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Planful CEO Grant Halloran On “The Golden Age Of CFO Technology”

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Recently, I sat down with Grant Halloran, CEO of Planful, at their annual user conference in Las Vegas. We discussed changes at Planful over the past several years, technologies that are empowering the CFO suite, and how CFOs and CIOs are partnering to run digital strategies. I also could not resist getting Grant’s view on what the CFO tech stack will look like in three years.

Below, Grant shares his insights on “The Golden Age of CFO Technology” and more.

Tell me a little bit about your background.

Halloran: I grew up in Canberra, Australia, the national capital. They’re lucky to have the Australian National University there, which is a great university. I always wanted to go to that school and study commerce, with a major in accounting and some economics and commercial law thrown in. After graduation, I had some offers from the big six firms but chose to go into a banking career instead.

So this summer it will be three years since you joined Planful?

Halloran: Yes, I joined Planful as CEO 3 years ago. I got into this space of finance performance management seven years ago and have been in the software industry since my late twenties. My brother and I built three companies, and that’s actually what brought me to the United States.

There have been one or two little changes in Planful in the last three years to say the least. What are some of the big changes Planful has gone through since you’ve been CEO?

Halloran: The obvious big one is the name change. Being Planful, thoughtful, and forward-looking are characteristics of our customers. Additionally, we have experienced significant expansion. We were acquired at the end of 2018 by Vector Capital with a big growth thesis to expand internationally and put a lot of investment into expanding our global partner ecosystem. We’ve been modernizing our technology and not just under the covers, but with our user experience too. We place a lot of emphasis on user experience, building out AI technology on top of the platform. We’ve expanded as a company, nearly doubling our customer base in three years. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done and we’re seeing great results from it.

Many of your team members are meeting each other for the first time this week at Perform, right?

Halloran: Recently, we’ve had the good fortune of hosting our internal “Palooza” company kick-off events in person. We try to get everyone together as much as we can, so long as it’s felt safe to do so. We’re all operating in this new hybrid work environment with a lot of remote employees. I think that with the money that is being saved on facilities, it’s important to reinvest in getting people together with more travel. Planful Perform is the first time that we’ve been able to host a big customer event in three years, and for some of our customers, it’s their first chance to meet the Planful team in person. That’s what’s really exciting about an event like this – getting the whole community around Planful together, including partners, customers, and employees.

I’ve heard you say “The Golden Age of CFO Tech.” Can you share what that means and why you think it’s the Golden Age?

Halloran: I didn’t coin the broader expression, but I applied it to what’s happening in CFO tech right now. A few years back, I experienced marketing technologies with the companies I built. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen this massive transformation in the way the world operates, with everyone being online and connected. That just changed marketing completely. There were all these big seismic changes going on, these confluences of forces that came together and ushered in a golden age of investment in marketing and sales technologies and customer engagement technologies.

Now, we’re in a different environment. The forces that are at play right now are much more focused on the mandate of the CFO and how to navigate the constant change we’re in. External forces are so amplified right now, that they are knocking people off their plans pretty easily and quickly. It seems like you just don’t know what the next “thing” is going to be, but the inevitability is that there’s going to be something that will come along. Those forces are coming together and what we’re seeing take place is that billions and billions of dollars are being invested. Just this year, William Blair estimated that $15B will be spent on finance and accounting software. And why is that? It’s because CFOs and their teams need to arm the company with new technologies that streamline their processes. They need to harvest and apply huge amounts of data that they haven’t been able to use before and adopt new technologies like AI to help them make decisions.

How do you see these technologies empowering the CFO Suite?

Halloran: I mentioned in my keynote at Planful Perform that McKinsey conducted a study that showed the number of finance leaders that are now running digital activities in their business have tripled. That’s because today’s CFOs are business people. Some have come up from the accounting stream, some have come up through finance, but increasingly, we’re seeing more folks that have worked in general management who have MBAs. They’ve all had broader experiences and have come from investment banking, for example, so they understand the capital markets really well and how business is driven forward in this time of change. It’s a new type of CFO in the seat. As more and more companies bring in new CFOs, they’re looking for that type of personality, background, and experience.

These candidates are also tech-savvy. They realize that if we have an opportunity to use technology to improve productivity and help drive growth in the company, then we should do it. There’s really only three big levers you can pull – productivity, capital investment, and technology. And I would argue that technology automation through the financial processes of your company is the future and that’s why we’re seeing an influx of investments there.

A study by a leading consulting firm that examined executive dynamics concluded that the most important relationship across the C-suite is between the CEO and CFO. I know that you and (Planful CFO) Dan Fletcher have a great relationship, but are you finding that claim to be true?

Halloran: Dan is very illustrative of what we’ve been talking about. He’s a trained accountant and was a consultant who helped companies implement technologies and processes and helped them execute finance transformations. He’s seen a lot of different industries, and having worked in private equity, has evaluated a lot of companies. He’s seen what good, great, and not-so-good looks like across different businesses. The big difference today is that 20 years ago, CFOs were more focused on compliance, audits, and strict controls, and that’s now considered table stakes. There’s 3 types of data that CFOs need to work with on their teams: financial information, commercial information (ex. sales pipeline value), and operational data (ex. how many opportunities do we have and what is the value of each of those opportunities, regions and roles across the company, etc.). Connecting those 3 data layers together enables you to drive the business based on the actual way businesses are run. In a software company, it’s all about leads that create sales opportunities that then turn into financial outcomes. Dan is illustrative of the new type of CFO who can see around the corners and can understand the business at a broader level.

CFOs and CIOs are jointly leading digitalization initiatives. As a CEO, do you think having CFOs right at the forefront is a positive?

Halloran: I do think it is a positive. CIOs have had their hands full with shifting technologies to the cloud and operating hybrid cloud environments. CFOs have stepped in to help figure out how to drive the business forward with data. It’s not just business intelligence – which only tells you what happened in the past and a little bit about what happens in the present, but it doesn’t tell you what will happen in the future. That’s why companies like Planful exist. We can tell you about the performance of the company historically by connecting with traditional business intelligence tools, and we can also help customers understand what is going to happen next. They need to do scenario planning and that’s where you need the calculation engines and the AI that understands financial data. This is why CFOs are imminently qualified to drive that forward – because that’s what they do. They understand models and calculations, and how to look forward by running different scenarios. That’s what the whole business needs.

If you could look into your crystal ball, what do you think the CFO tech stack is going to look like three years from now?

Grant Halloran: Firstly, I would say that M&A activity is skyrocketing and it’s going to continue to do so. Companies are trying to grow their business inorganically as well as organically. What that means is you’re going to have this homogeneous ERP stack across all these entities. That’s a nice-to-have these days so you’re going to see more companies operating with lots of different general ledger systems. Above that, we’re going to see homogenized, streamlined finance and accounting systems, such as Planful, that will act as the abstract layer connecting into all these systems that enables you to run common processes around budgeting, planning, forecasting, scenario planning, workforce planning, etc. Account reconciliation will now be moving to close. Everything is getting automated on the account reconciliation side.

We announced a partnership with Trintech last year that enables us to connect that technology to do rapid closing of the books. As you continue to extend down the line, you are able to execute on reporting within Planful, while cash management and treasury happens within cloud systems. Everything is getting cloudified and integrated together. I would say the best-in-class companies are going to operate in that way. We have customers that have grown from $1.5B to $3B in 3 years through acquisitions and they tell us that a huge advantage of using Planful is that they don’t have to go in and homogenize all these ERPs. They can just plug the new entity into the abstract layer that Planful operates in and it just makes it lower cost, higher value, and so much easier to integrate with the new company. Everything will be in the cloud and everything will be integrated. It’s an exciting time.

The final thought I’ll leave you with is, don’t be afraid of this technology. It’s all configurable, it’s not like doing ERP implementations 10 years ago, which was a nightmare. This cloud technology is sophisticated, yes, but way easier to implement.

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