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Building a Finance Department From the Ground Up: 3 Questions With Bellhops CFO Adam Shearer

No matter how excited you might be to move into a new home, the actual process can be very stressful. It also can be expensive, even if you're just moving across town and doing all the heavy lifting yourself. Bellhops, an app-based, on-demand moving company, is working to make the moving experience easier and less expensive for “do-it-yourselfers" who need to make a small or midsize, short-distance residential move.

The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company was founded in 2011 as a service catering to students moving into college dorms. Today, Bellhops operates in more than 50 markets across the United States with a legion of thousands of locally based “bellhops." All bellhops are college students who are at least 18 years old and work for $40 per hour.

Bellhops was founded in a venture incubator, which it began transitioning out of in December 2014 after securing Series A funding. That's also when Bellhops hired Adam Shearer from a Big 4 accounting firm to become its first CFO and build its finance organization from the ground up. We recently spoke to Shearer about his experience — and learned how technology is playing a vital role in helping Bellhops manage its growth.

You had to build Bellhops' finance department from scratch. What did that involve?

When Bellhops was in the incubator phase, all back-office operations were handled by the investors. This allowed our founders to focus on product development and customer acquisition and to scale quickly using limited resources. My job was to assume all of those back-office responsibilities so that Bellhops would no longer be dependent on the incubator.

Today, as CFO, I am responsible for business intelligence (BI), accounting, finance and internal operations, which includes human resources (HR), human capital management and legal. I started out as a team of one, but have since hired four accountants, four BI analysts, two finance specialists and two HR professionals. I also selected and implemented every system and resource that we use at Bellhops, from our HR information systems to our accounting systems to our 401(k) providers.

How are your technology decisions helping to support Bellhops as it grows?

Everything is highly automated and integrated. So, we haven't needed to scale our headcount to the degree that you might expect. For example, when we hire someone, that person is onboarded electronically through a certain platform, which talks to our payroll provider. That platform, in turn, talks to our 401(k) provider so that they know a new employee has been added to the plan and we need to start matching their contributions. And when those matches happen, or when payroll payments are made, everything is automatically recorded.

Because all of our systems have been built to speak to each other, it eliminates a lot of the manual work you would traditionally find in an accounting and back-office operation. In addition to allowing us to stay lean, it gives us more time to focus on activities that will add more value to the organization.

Another way we maintain efficient operations is by using PEX Visa® Prepaid Cards. With PEX, we can provide our distributed workforce around the country with a means of purchasing power that’s easy for us to track and control. Bellhops who handle full-service moves use the cards to rent trucks and buy fuel. We can instantly fund their PEX Card, monitor usage, and then defund the card as soon as the move is complete. This helps us to reduce risk, as well. 

Do you have any advice for other finance leaders at fast-growing companies like Bellhops?

One mistake many startups make is not focusing on foundational-level engineering in the finance organization from the beginning. If you don't do it early, it is hard to play catch-up later. You will struggle to be agile.
You also want to ramp up quickly and be able to implement data into your decision-making. We are heavily focused on data and metrics at Bellhops. We collect data at every touch point — from acquiring bellhops to serving our customers. There are thousands of data points, and we store them all within an internally developed database.

Historically, many finance people would rely on canned reports provided to them for analysis. We're far beyond that at our company. We decided early on to make data very accessible across our organization. You don't have to be a highly trained software engineer to mine the data. You just need a little training and a solid understanding of the SQL database language.

I really think any finance leader today who doesn't have the skill set to find the data that they need on their own is behind the curve.

Jane Irene Kelly, who has two decades of professional writing, editing and reporting experience, writes about business and technology. Jane is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and resides in Pennsylvania.

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