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New SUNY Joint CFO Leads the Way On Shared Services

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Since assuming the position in July, Natalie L. Higley has stayed busy discovering new ways for SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam to share services and implementing policies to bring the campuses closer together.

At the request of SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and the Board of Trustees, since August 2011 SUNY campuses have been trying to find ways to consolidate administrative services to ensure a larger percentage of funds are spent on education.

With their close proximity, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton have become models for shared services in the SUNY system, with Ms. Higley’s hiring as just one example of new combined positions. The schools are in the process of combining several back-office operations.

“I wanted to tackle the primary operating functions first,” said Ms. Higley. “Once we get through this year, we’ll start to look at other functions.”

So far, administrative consolidation already has allowed for Canton to put around $500,000 and Potsdam $700,000 into student services and academics.

In at least one case, in the payroll offices, the combination has happened organically.

“When I came on board in July. Canton had one payroll person who was ill,” she said. “Potsdam stepped up to help.” Ms. Higley said that since SUNY Canton’s staff was very lean, some of their payroll operations have remained on Potsdam’s campus.

Ms. Higley set a couple of bench marks for sharing payroll operations.

“By the end of December, all hourly employees’ payroll will be handled at Potsdam,” she said. “By the end of spring, all payroll will be at Potsdam.”

Under the plan, the individual processing SUNY Canton’s payroll will continue to be paid by the university while working on Potsdam’s campus. At the end of the 2012-2013 academic year, an additional shared payroll staff member will be hired.

In other areas, the movement toward shared services has more of Ms. Higley’s fingerprints.

In the near future, the campuses will share accounts payable, travel, and purchasing staff, said Ms. Higley.

“Our processes are a little different for accounts payable and purchasing and we’re working on standardized processes and procedures,” she said. “Sharing services will not only improve our customer service, it will increase our buying power.”

After part-time SUNY Potsdam Sustainability Coordinator R. J. Mattimore left the school for another job, Ms. Higley saw an opportunity for both campuses to share a full-time staff member dedicated to sustainability.

“Canton didn’t have anybody, so we’re looking at hiring a shared individual,” she said. “Certainly, it is a wonderful opportunity to have one person focused on sustainability.”

On a similar note, the schools are investigating the possibility of sharing an environmental health and safety officer.

“Five years ago, SUNY Potsdam decided to centralize its environmental health and safety service,” said Ms. Higley. “Canton has a decentralized process, and I’d like to increase their service. We are going to share, we will hire a coordinator to work on the Canton campus and our director will continue to work here.”

SUNY Canton’s decentralized environmental health and safety service makes it more difficult to report to state and federal regulatory agencies because no individual exists to build relationships with agency representatives.

“Service is superior when you have one person to deal with,” said Ms. Higley, who added that it may be some time before financial benefits to sharing services are realized.

“It is a three step process: standardize the procedures, increase efficiency, and then recognize cost savings. It might take a year or two.”

At a SUNY Potsdam College Council meeting in September, President John F. Schwaller commented on the significant progress made between the two campuses on shared services.

“We are proceeding rather well,” he said. “Our leadership committees are having joint meetings every month, and they have proven to be very useful.”

In addition to the committee meetings, Mr. Schwaller and SUNY Canton President Carli C. Schiffner meet weekly to discuss the campuses’ ever closer relationship.

Last month, Mrs. Zimpher has mentioned that so far, shared services have saved the system $6 million in administrative costs. Ms. Higley said she has received positive response on the campuses’ progress from Albany.

“I’m in Albany once a month, and I’ve met with the vice chancellor for fiscal affairs,” she said. “They seem very pleased with our progress — I’m pleased with the progress we’re making.”

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