Turnaround artist does data mining for dollars

Steeped in finance and IT, Shyam Desigan, of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, taps big data analytics to return bottom lines to profitability.

While many finance and IT departments have struggled to form even awkward partnerships, the two cultures reside in harmonious balance in the person of Shyam Desigan. In a 17-year health care and human services career, the India native has demonstrated a knack for exploiting technology to diagnose and cure financial trouble. And like any good chief financial officer (CFO), he drives a hard bargain with IT.

In just a year as CFO and vice president of IT at the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) in Alexandria, Va., Desigan has led data consolidation, data mining and mobility projects designed to set up the organization for a bright, 21st-century future. He also found $2 million in revenue by renegotiating royalty, IT and service contracts while cutting $1 million from operating expenses, nearly erasing a $2.5 million loss.

"He's not like any CFO or CIO I've worked with in the past," said Beth Bush, AAPA's senior vice president of member value and research. An energetic people person, Desigan shatters the dull, bean-counter stereotype that dogs most CFOs. "You can tell that he cares a lot about staff and our members."

Shyam Desigan, CFO and VP of IT, American Academy of Physician AssistantsShyam Desigan

And Desigan's dual expertise is not only unique; it's key to his success.

"You can almost see him switch his hats. It's kind of funny. He almost argues with himself," Bush said. "He's very good at acquiring technology at low cost. He combines the two so we get the best solution."

Desigan does it all despite a weekly airline commute from the Boston home he shares with his wife, Archana Viswanath, director of clinical research at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and their two-year-old daughter, Anya.

From startups to turnarounds

Desigan has always had an interest in technology, but he began his career in budgeting -- two facts the CFO points to when asked to explain his split focus. "I do split my time, depending on the needs of the project," he said. "I come in more from a strategic direction and rather than look at numbers, we really look to drill down deep and really see what the core drivers are."

Each side pulls on the other. "I do take on a little more risk than the traditional CFO," he said. "I'm not at the bleeding edge, but I know I'm at the leading edge."

Desigan, 40, came to the U.S. in 2000 to get a master's in business administration at Indiana University, having earned a bachelor's in electronics engineering at the University of Pune, India.

He soon got involved in his proudest achievement: helping to found Monroe Hospital in Bloomington, Ind. As CFO, Desigan did the market and feasibility studies and secured the financing, including $35 million for real estate.

After leaving the hospital, Desigan had senior finance roles at two tech startups. The first company, NearMed, a telemedicine service, was acquired by a health care provider. A Fortune 50 company bought the intellectual property of the second, Medella Systems, which sold context-aware healthcare technology.

Then came Desigan's first turnaround. As CFO and CIO of Volunteers of America Chesapeake, a Lanham, Md., nonprofit that places volunteers in human services, Desigan turned big losses the previous two years into a healthy operating surplus by collecting $6 million in accounts receivable and reducing expenses by $1 million. "IT acts as the lens to look at the problem," Desigan said. "Then you execute the business model for change."

Desigan said he used the budgeting and planning capabilities of Adaptive Planning's corporate performance management software to help get the job done.

Before buying the software, "we did not have a budgeting tool other than [Microsoft] Excel," he said. The organization was "hemorrhaging money" somewhere in its five service lines and 40 government contracts. "It was an absolute nightmare to do it in Excel," he said. "Things break. We really had to drill back to the actual transactions to identify which parts of the organization were causing the overages."

An analytical mind

At AAPA, Desigan uses IBM's SPSS analytics and Qlik Technologies’ QlikView business intelligence tools to identify categories of members who are less likely to renew, so marketing can design packages to lure or retain them. SPSS analytical models help predict the membership boost. Budgeting and forecasting happens in Adaptive Planning, which connects to Microsoft’s Dynamics SL accounting software, letting users view transactions in 100,000 invoices.

Most of the labor of analysis and data mining is performed by workers at an Indian service provider, another innovation Desigan brought in. But his most important IT project has been consolidating membership databases so they can be better managed and analyzed, according to Bush. He also helped develop a mobile app for members, and a portal designed to attract new members and serve the needs of existing ones will go online this year.

Now Desigan is working on a Platform as a Service initiative that involves moving applications to a common platform powered by the Apache Hadoop open source framework. He said the platform will help standardize the application integration process and cut costs.

This steady stream of ideas is typical, said Bush. "He is astonishingly creative." 

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