Since its founding in 1957, Liberty Group has grown from being a South African life insurer to a pan-African financial services company offering asset management, investment, insurance, and health products to 3.2 million people across Africa. Through understanding the power of knowledge, Liberty strives to pioneer new ways to guide people toward financial freedom.
Liberty had relied on an in-house substantiation and attestation tool, Account Management System (AMS), for years. Yet as business requirements changed and financial controls became a key focus, leadership realized that instead of custom building AMS we should find the best in the market tool for financial controls and to modernize our finance environment.
“With AMS, it was rather difficult to meet, with a high confidence level, all attestation requirements. People would tick a box that an account had been attested to after a reconciliation was performed manually, printed and signed,” says Lisa Bird, lead specialist internal financial control at Liberty. “We also needed a solution that could handle profit-center accounting, which was required as part of our Finance Architecture program.”
Ms. Bird, and her team were “under a huge amount of pressure” to replace the outdated AMS tool—and to enable modernize financial hygiene and a best practice financial control environment.
“We needed to improve the efficiency, accountability, and control of the balance sheet account substantiating process and the reporting across the Liberty Group Finance function. We also wanted to ensure transparency, better governance, and control across the entire record-to-report process.”
After reviewing numerous systems, the team selected BlackLine’s Account Reconciliations and Variance Analysis modules.
“BlackLine came out on top. The entire reconciliation could be done in BlackLine, which would give us more visibility and transparency. We would finally know when reconciliations were complete and there was a direct connection between SAP and BlackLine which would ensure completeness of accounts, says Bird. “And in thinking about the business case, we love that all the modules were integrated.”
Liberty implemented BlackLine even though one of Liberty’s shareholders was using a competitor’s system.
“We looked closely at a competitor’s platform because we wanted to align to our shareholder. But that platform didn’t seem to be as sophisticated or as advanced as BlackLine,” says Bird. “We realized early on that it would have required more development, customization, and testing, whereas BlackLine had already been tested and utilized by a number of users.”
Liberty’s first phase of the BlackLine implementation required only six weeks for one of the key operational entities. “When we said we were going to implement in six weeks, a lot of people said that such an aggressive timeline may not be achievable,” says Bird. “But we met our six-week deadline, which was an incredible accomplishment for our finance organization. It’s really a testament to how easy BlackLine is to implement and understand.”
Ms. Bird credits their BlackLine implementation consultant for helping Liberty Group implement on schedule. “Our implementation consultant was really, really fantastic. He guided us through the entire process, and we did a lot of online learning and training to upskill as quickly as possible. Our second implementation only took three weeks, which was quite a big achievement for us considering the size and magnitude of the organization.”
Prepared for the coming transition to SAP S/4HANA. Currently, Liberty uses SAP ECC, SAP’s general ledger. However, the company is looking to transition to a new general ledger in the near future. Implementing BlackLine—and automating reconciliations—was a key part of preparing for that transition.
“IFRS 17 is another key reason why we implemented BlackLine. It often requires that we change accounts significantly,” says Bird. “We thought that if we could automate as many reconciliations as possible before transitioning to a new ledger, it would make the transition that much easier.”
Enabled real-time visibility. Prior to BlackLine, Liberty had little access to real-time reporting or oversight in a standard format across all entities. “BlackLine gives us access to all this information we couldn’t see before. We’re able to report monthly based on real data, rather than manual, non-standard spreadsheets,” says, Bird. “That’s an incredible advantage.”
Evolved into a culture of modernization. BlackLine has been a “catalyst for change” for the 60-year-old company.
“We knew BlackLine would help us achieve a number of key things—transparency, efficiency, better controls. What we also found is that it’s been an enabler and a catalyst for change,” says Bird. “With BlackLine, we’ve taken a significant step toward automation and modernization.
And via BlackLine implementations, we were able to develop an effective change management process.”
Increased accountability. Prior to BlackLine, Ms. Bird and her team had to trust that tasks were being completed on time.
“Our governance function was aligned to what someone said they’d done,” says Bird. “Now with BlackLine, we can physically see what has or hasn’t been completed in terms of the timeliness of reconciliations, ownership of accounts, and actual reporting.” Bird added, “One key component is the completeness of accounts. With the SAP Connector, we are assured that all reconciled accounts are automatically coming into BlackLine and we can assign them in real time.” Strengthened controls. The team now has access to one true reconciliation source, as do auditors.
“We’ve been able to give a lot of comfort to our auditors and our board in terms of the financial controls, as well as the confirmation of our balance sheet accounts,” says Bird. “We recently had our audit committee run through the cycle and BlackLine was definitely a hot topic in terms of its success.”