Case Study

My story – How I fell into an AP role

Posted on November 2, 2023

Accounts Payable has always been (and still is!) considered a back office function of a company, when in fact its key to the company operating at all. What would happen if you didn’t pay your bills, you get a friendly reminder and then some not so friendly reminders, perhaps a bailiff visit or you could end up in court. And on top of that you lose goods/services and more importantly your reputation.

So why is it back office?

Lots of people consider this areas is not exciting, not stimulating enough, won’t keep you interested and is so boring you yawn at the thought, because well, its just an invoice. Well you couldn’t be more wrong, working in AP can be whatever you want it to be, you could be passing through getting a bit of experience, or you could stay and reach a manager level where you can have more of a say and even bring in your own innovations.

For me, I literally fell into an AP role, I wasn’t looking for it, wasn’t sure I wanted it, but felt I was obliged to apply for it and despite all my doubts, I’ve never looked back.

Here is my story…..

After being a PA for 8 years and managing a Director, there was no where else to go and since the PA to the Chief Executive wasn’t going anywhere, I asked for and was offered the opportunity to undertake some studying sponsored by my employer with the aim to see where else I could work within the organisation.

I did a Certificate in Management Studies with the Open University, I hadn’t studies with books in over 16 years, so it was very daunting. A CMS seemed to offer a range of topics and I was hoping it would bring out what my strengths were. I covered organisations and people along with marketing and finance. After 12 months of submitting assignments, attending tutorials at the weekends and exams, it was all over and I passed. My highest scores turned out to be for Finance and along with Marketing it was my favourite topic so I started looking for opportunities that I could use my skills on.

I was offered a secondment to move to be a Finance Officer for Facilities Management to oversee budgets for my Manager, facilities overseeing all buildings and offices for the organisation, including raising orders and paying invoices.

I made such a success in the role that I was offered the opportunity to take on more budgets for Housing Management and Directorate Management Team. From a few budgets I was now responsible for 3 key areas overseeing £5m worth of budgets and hundreds of orders and invoices.

As a next step I undertook the Diploma of Management Studies level with Greenwich School of Management and at the end of successfully completing this qualification, a Director encouraged me to apply for a newly created role in Finance as AP Manager, a newly created role in Finance to manage AP on behalf of the council.

In 2003 I took on the new role of AP Manager where No PO No Pay was being implemented across the organisation, along with centralising the receipt of AP invoices to a PO box address with an external contractor. The aim was to withdraw manual entry of invoices across business areas and mandating purchase orders for suppliers.

Early days progressing a pilot with 8 business areas was definitely challenging, it was a new venture for the contractor as well as the organisation, so a steep learning curve for everyone. I had to balance the relationship with business areas and supporting the contractor to manage the work in an effective manner. Great negotiation skills were definitely a benefit!

Keeping suppliers updated on progress was key to the success as well, if your invoice keeps getting rejected you do eventually get the message that it won’t get paid without that number.

It took around 12 months to move all the business areas to the new arrangement where manual entry was withdrawn; this resulted in 120,000+ invoices being managed centrally. There were of course areas of the business, which couldn’t be managed in this manner so this was taken into consideration too.

Reviewing invoice payment performance proved that only 55% of invoices were being paid on time, where the target was 95%. So, time for more exploring on why performance was low and what I found was PO’s were not being raised at the point of order (as the invoice date preceded the PO date), business areas were receiving their invoices directly (as they wanted to keep a copy), then raising a PO and posting the invoice to the PO Box address. Now what a way to avoid following procedure!

It took persuasion and negotiation to get business areas and suppliers to see the benefit of the new process, any new arrangement takes time, but with No PO No Pay being so innovative at the time, it was a challenge I was proud to succeed on, with payment performance moving up to 94% when the system bedded in.

Moving away from manual entry and paper invoices with No PO No Pay was just the beginning when I was asked to seek a contractor to support end to end electronic invoicing. Writing a specification (now that’s new!) was the first step of the procurement process to another very innovative arrangement to appoint a partner who had the technology. All of this whilst being promoted to Shared Services Manager now responsible for AP, AR and Cash Manager and 23 staff!

Twenty months later and 80% of our suppliers had been onboarded to a unique stand alone Procure to Pay supplier portal, no more paper or scanned invoices – we went paperless. And as an organisation we were first too, even some 20 years later I still see organisations just about to implement No PO No Pay!

What an achievement to be recognised by the Adam Smith Awards with Treasury Today to be Highly Commended, now there’s an achievement that I will always remember.

Added extras when moving to an electronic process allowed other improvements to be implemented as well.

  • Auto approval of purchase orders up to £500 and auto approval of the invoice too! Analysis of data showed that 47% of invoices received were for £500 or less, but the total of all of these invoices were valued at under 2% of the total annual budget – in effect too much time was spent on lower value invoices when the focus should be on higher.
  • Review of past AP data where manual input was undertaken resulted in being able to recoup duplicate payments to supplier at around £3m over a 5 year period. Duplicate invoice numbers, added characters, dots, dashes all to bypass the system saying the invoice was already there.
  • Cash refunds in partnership with the Post Office, where a customer for a one off refund doesn’t need to be created in the system, resulting in a turnaround from request to payment down to 10 days from over 30 days originally.

All innovations that helps make the process quicker and in turn then saves the organisation money and create a great relationship with suppliers, who were now clambering to work with us.

My next role was the pivotal in taking the biggest step of my career.

The organisation decided to work in partnership with 5 others to partner and create a single platform where all 6 would operate for HR, Procurement and Finance. I was asked to lead for AP in my organisation (on top of my day to day role at first), which was a huge opportunity and I knew it would need a lot of extra time, but I couldn’t miss out. And I didn’t, so much so that I was soon putting myself forward to manage all of the 6 stakeholders in the partnership and moved to the project full time.

I worked non stop to gather everyone’s requirements, I influenced others to the benefits of the way my organisation worked to ensure I didn’t allow our process to fall back and also took on some potential new processes that would future the system. It took around 15 months but I was relieved when at go live my organisation hadn’t fallen back. So business as usual was the order of the day and it was finally time to move on.

After 24 years and 9 months, I left my organisation to go it alone, but that’s where another story begins for me and I’ve never looked back.

In summary you have to use a lot of skills to be able to manage such a key area of any organisation; you need to be able to analyse data, see what it tells you, what you think you can change on your own or where you need others to help.

Bigger changes may require you to go to the marketplace to see what it has to offer, keep up to date with what the market officer’s, not everything would be suitable for your requirements, but some will.

Use your influence and persuade others even at the most senior level to be able to progress a change, make sure you have all the data you need to prove your concept and you then need to celebrate your successes when they happen (or go back and try again!).

All in all AP offers such exciting opportunities and I hope you can see this too!

Giuliana Quadernucci – Director – Account on Time Ltd