Dime Executive Profile: Leslie Veluswamy, Chief Accounting Officer
August 1, 2019 |
For over 155 years, Dime Community Bank has set the standard for local banking in the New York metro area. Dime has built its business on personal relationships, listening carefully to each customer’s needs, and providing the right financial guidance.
This culture of relationship-building, collaboration, and communication extends throughout Dime’s organization, including its accounting team.
Meet Leslie Veluswamy, Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) of Dime Community Bank and its parent holding company, Dime Community Bancshares (NASDAQ: DCOM). Doing her job well takes a lot more than financial acumen and analytical skills. Leslie also relies on relationships — both external and internal — and open communication that welcomes input from all stakeholders.
“Ideas are the currency that counts most at Dime,” says Leslie.
CAO Plays Key Organizational Role
Not all companies have a CAO — the role may be served by a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Controller. But the title has become more common and important, especially for publicly traded financial institutions. According to executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, the number of CAOs has grown almost 40% in the last decade.
A CAO is essentially the CFO’s right hand, taking responsibility for financial filings, regulatory compliance, and audits; which enables the CFO to focus on higher-level, long-term strategic planning.
A CAO’s duties typically include:
- Ensuring compliance with GAAP and government regulations
- Preparing and issuing timely, complete, and accurate financial statements
- Implementing, maintaining, and driving continuous improvement in financial controls
- Working closely with internal and external auditors on financial and operational audits
As Dime’s CAO, Leslie reports to Dime’s CFO Avinash Reddy, and interfaces with both the bank’s internal teams and external stakeholders. That includes department managers, the board of directors, outside advisors, and investors.
“Our accounting team is a common denominator for our organization,” says Leslie. “Financial management underpins all of our businesses, and all of our activities flow back through financial reporting.”
That’s why it’s vital for Dime’s accounting team to reflect — and serve as a role model — for the bank’s culture.
“We treat our stakeholders as valued customers, from the executive team to department leads to our external auditors,” says Leslie. “The question that drives us every day is, ‘Does everyone have the financial tools they need to do their jobs well and according to the rules?’ We measure our success by the daily feedback we get from our stakeholders.”
Challenges for CAOs
It’s a big responsibility to oversee a company’s financial policies, procedures, reporting, and disclosures, particularly monitoring the legal and ethical requirements imposed by government agencies. Financial institutions, especially, must adhere to strict testing and auditing rules established after the financial crisis of 2007–2008.
“As a thrift institution transitioning to a full-service commercial bank, and also as a bank holding company, Dime has to understand and abide by both FDIC and Federal Reserve regulations,” says Leslie. “We basically operate under a continuous state of audit. But working under this constant pressure reaffirms our mission every day. We need to provide timely, accurate, complete financial information to benefit all of our stakeholders.”
As a customer-first bank, Dime also regularly introduces new products and services. And of course those offerings need to follow accounting rules and be incorporated into financial statements. So the CAO has to be nimble and responsive, sometimes challenging the status quo to adapt to new business lines.
For instance, Dime recently added Small Business Administration (SBA) loans to its product portfolio. “We had an internal learning curve with SBA loans,” says Leslie. “We had to study the product, understand the SBA’s compliance requirements, and develop new procedures to ensure accurate reporting. “
Leslie added, “This is a good example of how an accounting department has to regularly re-evaluate financial controls in the face of change, and embrace processes for continuous improvement. To integrate SBA loans, we worked in lockstep with our loan department to ensure our accounting was accurate and audit-proof.”
Keys to CAO Success: Good Relationships and Communication
A good CAO doesn’t focus on just the quantitative, transactional nature of accounting. At the heart of a CAO’s effectiveness is the ability to foster healthy, collaborative relationships with both internal and external parties, and solve problems through transparent, collaborative communication.
With $6.5 billion in assets, Dime is a mid-size institution, but it operates like a smaller company. It has a relatively flat hierarchy, and the executive team is open to ideas from all corners of the business. The focus is on how to do things better, no matter where the initiative comes from.
“I have an open-door policy with my accounting team, which mirrors the collaborative atmosphere of the whole organization,” says Leslie. “We encourage open discussions, bouncing ideas around — that’s how the best solutions are born and developed.”
Dime places just as much emphasis on relationships and communications with internal stakeholders as it does with external customers. Says Leslie, “That’s really the heart of the ‘Dime Difference’. Our highest values are sustained personal connections and receptive two-way dialog with everyone we work with. That’s absolutely vital for our accounting team’s performance, since we touch every area of the bank’s business.”
Both Internal and External Communications Are Vital
Internally, a CAO has to be responsive to each operational department, as well as the CFO, audit committee, and board of directors. That’s because accounting decisions ripple throughout the company. For example, at Dime, the accounting of loan servicing data impacts compensation, bonuses, and profit calculations. So the CAO has to orchestrate the entire organization’s acceptance of, and adherence to, the appropriate rules, safeguards, and best practices.
“Communication is the key to ensure all our stakeholders are onboard with our accounting procedures,” says Leslie. “It’s vital for each department to understand how it fits into the company’s reporting structure. Especially how new business lines slot into our balance sheet and income statement. Two-way communication is essential for us to implement sound quality controls and perform successful internal audits to prepare for external audits.”
Externally, a CAO has to develop and maintain strong, trusting relationships with external auditors, who are frequently onsite. To build that type of relationship, a CAO needs to be a good listener, a collaborative partner, and a frequent, transparent communicator.
It also helps to be open to fresh, new ideas.
As an example, Dime worked with external advisors and vendors to automate its SEC reporting, replacing a more manual process. The accounting team also implemented new budgeting software with more powerful, automated reporting tools. These improvements improved quality control and saved a significant amount of time.
“Leveraging a third-party vendor, we were able to build a more interactive, efficient process to automate our SEC reporting,” says Leslie. “Not only did it prevent manual input errors, it allowed me to give back time to my team. And that’s a great gift for team morale and performance.”
Takeaways for All CAOs
When Leslie Veluswamy was promoted to CAO of Dime, the company’s President and CEO, Kenneth J. Mahon, noted that, “A strong finance team is critical, and Leslie has earned the respect of her colleagues and our board of directors with her strategic insight, judgment, and demeanor.”
The emphasis on Leslie’s qualitative attributes — especially judgment and demeanor — is instructive. The CAO’s job is not just about ensuring accurate accounting and reporting, it’s about building relationships throughout a company, and with external stakeholders. To create and manage effective solutions, best practices, and sustainable quality.
When asked to summarize the most important elements of her success, Leslie stressed the following:
- Communicate openly, respectfully, and continuously with all stakeholders.
- Build deep, genuine relationships with all stakeholders.
- Keep an open mind, and try to think outside the box.
- Be willing to test — and implement — process innovations and new technologies that can lead to greater efficiency, cost savings, and quality control.
More about Leslie Veluswamy
Leslie was named CAO of Dime in January, 2019, after serving as Senior Vice President and Director of Financial Reporting for three years. Previously, she held senior roles at Crystal & Company, an insurance brokerage company, and Crowe LLP, a public accounting firm. Leslie is a Certified Public Accountant with a Master of Accountancy degree from the University of Florida. Leslie is bilingual, fluent in Mandarin Chinese.