Automation and purposeful employment in finance go hand in hand at VYNCKE

24 April 2024

A carefully considered emphasis on automation will not necessarily impede employees’ sustainable career paths; quite the contrary. Biomass specialist VYNCKE and its Finance Department are living proof of that.

VYNCKE is a global player in converting biomass and industrial waste into clean electrical or thermal energy. This family business in West Flanders develops customized plants for generating electricity, steam, hot water, or thermal oil depending on the customer’s energy needs. Each year, VYNCKE receives some four hundred project applications from various sectors worldwide. It then proceeds with around thirty projects following a thorough screening process. “It is essential to have a diverse selection, both geographically and in terms of scope, to avoid ever falling victim to unexpected events,” said CFO Elke Toye. “After all, our aim is to ensure the continuity and growth of a family business that has existed since 1912.”

Elke Toye and her finance team have a vital yet challenging role within the organization, especially since VYNCKE operates in a volatile sector with many defining parameters, changes, and uncertainties. “We insist that we should be more than just the final link. We are involved throughout the process, from pre-sales to customer service, and closely monitor each project’s financial aspect. That way, we can spot any risks early and make small contractual shifts where necessary. These may be details, but they do make a big difference when things suddenly go wrong.” Controlling is now also a key step. “Following each project, we carry out thorough post-calculations that provide valuable insights for the budgeting of new projects.”

“The maturity of the finance team has come on in leaps and bounds,” said Carl-Philippe Verfaillie, Business Manager at TriFinance. “Only a few years ago, the department’s operations were mostly reactive. Today, finance can act as a business partner and contribute ideas to the business at every step of the project. In this way, VYNCKE’s growth as a company and that of its staff truly go hand in hand.”

Repetitive tasks without added value are now a thing of the past. The scope of tasks has become more diverse.

Automation brings greater human added value

When Elke Toye – Trends CF’Hope of the Year – joined VYNCKE as a global finance manager in 2020, she recognized there was quite some room for improvement. “Invoice processing and consolidation were still done manually, which presented an opportunity to make great strides with relatively small efforts. For example, we now use a tool that combines RPA and AI for automatic invoice entry. The inherent complexity of our operations makes it impossible to fully automate such processes, yet with today’s 83% success rate, we can eliminate quite a few manual operations.”

Thanks to the addition of a smart ERP system – The Brain, a dataset developed in-house that combines all financial and non-financial data in a structured way – and some other special tools, for example, to generate VAT records, we have eliminated a whole range of time-consuming tasks. “Repetitive tasks without added value are now a thing of the past. The scope of tasks has become more diverse: our finance staff check output and have more time for value-added analysis.”

It cannot be denied that VYNCKE’s finance department has achieved significant efficiency gains, partly because digitization enables standardized reporting. Nevertheless, Elke Toye primarily refers to the human factor when she discusses the benefits of automation in finance. “When you waste at least three hours during a working day merging a bunch of spreadsheets and scanning PDFs, you will undoubtedly start wondering about your scope of tasks at the end of the day. In contrast, a team that gets to focus on carrying out analyses that demand human expertise and are more fun to do will be noticeably more motivated. It also makes it possible for staff to develop their skills in other areas. For instance, soft skills have become far more essential.”

As such, automation is an essential catalyst for VYNCKE’s sustainable career policy. Furthermore, automation serves a dual purpose in a tight labor market. The increased productivity reduces the number of vacancies, and meaningful work is a strong differentiator in attracting and retaining talent.

The value of a long-term prospect

Elke Toye says it is imperative to look ahead and closely monitor the developments in the organization’s other business areas. This is the only way that you can truly offer your staff sustainable career perspectives. “The finance department must keep up with the digitization being accomplished elsewhere. That is the only way to always keep serving the greater good. At the same time, having a clear idea of your staff’s future aspirations is vital. Our challenge lies in reconciling the two. I do this by, for example, making sure that all my staff have a clear idea of the future of the company and the finance department, and having regular talks with them about their careers. It is just as important to me to keep pushing them to think outside the box, not only about processes and procedures but also their own development.”

Elke Toye
Elke Toye

Ownership as a key success factor

A key step in successfully implementing new systems is explaining to staff why we are implementing new tools and exactly how these can help them in their daily work. Yet, from the perspective of a genuinely sustainable career, this means you skip an essential step. “In a perfect world, the initiative would come from the staff themselves, or at least the ultimate end-users would help build the new tools,” explains Elke Toye, emphasizing the core concept of ownership. “By involving them and allowing them to provide input, you create more qualitative systems tailored to the actual needs of someone’s specific role. Moreover, thanks to technological support, staff will be far more motivated to get started with their new tools or perform their roles in slightly different ways.”

Staff in organizations that value ownership do not consider automation a threat. They see these tools not as entities to replace them but as a means to perform their tasks more efficiently and downright better. “If there is still some resistance, stepping back and listening to the concerns is appropriate. Also, implementation should be gradual, allowing everyone to grow with it.”

Each employee will be given a tailor-made path to facilitate their personal growth, for example, through external or internal courses or by gradually taking on a new role with the necessary on-the-job support.

Upskilling and reskilling

There is no question that automation, by definition, leads to changing job descriptions. Some employees will be given AI assistants and need to improve their digital skills; others will progress to new positions, such as from bookkeeping to controlling. There is a genuine need for upskilling and reskilling, as well as for a sustainable talent strategy. “What new skills will someone need in terms of an evolving scope of tasks? Or what skills will a bookkeeper need to fine-tune to progress to a position as a controller? These are the kinds of questions that come up during our annual reviews. Accordingly, each employee will be given a tailor-made path to facilitate their personal growth through external or internal courses or by gradually taking on a new role with the necessary on-the-job support.”

In this respect, Elke Toye emphasizes that the staff and organization have a shared responsibility. While finance colleagues are expected to avoid getting stuck in their roles and venture out of their comfort zones to shape their careers, it is important for executives and the HR department to provide the necessary incentives and guidance. This is certainly not a luxury, as the value of having a well-honed learning muscle will not diminish any time soon. “Looking at the evolution of AI, there is clearly a lot in store for us in the years to come. Obviously, turning all bookkeepers into AI experts is unrealistic, yet everyone in finance will have to learn new skills regardless.”

A close-knit corporate culture

A family business such as VYNCKE also has a strong focus on monitoring the close-knit corporate culture and a healthy work-life balance. “I always try to clearly allocate tasks so that everyone knows where they stand regarding timing and accountability. We also work with properly agreed procedures and rules to ease the team’s workload even more. Furthermore, we have an after-hours disconnection policy, in which evening and weekend work is excluded, and peaks in workload are followed by quieter periods.” In fact, the Harelbeke headquarters has numerous recreational facilities. There is even an orchard, a vineyard, and a padel court next to the building, which are small but meaningful aspects of the policy. “Finally, we often make time to celebrate small successes. This may seem insignificant, but we really consider it a sign of appreciation.”

Flexibility, eagerness to learn, and self-confidence

On a final note, how do you ensure, as a finance professional, that you remain sustainably employable within the rapidly changing world? “Obviously, it is still essential to fully master your profession – in a complex world, a solid foundation in bookkeeping remains crucial – but you also need to be able to deal with a constantly evolving sector. Today, basic qualities include flexibility and eagerness to learn. And of course, self-confidence: you need to know that you have skills that a computer can never replace.” For precisely that reason, Elke Toye emphasizes the value of soft skills. “Today’s finance professionals also need to be strong communicators. Because if you want to have an impact and help to direct your business, you also need to be able to tell the story behind the figures.”

We insist that finance should be more than just the final link. We closely monitor each project’s financial aspect. That way, we can spot any risks early.

Talent Perspectives 2024

We live in a volatile, complex, ambiguous, and uncertain world. In 5 years’ time, finance jobs will be very different from today. However, no one can estimate precisely how they will change, which new roles will be added, and which will disappear.

Finance professionals who have the skills to deal with change, the desire to learn, and the ability to reinvent themselves will be the leaders of the future. The same applies to businesses with a sustainable talent approach to guide their employees in this and continuously work to match the needs of the business with those of individual employees.