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CFO checks on sembler's growth

When Deann Lazzari joined The Sembler Company as an assistant controller 10 years ago, the CPA never dreamed she would be its chief financial officer by the turn of the century.

Nor could she have imagined the extent to which computers and software programs would be used to process and run the company's financial affairs.

"We were still doing development projects reporting by hand," Lazzari says.

"Since financial statements took several hours to process, journal entries were double-checked before posting," she says. "The last person to leave at the end of the work day ran the financial statement update program so the results would be ready the next morning."

Today, figures are generated almost immediately.

Lazzari made the move to Sembler from the tax department of an accounting firm. She was looking, she says, for more interesting work in a smoke-free environment.

She found it.

"When I came here there were 24 people on staff," she says. "Now there are over 80 of us."

Lazzari manages a department of 14. She says the sheer volume of work today precludes her looking over everything. "I used to check each transaction," she said. "Now, depending on the type of item, I may double-check one in 20."

She looks for people with strong accounting backgrounds if she needs to fill a position in her area. Staff must understand what they are dealing with and be able to spot errors on their own.

"All accounting is processed through this office in St. Petersburg," she says. "That includes rent checks and invoices. We pay all the bills."

Some consolidation offsets the actual number of invoices handled. Lazzari says her staff may generate 600 to 750 checks a month. They are likely to represent as many as 3,000 invoices.

As it grew during the 1990s, the Sembler operation was successful in simply upgrading its financial software. But by 1997 it was ready for a major change. In early 1998, new hardware, a new server and new software replaced the earlier system.

Preparing for the transition demanded a thorough study of the needs of various departments. Lazzari and her staff became overtime specialists as they worked to make it both a smooth and an accurate transfer of information. Data conversions had to be perfect. "We had a laundry list of things to check," she says.

"We didn't realize how many transactions we had been processing every month," she adds.

Simultaneously, business burgeoned for Sembler. "We had unprecedented development in 1998 from the accounting department's perspective," she recalls.

And change continues. Lazzari says the department will begin using a new version of accounting software and moving to a new computer platform by the end of this summer.

In her current position, Lazzari focuses on the Sembler-owned side of the business. This comprises heavy reporting requirements and the almost constant preparation of tax returns, due to extensions filed to accommodate the company's many limited partnerships.

"There's never a dull moment," she says.

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