you around, both front and “behind the scenes”. If part of your role is to support an operating unit, ask to attend their meetings.
By doing this, you begin to learn what is important to them. Through the manufacturing tour you might notice how they strive to reduce work in process, stock raw materials, and fulfill job orders. Through your visit to the retail store you might learn how customer’s are handled in order to facilitate sales, and how SKU’s are managed. Through the departmental meeting you might notice how certain phrases and topics keep surfacing.
Learning what is important to the folks you are providing services for provides you the opportunity of looking at your work through their perspective, and being able to generate actionable intelligence in those specific areas.
4. Communicate With Your Customer
Finance and analysis is a specialized function. Terms such as Net Present Value, Cost of Capital, and Probability of Default are things most people will not understand.
As you deal with the other organizations who you serve within your firm, the ability to deliver information in a manner that they understand is critical. People are not going to act on the intelligence you provide if they do not “get it”. How can they?
Having performed step #3, you are in a position to speak language they do understand. Rather than achieve a “20% improvement”, you can say “it’s removing 5 gear shafts from the inventory queue in front of Station #3”. If your analysis is meaningful at a “.05 p-level”, you can say “the chances of this information not being sound is better than the chances of the top card in a deck being an ace”.
If they understand what you are saying and you speak a language they understand, you will find they are receptive to what information you have to deliver, and might even decide you are valuable to have around!
5. Learn Your Technology
One of my persistent mantras during the life of this blog is the importance of learning the underlying technology involved in your work. This plays a larger and larger role within the field each and every day. Understanding the technology you are working with allows you to communicate better and make things more efficient.
For example, a lot of Treasury folks deal with Treasury Workstations or their organization’s accounting system. Both of these technologies are essentially highly customized database programs.
Most office suites have Access as part of their software package. If not, there are open source alternatives that you can explore as well. Learn how to make a simple database. If you do then you will understand the role of a Table, a Query, and Report and how they come about.
I was once involved in a project where a new system was being implemented, and as part of the implementation there was a meeting to discuss difficulties in understanding what to include in a report. This was the third or fourth such meeting that had been scheduled, so the difficulties did not appear to be of a simple variety.
We were able to successfully communicate our needs to them by using “database –speak” – stating in effect “what we imagine was if this information was in Table A, and this was in Table B, then this report would result from a query that pulled this info from Table A here, and this information from Table B there, and then ran it through Table C”. All at once we noticed the tech folks nodding their heads in understanding, and the difficult-to-deliver report was provided the very next day.
As another example, one of our co-workers needed to download information out of a report into Excel, where they would spend about an hour selecting specific parts of the report, organizing this information, summarizing it using calculations within the spreadsheet, and preparing it for printing.
We were able to develop simple Visual Basic for Applications code (this comes with Excel) that effectively performed these repeatable tasks for the co-worker and made their work effectively a push of the button exercise. Once they had executed the download, all they had to do was push a button in Excel and walk to the printer. One-hour’s worth of work had become less than 5 minutes!
Today, as you perform your work in Excel, record some of it as a Macro. After you have finished recording, go into the VBA window and look at the code that resulted from your activity. What parts are identifiable to you just by looking at the code (even if you do not understand VBA code)? Can you find out the syntax using a simple Google search of some of the items?
Key Takeaways
Financial Analysts do not need to wait for a lot of long-term formal training in order to improve their efficiency, effectiveness, and contribution to the organization, all that is required is taking the time to have a curious mind and ask lots of question, learn the tools of the trade, understand the organizational environment, communicate with business partners and develop technology familiarity.
·         What steps do you believe a Financial Analyst can begin taking today that will improve their value contribution?
·         Do any of the steps listed above resonate with your experience?
Add to the discussion with your thoughts, comments, questions and feedback! Please share Treasury Café with others. Thank you!


  1. Hi David! This is a very useful article indeed. These 5 steps make eminent sense. I would use the phrase "building up on one's industry knowledge" for the 1st step - asking questions.

    I would suggest you to also compile similar methodology for investment analysis.

    1. Nitin - I think you are absolutely correct that learning about the industry you are in is very important...and something that was not covered in this post at all, so I appreciate you taking the time to comment and make that suggestion.

      Thank you as well for the suggested topic, it's always great to get fresh ideas about items of potential interest.

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  2. “Learn Your Technology”--- indeed! You must be able to keep up with the modern technology. It’s important that you‘re also an expert when it comes to it as it is typically part of your work. Most businesses today mainly use tools, apps, and software to keep track of investments and other financial reports. Technology allows you to accomplish your work faster and easier.

    1. Sherlock,

      Thanks for your response. I agree with you that technology allows us to accomplish work faster and easier - so long as we learn how to use it properly. In some ways a lot of folks' use of technology is analogous to use of our brains, which they say is around 10%-15% of its capacity. Thus, the more we can become expert, as you state, the more productive we will be.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  3. Hi David, i stumbled on the Blog link while searching for information on how one can develop one's competence as a financial analyst. I am going through some major career transitions after facing some set backs. I have just come to the realization that i have analytical skills and had never taken the time to develop. I am currently working in the Banking Sector and have been roaming in the accounting department.

    Thank you very much for the insightful information - i already have some execution plans.

    1. Brian,

      I am glad that you found this helpful. Good luck in your pursuits!

      Dave W.

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