“Average day? No such thing.” Alex Williamson has a knack of putting things in a nutshell, which is probably why he has been entrusted with the finances of an empire spanning 26 operating businesses within five limited companies.
Goodwood House, built in the 17th Century, has been the seat of the Dukes of Richmond for more than 300 years. The estate, set in 12,000 acres of countryside in West Sussex, is one of the most picturesque venues for an interview Accountancy Age has seen.
However its beauty is matched, if not eclipsed, by the ambition of the business that lurks in the shadows, but it’s a challenge that Williamson relishes. “We’re looking to grow the business from £55m to £100m turnover, whilst maintaining 10% margins, in five years,” he says.
These are noble targets to meet in a recession, and Williamson admits: “No-one has been immune from the credit crunch, but we have kept things steady.”
Sitting across the table without the often-encountered PR buffer to try and steer around any difficult questions, Williamson represents a refreshing change. He’s clearly a busy man, but he seems to be as adept at plate-spinning his various responsibilities as he is of finding his way around the labyrinth that is Goodwood House.
Becoming FD of Goodwood shortly after turning 34, Williamson represents the new breed of finance professionals that see themselves as more than number crunchers.
Looking at the business and the footfall – the number of people visiting – the scale of the operation is truly daunting. During the Glorious Goodwood racing event in July, more than 100,000 people pass through the grounds. For three days each September, The Goodwood Revival, the historic motor race meeting which covers of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, takes place and 120,000 descend on the estate – most dressed in period costume to watch vintage cars (the 20 cars in last year’s TT race alone were valued collectively at £85m) vie for supremacy.
Visitors to the Festival of Speed have the chance to get closer to their motor racing heroes than at any other event, and the festival is perhaps the only event outside the Grand Prix season that is attended by most of the current F1 teams.
However, all these events cost money to stage, which is why Williamson must also drive cost-saving initiatives which will yield approximately £800,000 in 2010 and more in 2011.
“We’re also completing a refinancing, which will release significant cash back into the business at a time of peak investment opportunity and supporting the business MDs in appraising investment plans and devising cost effective ways of financing them,” he says.
Like many, he wanted the financial foundation of an accounting degree and achieved his ICAEW qualification in 1999 before embarking on the beginnings of a stellar career.
At Ernst & Young he was blooded in audit before heading out into the business world with positions at major companies including Warner Music and head of finance for the specialist sector at TUI Travel. Practice was definitely not for him. “I wanted to be in the business itself, as opposed to the outside looking in.”
One of his main responsibilities has been to bring a completely fresh view to finance and IT, which has traditionally acted as a process rather than a business support function.
“I tell my staff that they’ve got to get out into the business firstly to understand it and also to be in a position to properly advise the people who run those businesses. It’s vital.”
Williamson has had to box clever to meet the challenges and costs involved in running such a massive estate.
This includes completely reshaping the team and individual responsibilities, changing the team’s attitude towards the business and the attitude of the business towards the functions.
He has overseen the introduction of accruals accounting to produce a balance sheet and cashflow every month, rather than once a year, for the first time in company history.
Profit and loss and, shortly, balance sheet responsibility has also been delegated to the company MDs rather than all control being held centrally. This has allowed a complete transformation of the IT infrastructure from what has been coined as a complex web of non-integrated access database systems to a fully integrated systems framework.
“An incredible amount of work, but very much worth the effort.”
The fact Williamson lives on the estate – his wife drives past as the shots for the piece are being taken – means he is close to his work, but he is able to switch off when it comes time to head home to his young family.
A keen interest in sport, music and food and drink also provide diversions from the day-to-day, but when he returns to the office the shockwaves in the UK economy mean the changes he has implemented are vital if his aims of positioning Goodwood in the best place for customer experience and data capture are to be realised. Williamson has all this to contend with in addition to the bread and butter FD’s job of preparing the accounts. (See box).
He also has to keep his boss the Earl of March happy. Williamson describes the Earl as a very good businessman and also a shrewd one.
The Rolls Royce factory his Lordship allowed the luxury car firm to build on the edge of the estate comes in handy when the Goodwood Revival takes place.
Williamson is always keen to add more strings to his bow and has been handed control of an entirely new event, Vintage at Goodwood – celebrating “five decades of British Cool from inception to fruition” kicking off in August 2010.
Goodwood’s FD says he has a lot of projects to bring through and is very happy with his current role, but makes no bones about being ambitious.
“I am very happy with my position here, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with looking at where you want to be in the future.”
To those wanting to follow a similar course he urges them to “get out into business as soon as possible, because that is the only way you will ever really find out what makes everything tick.”
The diversity of the estate means that the accounts are by no means a walk in the park.
The Goodwood farm extends to 2,800 acres and is a mix of arable land and livestock – 200 Dairy cows, 1,200 breeding ewes and 20 Saddleback sows.
It is the largest lowland organic farm in the UK and the first 100% organically-fed dairy in the country, but each type of livestock has its particular place on the books, especially with the mess better known as EU farming rules.
The reporting language used is UK GAAP. Williamson says Goodwood plans to take up IFRS in the future but called for the kinks to be ironed out.
“There are some differences which need to be addressed, but we will be ready to change over when the time is right.”
With the horseracing activities, the festival and the Goodwood Revival, tax is never far from Williamson’s heart.
Tack on the 94-room Goodwood Hotel’s activities and the fiscal climate in the UK is a key to the prosperity of Goodwood.
Williamson panned the recent VAT changeover which would have happened at the stroke of midnight on 31 December – one of the busiest nights of the year for the hospitality trade – until the raft of complaints from pubs, clubs and hotels forced a reprieve.
“It just wasn’t very well thought out. The government comes up with these quick-fix changes but doesn’t really think how the changes will affect people on the ground.”
In broader terms, more fiscal clarity is high on Williamson’s agenda as the economy struggles to lift itself out if the slump. He controls cash and treasury management as well as statutory and tax compliance.
“To know where we stand in terms of the tax environment is clearly needed. We do a lot of horse racing here, so you can see how important the tax framework is.”
Name – Alex Williamson
1999 – Qualified with ICAEW
2000 – Senior business analyst, Warner Music International
2003 – North-east financial controller, EMAP
2005 – Specialist sector finance head, TUI Travel
2008 – FD, Goodwood
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