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Opportunity Knocks: How One FP&A Professional Got Started

  • By Jane Fitzgerald
  • Published: 7/29/2015
Jessica Cullinan never intended to get into financial planning and analysis (FP&A)—but things change. An JCunexpected work opportunity led her to alter her career path.

“I actually started in the accounting department as a fund accountant for a small company in Beltsville, Maryland,” she said. “When an opportunity opened up as a financial analyst in the FP&A department—which at the time consisted of two people, including the open position—I thought it would be interesting to try something new. I did, and I really liked it and my interests moved more toward finance than accounting.”

Cullinan never looked back. She currently works as a manager of FP&A at Connections Education, a provider of virtual education solutions for students in grades K–12 in Baltimore. She received her Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Salisbury University and earned her MBA with a specialization in finance from the University of Baltimore, a program that she credits with setting her on the FP&A path. The new mom also enjoys travelling, hiking, camping and running 5Ks with her husband.

AFP recently spoke with Cullinan.

AFP: How did you end up in your current position?

I started my MBA program in 2007 and I think that was a segue into determining that I wanted to work in the finance field. I had been working in finance/accounting for a few years, but my MBA program is where things started and led me to where I am today. I started as a financial analyst at Connections Education, and within a year, I was promoted to manager.

AFP: What has been the greatest influence on your career?

My MBA program is where I was able to finally decide where I wanted to focus my career, but Connections Education has also had a huge impact as well. I’ve learned a lot in the time that I’ve been here, and so much of that is attributed to the company promoting development in their employees. They trust our judgment, so we’re not micromanaged and have the freedom to brainstorm new ideas, change processes or develop processes to put in place.

AFP: Was there a specific project where you were able to take the lead or change processes?

When I first started at Connections Education, I was assigned the task of revamping the budgeting template. I was trusted with rebuilding a tool that was used company-wide. I had the freedom to put my thoughts into something and create a budgeting tool that was being used by all of our employees. I worked on it from start to finish—creating it, getting it implemented and training. It was similar to something that had been used in the past, but overall, it was a huge change for the company since it was a redesigned tool.

AFP: What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

What’s so rewarding is that the FP&A department works with everybody. We touch a little bit of everything, so we build relationships across the company—with marketing, operations, technology—not just within a specific department. Through those relationships, we get to be hands-on with building things that save time and money. Sometimes it’s as simple as an Excel formula or as big as building an automated tool for somebody that can save eight hours of manual labor. I think that’s really rewarding.

AFP: What’s your biggest work challenge right now?

Forecasting is kind of an ongoing challenge. Obviously with any budget or forecast, you have to be forward-thinking, which is really the nature of the FP&A department. However, it’s always challenging getting that information together and thinking through how things will look over the next year or two— or however long you’re forecasting ahead. It can be a challenge because you don’t know what the future holds or what things will look like.

AFP: Is there anything that helps you deal with the challenge of not being able to predict the future?

It goes back to building relationships. I think that communication is the key part of budgeting and forecasting. All the departments need to collaborate and communicate with each other to make sure that their goals are in line with the goals of other departments and the company’s overall strategic plan. It’s important to have meetings up front and talk about the vision for the company, so that’s one of the first things you want to do. It’s also important to look at historical trends to see if you are in-line with history. If not, why? What’s changing? What do you know about what is different in the market?

A longer version of this article appears in the July/August edition of AFP Exchange.

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