Last month, AFP’s Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) Advisory Council met virtually to discuss the current and developing areas of focus pertinent to FP&A. The mission of the FP&A Advisory Council is to support AFP in its goal of being the global resource and advocate for the finance profession.
Ken Fick, member of the FP&A Advisory Council and vice president of FP&A at Berkeley Research Group LLC, briefly discussed the unique career path that led him to where he is today. AFP sat down with Fick to dive deeper into his career journey, goals for the FP&A Advisory Council and advice for aspiring FP&A professionals.
Describe the career path that led you to where you are today. How did you get into FP&A as a line of work?
As many others who have focused their careers within FP&A, my path has been a long and winding road. My father has an MBA in finance, but he regretted not getting his CPA at a young age. He encouraged me to get a degree in accounting and to sit for the CPA exam. Instead, after receiving my bachelor’s degree, I entered Circuit City’s Finance Management Training Program in Richmond, where I was able to rotate into different finance roles every 9-18 months.
My first position was in internal audit, then a supervisor in their credit card bank, and finally in strategic planning, where I worked on a variety of different projects that I greatly enjoyed. I ended my rotation by accepting a position in the Strategic Planning Department.
That was my first foray into the world of planning. I have an endless curiosity and am interested in any type of planning position (strategic, financial, operations, etc.) that allows you to think about the art of the possible without the constraints of the actual. The idea of working to forecast the financial future, not because you think it will come true, but to change and influence it to achieve the desired outcome, was fascinating to me and I wanted to learn more.
After a couple years, I left Circuit City and accepted a position in Capital One’s FP&A group, which was also located in Richmond. Along the way, I sat for the CPA exam and became licensed in Virginia.
At Capital One, I furthered my FP&A education by adding the complexities of a heavily regulated but hugely profitable world of consumer finance. That is also where I decided I needed to get into management consulting.
Capital One hired consultants for a variety of reasons, and they would frequently come to my cube to ask me detailed questions about various processes, metrics and ideas on how a very complex organization like Capital One functioned. My ideas and recommendations would then be presented to someone in leadership, who inevitably would believe they were (sometimes) brilliant, and implement them. After the second or third time this happened, I thought: if I want my ideas to matter and get the recognition, I need to get into management consulting.
I always intended to go back to get my MBA at some point, so I enrolled in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary and received my MBA with the intention of becoming a management consultant afterwards. After getting my MBA, I was able to leverage my CPA (thanks, Dad!) and my previous FP&A experience to gain a position at FTI Consulting, one of the largest forensic, litigation and corporate restructuring consulting firms in the world.
Why forensic accounting? I knew I could learn a lot from people smarter than me and feed my desire for continuous learning. I spent almost seven years at FTI, learning from some of the world’s leading economists, accountants and finance minds. It was hard, extremely stressful, a long commute when in the office, frequent unexpected travel, long hours and political. It was horrible in so many ways, and at the same time I would not have traded it for the world.
While at FTI, I began my writing and public speaking career by publishing an article in the Journal of Accountancy on Securitizations in 2008. This publication led to other articles in Commercial Lending and The CPA Journal, as well as public speaking opportunities. I used to be scared to write. Do I know more than someone else? What if I am wrong? Who would want to read anything I did? I found out that people everywhere feel the same way, and that is why few take the chance. I continue to write and speak on various financial topics today, although not as much as I would like.
So, how does a CPA, MBA get hooked up in FP&A again? In 2010, I knew I had to leave FTI for my and my family’s health and sanity. I had a short stint working as a consultant with Fannie Mae’s economics team, then I left to be a senior director of corporate finance and FP&A at a $1B+ commercial printer and marketing company, then managing director of a mortgage compliance consulting firm startup, CFO of a digital marketing agency, and director of strategy and transformation at mid-sized consulting firm. And now I am at my current position as the vice president of FP&A for a large specialty consulting firm.
How do all the above experiences add up? The best FP&A professionals I know travel a winding road. They hone their business skills through flexibility, increase their tolerance of uncertainty, and most importantly, they very rarely say no. Confidence only comes from trying and knowing that whatever the outcome, you know you can make it work.
As I reflect on my life and career now, I have found that the best times in my life were not when I achieved a goal or status, but the periods in between when the future seemed endless and the possibilities infinite. In many ways, those periods of time define people who thrive in the world of FP&A.
Of your many roles, FP&A seems to be where your heart is. Why is that?
I thrive in the art of the possible. FP&A is the only area I know that allows me to be curious, to learn, teach, influence, observe and directly see the effects on a single enterprise. All this must be done with little direct authority but significant influence. Having great ideas and producing good work means nothing if you cannot communicate it effectively to the people that matter and effectuate change.
I have bounced back and forth between working within an enterprise and as a consultant for most of my career, and I may continue to do so for the rest of it as well. However, the only difference between FP&A and management consulting is the ability to focus your energy on driving change on a singular entity and then seeing the results. In management consulting, you can do the same thing but do not always get the chance to see what happens next and why.
What does the future of FP&A look like to you?
It looks uncertain — as it should. FP&A is a function that an enterprise does not need. A company needs accounting to close the books and send reports to external parties; it needs marketing, operations supply chains, and human resources, but they do not need FP&A.
Outside of a SWAG forecast that can be created using basic Excel skills, the function of FP&A must continuously justify its existence by providing insight into the economic world in and around it, and the place that the business can and should exist, now and in the future. Done well, it is a thing of beauty that drives exponential increases in enterprise value like a catalyst in a chemical reaction.
FP&A’s true value is not in the art of forecasting itself — although financial forecasting by itself holds great value — but in the piercing of the fog of business and charting an uncertain path forward toward the unknown but likely outcome.
What are the challenges within FP&A that need to be solved to get to that future?
The blend of analytics and influence. What good is perfect information about the future if no one believes you? The challenge is blending the analytical and technical skills with the soft skills of communication and persuasion to initiate action. An FP&A department by itself holds very little direct power within an enterprise but can wield a great deal of influence.
What are your goals for being on AFP's FP&A Advisory Council?
My goal is to help define the evolving role of FP&A professionals, what it means to be one and what it takes to become one.
Any advice for young aspiring FP&A professionals?
Be curious, and never say no.
AFP members have access to the FP&A Career Planning Tool, which allows financial professionals to navigate their career by thinking about various times, activities and plans to achieve their goals. Don’t miss out on the wide variety of FP&A sessions at AFP 2021, taking place Nov. 7–10 in Washington, D.C. Learn more.