A new survey from Grant Thornton LLP, one of America’s largest audit, tax and advisory firms, revealed that chief financial officers are focused on profitability despite the uncertain interest rate outlook and global economy.
The Q3/23 CFO survey found 28% of CFOs are pessimistic about the economy, which represents a seven percentage-point increase since last quarter. However, more than three-fourths (76%) of finance leaders predict net profit growth, with just over half (52%) saying their organizations will grow profits by more than 5%. This profit growth prediction represents a nine-percentage-point increase from Q2 and a six-quarter high in the survey.
The survey also revealed that supply chain once again was rated as the top challenge. Just 45% of CFOs said they were confident in meeting their supply chain needs, which represents a decline of five percentage points from last quarter and a 10-percentage-point drop from Q1.
“This is the current environment, where supply chain management is an ongoing complication and managing the workforce is going to be challenging,” Paul Melville, national managing principal of CFO Advisory at Grant Thornton, said. “However, CFOs are continually adjusting to dealing with those two issues now.”
Making the Most of Technology
In the Q3 survey, supply chain shares the “top challenge” designation with technology upgrades. Technology is increasingly becoming the answer to a variety of challenges, including supply chain woes, and finance leaders are consistently in search of the best technology-enabled solutions.
In just three months, the percentage of CFOs who said their organizations are using generative AI grew to 43% from 30% the previous quarter. Meanwhile, 45% of respondents said they’re exploring potential use cases for generative AI. This means 88% of CFOs either are already using the technology or are trying to figure out how to use it. In fact, more than half (57%) of CFOs said their organizations have formal training in place on the use of generative AI, up from 49% in Q2.
“AI’s popularity is growing and growing quickly,” Melville said. “Now that CFOs are more comfortable with the supply chain and workforce issues, they’re looking at how they can drive the business. And they’re focusing on technology upgrades to deliver that ROI.”
New technology can also come with some added costs. CFOs understand that they’ll have to spend money to take advantage of these technological opportunities, and that finding the most efficient and effective technologies with a high return on investment is a priority. In fact, more than half (58%) of finance leaders expect to increase their spending on IT/digital transformation — this represents the highest percentage since Q1/21 at 60%.
Cost Management Is a Constant Focus
The survey also found that finance leaders continue to choose cost optimization as their number one priority. However, identifying opportunities to save may be difficult for companies, as the portion of CFOs who expect their operations costs to increase rose to 47% — which is 17 percentage points higher than in Q2/23.
Nonetheless, CFOs have found a consistent area for savings, as vendor or supplier costs are ranked as the top area for potential cost cuts for the third straight quarter.
Along with vendor or supplier savings, workforce rationalization also emerged as a possible cost-reduction option for CFOs: 45% of finance leaders listed it as one of their top areas of focus, up from 41% the previous quarter. What’s more, the portion of CFOs who predicted potential layoffs in the next six months rose 10 percentage points to 37%.
Finance Automation Drives More Timely Predictions
Another area highlighted by the Q3/23 CFO survey with the potential to drive cost savings and profits is finance automation, which is enabling faster strategic shifts to capitalize on rapidly changing market conditions.
More than one-third (36%) of CFOs said their financial planning and analysis (FP&A) teams alter their forecasts at least weekly, with 14% adjusting at least once a day and 9% making real-time changes.
This trend toward speedy analysis is made possible by the growing use of advanced technology in finance departments. In fact, almost one-third (30%) of survey respondents said they are already using AI in their finance processes, and an additional 40% plan to implement AI in this area in the next year.
Looking further ahead, each of the following technologies — AI, distributed ledger technology, machine learning, optical character recognition and robotic process automation — will be implemented by at least 70% of the CFOs responding to the survey.
According to Melville, advanced technology will not only make things more efficient, but also more accurate: “This type of technology will enable better reporting for more informed strategic decisions while helping finance team members spend more time interpreting data and less time on manual number crunching.”
The survey also found that CFOs have confidence in their forecasting functions’ capabilities to deliver results for them. According to the data, 76% of CFOs said their FP&A function is effective, and 83% said the recommendations FP&A provides are useful. The underlying theme is that these FP&A insights are helping CFOs make a big play for profits, no matter what obstacles lie ahead.
“CFOs know how to get the most out of their technology spending, and they have confidence in their FP&A functions — which are benefiting from improved tools — to guide them toward successful, data-driven decisions,” Sean Denham, regional managing partner for the Atlantic Coast at Grant Thornton, said. “When the next hurdle presents itself, CFOs will be ready to clear it.”
Wade Kruse, national managing partner for Advisory Services at Grant Thornton, summarized the Q3/23 data findings this way: “After shepherding their organizations through some tumultuous years, CFOs have emerged stronger than ever. They understand how to navigate a path to profitability and how to leverage advanced technologies like AI. They’re ready now more than ever.”
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