Carlos Olea Pursues Accounting Perfection

Chief Accounting Officer Carlos Olea never stops searching for efficiency, and the Howard Hughes Corporation is all the better for it

Photo: Adam Harper

“If you’re okay with the status quo, we’re probably not going to work well together.”

Carlos Olea says his life works as a sort of continuous loop: understand the process, improve, and repeat. It’s served him well in accountant roles over nearly twenty years, and it doesn’t hurt in raising his two children either.

The chief accounting officer at the Howard Hughes Corporation has spent the past two years mapping the future for his tech-minded team and, more broadly, considering how it can help better serve the entire organization. Olea tempers his pursuit of perfection as a highly motivated executive by a self-awareness that he must consistently not only “talk the talk” but “walk the walk” in his aim to lead by example and make processes run smoothly and efficiently.

Tearing Down Retention Roadblocks

Olea says that after getting a lay of the land, so to speak, with regard to the various complex business operations at Howard Hughes, he settled in to do what he does best. “The main driver for almost everything I do is efficiencies,” Olea says. “I wanted to ensure that, first of all, we’re using company resources in the best possible way.”

He quickly got approval to take a look at the company’s enterprise resource planning software, which is responsible for so much of the company’s financial planning. Olea liked what he saw, but there was a problem: it wasn’t being utilized anywhere close to its full potential.

“I liken it to having a Lamborghini and driving it twenty-five-miles-per-hour everywhere,” Olea says, laughing. “We’ve worked to integrate other systems as much as possible to cut down on data entry.”

There may not be two other words that roll off Olea’s tongue with as much venom as “data entry.” “It’s really the epitome of inefficiency in my line of work,” Olea says. “If you have people doing it, you’re just doing it wrong.”

Carlos Olea The Howard Hughes Corporation
Carlos Olea, The Howard Hughes CorporationPhoto: Adam Harper

Part of the disdain for data entry, Olea says, is that it clogs up valuable time and effort and creates roadblocks to job satisfaction, killing worker engagement and retention. “For me, what’s really important is to try whenever possible to give people the chance to step up and grow in their roles,” Olea says. “I feel I can have significant impact and help generate better career paths for people by helping to improve the inefficient processes that continue to negatively impact their job satisfaction.

“On the business side,” he continues, “it makes things faster, lowers the cost, and allows us to be more proactive.”

Olea works with external partner Marcum to achieve this efficiency. “Marcum LLP is honored to partner with Carlos Olea on Howard Hughes’ IT, accounting, and internal control matters,” says Lisa Delfini, partner at the consulting company. “His dedication to efficiency and breaking down job satisfaction roadblocks serves as an example to the business community.”

The Next Leap in Efficiency

For Olea, one of the exciting prospects aimed at improving efficiency lies in robotic process automation (RPA). First and foremost, this has meant interdepartmental cooperation on a wide scale.

“It’s been essential for us to partner with our IT organization, because if you don’t have that relationship, you can’t do anything at all,” Olea says. RPA offers potential paths for not only finding ways to do thing faster and more efficiently, but it also allows employees to focus on more high-level tasks. “While we’re just starting with RPA, I’m sure it’s here to stay,” Olea says. “We will be trying to use it as much as possible in a controlled way where it makes sense to do so.”

But robotic processing isn’t without its challenges.

“We’re a public company, and it’s important to follow rules of internal controls so we can continue to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act,” Olea says. “But that’s also what makes it interesting. You not only have to execute the automation, but you have to design it in a way that fulfills all purposes.”

Faster, Better, Cheaper

Olea is quick to admit that RPA isn’t going to solve everything. “The joke is that my office should have a revolving door because people are constantly stopping by,” he says. “It’s a false stereotype and outdated myth that accountants are always working quietly behind the scenes, because most of my job is about engaging with and solving problems for others so they can do their jobs.”

He says he’s proven to be a poor work-from-home candidate for precisely that reason. “I just miss the interaction of working with and helping people face-to-face.”

Olea’s relentless pursuit of efficiency can come at a cost. He essentially put himself out of a job in his previous chief accounting officer role. “After doing an entire system implementation and hiring an accounting team, I really felt that my work was done,” Olea admits. “It was working exactly the way it should, and I thought that I needed a new challenge.”

The Howard Hughes Corporation has proven to be the best of all worlds for an accountant who also loves the real estate business. “I really love what I do here,” Olea says. “I get to deal with technical accounting, processes, and finance, while I also get to interact with developers and property managers and be a part of discussions that consider architectural drawings and how buildings can best operate. I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to take on this role at company that is doing such exciting work.”

Marcum LLP is honored to partner with Carlos Olea and his team on IT, accounting and internal control matters. Carlos’ unrelenting push for automated and integrated systems and ability to foresee necessary accounting and internal control requirements has contributed to a best-in-class technology and controllership environment at Howard Hughes Corporation