Long reads

From Purple Hearts in capital markets - to new value for an old forecasting friend

Scott Hamilton

Scott Hamilton

Contributing Editor, Finextra Research

The 2022 AFP Conference in Philadelphia featured a rousing final keynote from a local hero: Multi-best-selling author and seven-straight year Wharton School of Business favorite professor Adam Grant. Riffing on themes from his latest book Think Again, Grant used a number of clever, yet sincere quips, tricks, and anecdotes to challenge the packed ballroom audience of treasury professionals, bankers, and industry service providers to force themselves to look for new and different insights, let go of old, unproductive thoughts and habits. In fact, Grant, in his usual conversational, friendly manner didn’t hesitate to hammer home his key message: Think more ‘scientifically’ about things - to explore more of what we don’t already know, and get to answers that really work for business, and for people.

The AFP’s annual 4-day gathering in the City of Brotherly Love offered a convention center full of innovation and new ideas to an already robust financial industry. Roaming the meeting rooms and exhibit halls of this year’s event, Finextra found many interesting ideas and products to challenge the status quo, or offering new twists on old ways of doing things.

Two particularly interesting companies shared unique approaches, and the surprisingly sensible value they offer to financial practitioners.

One – Drexel Hamilton, is the only 100% veteran-owned and operated investment bank. We first heard of this firm as part of Goldman Sachs’s presentation in an earlier AFP session, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion forum, as GS leaders identified Drexel Hamilton as one of the investment bank’s key diverse broker dealer partners.

Walking up to the company’s booth on the exhibit floor, we ran straight into a friendly bundle of energy, intelligence, and drive. Trevor Brunell, an Associate in Drexel Hamilton’s Capital Markets group gave us a new appreciation for what this veteran-focused firm has dedicated itself to, and the advocacy and opportunity they provide to veterans of all stripes, especially the disabled among them.

Brunell described the journey he has personally taken into finance, while being mentored by company leaders and learning the investment banking business from the bottom-up. Describing the firm’s focus on hiring veterans from all branches of the service, he was bullish on the future – in fact as ebullient and enthusiastic about his mission to continue the firm’s impressive growth as he was determined to help others follow in his own steps.

Brunell’s energy and confidence gained even more meaning given the fact that the medically-retired ex-Army Ranger Staff Sergeant had been grievously injured during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East. Given a General’s field promotion to this rank after being wounded in a firefight in 2016, the Purple Heart recipient also received several other military awards.

But what the young man seemed most interested to talk about with a small group who gathered for a chat at Drexel Hamilton’s booth was his determination and enthusiasm to pay forward his opportunities and learnings in finance to others. We found out later he had spent two years as an advocate for fellow wounded soldiers recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. We thanked him for his service to his mission then, and now, in his new role at the fast-growing investment firm.

Another impressive innovator and outlier we found at AFP Philadelphia, albeit with a new take on a familiar, comfortable business tool, was Datarails. After an initial conversation with its sales head, Yair Areli and his team at the conference, we interviewed company CEO Didi Gurfinkel in more depth following the event.

He spoke to us about the company’s powerful, easy to use data consolidation and security options for Microsoft Excel devotees, especially those involved in corporate financial planning & analysis.

Echoing a theme that AFP highlighted in its just-released 2022 Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) Survey, “Measuring Agility in FP&A”, Gurfinkel told us the company was all about providing more flexibility and quicker decision-making abilities to financial managers, emphasising that many, maybe most of them, still use Microsoft Excel for their calculations and ‘what if’ projections. In his words, as the Tel Aviv and New York-based Datarails grew from its early roots in 2015, with a number of “ups and downs” along the way, their leaders noticed one intriguing phenomenon.

“We found a very interesting angle to this market,” Gurfinkel shared. “In the FP&A (area) they use Excel, they don’t want to leave Excel, and we offer a solution to (1) Automate their existing processes. Second, (to) provide analytics on top of their existing models, and existing statements.”

As for why so many of them do this, Gurfinkel said it’s clear that finance forecasting/scenario planning systems are still evolving, and even advances in data reporting automation can’t always meet exigent needs. Indeed, per the AFP’s FP&A survey, most of its respondents are scrambling to keep up with corporate demands amid rapid business and market developments. In fact, 65 percent of those surveyed answered “The FP&A team is working at or above 100% capacity.”

Datarails software is designed to “supercharge” Excel’s utility value for those already expert in its usage. But it also tackles some of its challenges, one big one being all the individual users in an organisation typically making changes to calculations, macros, and data outputs that comprise internal reports along the way. Many of those disparate numbers eventually find their way into major projections and presentations. And sometimes all those ‘hands in the pie’ generating and regenerating critical figures can generate concerns about security, or errors, or both.

These aren’t small concerns, but they are something that the relatively simple to learn (“probably a few hours, at most, a few days” for typical Excel users to master, says Gurfinkel) Datarails handles very well.

“The ability to take data from multiple sources – structured and unstructured – and consolidate it together and to keep working on it within Excel” is Datarails’s main attraction among FP&A professionals, said Gurfinkel.

“90% of them...regardless of size of company, still run (manual) financial processes in Excel.” And, as he pointed out, his firm’s software provides that ‘agility’ referred to in the survey, the flexibility to try new scenarios, right from within Excel, even on the fly.

These features make Datarails a very helpful tool to have, Gurfinkel said, when standing in front of the CEO during a quarterly meeting and being ‘drilled’ on various ad hoc, ‘what if’ financial options available – a functionality not typically offered by most financial or business intelligence software. An executive’s question that used to result in “I’ll get back to you” can instead be answered quickly with a few clicks into a report by a Datarails user, right in the room.

As a CEO himself, Gurfinkel emphasised that especially during times like the present, with inflation, supply chain constraints, cross-border operations, differing subsidiary systems, multiple currencies, and other challenges, the company’s software’ simplicity and flexibility have become indispensable for many FP&A managers. “This is exactly the environment…that Datarails can fit into…it’s an elastic product that actually adjusts and builds upon existing data models and existing processes.”

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