Ben Burkett has been away from home for about 18 years. Now, he’s back in Cortez with a prominent job as the city’s finance director.
In mid-January, Burkett, a Montezuma-Cortez High School and Fort Lewis College alumnus, relocated from Denver to Cortez with his wife and two young children. He has wide-ranging experience in the private sector in accounting, auditing, IT consulting and technology business management.
In a Q&A with The Journal at City Hall, Burkett said part of the job of a city finance director is evaluating whether the city is running in an optimized manner. Then, he has to share that information with the city manager, department heads and City Council to help them make informed decisions.
That’s a challenge, however, as Cortez has still not produced the 2016 and 2017 budget audits after a messy financial software transition. Burkett’s predecessor has been hired on as a contractor to complete audits for 2016 through 2018.
After graduating from Fort Lewis College in 2000, Burkett obtained his Certified Public Accountant license at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Since then, he has worked as a financial auditor, IT auditor and IT consultant at auditing firm KPMG, an internal auditor at petroleum company DCP Midstream and most recently as a technology business manager with Hitachi Vantara.
Here’s what Burkett has to say about his experiences and his vision for the Cortez Finance Department. The interview was edited for brevity.
Q: What do you remember about growing up in Cortez?A: When I was growing up, I thought it was a boring place to be, but I had a good childhood. We did every sport possible, every recreation thing possible. The big thing for us in high school was soccer, did drama, did the plays. I even did cheerleading. Pretty involved, but it’s a small town, and it’s like, I can’t wait to get out.
Coming back, it feels like new, yet so familiar. Changes have come, but there’s a lot of things that have not changed.
Q: What is the biggest change you’ve noticed?A: That’s a hard one. What’s changed visually? It’s like, OK, new shop here, new building here. I think for me one of the biggest things for me is the old high school is torn down finally, and they got the new high school. A little surprised at some of the growth; you’ve got the subdivisions like Southern Bluffs and Brandon’s Gate.
Q: How does your experience as an auditor translate to city finance director?A: Auditing in general is pertinent. When we receive financial statements for the city, I go through and audit and validate for transparency and make sure the numbers are accounted for correctly.
Most of that experience was in the private sector. I did do an audit for Douglas County. I was like a jack of all trades but master of none. So I did like every industry possible, whereas the typical approach is individuals would be put into an industry line. I did like, everything, so by looking at all these books you get a foundation of just how best practices in accounting should happen.
You also understand a lot of the processes and what the controls are. The processes ensure that you have transactions that get accounted for correctly, and the controls ensure that the numbers cannot be falsified or misappropriated or fraud.
Q: It seems like you have a lot of technology experience. How would that benefit the city?A: I would say I have a very well-rounded role. I would say my skill set is process and controls and then I would say budgeting and value as well as understanding IT concepts and risk.
IT needs to be managed to maintain security and effective operations of the technology within an environment. In some instances, the IT concerns can outweigh the work that a business needs to do. It can hinder that business.
I think that’s a lot of what I can bring from the IT side. I can challenge the way we do things in the IT world. More importantly, what I’ve noticed so far is the city is using technology well in some areas, but then I look at other areas and it feels like we are not digitizing. We are not digital in how we operate.
Q: What areas are those?A: I don’t want to call anything out yet because I really want to be fair to all of the departments, and I haven’t really dug in yet, but that’s my initial perception. I need to look at my own department. For example, we do reimbursements for travel and training, and we actually cut checks. Why are we cutting checks? We should be doing that online, automated with direct deposit just like payroll.
A lot of it comes down to just asking questions. Is this a functionality we have to today? We’re just not using it? Can we use it?
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?A: The people who know how to improve these things – it’s not me. They’re already here. It’s just a matter of asking them and empowering them to say, ‘How would you do it better? How would you do it differently?’ And that’s something I really want to empower not just my team, but anybody within the city.
I don’t want to have the answers because you need to have that diversity of thought. You need to develop leadership, ownership and responsibility within your organization. As soon as you do that, everything gets improved – their mentality, their morale, their confidence improves.
That’s one of those differences that comes to me: Are you a manager or a leader? I aim to be a leader. I think a manager tells everybody what to do and give them orders, whereas a leader helps guide people and provides some guardrails to support your team.
Q: What do you think your biggest challenge will be?A: It’s going to vary. It’s going to evolve. No. 1 is getting those audits out the door. No. 2 in my mind is budget. How do I provide a more transparent budget? I would love to do budget-to-actual reviews with all of the department heads, the city manager and I would even like to do that with City Council.
Q: Like comparing budget figures to actual costs?A: There are different ways of doing it. I’ll give you some examples. When I ran the IT project management office (with DCP Midstream), I created a whole financial model where I could see the whole budget for the year and then break it down by month. Every month, I would then compare the budget for that month to the actual of that month and then you could see if you are on budget or if you are off budget.
And then when you’re a couple of months in, what I would do is look at my forecast to spend for the rest of the year. I would do a budget-to-forecast comparison. What that allows you to do is manage your resources to make sure that you are going to hit the budget and make sure you deliver everything you said you would.
I think it’s too late to do that after the year is done, because that’s what the audit is.
Q: Why did you want to want to move from Denver to Cortez?A: My wife and I had already been tossing around the idea of getting out of Denver, so going rural. We were probably more looking at maybe Montrose. We even tossed around the idea of going to Idaho. Smaller than Denver is what we were looking at for a different pace and lifestyle.
Since we’ve been here, we’ve been to the farmers market, we’ve been to the rec center a couple of times a week. My daughter loves going to the pool.
One of the biggest things, it was just the warmest welcome that anybody could ask for. People are friendly. At the farmers market people are just chatting, people want to say ‘Hi’ to the kids. I see old faces throughout the city. The warmest welcome. I couldn’t have asked for anything nicer.