For high-growth companies expanding across borders, friction points abound.
New challenges emerge to operating on an international scale, which can often take attention away from strategic, yet less pressing, initiatives, like back-office digitization. Add a pandemic and remote working mandates into the mix, and the adoption of accounts payable (AP) automation or the migration away from paper checks might be the furthest thing from the minds of CFOs.
But in a recent conversation with PYMNTS, Bill Strong, chief financial officer at Apeel Sciences, explained that the company's position as a fast-growing technology firm with a global presence not only enabled a more willing embrace of digital finance tools, but actually positioned the firm to adapt to COVID-19-induced volatility much more quickly.
That's not to say that a globally growing company isn't without its challenges. As Strong explained, the pandemic has indeed accelerated the firm's digitization efforts and adoption of electronic payments. And organizations must think globally, yet act locally, when making these changes.
Apeel is a technology company that connects suppliers of fresh produce to a proprietary, food-based protectant layer that extends the shelf life of products and cuts down on food waste.
Strong noted that, unlike some other startups with which he's worked in the past, Apeel has no short-term existing strategy. Rather, the company is working to rapidly expand for the long term, an effort recently aided by a $250 million investment round announced in May.
As part of those expansion efforts, the company is growing across borders, now operating with suppliers, grocers and other partners in the food supply chain across four continents.
That combination of a long-term outlook with global growth has positioned the firm to find an easier path to remote working, since the company was already used to collaborating with individuals in other physical locations, as well as to prioritize the adoption of digital, automated back-office tools, especially in the finance functions.
"Because we're a company going through hyper-growth on a global scale, it teases out the manual pain points in a system," Strong said. "If you're scaling at a slower pace, and not having to deal with so many entities across different regions, it probably wouldn't be as apparent. You would probably make slower decisions to automate, because you can just add a body to handle the load for the next couple of quarters."
Tacking on extra people to manually process checks may work at the local level, he noted. But when operations are global, adding extra staff at every location quickly becomes an expensive and inefficient strategy.
Adapting Check Workflows
Apeel invested heavily in automated technologies even before the pandemic, with Strong noting that the company has adopted Coupa to automate and streamline its procure-to-pay processes, and is in the process of implementing Oracle's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.
Digitization of B2B payments – both inbound and outbound – is also at the top of the list for Apeel, though Strong noted that paper checks will inevitably continue to be part of the supply chain.
"We have a goal of getting to 100 percent digital payments in the foreseeable future, but it can be difficult because you have to have partners willing to pay you that way," he explained. "Yet it's the way the world is going, and having to wait for a paper check to pay for a critical piece of equipment that needs to be in the field to enable revenue generation doesn't make sense for us."
Though Apeel had already embraced digital platforms that made the transition to remote working a bit less painful during the pandemic, some changes were needed for paper checks. Today, the company has digitized the process of routing checks for approval and signing by its VP of corporate finance, a shift that Strong said is likely to remain digital even once teams are allowed back in the office.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Though there are effective changes that can be made in-house, B2B payments and finance modernization often not only affects Apeel itself, but also its business partners down and up the supply chain. So while being global certainly set the company up for a more seamless transition, it has also introduced an extra layer of friction in its efforts to embrace electronic payments.
"The challenge comes where you have regional or cultural payment challenges," Strong said. "For example, in Mexico, they have a different expectation for wires, or documentation, or use of credit cards. In the Netherlands, you can't use a credit card the same way you do in the U.S. You need to adapt your payment policies globally, but you also must be mindful of the local and cultural challenges that might exist within those systems."
That supports a stronger B2B relationship, which is another key strategy in driving Apeel's long-term growth. A balance must be struck between encouraging partners to participate in the modernization process and adhering to those partners' unique needs — even if that means paying with a paper check.
Ultimately, said Strong, the company is hoping to have a broader impact on the modernization of the food supply chain overall. This industry, in particular, can struggle with antiquated systems, opening up an opportunity for technology-first companies to support the digital shift.
"We sit in the middle between growers and retailers; they're both our customers," he noted. "So we see an opportunity to standardize across retailers and suppliers, to provide tools and systems that could streamline processes for the entire fresh produce industry in the future."