Cultivating Collaboration: Eliminating Errors And Miscommunication in Modeling

Cultivating Collaboration: Eliminating Errors And Miscommunication in Modeling

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Safe and dependable water for millions

Austin Water has offered safe, affordable drinking water and wastewater treatment to the people of Austin for over 100 years. It’s no easy feat. Austin Water’s three water treatment plants intake up to 335 million gallons from the Colorado River daily, while two other plants process up to 150 million gallons of wastewater daily.

A job this big requires a budget to match. In 2020, Austin Water had a $600 million annual budget (the 5-year CIP is over $1 billion). Their goal: to provide continued price transparency and affordability to all their customers, no matter what happened.

financial forecasting plate

Overcoming COVID-19 challenges

Austin Water was looking for ways to stay affordable and continue providing quality water services without resorting to rate increases. She had lots of questions she needed answered, like:

  • Was Austin Water maintaining its financial policies?
  • Were they meeting their service requirements and debt commitments?
  • How would specific rate increases affect their forecasts and key metrics?
  • How could they stay affordable and help customers struggling to pay their water bills?
  • What kinds of customer assistance programs could they realistically offer? 

The finance team struggled to answer these questions with efficiency, which led them to looking for solutions like Synario.

Ultimately, Austin Water was able to roll out multifamily customer assistance programs that applied water and wastewater credit to customer electricity bills, in partnership with Austin Energy. Austin Water also introduced a 10% discount assistance program in 2020 and maintained it in 2021.

Before onboarding with Synario

Romero needed answers yesterday, and Excel wasn’t making her job any easier. Romero felt like her teams spent far too much time building, analyzing, presenting, and rebuilding models across countless iterations of unwieldy spreadsheets. They were already spending most of their time modeling up to 19+ different scenarios in Excel.

The entire budgeting process took 2–3 months each year, with an additional 1–2 weeks spent tinkering with PowerPoint presentations. Unfortunately, any question from up top that couldn’t be easily answered forced them to go back to the drawing board and refresh and re-validate their excel models each time a new request was made by leadership. 

Obviously, this wasn’t the best use of everyone’s time. But Excel has its limits, and Romero was already pushing against all of them. Something had to give, so she decided it was time for an upgrade.

“We outgrew Excel models some time ago, and we really needed this. Synario helped us start working on our forecast right away. ”

–Christina Romero

FINANCIAL DIVISION MANAGER, AUSTIN WATER

Romero wanted to run numerous financial forecasts and scenario analyses in a single, shareable model. She wanted to build 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year projections quickly and efficiently. And she wanted to confidently answer stakeholder questions and concerns without going back to the drawing board each time.

The Synario onboarding team heard Romero’s concerns and reviewed her team’s existing financial processes as well as her near- and long-term goals. They presented a customized solution tailor-made for her team and walked her through how easy her new modeling, forecasting, and budgeting systems were.

Romero spent eight months and 100 hours training and configuring the new systems until everything was just right. But it was 100% worth it. A once-painstaking process had been simplified and streamlined for seamless collaboration and flexibility.

financial forecasting plate

Source: UT Dallas

After onboarding with Synario

Forming Power User teams

One of the first things Romero noticed about Synario is that it encouraged and empowered team members to stay closely involved with the modeling and presentation process. That’s why Romero decided to create four Synario Power User teams. Each team plays a role in forecasting and building the budget, and each team has its own preparers and reviewers.

Once the teams were formed, it was time to dive right into the software.

Presenting the executive fund summary

As a reminder, Romero’s biggest goal was to use Synario to easily answer stakeholder questions in order to prevent bottlenecks and achieve quicker consensus. She was also concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on poorer Austin residents, many of whom depended on Austin Water’s services. 

Synario gave Romero’s team the tools they needed to build a comprehensive total fund summary. A detailed summary was created for the analytical team, whereas a higher level summary was created for senior leadership. 

Fortunately, Romero was able to condense all of her team’s forecasts and models into a short and concise executive fund summary that included the most important financials and scenarios, just for presenting to the executive team.

Christina decided to use Synario during meetings so she could react to questions in real-time, increasing trust and confidence in the model she was presenting.

Mid-presentation adjustments and robust data visualization

This time around, Romero was ready for anything. She had built adjustment tables based on the most common questions the executive team asked during budget presentations (e.g., “What if we add in another $100 million and spread that over 3 years?”).

This was a level of budget specificity, forecast accuracy, and responsiveness the Executive team had never seen before. But the presentation wasn’t the result of an overnight success—a lot of hard work and effort went into the Synario onboarding process. 

Romeo’s team now have the ability to understand the impact of changes to their fund summary via dynamic outputs that led to increased trust in the budget process.

As an example, Romero’s team was able to determine what would happen to average monthly water and wastewater management bills for both customer assistance program and non-customer assistance program customers under different rate increases.

Another crucial example of a simple but effective output is Average Annual Bill % of Median Household Income (MHI). One of Austin Water’s top goală is to always be below 1.5% in order to stay affordable and competitive for its customers.

The good news is that the cost savings Austin Water achieved, combined with the discount program they were able to offer in partnership with Austin Energy, was enough for their rates to stay well below the 1.5% affordability benchmark during the pandemic. In fact, their Average Annual Bill percentage is projected to decrease every year until 2024.

Real business results

Thanks to Synario, Romero was able to expand her modeling team from two to eight people while encouraging each member to take ownership of one part of the model, eliminating bottlenecks and enabling team collaboration.

Budget meetings that once happened a few times a year began happening biweekly. Modeling and forecast turnaround times were reduced from months to days, while presentations that used to take weeks to prepare are ready within hours.

Whenever she was faced with tough questions, Romero instantly adjusted her model mid-presentation and continued where she left off instead of always going back to the drawing board.

Coming up with a budget and explaining it to decision-makers had never been so easy. In fact, Austin Water’s Director was so pleased with Synario that they approved Synario for a 5-year extension.

Synario allowed for more people to understand what it takes to create and maintain a forecast. It really kicked off our current group effort, which we didn’t have before.

Now, we’re continuing this collaborative effort. We’re not so siloed from each other anymore, and it’s made our jobs so much easier.”

–Christina Romero

FINANCIAL DIVISION MANAGER, AUSTIN WATER

Austin Water started using Synario because they were tired of struggling with spreadsheets and their shortcomings. They needed a solution that was quick, flexible, responsive, and collaborative.

What about your organization? Are you ready to see what Synario can do for your team?