More Than Math

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More Than Math

He may be the director of retail accounting, but Ron Mechler's job responsibilities include more than calculations. With a staff of 14 and two direct reports -- Sharon Kltenbacher, manager of the general ledger and financial reporting, and Diane Lavalley, manager of capital assets and accounts payable -- Mechler juggles employee and department management with his own daily tasks, all while fielding accounting-related questions from other departments throughout the day.

"There isn't a day that goes by without someone asking for a detailed report," said Mechler. "We get requests from operations, merchandising, executives -- we just completed a report on store supply analysis because we received a question from management about what was being charged to supplies."

He continued: "We had a cross functional team work on the project, two from general ledger and one from store accounting so that we could thoroughly analyze what was being purchased and from what vendors." The project took approximately a month, and Mechler was preparing to present it to management soon after CSNews' visit to company headquarters in April. He also fields questions requiring quick answers, such as when the IT department asked if tax was applicable on a certain new software program.

The majority of his job is handling special projects and unusual situations or exceptions that need to be accounted for by the department.

"I have a very experienced staff who handle the day to day, and I make sure we are handling the exceptions and don’t have any issues."

However, it is also about building relationships with people in other departments, which can help in the long run when working on projects, he said. "My job is basically balancing the analytical and numbers end with people and relationships. It helps to be able to know who to talk to in each department, and then call the right person and find the answers."

In Valero’s retail accounting department, there are a number of groups, each with specific job responsibilities. The store accounting group works with store managers to ensure the store daily sales reports are accurate and timely; the inventory control group works with store managers and our outside auditing firms to ensure their audits and inventories are accurate; the retail reconciliations group deals with cash, deposits, credit cards, lottery and a host of other reconciliations; the fuel accounting group handles the task of keeping up with fuel inventories, deliveries, taxes and fuel cost; performance reporting handles internal reporting, budgeting, labor modeling and bonus administration; and the loss prevention group works closely with field operations to ensure safety and security at all retail facilities and investigate loss situations.

"Our store automation team has done a tremendous job in getting our stores on a stable and consistent platform," said Mechler. "Today we have a stable POS and back-office system, and they all work together. We didn't always have that. Once we got down to a single POS system [Verifone Topaz] from the five or six different systems we had in the past, and a stable back office (PDI), it became a lot easier to do our jobs efficiently in all areas of accounting."

Valero is currently using the retail accounting method for costing, as opposed to item level, but as the systems get better, Mechler said it is possible there will be a switch as long as the company can see a benefit.

Valero bought Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Inc. (UDS) in 2001, creating the retail side of the company with 1,482 stores, and today there are more than 1,000 Corner Stores. Prior to that, Mechler had been with UDS since 1982 in various positions in the retail, refining and internal audit divisions.

"Valero is a great company to work for," he said. "They treat their people well, and there is always a sense you are important. The retail business is a fairly small part, but it's an important part of Valero, and the company is investing in retail -- buying new stores and building new stores."

At the time of CSNews' interview, the company was planning to close two stores the following day. This is a "fairly routine process," according to Mechler.

"We close out the balances from the general ledger and capital assets, and the store is either shut down and given back to the landlord or sold, and we will pay the final bills," he explained. "We are used to opening and shutting stores -- in fact, Valero opened three new-to-the-industry stores in April."

The biggest challenges he faces in his current role are matching the right people with the right job responsibilities, and juggling an ever-tightening timeline with fewer employees. "For Valero's retail accounting department as a whole we are very lean on a headcount to store ratio and we have to all be very efficient in our jobs," he said.

Since the company reorganized all retail operations and administrative functions under a single management structure a couple of years ago, he said it has become much easier to get things done because everyone is in the same building and report up through retail management, instead of along functional lines. The advancements in technology also have helped the department stay efficient.

"In the last year, we have gained efficiencies in accounts payable by using optical character reading (OCR) where you can scan an invoice and have software recognize and capture the data, rather than having it hand-keyed into the system," Mechler explained. "Electronic invoicing for store purchases and operating expenses has also helped reduce our manual workload."

Mechler added: "My favorite part of the job is being able to provide information or analysis that helps us run our business better." He also noted that this year, Valero Retail will be investing in an upgraded accounting system from back office vendor, PDI.

"It's a cleaner system and will be real-time from the store to headquarters. It will be much more efficient," he said, also pointing out that everyone in the department must work at least one shift in a store per year. "It's important not to lose touch with the stores and what it takes to run them."

-- Has been with the company since 1982.
-- Favorite part of the job: Being able to provide information or analysis that helps our business run better."
-- Skills needed in his position: Bachelor's degree in accounting, ability to manage people and get the best out of them, and ability to build relationships.