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Austin Water's Case Study

Austin Water: Refreshing The Status Quo

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Highlights from Austin Water's use of Synario

  • Austin Water spent 3–4 months each year building out its annual forecast and budget in Excel and 1–2 weeks preparing PowerPoint presentations. If decision-makers wanted to see alternative scenarios, they had to go back to the drawing board.
  • While other finance teams contributed data for the models, there wasn’t much collaboration and finance teams operated in silos. A team of two was responsible for most of the financial modeling and forecast planning. Forecast meetings happened only a few times a year.
  • Christina Romero, Financial Manager III at Austin Water, felt like they were “missing something.” She chose Synario as a full-stack financial analysis, forecasting, and budget planning solution.
  • Within months of onboarding, Synario helped Romero’s team build their latest annual forecast in 1–2 weeks. And with Synario’s automated Presentation Mode, they can prepare presentations in just a few hours and adjust them mid-presentation as needed.
  • The forecast/budget team of eight contributors has biweekly forecast and budget meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Managing water for a major metro area in Texas

For over 100 years, Austin Water has provided safe, affordable drinking water and managed wastewater treatment for the people of Austin. As of 2021, over one million people live in Austin across 548 square miles, and it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas.

Three water treatment plants in Handcox, David, and Ulrich intake up to 335 million gallons from the Colorado River daily. Two processing plants in Walnut Creek and South Austin Regional receive up to 150 million gallons of wastewater each day. As part of their water reclamation efforts, over one billion gallons are cleaned and safely returned to the Colorado River each year.

A job this big requires strategic forecasting and budget to match. In 2020, Austin Water had a $600 million annual budget (the 5-year CIP at $971 million). Accuracy and affordability are operational mandates, which is why the Finance department is targeting a slight rate increase into 2024.

Romero discovered Synario while looking for new ways Austin Water could stay affordable and continue providing quality water services without resorting to rate increases. Where were they over/short? In which years did they have a budget surplus or a deficiency in their fund summary? What was their current debt service coverage?

These were critical questions Romero needed to answer, and Excel wasn’t making her life any easier.

Overcoming the challenges of COVID-19

Of course, the 2020–2021 fiscal year also came with unique financial challenges. The biggest risk for a utility company is failing to anticipate certain costs and under-budgeting as a result. A black swan event throws budget forecasts right out the window, so Romero’s team had some difficult decisions to make.

How could they help customers struggling to pay their water bills? What kinds of customer assistance programs could they realistically offer? Would they have to increase rates more than they wanted to after all?

Fortunately, Austin Water was able to introduce a 10% rate discount for the low-income residential customer assistance program in 2020 and have maintained it in 2021. In addition, in collaboration with Austin Energy, Austin Water implemented a new low-income multifamily customer assistance program for customers without a dedicated water meter in the Spring of 2021. This multifamily customer assistance program applies a water and wastewater credit to customer electricity bills.

Before and after onboarding with Synario

“We outgrew Excel models some time ago, and we really needed something with improved functionality that allows for unlimited number of assumptions and scenarios. Synario helped us start working on our forecast right away. ”
– Christina Romero, Financial Manager III, Austin Water

Before: Every first week of March, Romero’s budget forecast—which includes an annual, 5-year forecast—is due to the City’s Budget Office and ultimately delivered to City Council. To meet this critical deadline, her team usually begins preparing in October, when the new fiscal year starts. Then, they were to begin modeling assumptions and scenarios by December/January timeframe.

This time around, Romero wanted to try something different. She always felt like there was far too much time spent on building, analyzing, presenting, and rebuilding models across countless iterations of unwieldy Excel spreadsheets. The typical forecasting and budgeting process crawled along at a snail’s pace, taking 2–3 months each time. After that, her small team usually spent another 1–2 weeks creating their presentation.

The entire process required far too much manual data entry, kludging together VLOOKUPs in a spreadsheet. Not to mention Excel doesn’t encourage cross-team collaboration and isn’t multi-dimensional or flexible. Even the most straightforward questions from decision-makers often forced her team to remake their model and present it again a few days later.

After: When Romero discovered Synario’s capabilities, she couldn’t wait to transition towards a more efficient and intuitive user experience. After Synario’s onboarding team presented a customized solution and walked her through how easy their new modeling, forecasting, and budgeting system would be, she knew she had to get the rest of the Finance teams involved.

“Synario helped streamline the forecasting process and made it easy to evaluate changes in revenue and expenses and the significant impact of capital projects.”
– Joseph Gonzales, Financial Services Assistant Director, Austin Water

Working side by side with Synario’s team of advanced modelers and modeling SMEs, Romero’s team members were closely involved with the new modeling and presentation experience. Their solution was customized to suit their exact needs and goals. Within a few months of onboarding with Synario, the difference was undeniable. The entire process had been simplified and streamlined, encouraging seamless collaboration.

Romero quickly expanded her forecast modeling team from two to eight people. She encouraged each team member to take ownership of one part of the model so they could all work in tandem, eliminating a multi-year bottleneck. She also started having biweekly budget meetings to promote and maintain communication. These meetings used to happen a few times a year, at best.

“Using Synario significantly reduced the amount of time needed to complete the forecast process. The forecast was completed on schedule without a significant amount of manual adjustments, which greatly reduced the potential for errors. This has been a worthwhile investment for our organization.”
– Robert Rowan,  Financial Manager II,  Austin Water

This time around, forecast modeling only took her team a few weeks—about 8x faster than in Excel. Preparing the presentation took just a few hours to prepare. Finally, when Austin Water Executives started asking her the hard questions, Romero was able to instantly adjust her model mid-presentation and continue where she left off.

Coming up with a forecast and explaining it to decision-makers had never been so easy. The Director was so pleased with Synario that Austin Water integrated the solution into many financial processes. They had been paying for as-needed consultants for the excel model, but decided to approve 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 Manager III, Austin Water

See what Synario can do for you

We started Synario for the same reason Romero started using it: we were tired of struggling with spreadsheets and their shortcomings. We needed a solution that was dynamic, adaptable, and promoted cross-team collaboration.

To answer this need, we created Synario: the agile modeling software organizations rely on to forecast and visualize their financial futures.

Are you ready to see for yourself what Synario can do for you?