An independent audit or review of a company’s financial statements by external auditors has been a keystone of confidence in the world’s financial markets since its introduction. However, when discussing the value of audited or reviewed financial statements with privately held, middle-market business owners and operators, their views might fall more along the lines of obligation to bank terms rather than any true benefit to the business. In fact, industry-focused audit teams can deliver many business insights. With the help of an audit team, business owners can improve controls and operational inefficiencies while gaining a sense of best practices within their industry. An annual audit or review can support proper regulatory reporting and compliance, implementation of accounting standards in a timely manner and improved company KPIs for forecasting.
It’s a rare experience when clients are truly happy to see their audit team.
They may like the people on the team and value their experience, but they may not enjoy the requests for data, the potential on-site distractions or the issues an audit team may discover.
As a CPA and career auditor in the Dallas area, I didn’t know if I could offer a different spin on this subject. Google tells us that an audit is defined as an official inspection — typically by an independent body — of an individual’s or organization’s accounts. A review is defined as a formal assessment or examination of something with the possibility or intention of instituting change if necessary. Based on those definitions, it started to take shape in my mind…official inspection? Formal assessment or examination? None of those sound all that amusing to get business owners to appreciate the experience.
OK, I am under no illusion to make the case that an audit or review will be amusing. However, I can provide some insight on how an audit or review is helpful beyond satisfying a bank’s (or other financial institution’s) credit requirements. The larger — and often unsung — benefits to a business owner are worth the effort.
What are the benefits of an audit or review of financial statements?
We’ve already mentioned the obligatory reasons that companies schedule audits or reviews. Depending on the requirements of a bank or financial institution, business owners will need to seek an independent and outside perspective on the company’s financial statements. The chosen audit services team, at a minimum, should be able to review documents, processes and procedures and then issue an educated opinion on the general health of the financial statements.
I say “at a minimum” because that is all the audit services team is really engaged to do. To get the job done, they can go down their checklist, issue an opinion and get out of the business owner’s way. For some business owners, that may be enough. For others, there can be many more benefits to the audit or review experience.
A focused audit planning meeting in the fourth quarter is really the best place to start. With an experienced audit team, this doesn’t have to take long. They should ask questions about what’s going on in the business now as well as the owner’s short- and long-term goals; it helps the auditors look for issues, develop a plan for the engagement and open the lines of communication between management and the audit team. Prior to the audit planning meeting with the client, the engagement team will meet to review the previous years’ audit to give the whole team proper context on the client, its operations, areas for improved efficiency and unique things about the client and the engagement.
Bringing years of experience from other business situations is another plus during this planning meeting. The common complaint of having to “educate” the audit team about your company or industry shouldn’t happen during the audit. An experienced team will already have that knowledge base and use their time for constructive feedback throughout the engagement.
Speaking of consulting, keep this in mind. As a business grows, the complexity of a finance department changes. General bookkeeping gives way to the need for internal accounting staff, then a controller, then possibly a CFO. Companies traditionally engaged a CPA firm to support historic accounting, tax and assurance services, but as the competitive stakes get higher, owners need more sophisticated advisory services to keep pace with change. Auditors should ask the question: Why are you doing it that way? If the answer is: “That’s how we’ve always done it,” then it’s an opportunity for real time insight during the audit engagement. An audit team should not be viewed only as an enforcement agency that stops business owners from breaking the rules.
When looking for an audit services team, owners and/or audit committees have to consider what they are really receiving from the engagement. Here are a few key characteristics to consider:
- Does the audit team have industry-specific experience that can provide broader industry insights?
- Is the audit team aware of industry and technical regulatory requirements that are specific to the company’s industry?
- Has the audit team worked with similarly sized businesses to understand best practices for accounting requirements, company reports, controls and disclosures?
- Has the audit team provided insight on accounting department staff capacity and levels of experience as they relate to the size of the company and its growth goals?
- Will the audit team share operational best practices beyond providing baseline assurance on the financial statements?
This list may be considered above and beyond the confines of a typical audit or review — and owners may wonder if the price tag goes with it. In fact, an experienced audit services team can note many of these needs or issues within the timeline and hours of a competitively priced audit engagement. They know what to look for and can do it efficiently.
Mike Rizkal, CPA, is a Partner in Cornwell Jackson’s Audit and Attest Service Group. He provides a variety of services to privately held, middle-market businesses with a focus in the construction, real estate, manufacturing, distribution, professional services and technology industries. He also oversees the firm’s ERISA practice, which includes the audits of approximately 75 employee benefit plans.