Imperial Logistics: Evolving Finance Into A Nerve Center For Business Insight

A dream scenario for most executives is dramatic growth and expansion that are sustainable for years. Whether a company is 100 years old or just 100 weeks young, this is the kind of performance that makes news headlines. However, for CFOs and the finance function, this can spell trouble if the right mechanisms are not put in place first.

Imperial Logistics International is no stranger to such a conflict. As part of South Africa-based Imperial Holdings Ltd., the international logistics services leader created a €1.6 billion business of 170 sites, 8,300 employees, and a fleet of 600 vessels and 500 trucks. Imperial provides in-depth expertise and services in supply chain operations across a variety of industries and regions outside South and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Through its continuous acquisition strategy over the last 15 years, Imperial’s turnover increased fivefold, and its business activities were extended into new logistics areas. While growth is good for the company, this has created a heterogeneous finance system landscape comprising various processes, redundant master data, and overly elaborate system administration. Each addition to the Imperial family brought its own IT systems – sometimes duplicating existing applications. With every request for financial figures and reports, it became apparent that its financial systems lacked the transparency that executives needed to capitalize on investments and further growth. Essentially, its growth patchwork of information systems was holding the company back.

“Our systems and processes were too heterogeneous to give us the insights we need,” explained Reimund Kuche, head of corporate accounting at Imperial. “Prompt response to management requests for new figures and reports was not possible. The information was always late, incomplete, and not comparable. There was simply not enough transparency. Needless to say, this sorely impacted our executives’ ability to steer the company and make sound decisions.”

Finding the Intersection of Opportunity and Growth with Transparency and Centralization

The opportunity for change came when Imperial decided to update its processes and structures and transition to a new culture of accountability and transparency. At the same time, Kuche knew that his department needed globally standardized processes, consolidated data for one source of the truth, and increased efficiency across all job responsibilities.

Within six months, Imperial built a centralized system from scratch, starting with the implementation of SAP S/4HANA as the digital core for its German finance operations. In parallel, the company consolidated all finance operations in one accounting service center. This approach allowed Kuche’s team to deliver all requests for financial and controlling information with confidence and improve financial governance.

“For my team, this initiative was not just a process change. Rather, it strengthened our department’s culture and leadership,” Kuche explained. “By transforming the organizational structure of finance and controlling and by standardizing processes and information in finance, we are supporting the business and increasing accountability in ways we never thought were possible before.”

Kuche admits that investing in this digital transformation was risky because at the time, very few companies had implemented SAP S/4HANA. After several months of daily use of the system, Imperial’s German finance team found that this leap of faith was exactly what it needed.

“For the entire accounting and controlling function, this implementation created a widespread feeling that we are on the cusp of a new era of transformation. Every day, our executive team asks each employee to look forward into the future and innovate,” he noted. “For us, this is our opportunity to create more efficient processes and deliver value for all lines of business.”

Powering Data Insights with the Highest Level of Finance Digitization

With the combination of SAP S/4HANA as the organization’s digital core and an intuitive, role-based SAP Fiori user experience, every employee – regardless of business function and role – can get data insights with the right amount of detail, when they need it. No longer does anyone inside and outside the finance area have to wait for this information to be generated and packaged by a member of the finance team.

“Having all finance data in one structure and one platform allows us to put the right data and analytics in the hands of every employee regardless of role and analytical skill,” Kuche explained. “For example, our freight agents now have access to customer information and open items in the moment they’re needed and can act on that information instantly.”

While increased data quality, transparency, and accessibility are impressive, Kuche’s reporting processes are also significantly leaner and 30% faster. His team can now report by segment, which previously wasn’t possible. By automatically allocating balance sheet information to reporting units, controllers no longer have to manually prepare data in a very time-consuming manner – and Imperial’s management team now has the degree of transparency necessary to make actionable decisions. For instance, executives now have immediate visibility into return on invested capital across the company, which is a major KPI for Imperial.

Now that Imperial’s German accounting operations are centralized, it is in the midst of expanding adoption to 75 more units and subsidiaries by 2018. Kuche’s finance team is also looking forward to taking its data a step further with advanced analytics and embedded planning capabilities. For the first time, this will bring actuals and planning data together on the most granular level in one centralized, harmonized data platform that will simplify the work of controllers further and will enable them to innovate and to become even more effective.

Kuche reflected, “For us, this digital initiative is the beginning of an exciting journey of discovery, innovation, and value. As we continue to remove the barriers of inefficient work and as new technologies emerge, capabilities and advantages will progress over time. Every day, we are learning something new, and we look forward to the opportunity to dig into our data deeper and drive decision making to a whole new level.”

For insights from other organizations on how they are hedging their bets in the digital era, download the infographic and read the report, “Making the Business Case: Real CFOs Discuss the Benefits of SAP S/4HANA Finance.

This article originally appeared in the Digitalist Magazine.