As we developed and launched our CenterCard program, we have encountered a wide range of fiscal cultures. One well-established company's CEO still approves every expense, no matter how small. One culture was so notoriously frugal that salespeople used to living a relatively lavish “on the road” lifestyle ended up considering other offers. Another company instituted a policy where employees only get to accrue card points if they submit expense reports on time.
Although no two fiscal cultures are identical, we've observed a clear continuum between empowerment and control. These three companies illustrate the range.
1. “The Carrot”
"People who are a good culture fit can be trusted to follow the policies."
Business: Manufacturing startup
Process and Philosophy: The CFO of this rapidly growing 60-person team previously ran the corporate card program for a huge company where managers were required to review every single transaction. That company ultimately decided manager approvals weren’t worth the time because they uncovered very little fraud. In his current position, the CFO’s focus is on empowering the sales and marketing teams to grow the company and on shaping a strong culture built on trust. He manually spot checks a few reports every week, and if he uncovers any issues, he tries to determine whether the employee just needs coaching on policy or if there is a larger cultural mismatch at hand.
Priorities: Maximize visibility; minimize controls (including time-consuming workflows) to the extent possible.
Center Team Take:
We favor focusing on process to identify miscategorized or out-of-policy spend instead of sorting through all expense submissions just to find it. We also recommend using smart technology to automatically audit all expenses instead of spot-checking only a few.
2. “The Stick”
"If something is spent that shouldn’t have been, it’s hard to get that money back."
Business: Software startup
Process and Philosophy: At the CFO’s previous company, the number of corporate cards in distribution was slashed from 80 employees to just 3 execs. The operating principle was that requiring employees to use their own cards would force them to make more sensible spending decisions, preventing situations like expensing $500 for a dinner that should have only cost $100. This background shapes the current “no corporate card” policy—all 40 employees must use personal cards and request reimbursement.
Priorities: Enforce spending policies; minimize spend
Center Team Take:
We’ve talked to CFOs with hundreds of employees that only give out five or six corporate cards because they believe there’s an implicit threat to spenders that if they use their own cards and the expense is not approved, they’ll be out the money. But this approach can be inefficient, since it typically takes more time to track down expense submissions and close the books each month, and you end up with less visibility into spend.
3. “Trust but Verify”
"Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Business: Consumer goods startup
Process and Philosophy: At this 20-person team, the CEO’s personal airlines-reward card is used by about half the people in the office. There’s no finance department, so the CEO runs the books, approves everything, and wants to know everything that’s being spent. He requires a receipt for all purchases, even those well under the $75 IRS requirement, and tracks them through a digitized expense reporting tool. As he puts it, “The longer I can have control over finances, the better I’ll feel.”
That said, he acknowledges that empowering employees to make decisions is critical for a strong culture. He likes his team to go ahead with purchase decisions, and if there’s any disagreement about those decisions, they can discuss later. The key goals are to stay agile and communicate openly.
Priorities: Maximize visibility and alignment without slowing decisions down or wasting time sorting through piles of receipts
Center Team Take:
The ideal state is a healthy, growth-oriented work environment where employees make smart decisions guided by clear parameters. The challenge is not just determining the right balance of choice and controls, but refining that balance as the company grows. What works for a team of 20 won’t scale to a team of 40, not to mention 200.