Inspired by a Real Client Scenario: Government Contracting Small Business Accounting and Finance Groups – Making a Shift From Cost Center to Strategic Department

The accounting and finance group of a small business is typically highly regarded by ownership for the work it accomplishes, but at the same time, ownership often questions the high costs of accounting and administrative functions. A long-time client of mine has told me that “Accountants come in after the battle is over, and stab the wounded”. Obviously, this viewpoint is that accountants are focused on the past, and our industry continues to try and change that perspective. Ownership and senior management frequently list growth and profitability among key metrics, but don’t receive timely and detailed information to assess progress towards these goals.
There are multiple ways to structure a small business accounting and finance group for a government contractor, although most of our clients have elected a structure such as the following:

  • 1-3 people with responsibility for transactional processing (billing, disbursements, etc), general accounting, reconciliations and analysis, payroll, human resources, benefits, retirement plan administration, contract compliance and financial reporting. These individuals are also typically involved in other related functions, such as banking, receivables collections, cash flow forecasting, borrowing negotiations, pricing and proposal assistance, leasing, hiring, general office management, and other ad hoc special projects.

My experience is that the person or persons in this role often feel overwhelmed, stressed, and unable to focus on the “big picture”. The day-to-day tasks and projects are such that the individuals do not have sufficient time to focus on important business objectives and metrics. A business entity with these issues should consider the following to begin to switch the focus from historical recording to value reporting:

  1. Take the time to document process and procedure. Our experience indicates that when this is done, efficiencies can be generated through elimination of unnecessary or duplicate steps, identification of automation solutions, or identification where responsibilities can be shared. At the same time, opportunities for better data accumulation may be created.
  2. Review the accounting system for its continued use. Frankly, I’m not an opponent of QuickBooks, but recognize that reporting needs and contract requirements, along with growth, may cause QuickBooks to become an obstacle rather than a tool. Many clients struggle to streamline payroll, billing and contract reporting because of a lack of automation between time entry, payroll, other expenses, and billing modules. It is crucially important that a government contractor can, with minimal manual manipulation of data and spreadsheets, identify, review, and report on data (i.e. hours by personnel and labor category, costs by contract, funded values, backlog, etc).
  3. If appropriate, look at automation opportunities for standard accounts payable/vendor invoice and credit card processing and recording. As the saying goes, there is probably an app for that…

Now that you have freed up time:

1) Develop a monthly schedule requiring the following:

a. Billings completed by the 3rd business day after the close of the billing period            (increase cash flow).

b. Bank reconciliations completed by the 5th business day after the end of the month.

c. Accounts receivable to be analyzed weekly, with involvement of operational personnel to ensure issues can be identified.

d. Monthly review of gross profit by contract versus anticipated profit by contract at the time of the proposal or of the last revision. A major issue we see frequently is that personnel may change, cost inputs may change, hours may not be worked, and management does not become aware until months afterwards. Hours, costs, and revenues should be reviewed in detail each cycle.

e. Establish a budget and a financial plan for each year, and use it to assess financial performance.

f. Involve department heads in the monthly review, and provide them with data on results and hours and projects. Budget a set amount of profit, and reserve for it, don’t spend it on potentially luxury positions or assets. Understand what costs are fixed and which are variable; establish a mechanism to ensure they stay that way.
Involve accountants in lease versus buy decisions, and in projections of costs and revenues under potential assumptions for new business or hires.

2) Continuously evaluate pricing strategies – are profit assumptions holding true? How can the process be improved? Have you had a professional review the assumptions and calculations?

3) Schedule monthly meetings between the accounting team and management and operations teams to ensure all are aware of possible transactions, proposals, contract issues, new contracts, new hires, large transactions, etc.

In our experience, this transition will take some time, but will result in a group more focused on goals aligned with organizational objectives of growth and profitability. For more information, please contact Josh Sutherland at or 410.307.6536.

Josh Sutherland, a Principal with KatzAbosch, joined the firm in 2008. He is a past Co-Chair of the firm’s Accounting and Auditing Committee, and current Co-Chair of the firm’s Government Contractor Services Group and specializes in the not-for-profit and government contracting industries.

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