Brewing the perfect beer requires a mastery of craft and science, in a balance of ingredients and processes. Some brewers adopt modern technology while others use more traditional methods, but whether the brewery is large or small, old or new, the process remains the same.
Running a successful finance function also requires the ability to meld a number of processes and skills, and whether the company is large or small, commercial or non-profit the core skills and processes are identical.
Comparing brewing with finance might seem a strange analogy, but it is unlikely you will meet many finance directors who started their career as a brewer. But on meeting Charles Scott, group FD of Age UK – the charity created by the merger of Help the Aged and Age Concern England in April 2009 – the first thing that strikes is that he spent the first eight years of his career as a brewer for Bass before training as a chartered accountant. After becoming the youngest brewery manager in one of the biggest breweries in the country, Charles’s decision to retrain after being made redundant might have seemed like a backward step, but led to a career spanning two corporate financial controller roles before becoming FD at St. Dunstan’s, the charity for blind ex-servicemen and women – and later FD for Help The Aged.
So. From brewing to accounting? “It was a bit of push and a bit of pull. I realised that I didn’t want to be head brewer and I didn’t understand how businesses ran, so I left to retrain as a chartered accountant,” he tells Financial Director. “At 30 I was sweeping the floor in a stockroom at a small firm of accountants in Chester; I got made redundant and ended up as a temp in the purchase ledger at a large manufacturer,” he says. “Eight years later I was FD of St Dunstan’s.”
Scott’s experience working on a start up within Alstom, creating a new company from scratch and building the finance team from nothing helped to prepare him in some way for the complexities and challenges of bringing Age Concern England and Help the Aged under one roof.
“I hadn’t done anything to this extent, but because I helped create an accounting department and IT project before, I didn’t find this too daunting” he says.
Scott is keen to point out that working in not-for-profit does not mean that profit is not important and in particular, he is at pains to make plain that there is no excuse for failing to apply the same commercial rigour required within any listed business. Two-thirds of Age UK’s income is derived from its network of charity shops, which clocked income of £44.3m in 2010, and selling insurance products to the over-50’s market, which made profits of £12.8m in 2010.
“What we do in finance, we do in a very commercial environment,” Scott says. “The money given to us through fundraising is spent on providing services and not generating income. We have to spend that for the cause and strike a balance with generating income. As for professionalism, reporting and regulation there is no difference here to what a commercial company does.”
And becoming FD of the merged entity in March 2009 stretched his ability to understand, but be distant from the detail of bolting two organisations together. “You have to get in the helicopter and go higher up. The people below you get stretched more. When you integrate, the detail goes down into the weeds, but as group FD you go higher up,” he says. “Everyone needs to take the step up with you but you as FD have to try not to get dragged into the weeds.”
The merger brought together a throng of several trustee boards, commercial operations and different financial year-ends, while combining disparate back- office functions and unifying two organisations that had previously, as Scott says, effectively competing. And that sentiment was writ large for the finance team. One of Scott’s first major tasks at merger was to bring together the finance teams – when that of Age Concern England had seen the departure of its own FD. “You had two finance teams that had previously been competing against each other. Both teams felt their approach to finance and the systems they used was the right way,” he says. “I needed to take the big decisions quickly, because the basics you take for granted were not there any more.”
Joining up the systems and processes of two separate finance functions required getting both teams on side very quickly. The financial bread and butter requirements of the business don’t just take a break because the company is in the middle of a complex integration, and restructuring the people and systems all took place while both businesses completed their own year-end results. But Scott can’t proffer his golden bullet.
“There is no one golden solution. You have got to make what you have work while you deliver a new system. You need them to think creatively and quickly,” Scott says. “The people from Help the Aged reacted differently and needed different leadership than those coming from the Age Concern side; it was a step into the great unknown. It’s about reassuring one team and convincing the other team. It’s about how to move those two groups of people in the same direction,” he adds.
And that applied likewise to forming a unified message about what the new charity does. “There were nine boards of trustees involved that needed to know that the merger was the right thing to do,” he says. “There were different message to different audiences – the elderly, the media, individual donors, corporate donors and federation of local age concerns. Getting all of these people to buy into it had to coincide with keeping the sausage machine turning.”
Scott has now been a FD in the charity sector for 9 years and says he never wants to work in the commercial world again, although he had reservations about making the jump into charity sector before joining St Dunstan’s in 2000.
“I asked myself ‘do I really want to work for a charity?’ The charity world is not as relaxed as the commercial world. There is a culture shock but after about a year and a half I decided I loved it. The people and environment feels nicer. But I can’t describe it in a way that you can write down,” Scott says.
And what of the future?
“I have one of the most interesting jobs in the charity sector. I have been in the job for four years and there is still so much to do in Age UK. The sense of pride at being part of team that created Age UK is still there. I enjoy every minute,” he says.
March 2009 – Present
FD, Age UK
Oct 2006 – March 2009
FD, Help the Aged
Jan 2002 – Oct 2006
Director of finance and resources, St. Dunstan’s
Oct 2000 – Jan 2002
European financial controller, Genrad
March 1997 – Oct 2000
Financial controller, Alstom Train Services
Dec 1994 – March 1997
Senior management accountant, ICL
1991 – 94
Trainee chartered accountant, Conway & Co
1983 – 1991 Brewer, Bass