Carlson Management Consulting is featured in the Boston Business Journal Fast 50 for 2018, making this the third year in a row the company is awarded this honor for the fastest-growing private companies based in Massachusetts. Founder and CEO, Ethan Carlson, shares his insights on what it takes to achieve high growth.
Image source: Boston Business Journal
I started Carlson Management Consulting in 2010. The reason why I started the company had to do with my experiences working in finance at organizations in a variety of stages. During my role as CFO at a mid-sized company of 125 employees, I found it was hard to get high quality consulting services for a company of that size. So, I set out to build Carlson Management Consulting around the idea of delivering great value and financial insights, as well as helping organizations in that mid-market space be more successful through better data.
What’s your favorite aspect of the financial technology industry?
My favorite aspect of the industry is that it’s constantly evolving. Right now, there’s been a tremendous move toward Cloud technology. We’re seeing more and more trends in automation. What was new and exciting two or three years ago is now expected and standard.
If there’s one part of the industry you could change, what would it be?
We love to focus on making our clients successful. For us to use our unique approach to consulting and best practices in technology and processes, we must establish and maintain relationships with vendors across the industry. That oftentimes can be a challenge because we need to maintain the correct alignment of multiple interests, including those of the vendor, our company, and especially the client.
As Carlson’s Founder and CEO, what’s a day in your life like?
It’s always different, exciting, and hard to predict. I think my role here has certainly evolved, especially in the past two or three years. The reality of my day is I’m interacting with our clients, resolving our most pressing issues, and managing the most challenging projects. I’m happy to dig in. I drive a lot of the changes and processes, and generally go where I’m needed.
What are your long-term goals and vision for Carlson?
Carlson Management Consulting was founded on delivering value to the mid-market. It has since expanded that vision to include startups and companies with up to 10,000 employees. In addition, I look forward to further establishing Carlson as one of the leading organizations deploying the top Cloud technologies for finance. I’d like our customers to look to us to drive financial transformation. You’re calling us for more than a system or solution; you’re calling us to transform how you operate, including the processes and technology you use to get there.
My vision is to also help organizations create holistic data. To achieve this goal, we’ve created our own proprietary cloud-based integration platform, called DataBlend. As proponents of reducing redundancies in data and streamlining data entry, we help people create one big picture of their businesses they can leverage to operate more efficiently.
What factors most contributed to Carlson’s fast growth and success?
First and foremost, we’ve always put our clients first to help make them successful. Aligning ourselves with disruptive technologies is certainly a major factor in our success. We’ve also built a really strong team that we’ve worked hard over the years to grow. Everyone brings extensive and varied experience. When you bring it all together, it’s really powerful.
What trends do you foresee being on the horizon for the financial technology industry?What we’ve seen over the past five to ten years are many organizations moving to the Cloud. Now, I think we’re seeing a continued shift toward organizations wanting to buy best-of-breed technology. You see it with Salesforce for CRM, with our partners Adaptive Insights for budgeting and forecasting, and Sage Intacct for GL solutions. I predict there’s going to be this continued need for world class solutions and services.
In addition, I foresee organizations in the industry benefiting from increased efficiency through integration and automation. This efficiency will be in the form of smoother transactions and single sources of the truth that migrate throughout all your systems.
I also think there’s going to be an increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) where some systems will examine your data, form interpretations, suggest outcomes, or implement more automated projects. We’re already seeing the rise of AI in forecasting and will likely continue to do so across the board, from GL systems to strategic planning.
As an award-winning firm, what does Carlson do differently from the rest?As a consulting firm, we closely collaborate with our clients, put their success forefront, and form strong relationships with them. Clients consider our consultants as extensions of their own teams. For instance, a client invited one of our consultants over to Christmas dinner. The client-consultant relationship is important to us.
We’ve also worked hard to maintain and nurture our culture during our growth, from when we started with 4 people to our current team of 34 members. Carlson is an organization that promotes teamwork. Everyone has a job, a role, a title, and wears a lot of hats. An organization that promotes teamwork well tends to be more successful.
What advice and insights would you like to share with companies looking to transform their finance operations?For companies looking to transform their finance operations, look at the whole picture. If your current methods are not well aligned with your goals, you won’t get to where you want to be. Ensure your processes and technologies make sense and are guiding you to greater efficiency and success.
I also think it’s important to be constantly evolving. After all, these system implementations are changing processes. A whole new approach doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it’s a constant evolution. You’ll improve a bit, evaluate the results, then improve some more. So, look at it as a continuous cycle of change.
What challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them?As I look back upon our growth, there was a point in time when there were four of us in a two-room office. When we needed to know how projects were going, we could easily ask in person. That was convenient. We always knew how everyone was doing because they were right there.
As we’ve grown, we now have consultants across the country in 13 states. We’ve scaled to 350 or so clients. Because of this expansion, knowing how everyone is doing is a challenge. So, we’ve established processes while maintaining our culture that’s centered on collaboration and teamwork.
I think our other challenge is finding excellent people. We’re always in the market for talented finance professionals with strong systems backgrounds. We strive to find people who want to work within their roles and who will bring tremendous value to the team. Our goal is to put our name out there more for people to consider for employment. We’re becoming more of a known organization, but we’re still not necessarily a household name.
What new and future solutions and services should Carlson’s clients know about?For customers we’ve worked with over the years, we’ve become their go-to partner for Adaptive Insights consulting. That’s a big part of our business. However, we provide a lot of other services beyond that. Our vision is to provide a full set of solutions to the finance office, as well as anything within the CFO’s sphere of responsibility. We’ve branched out to a variety of solutions and process improvements we can help organizations implement. We now offer Sage Intacct for GL, automating AP with Bill.com, and better ways of managing time and expense with Nexonia.
We’ve also expanded our financial outsourcing team and services for early stage and high growth firms. If you’re not ready to hire a controller or CFO, or have more needs than one person can address, we have a team that can support you.
A current focus of ours is creating holistic data through integration. If you have many Cloud or even legacy systems that are not necessarily talking to each other, we have a great integration platform with an easy to use interface.
In the future, we’ll help our clients achieve full financial transformation. For example, rather than implement Adaptive Insights with your current process, you’ll say, “That looks like a great tool, but we want best practices to implement full change across the organization.” We plan to make this happen for our clients.
What philosophy does Carlson embody to be a high-growth company?Everyone at Carlson feels empowered to help the company grow. We’ve created an atmosphere where the team can act in the client’s best interests. There’s a very clear linkage between the team’s actions and the company’s success. We’ve done a good job of helping everyone look for growth opportunities. From identifying projects that will make our clients even more successful to finding new areas we can look at, the entrepreneurial mindset at Carlson is strong.
What are Carlson’s most defining and pivotal moments?The relationships with our first clients were pivotal because they put a lot of faith in us. As well, the initial results the team produced were key to our success. We grew up as a company as we moved into our nicer office space.
There was also the time we landed a couple of our big-name clients, which was exciting. Being awarded the Boston Business Journal Fast 50, Inc. 5000, and BBJ 40 Under 40 were absolute turning points in Carlson’s growth.
But, it’s much more fluid. I like to think of it as a step function of growth where you’re working away and suddenly, you make a big leap up. We experienced that last year when we expanded the team and nearly doubled our size. I believe this year’s going to be another similar year assuming things keep going at their current rate.
Share your most fulfilling and memorable times at Carlson.
During the first time we were awarded the Inc. 5000, I represented us at the Inc. conference in Dallas which was an inspiring experience.
Many of our team members are virtual. We also have a big presence in Boston, as well as our offices in Maine, Vermont, and Ohio. Because many of our consultants live across the country, we host an annual, sometimes bi-annual, company summit. At these company summits, there’s a lot of knowledge-sharing and fun times where memories are made.
I think Carlson is a fulfilling place to be. We enjoy making our customers successful. That’s what we do every day. And when you look at why we keep doing it, it’s because we enjoy working with our clients and fellow team members.
What qualities does the Carlson team bring to make a difference for its clients?
You can hire a lot of consultants who will give you their opinions, but we roll up our sleeves and get it done with you. I think people like our collaborative approach. We also have deep expertise in finance. Most of our team members are former Controllers, Directors of Finance, or FP&A analysts. We’ve done it before and leverage our expertise to implement the best solutions, providing real tangible results for our clients. And, those are nice qualities to be able to deliver.