Mark Lumsdon-Taylor never thought his job would someday include the oddity of
standing in a barn in loafers, tailored coat and leather gloves having
discussions about why cows are not falling pregnant.
The finance director of
Hadlow College, a land
and agricultural school, can’t stop himself grinning as he recalls the incident:
‘I went down to investigate and listened to the herding manager tell me all
about how they had been defrosting semen by boiling it.
‘They were killing it before it even went in no wonder there were no
The public sector is usually criticised for its shoddy approach and a lack of
delivery – but Lumsdon-Taylor defies this. He turned a 100-year-old land college
on the brink of ruin into a profitable entity, which earned him the Public
Sector FD gong at the 2007 Accountancy Age Awards.
Only four years ago the college was lurching from one disaster to another.
Then Taylor stepped in and moved Hadlow from annual losses of £500,000, into
£400,000 profits, transforming the culture and focus of the organisation into
one with annual growth of 25%.
His move into the FD role at Hadlow was a natural progression from his days
as audit manager at MacIntyre Hudson, where his remit included the growing of
client portfolio, of which Hadlow was a part. But among audit personnel at MH
the college became something of a standing joke, with a reputation for being one
of the worst clients in the sector.
‘When we met to do the audit, we would ask for the accounts, as you would
normally do. Their response was along the lines of “We thought you were supposed
to do it.”’
‘We had to build the accounts from scratch, and had to call in another team to
do so, before we could do the audit,’ he said.
It was clear the financial management was a disaster, falling apart in 2002
when the college went into administration and the principal was removed because
of financial irregularities. The local press tore into the college, carrying
stories about it as administrators were put in place. MH was called in to effect
the change and the acting principal wanted Lumsdon-Taylor to step in to support
the finance function.
Taylor found a college that had not invested in core assets such as land,
buildings and facilities since 2002. ‘Teaching and learning was good but it was
in a sense an operational disaster, to the extent that the college had no budget
left. The board seemed to have been misled by the principal but wanted to put
this right,’ he says.
There was clearly a case of financial bungling at the top. ‘The college did
not have a budget system that worked properly and the actual accounting system
was just not working. Heads of departments were never told how the business was
run… it was as though nobody had been interested before,’ Lumsdon-Taylor says.
There were other serious problems, including a lack of a day-to-day
management structure: ‘The IT system was also a shambles and needed fixing. The
PCs were archaic, there was no intranet, and the fruit lecturer had previously
been in charge of IT.’
By this time the Learning and Skills Council, which funds the higher
education sector, had extremely serious concerns about the future of the
college. ‘We knew we had to act quickly,’ Lumsdon-Taylor recalls.
The college shed 60 staff and re-launched internally by February 2003. The
entire mid-management team was new with the exception of a few former staff who
had moved into new positions and with higher management also replaced, MH’s
brief was concluded.
But the efforts of the then 27-year-old Lumsdon-Taylor were rewarded with an
offer from Hadlow’s board. They wanted him to lead the college further, through
the role of head of finance, registry (operations) and IT. It was the right time
to move out of practice.
‘I knew I wouldn’t make partner until I was 28. At the time, I was a manager
at MH but also leading external audits for several further education and
development public sector bodies. It was April 2003, I felt ready for something
different, so Hadlow was a logical progression.’
A holiday was needed to celebrate it all and take things in but the heady
excitement quickly faded on his first day at Hadlow as he was thrown in the deep
end, with news of cash-flow problems.
This surprised Lumsdon-Taylor, who had last left the college with £1m in its
coffers while he served at MH. He discovered that although the college kept to
its plans to invest, it had not taken crucial costs into account.
‘There was an agreement that money would be spent on investment, but the cost
of VAT and professional fees had been forgotten. The college had been in
negative reserves for years and prior to this it had been asset stripping itself
since nobody had structured the business to get optimal returns.’
To add more pressure, the LSC decided to claw all the funds back from the
college which had underperformed drastically in former years in one go. In
the words of the new FD, ‘the balance sheet went into free-fall’.
Several audit teams quizzed Lumsdon-Taylor in his first days at the college.
He also had to earn the respect of the staff, most of whom were older than him.
‘I knew it was going to be bloody tough. I felt in a way people would
question the 27-year-old city boy who came along and told them how things were
going to work.’
On the financial juggling front, he was faced with the choice between
clipping the college’s wings or continuing investment. ‘I played the odds by
continuing to invest and manage the cash flow. I remember clearly, sitting with
the weekly cheque flow and deciding which ones to pay and which ones to hold off
‘I guess the darkest moments were around questions of whether we could afford
to pay staff salaries but I never let them know that, and they never went
Things began to turn around. Barclays lent the college £1.5m to keep it going.
But the hardest work began in January of 2004, when Lumsdon-Taylor and his
team slogged through 60-hour weeks to ‘improve and consolidate’ the college’s
The Hadlow College branding was re-focused on its role as a specialist
institution, and was run like a business, with the student the focus as the
primary customer. At the same time the LSC dropped a bombshell by announcing it
wanted Hadlow to merge with another college. But Lumsdon-Taylor and the rest of
the college’s staff dedicated themselves to keep the college as a separate
He drew on his own hard-ball nature and brought millions into the college by
obtaining grants and then generating surpluses. By 2005, the college was
re-graded and went from a Grade four (poor) to a Grade two defeating the
merger and saving the institution. The areas of financial frameworks and
financial effectiveness were also graded at two.
The proof of the turnaround is in the reputation of the college today: ‘At
its lowest ebb, I would pick up the phone and nobody wanted to deal with Hadlow
College. Now people are delighted. Its proof that you can turn something around
which has previously been in the worst position,’ says Lumsdon-Taylor. He’s
quite certain he’d do it all again, in the same way.
Hadlow College isn’t the only training provider to face financial
difficulties. Only last week administrators were called in by Carter &
Carter, after banks rejected its last-ditch restructuring plans.
The manufacturing training business had been locked in talks with its lenders
regarding a consensual restructuring, but the banks told the company that such a
move was no longer a viable option. ‘The company has today instructed its
lawyers to file a notice of intention to appoint administrators over the
company,’ a statement by the company said.
The business was severely affected by a revenue recognition issues last year.
These problems saw the company’s shares suspended, and PricewaterhouseCoopers
called in to conduct a review of its accounting policies. As a result of its
problems its annual report to 31 July 2007 has still not been published. The
future of 2,000 staff at Carter & Carter will now be in the hands of the
accountants selected for the task.
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