How this mid sized CA Firm with a 125+ team developed multiple in house technologies from scratch & is digitally very advanced
- Meet CA Lalit Valecha, co-founder and partner at Ahuja Valecha & Associates LLP, a firm with a team size of 125+, spread across four locations Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Dubai.
- What is unique about them? Collaboration, Automation of workflows, Power Tools, etc..have all become a part of their culture, without which they don’t move an inch!
- From having an in-house tech team, to have developed from scratch a cloud accounting system, practice management software, and a lot more, this firm has always been ahead of its times.
- As part of The Finance Story Digital Transformation series powered by Dell Technologies, we spoke to Lalit to share all the tech developments by the firm, how do they go about the implementation, how do they budget for it, the implementation challenges of new technology etc.
Tell us about yourself.
We started this firm back in 2005 with just two partners, Deepak Ahuja and me.
Both of us were with a Big 4 firm, PwC at that point in time. So, that is where we decided that we need to do something for this small business specifically and even for the larger ones where they are struggling with their complex accounting systems or maybe the tax compliances.
I initially gathered a team of ten members. Today, fortunately, our entire enterprise comprises seven partners, four directors, and an efficient team of around 125 members.
The firm provides a range of services with a clear vision of 360-degree services offering. If you talk about the USP of the firm, the top verticals in our service offering are Risk Advisory, Financial reporting services, and Startup advisory.
What is your firm's Digital Transformation journey?
We are fortunate that my founding Partner Deepak Ahuja and Prithvesh Ashar are keenly interested in technology.
Over the years they have helped the office adopt and adapt to technological changes, which has enabled us to improve efficiency, remove redundancies through automation and also standardize practice across various departments.
Here is the timeline:
- It was difficult to configure hardware at that time. We figured it out eventually.
- Since we worked with PWC, we had acquired some knowledge on the latest technologies and tried adopting some automation.
- Tax technology eventually started evolving. Therefore, tax returns shifted online.
- ROC returns had to be filed online.
- The hard format had to be consequently converted into a soft format in the transitioning phase. Hard copy files were scanned and uploaded to the cloud too. Dual saving was implemented for everything.
- Our digital Transformation actually started close to 2014-15.
- Firstly we started with hosting all the client data on the cloud.
- In 2017 we started to work on the cloud accounting tool (iAccounts) for our Dubai-based Clients this was a major step. We built this from scratch.
- 2018 we implemented a documentation workflow using Sharepoint for our Risk Advisory practice.
- As we expanded our practice to various areas like audit support, taxation, FA-related activities, setting up the processes, start-ups, a lot of accounting work, transfer pricing, and international tax; everything transitioned into a different dimension. That is when everyone had to collaborate together. So, we implemented Insightful app as a Project management tool for overall project management, efficiency management, escalation matrix, etc.
- We started setting up our own in-house team for developers / Technology by the end of 2019, today we have a team of 5 junior developers working with us, the team is closely monitored by Deepak Ahuja.
- iAccount counting tool was not only used by UAE but also by our Indian clients.
- Implemented paperless stock count.
- After 2019 there has been significant adoption of technology in various areas of practice.
- Audit Documentation
- Knowledge Management Softwares
- Reconciliation tools: Internally, we have developed our reconciliation tool. With this Ten thousand reconciliations can easily be done in fifteen minutes with 80-90% efficiency
- Implemented our in-house solution for E-Invoicing application for a select client, and various upgrades in the already existing application. E-invoicing is also integrated with the GST Portal and the e-way bill can also be generated from the application. E-invoicing and e-way bill with the API integration has made things easier for the clients on our Insightful app.
Tell us more about your In House Developed products?
Engagement Deliverables & Quality Management (EDQM):
As rightly said, necessity is the mother of all inventions. We are no different. There was a time when we were scaling up in terms of Headcount, Assignments, etc. managing the team, ensuring quality deliverables to clients, bringing to speed our resources was becoming a challenge.
One day over a casual discussion CA Deepak Ahuja came up with a thought: why not have some standardization that enables our new interns to perform an audit by themselves, achieving at least 50% without a senior/partner involvement. That’s it!
The next couple of months were spent by Prithvesh in creating a tool on SharePoint that enables standardization in audit methodology, documentation, process workflow, and guidance to new interns/employees via a built-in knowledge library. This eventually went on to being named by Deepak as Engagement Deliverables & Quality Management (EDQM) which has become the heart & soul of our operations.
iAccount: Cloud Accounting Software
In 2017, with the advent of UAE VAT, we started an office in the UAE. our first location out of our home territory Pune and that too international.
We wanted to expand our accounting and bookkeeping services to the traders in Dubai. Essentially accounting and bookkeeping remain the same, however, the way we deliver services to the client and the experience of the service matters.
Serving clients in Dubai out of our headquarters in Pune was the first challenge. The second challenge was Standard cloud accounting software is either designed to do it yourself model or is too complicated for someone who does not understand accounting.
If I did employ people in Dubai, the cost would have been twice as expensive. So, That is when Deepak developed the in-house cloud-based accounting tool iAccount, this is a PaaS offering for SMB and startups which enables businesses to maintain accounting on the cloud.
This would allow them to scan their invoices using a mobile application that gets directed to us in our system. It can be accessed through android, iPhone, or even a browser. They can even raise their invoices to their customers.
The tool enables the accounting firm to even archive scan documents like vendor invoices on the cloud, which enables the owners to get real-time access anytime from anywhere.
A two-way communication system was our objective while building this platform.
Let me tell you this, creating a cloud accounting platform is not a small job. I must admit that the product is still under development and improves each day.
When iAccount - our in-house cloud accounting platform was reasonably ready in Oct 2018 and was catering well to the clients, I felt that it’s the overall process flow that has to be streamlined and not only the accounting bit of it. (Our firm also renders compliance and advisory services.)
Also, when you have a headcount of 100+ across 6 business verticals and 4 locations tracking the progress of tasks and the efficiency of the team on a real-time basis for firm Management is of utmost importance.
That is when we developed the Insightful App. The App not only acts as a reminder and repository to tasks and due dates but also reviews appraisals on each task, timesheet, out of pocket expenses.
There are many more features lined up viz. logging team briefing for tasks and visibility to the client on the progress of their work.
The initial adoption was slow but now as we work remotely with limited verbal interaction the tool has become quite handy which apart from task tracker and timekeeping helps manage tasks remotely, provides manager simple dashboard with statistics on the number of the task, due dates, no of people online, idle & offline, best part it works on ios and android.
Can you tell us about your other off-shelf technology and tools you guys use?
Over the years we have implemented & integrated a lot of tools/applications into our working environment thereby harnessing the power of collaboration amongst teams.
Apart from the in-house tools we use quite a few of them off the shelf tools/technology as listed below:
- One Drive
- Share Point: Collaborative working, documentation workflow and Data Archival
- Teams: Team communication, we are using this even for a lot of inhouse training now
- Microsoft forms: Confirmation, survey and polls
- KuTools: Analytics
- BI Tools: Analytics
- Infograpify: Infographics
- Caseware Analytics: Analytics in Audits procedures
- CCH Audit Automation: Audit Documentation tool
- Quick Books: Accounting
- HRMS 24/7: Payroll processing tool
- TaxSutra: Online real-time basis with updates and analysis on matters related to Taxes, Accounting, and finance
- The above tools are in addition to a lot of tax technology software we already use, which is mostly used by many other CA firms as well for various tax return filing, TP study, XBRL filing, GST filings, etc.
The above tools are in addition to lot of tax technology software we already use, which is mostly used by many other CA firms as well for various tax return filing, TP study, XBRL filing, GST filings etc.
Do you see involvement from your team members and CA articles in tech adoption? Since the young generation is more tech-savvy do you take ideas from them?
I would like to add that the new batch of interns we have is more tech-savvy.
In Feb 2019, one of our second-year interns designed a paperless inventory count mechanism for the latest stock count to be conducted at a factory of a fortune 500 client in Chakan Pune. Since then we have been conducting Stock count over a mobile application for an inventory list consisting of more than 30,000 inventory codes.
Further, another intern who is actually in the technology and innovation team helped implement various integrated tools in the Microsoft platform for office documentation like the creation of workflow in share point, since then we have minimized the risk of data loss and also been a big enabler for us today to even collaborate from remote locations.
During the lockdown, our Teams have done a lot of research of Power BI & conducted learning sessions within the teams to pass on the know-how of using BI Tools in audits. This was driven by first self-learning via online courses on BI of over 60 hours by Sandeep & Bhavleen, thereby presenting the learnings to various teams within the Firm.
Do you think WFH will be continued by your firm even post lockdown?
Most of the tasks can be done remotely.
In the hiring process, many people did not want to relocate to Pune and wished to work from their respective cities.
Though we started working in December, some of our employees came back and some continued working remotely. By January, everyone was back in the workforce.
In March again, we needed to let them continue remote working due to the rise in covid cases. A lot of female team members who had taken maternity leave are back. They can work from home and we are able to retain our workforce. This saves the cost amount as they can easily work from their city instead of shifting to Pune which removes extra expenses of rent and housing.
Most of the team will come back in the foreseeable future. 20-30% of the team can work remotely. 60-70% will resume work at the office.
With so much technology and work on the cloud, how do you view cybersecurity? What cybersecurity measures have been taken?
We requested all our employees to change their passwords. Passwords are reset every two months.
Every laptop is integrated with an encrypted password. All the data is automatically saved to Cloud.
Automatic data is processed and synced on the share point, and predominantly on OneDrive. The laptops are even configured with an encrypted login so even if a laptop is misplaced, everything is secured on the cloud in case of break-ins by hackers.
Microsoft has introduced some tools which help us access our security audit.
Every month we can check the security rating and its successive threats. Every time a separate login is created, I get a notification. My IT admin is even notified. Therefore, every domain is closely monitored.
How you think technology has had an impact on the way Auditing is being conducted?
We were not using audit documentation three years back. AI plays a bigger role to conduct an audit, sampling, and finding outliers. The manual way is tough and cumbersome.
Today, to identify the outline, the off-the-shelf product is available.
Caseware analytics simplifies the pricing which is beneficial for many firms. These licensed products are primarily available.
In terms of the audit tool, CCH provides an audit automation tool that is tied up with the ICAI.
There are a plethora of audit confirmation tools that replace manual confirmation tools.
However, few clients are particular about their protocol and refuse to work with a particular kind of technology because it is not tested by them. That is when we need to switch to manual audits in those cases.
So, wherever the clients are accepting the tools that we want to use, we are deploying them accordingly.
In near future, BI’s and AI’s are going to be mainly used for conducting audit reports and finding the outliers.
Your advice to other CA Firms…
Transparency with clients is of utmost importance. As a CA firm, if your client is able to check his/ her work status with a click without having to speak to you and get comfort that his work will be completed well before the deadline, that day the firm has created an everlasting client experience.
Be agile to be ready to learn new skills.
Don’t fear technology, it actually is an enabler, I would rather suggest that we adapt to change. It is a threat if we try to work around it but it helps us in a bigger way if we learn to work with it.
The Finance Story is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and get updates with latest stories of finance professionals.