City of Houston and Houston Airport System


Posted by Rachel Raymond

Topic(s): Success Stories, ACFR, Workiva

Read Time: minute(s)

Houston, we have a solution.

Project: ACFR Automation
Organizations: City of Houston Controller's Office & Houston Airport System
City's Population: 6.8 million
Solution: Workiva Wdesk & Wdata

Occasionally, two connected organizations hire FHB to guide them through implementations concurrently. Such was the case for the Office of the Controller at the City of Houston, Texas, and Houston Airport System.  

While FHB Principal Consultant Joy Richardson, CPA, was leading the Controller’s office through automation of their ACFR process, her colleague, FHB Principal Consultant Jill Moats, CPA, began working with Houston Airport System to automate theirs. The Airport project was expected to trail behind the City’s project by about two months. However, in the end, the two implementations were wrapped up within one week of each other. nicki_quote-3

The Challenges

When we met the two teams, each of their ACFR preparation processes was manual and cumbersome, requiring a great deal of data entry. Former Deputy City Controller–Financial Reporting at the City of Houston, Beverly Riggans, CPA, knew the process needed to be modernized, and spearheaded the effort.  “We used spreadsheets, linking, PDFs,” said Conrad Lin, Deputy Director–Financial Reporting, Office of the City Controller, City of Houston. “If we changed one page number, we’d have to [manually] change 25 other page numbers,” he said.  

Collaboration within each separate team was tenuous at best. “[We saved] the spreadsheet into network folders, and you could only have one person in there [at a time]. So, [you’d] see emails coming through saying, ‘can you get out of the file?’,” said Conrad.

Collaboration between the two teams was also challenging. “The airport would prepare their own financial statements, and then send a spreadsheet to the City Controller, who would then…enter it into the controller’s spreadsheet. And sometimes…the captions were different, they may have entered it in the wrong line…once it [was] published, the lines [wouldn’t] line up…it just caused a lot of a lot of issues between the departments,” said Conrad. 

 “Government’s having a hard time hiring people—qualified, experienced reporting personnel. So, we have to figure out some way to utilize technology to do some of the job,” said Conrad. 


Leaving Nothing to Chance

Both the Airport and City teams chose to implement Workiva for ACFR automation. Out of the box, the software is a blank slate to be built upon. With the right skills and knowledge, it becomes a powerful tool for process optimization. 

Why Not Self-implement? 
While some finance teams might opt to self-implement automation software, Conrad advises against it. “I wouldn't think that would be a good idea…because the system is definitely more sophisticated and more complicated… you need some experience with it in order to set it up correctly…doing it yourself…it would take a lot of trial and error to get it to work. And typically, a regular user wouldn't know how to write a script…even if you [get assistance with] those very technical parts of the system…to do the initial setup, it will help a lot. [If there are] issues later on, you're going to be spending more time and money to try to fix it [rather than] just doing it correctly from the start,” he said. 

Conrad recalled that the City’s Combined Utilities team elected to self-implement a similar solution. It took them three years, and there are still a lot of updates to be made to the setup in Workiva, he added.

For any city like Houston—large and complicated, with multiple entities they're trying to connect—self-implementation would be exceptionally difficult. “I’d say it would be impossible for the controllers to just set up the whole thing…you could have a whole team of two or three employees just working on [it] year-round for five years, trying to get it all integrated and connected,” Conrad said. 

A Powerful Partnership 
Both the City and the Airport System were very pleased with FHB’s performance and partnership. “Joy was very knowledgeable. She’s been an auditor. So, [our] implementation was great,” said Conrad.   

Nicki at the Airport System provided similar feedback. “Jill was awesome…Jill, [FHB Technical Consultant Michael Spurlin], [Principal Consultant Faith Olanepikun, CPA], all of them, were really quick to respond. Communication was seamless. We were able to get everything done right away, with no issues at all,” she said.  

Nicki appreciated that the FHB team was transparent about what they could accomplish, rather than trying to placate her team.  

“[FHB] was very good at letting us know what we could and could not actually do. They didn't...commit to something that they knew wasn't possible, which I really appreciate.”
–Nicki Thibodeaux 

Public Sector Expertise 
In addition to their software expertise, all of FHB’s Principal Consultants are CPAs who bring decades of public sector experience to every implementation. “They have seen many governments’ financials and they have worked in government,” Conrad said.

When asked, on a scale of one to 10, how important government experience was for a successful implementation, he replied, “A 10. I saw another implementation, without the experience, and there were multiple issues, missing pieces, costly to fix… they didn't have the knowledge of the accounting or the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) requirements. You have to have governmental experience to…know how to fix the issues,” he said.  

The Resultshouston_blog_arrow

Nicki is relieved that many opportunities for manual error have been eliminated from the Airport System’s ACFR process. “...everything is crossfooted with the data validation table…[with] the linking, we put our number in one spot and it goes to the five places that it needs to go to... so, a lot of that tedious crossfooting [is taken care of].”

Time and Cost Savings 
The Airport System is grateful for the time savings their new process will bring. “I think typically, [our] ACFR [isn’t] released till the end of December. And we were literally done on our deadline, which was Nov. 15—a month and a half early. Everybody sees how much [this implementation] has improved our process, immediately,” she said. 

Conrad’s team saw similar results. Last year marked their first time meeting the ACFR deadline. “I don't think it had ever happened ‘til last year…we actually finished it,” he said. 

For Conrad and his team, the implementation resulted in a time savings of 75 percent, reducing four months of work (for 10 people) down to one month, he said. This dramatic reduction in workload means “more efficiency and less stress for the staff, and reduced turnover,” Conrad said. It also means savings of approximately $150,000 for the City, which can be dedicated to other projects.


Benefits of Concurrent Projects

When connected teams within a larger organization implement the same solution concurrently, they are bound to see additional benefits beyond what is typically expected. This was true for the Airport System and the Controller’s Office.  
“The fact that [FHB] did the City and [Airport System] at the same time, we saw right away how that benefited both sides. We have a lot of work papers that were fed from the Airport to the City, and [vice-versa]. And your team was able to implement that,” said Nicki. “I loved how Jill and Joy were able to collaborate…to use the work Joy did in the first month [with the City] to speed up [Jill’s] work on the Airport,” she said. 

Having FHB work with both the Airport and the City, “eliminated a lot of unnecessary conflict,” said Conrad. “It’s good that the same firm [got] everything set up at once and applied the same standards, procedures, that really helps,” he said.   

Because the two systems were interconnected and using the same software, communication and collaboration were simpler and timelier. Nicki appreciated, “the synergy of being able to use the software with the two reporting entities and [the way] Conrad was able to add comments to [the Airport’s documents] was real time [collaboration]...there was no delay,” she said. 

It's much easier now that we have all the workspaces connected to the airport…[the Airport] pushes [data] to [the City], the Airport [has] access to [the City data], and we [can] look at it together at the same time, so there's no difference between [the two]. And it's a much quicker process,” said Conrad. Having the two systems integrated saved the City “days of time,” he said.


What's Next?

As a testament to the effectiveness of FHB’s training, Conrad and Beverly successfully added their “trends” report (a shorter, simpler report than the ACFR) into their new system without any guidance. In the future, “we want to learn how to write script and…how to get different reports…so if we need to create another monthly or quarterly report, it doesn’t affect the ACFR file,” he said. Conrad’s team is also open to discussion with FHB about future Treasury and GASB work.


Did you know?  
FHB offers a live, CPA-led course on Structured Query Language (SQL) and the basics of chains.  
Register for Workiva 201 today. 


With the Controller’s and Airport System’s projects successfully completed, the City’s Finance Department is now looking to optimize their monthly financial reporting process, Conrad said. 

Nicki and the Airport System team have their eyes on a couple of additional projects as well, around financial close reconciliations and interim reporting/variance analysis. “So, we'll probably be reaching out [to FHB] as we get to those,” she said. 

We’re always curious as to whether our clients would recommend partnering with FHB, knowing what they know once implementation is complete. When we asked Nicki, she did not hesitate to reply. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” she said. 

For more on this topic(s), see: Success Stories, ACFR, Workiva

Originally Posted on 06 March, 2024

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