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The Top Challenges for Insurance Accountants Part II

In Part II of our ongoing Flexi Education Series, we sit down and talk to Michelle Lucero, Senior Accountant at New Mexico Mutual

Marc Meyer: Hi Michelle, thanks for taking the time to talk all things insurance and accounting, I really appreciate it.

Michelle Lucero: No problem

MM: How long have you been working at New Mexico Mutual?

ML: About 4.5 years.

MM: What’s one of your main challenges?

ML: Right now, my main challenge is that I do everything! We do not have a single focus such as AP or AR. We do it all.

We have ten companies, and we are responsible for the full close cycle of those companies, from beginning to end every month, quarter, and annual closing. Each of our accountants is responsible for at least two companies, sometimes up to four.

So, it is easy to say what our biggest challenge is, not just for me and my team but for the insurance industry as a whole and probably many industries. It is moving away from all the manual work and finding ways to automate our accounting!

MM: Would you say you are at the crossroads of manual processes and automation?

ML: Actually, we are at the very beginning. We are in talks now of how we can do it. With 150 employees, we are still a relatively small company. So unlike large companies that can more quickly “just do it,” we are at the beginning of discussions: what it looks like, how it can work for us, and how to implement.

MM: What about on a day-to-day level. What keeps you in the weeds? What are those things that come up every day that you cannot escape?

ML: Definitely manual processes, especially recons. I handle all of our bank account reconciliations, and everything is manual. As any accountant knows, reconciliations are extremely time consuming. With no automation behind it, it can be a very tedious process, like “copy the GL, paste it in here, and then manually compare your expenses against your bank data.

In addition to our big accounts, I also do all the benefit reconciliations too. And it’s pretty much the same process, including all the manual work.

MM: A couple of years ago I did some consulting work with a company in the RPA space. The ongoing concern or belief at the time was that RPA was going to eliminate jobs, but in your case, it sounds like automation would be a good thing for your company. Do you feel that way?

ML: I do. I agree with that. RPA and automation will provide opportunities for data analysis and enable us to actually look at the big picture. Right now, we can’t do that because we’re so busy looking at the small picture and the details of the constant manual work, we don’t have the time to look beyond that.

If anything, I think the bigger problem is that people are automated (robotic) in their thinking. When our thoughts are, “this is what I’ve got to do and this is why I’ve got to do it and this is when it’s got to be done,” there is nobody looking at the bigger things that matter more. So yes, there are a lot of opportunities for automation, not just in our processes but also changing mindsets.

MM: Ok, let’s talk more about the challenges. We discussed how adopting automation is a challenge for your company and probably many others. Are there any other (challenges) you face, for example, trying to juggle ten different companies? Is it trying to automate processes across the board?

ML: I think the challenges are one in the same. It’s the automation part for sure. But, because we have ten companies, our largeness mitigates a lot of problems that we might have.

One thing to keep in mind is that because we have ten companies, there is a lot of repetition in our accounting. We’re doing the same thing but for a different company, over and over again. It’s the same reports, just different numbers. Thus, if we had automation in place it would help exponentially. We could apply those time savings across all our companies!

MM: Interesting. So, after all is said and done, it does come down to automation as the main challenge. That’s awesome that you can identify it without doubt, or at least it is if you are going to do something about it.

ML: Right. But I also think the challenge of automation is that it deters other employees from wanting to learn the job. They don’t want to get down in the weeds and perform all this manual work.

For example, I’m going to be on maternity leave soon, so I am trying to teach somebody else the job and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it because of the manual part of it. It scares her.

This is one of the hidden problems associated with NOT automating and continuing to do manual work. It can become a problem for companies in attracting new talent, especially with a younger generation and potential employees who are looking at a business as “all manual.”

MM: Chicken or the egg, right? Ok, so you got two questions left and you’re doing great! So, in your four years there, how have newer technologies and data security affected your world? What has changed from day one to now for you?

ML: Our reporting software. We used to use this really, old school software but that has changed for the better. That was a big change because it allowed us to reduce our manual work. Also moving to cloud-based services, like I know Flexi has one and we plan on utilizing that later this year when I get back from my leave. From a security standpoint, moving to cloud-based services is a great thing. It also allows our IT department to focus on other security issues.

MM: You know it’s interesting to see how cloud computing is rolling in like a fog into the accounting industry but there are still some on-prem hold-outs out there. But in the end, the cloud is the way to go. It’s pretty evident right?

ML: Yes, it frees up a lot of our servers and we spend a lot of money on servers. It’s even affected our AP function – we no longer use paper. Nobody is turning in paper anymore. Within my four years that’s been a big change. For example, I sit next to the AP Clerk and I used to see stacks of check requests but now we’re using Flexi Workflow and now everything is more automated and more organized, with much less room for error. It all really helps and that’s another automation perk that’s really beneficial.

MM: What’s on your wish list? What are you looking forward to when you come back from maternity leave?

ML: Ironically, I just got promoted last week and my boss mentioned that she wants me to drive the automation push. So, my first thing I want to do when I come back is move to Flexi’s cloud accounting software. That will be my first project.

After that, I want to work with our BA team so that we can look at where do we begin with the automation of our reports and possibly working with Flexi to see if we can do some type of accounting automation with our monthly entries. So those are my two biggies when I get back.

MM: How do you feel about AI?

ML: I’d welcome it, but I think we’re years away. Though I do think AI in accounting is applicable, or will be. You were talking about fraud earlier, I think that given that people are so in the weeds with work it’s easy for things to get overlooked or for people to game the system. So I think AI would be helpful in recognizing fraud. It would also again, allow people to focus on other things. So, it’s not taking jobs away but rather expanding knowledge and expanding the job.

MM: Two minutes left. What do you love about your job?

ML: My manager and my department. They are wonderful. Like, they’re awesome. I have a great team, great manager and great co-workers. I love that I’m given the opportunity to look for other ways of becoming more efficient and/or change things. They’re always open to new ideas. I love that I’m able to learn everything, it’s not just one section, my knowledge base increases constantly.

MM: You’ve been working from home since Covid hit?

ML: Yes and honestly, working from home has increased my productivity and my focus; no distractions. In fact, I’m amazed what I’ve done from home in a year versus what I could have done in the office.

MM: Michelle, we are done. I want to thank you for your time, your answers were awesome. Good luck on maternity leave and we will talk to you soon. Thank you so much.

ML: Thank you!

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