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Interview: St Aubyn Estates FD Jessica Slack

FIVE DAYS OF RAIN is great when your crops are thirsty. But when it’s the middle of August, and a big part of your business is cramming visitors through the doors of a National Trust property, then it’s not so good.

“The weather’s a biggie,” says Jessica Slack, finance director of St Aubyn Estates.

The property beholden to the weather in question is the stunning St Michael’s Mount. The south-west Cornwall island houses 12 families, a castle and some shops. The causeway, allowing visitors onto the mount’s shore only by foot, enables accessibility during low tide.

Unlike other stately homes possessed by landed estates, the mount’s castle is smaller and doesn’t have the grounds on which to build other visitor enticements. So understanding who visits, and when, is a key part of improving the organisation around the estate.

Forecasting visitor numbers is about taking a “middle ground” approach, says Slack. Numbers at the mount have grown to 260,000, from 200,000, but Slack – along with her marketing team – is keen to gain a better hold of this area for planning capital spend. “We tend to budget big expenditure for the close season,” she explains.

Her background working at the National Audit Office, where she gained experience on understanding the processes and risks inherent within government resource accounts, puts her in a good position to add more science to the estate.

“Counting visitors is one of the things we’ve focused on – how do we count and record them? That may sound really mundane, but what kind of visitors are they? Where have they come from? We’ve got conflicting trends in a good way with the rest of Cornwall, as our visitor numbers seem to be up – others are seeing a tailing-off,” she says.

Chief executive Rob Abernathy joined St Aubyn Estates in 2008, leading the charge to make the estate – which comprises 5,000 acres of land, residential property and coastline – work in a more linked and business-like fashion.

For Slack, who joined 18 months ago, there were some easy wins to lift the finance function and supplement the work that had started within the business.

“When I turned up, we didn’t have internet banking – we used cheques,” she admits. “We found out the bank balance at the end of the month when the statement came in. So the first thing I did was get internet banking in place.”

But being hands-on and effecting rapid change was a key part of why the role appealed to her in the first place. “It was the chance to really do stuff quickly and say, ‘I’ve done that’,” she says. The idea of producing a weekly report of what was going at the mount was “unthinkable” at the time.

She inherited a “great team” of three in finance: “They were pushing for change as well.”

According to Slack, they could see the “tensions, and where the gaps were”: “It’s been great to harness the energy of that team.”

Going through the figures

Budgets across the various parts of the estate used to be looked at once and put away again. As well as helping to remove the siloed way of working, Slack is trying to help teams understand budgets and rolling forecasts. A lot of that process is simply getting people into the habit of sitting down and going through the figures. (For more, see box 2)

She is liaising with the building team on the estate towards a work schedule that will help inform the ongoing budgeting decisions. The schedule must make sense to both the building team and finance.

“As much as anything, it’s the process around it – that once a month for two hours we’ll sit down and update the schedule. Then everything else flows through that. So we give the building team what it wants to use; how it’s laid out – but we tweak in Excel to give the financials,” she explains.

In one sense, Slack performs what is almost a part-time FD role across a series of small businesses, all with different ways of working, different needs and different desires. The tension comes from bringing these businesses together as a whole.

“I’m still absolutely committed to supporting the organisation, and that means sometimes you have to do things [separately] – but if that’s going to help the head boatman do his budget better, then let’s do it,” she says.

Data collection isn’t just about understanding the mount’s visitors, keeping track of fuel usage, or helping managers make decisions. For Slack, the geographical location of St Aubyn Estates – deep in south-west Cornwall – causes other difficulties: a lack of general economic and visitor information for the area, and dislocation from her finance director peers.

The answer to these is simple to understand, but more difficult to carry out: make contacts. So Slack returned to her old stomping ground of London for a few days to meet up with other landed estates FDs.

Discussions with local contacts have been a bit hit-and-miss, however: “Some are more keen to share than others.” Then again, this might have something to do with the mount’s success at raising its profile – including strong recognition as a landmark on the first day of the Olympic torch relay – with many day trippers coming from Devon and Cornwall itself.

Events that use the mount as a “backdrop” are an opportunity into which the estate is actively looking to tap.

A Festival of Sport was organised with St Aubyn Estates as one of its partners – an event colourfully described by Slack as “the Glasto of mass participation sport”. Such events are not quite so weather-dependent, she believes. “People will do the triathlon whatever the weather,” she jokes. “It’s using the mount as a focal point, but not quite so dependent on getting people on and off it.”

Moving focus

As the nights draw in, St Aubyn Estates’ focus moves from trading to reinvesting, allocating spend for the next year, after what has been a hectic eight months. The summer season is about making sure the business runs day-to-day – such as managing a payroll that swells from 70 to 300 during that period – and even ensuring that the right coins get to the right parts of the estate.

But this is the point at which the “serious analysis” takes place, and this year it will include better-captured data. Strategy will be formed over the coming weeks, while marketing is busy out of season.

Slack is considering moving the year-end date from March to December. March is a busy gearing-up time for the estate, and previous sets of accounts have been filed late, so she now has an opportunity to get ahead on accounts preparation.

There is also the not inconsiderable task of getting some budget details over to the National Trust in October. The trust, rather than St Aubyn, owns the mount.

In 1954, Francis St Aubyn – the third Lord St Levan – gave most of the mount to the National Trust, along with a large endowment fund for its upkeep. He retained a 999-year lease for the family to live in the castle as well as a licence to show the historical rooms to the visiting public.

Along with the budget details, much of the investment made by St Aubyn goes towards maintaining the estate. The endowment fund is topped up by trading, and the whole pot is then used to support maintenance.

Other issues with which Slack has to deal include the regulatory load of the estates comprising 18 different legal entities, and how that affects day-to-day bookkeeping. As the estate operates through trusts, tax matters come to the fore. While uncomfortable talking about what are family decisions, Slack does say that some of the older structures now “leak tax” after being hit by legislative change. So those are being considered at the moment.

Her role and the backdrop in which she works seem idyllic. But she points out that the decision to move to Cornwall was not purely lifestyle – and the estate wasn’t interested in appointing someone looking to wind down. In turn, Slack was looking for a role that would challenge her and sit well as a career step.

“I don’t see this as a ‘sitting back’ kind of role – it’s very much about developing my career, but also to offer experience they didn’t have. So it’s a good match, but not possibly what I would have predicted,” she concludes. ?

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