Month-End Masters: Wendy Walker, Controller at San Jose Water Co.
Jun 06, 2018 | By Blake Oliver
Recently, I sat down with Wendy Walker, Controller at San Jose Water Company, to learn what it's like to run the accounting department for a public utility.
While you might expect the pace of change at a utility to be slow, San Jose Water Co. has kept pace and even outpaced many companies in the private sector.
In the past few years, Wendy's team has moved from paper time sheets to an automated payroll system, implemented close management software, and — at the time of this interview — was just about to go live with a paperless accounts payable system.
The following is a condensed and edited transcript of my conversation with Wendy from the video above:
Blake Oliver: I'm really happy to be here today with Wendy Walker. She's the controller of the San Jose Water Company and the SJW group. Wendy, thanks for joining me today.
Wendy Walker: You're very welcome. Glad to be here.
Now, I'm familiar with the San Jose Water Company, but I'm not quite familiar with the SJW Group. What is that exactly?
SJW Group is our holding company. San Jose Water rolls up into that along with our water company we own in Texas, [called] Canyon Lake. We also have a landholding company called SJW lands.
How did you end up working as a controller for a utility?
I had recently come out of working in government for 15 years and was looking for the same feeling. Providing a service to citizens really called out to me. I felt that service was important, and a wonderful opportunity opened up here. While we are a publicly traded company, we are [also] providing a vital service to our citizens and customers, and that is life-sustaining water.
I imagine that's a challenge for the water company during the recent drought, for example. Does any of that fall onto you and the accounting team?
It does. Being a water utility, we are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. When you go into a drought situation there’s an impact on our customers. There's an impact on the rates. There can be voluntary conservation or mandatory conservation. All of that at the end of the day has an impact on the financial statements and what we do in the accounting department.
What are the some of the challenges that you face as a controller at the San Jose Water Company?
Here we have to balance the regulatory environment along with being a publicly traded company and reporting to the SEC. We have regulatory guidance in Texas that’s different than what's in California, so balancing the guidance that comes out from the regulatory side of the house with the publicly traded side of the house, and all of the new accounting standards and guidance is quite a challenge here.
Being 151 years old, we are a teeny bit behind in terms of where we need to be in automation. We are going through a process right now of trying to get up to speed on being more automated in the accounting area.
In the last couple of years, we automated our payroll system. We were doing paper time sheets before. We are next Monday going live on an automated accounts payable system where instead of everybody stamping an invoice and signing off [physically] on approval and coding, that will all be done online.
With our implementation of FloQast about nine months ago, that was a significant automation for us compared with using a Excel spreadsheet and one person being in charge of making sure all the entries were getting logged in [the general ledger].
What is it that drove you to seek more automation on your team?
The amount of growth that we experienced in terms of our level of activity here at San Jose Water with the construction that we do and the replacement of our existing facility as it ages. It needs to be replaced, and with that comes a significant amount of accounting work
Being in the middle of Silicon Valley, there is some incentive for us to make sure that we take advantage of the technologies that surround us and try and automate some of these processes that have been manual for so long.
What are some of the effects that you've seen as a result of implementing new technology for your team?
It's made it easier for the employees here in San Jose Water to do their job more efficiently. They now have the ability to do their time sheet from their cell phone, from out in the field.
When we have distribution systems [workers] out in the field in the trucks, replacing mains, digging up the street, replacing pipe — they have technology in the trucks where they can put in their time. Being able to give them technology so that they can spend less time on that administrative stuff and more time on their core business — I think that's on us to give them that time.
One of the hot topics right now in accounting is the idea of more flexible schedules or reduced work hours, that sort of thing. Is there anything that you're doing on your team with respect to that movement?
I think we naturally have that. We have a number of new employees, younger employees, who are starting their families. We have provided the technology to them [so] that if something were to happen they have that flexibility to be able to work from home.
I think San Jose Water is also looking at [a company level] if there is an opportunity for us to put in more of a formal policy. We do have employees out in the field that don't have that opportunity to have a work from home option, so we want to be mindful of that and be able to provide the right level of flexibility at the right level of position.
Did you always want to be an accountant?
No, no, I really thought I was going to play in a rock band!
That was the goal. But when I came out of high school, I started to realize that probably wasn't the highest percentage of success. So I went to a local JC and I took a number of different classes, one of them being an accounting class, just to understand what accounting was about, and I was fortunate enough to have a professor that was so passionate about accounting. It just it hooked me in.
So what's your instrument?
Bass guitar. I would also love to be a drummer. I am so into watching Lars Ulrich in Metallica. He inspires me to take drum lessons.
So has anything from being a musician bled into your accounting career?
I think it has. I wouldn't put myself in a traditional mold of an accountant. I think there's a bit of a stereotype out there sometimes of what being an accountant is, and it doesn't mean that you can't have fun.
Any other interests?
I am the proud new owner of a Corvette. I love quilting, knitting. I would love to own a quilting shop. I also love wine tasting.
What does the future hold for you?
I think given where I'm at in my career, I think the most important thing for me now is to teach and mentor and get the folks ready underneath me for that movement up.