After about 20 years in business, Cutsforth Inc. hit a burst of growth that called for more intensive financial oversight. But the company, a maker of generator parts that started in Grand Rapids, Minn., didn’t want to pay for a chief financial officer.
“We were small, and my mom did all the accounting,” Rob Cutsforth, the company’s chief executive, says. “She grew up in the business. As we were growing, we needed more expertise.”
So the company hired CliftonLarsonAllen, an accounting and professional services firm, to provide a part-time CFO, who in addition to being on-site periodically, sits in on video conferences and weekly calls with the Cutsforth team. “He feels like he’s one of us,” Cutsforth said.
The part-time financial chief helped the company outsource its manufacturing and sounded out questions on its ledger accounts and insurance. In six years, Cutsforth quintupled its revenue to about $10 million.
For accounting firms like CliftonLarsonAllen, a national company with roots in the Twin Cities, providing a part-time CFO has provided a major source of growth. Companies who take advantage of such services tend to have revenue from $2 million to $25 million.
In the last couple of years, the number of people in the firm’s Minneapolis office who serve as part-time CFOs and similar roles for small and midsize firms has grown from 20 to 90 people, said Don Frank, CLA’s managing principal of outsourcing.
“There’s really a conversion happening in the marketplace now where many businesses are looking at CPAs [certified public accountants] as a real business partner,” Frank said. “We can really help with strategy as opposed to just being that backroom resource.”
Richard Bauch, a principal at Eden Prairie-based Meuwissen, Flygare, Kadrlik & Associates, spends about one-third of his time acting as part-time CFO for clients. For them, he normally attends a meeting every month or two and reviews monthly financial statements. He might also field about 20 calls on a daily basis from companies to give advice on a range of issues such as bank financing and human resources.
While the idea of outsourced CFO services has been around for years, more companies are looking for advice for more complicated tasks such as mergers and acquisitions, Bauch said.
“Technology in the last 10 to 12 years has dramatically changed what that work really is. … In the early days, it was more bookkeeping oriented, but now that true CFO work is a lot more high-level,” Bauch said.
There are several nontraditional, independent accounting offices as well that offer CFO and other expanded consulting. Paul Miller, president and founder of Edina-based Business by Design, is not a certified public accountant but instead calls himself an entrepreneur.
Miller’s accounting and bookkeeping team offers a range of business advisory services that would normally fall under a CFO’s role. However, if potential customers went to his office and asked for just tax-preparation help, he would tell them they were in the wrong place, he said.
“The transition for a lot of firms has been we really need to do a lot of advisory things because a client devalues things like a tax return,” Miller said.
During a time when some of the conventional functions of accountants such as taxes and payroll can sometimes easily be done with the help of software, accounting firms have to try to differentiate themselves, said Jon Baron, managing director of the professional segment, tax and accounting business for Thomson Reuters.
“When you think about accountants, they just have such a broad-based knowledge of many different businesses,” said Baron, who wrote a blog post earlier this spring on how accounting firms can capitalize on the outsourced CFO trend. “They can start doing more and more of that type of consulting.”
A part-time CFO may not always be the answer for every business, said Heide Olson, founder and chief executive of All In One Accounting, a company in Eagan that offers outsourced CFOs as well as controllers and bookkeepers. If a business pays for a part-time CFO for 80 hours a month, for example, it probably would be better off with a full-time, internal person that can help it with its growth, Olson said.
Still, a part-time adviser can make a lot of sense for many businesses, she said. Olson suggested for potential clients to look for part-time CFOs with relevant company size and industry experience and who will be hands-on.
“My advice for any entrepreneur is to focus on your strengths and what you are passionate about and figure out how to outsource the rest,” Olson said.