As part of our commitment to developing careers and with the knowledge that we can gain valuable insights from eachother, this week, in a series of interviews with top professionals in their fields, Phil Southern chats to Kyush Modasia, Deputy Finance Director at Academies Enterprise Trust, about the education sector, the move towards a more centralised finance model and recruiting a head office team from scratch!
Tell us a bit about your story, how you got to where you are and a bit about your journey.
I've always valued the impact education has and hoped to support that in my life and career. After completing an Economics degree at UCL, I decided to pursue an ACA qualification in an audit firm, Buzzacott LLP. It was here that I started specialising in the education sector and I was fortunate that this period coincided with the exponential growth in the number of Academy Trusts across the country.
I spent almost six years in practice which undoubtedly gave me a strong foundation in academy finances. After striking up the courage to move out of practice, I took a risk and decided to work in an academy to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by teachers and the sector in general.
From here I moved to working within Ark Schools and I was able to observe how a large MAT operates which enabled me to progress onto a Finance Director role of a MAT. This role gave me the opportunity to centralise finance and other operations, achieving significant savings and proving that such a model can work effectively in the sector.
The past successes motivated me to take on a bigger challenge and that brought me here to AET, a MAT which historically delivered poor academic and financial performance. This ended up being the biggest selling point for me and the prospect of helping to turnaround an organisation, creating a new Group Finance Team and restructuring all finance personnel was too enticing to ignore. What’s been particularly gratifying is seeing that transformation up close: AET not only reversed a multi-million pound deficit, but is now running a modest surplus.
So what changes have you made since you joined and why? What are you currently involved in?
As I touched upon earlier, I essentially had a blank canvas and created a central finance structure which is now our Group Finance Team. This process took around 9 months as I was determined to get the right people to fill these roles and whilst I didn't always get it right, I now have a strong team supporting our development.
Whilst I was recruiting, there was a drastic need to improve financial systems and processes as they were not only archaic but acted as a barrier to any kind of centralisation we had planned. The trust was already committed to moving to a cluster based model of the finance function and this meant that an enormous amount of work was needed to get the basics in place. Much of this involved implementing the following:
- One accounting database for all our academies;
- Consistent and mandated financial procedures and processes;
- Centralised nominal ledger and cost centres based on the academy phase;
- Centrally managed purchase ledger; and
- Training for all staff.
The last point is always the most important. Far too often, we as organisations critique the work of our colleagues without appreciating that they may not have ever had any training. Training is essential if the finance function is to be successful and that was non-existent in the past.
This whole process also coincided with a national restructure to move to a cluster based model of delivering finance. We now have that model fully operational across the country and we look to the next phase of the transformation which is finding further efficiencies.
Budgetary control is one of the most important aspects of finance in this sector and so an electronic automated PO system was an absolutely necessity. We have engaged heavily with the developers to have a workflow which supports the centralised approach and cluster model in place. We have just completed testing in our London office and now plan to roll it out nationally over the coming months. This will significantly improve the speed and efficiency of the ordering process.
Furthermore, we are working on streamlining our purchase ledger and this involves speaking to thousands of suppliers to reduce the number of invoices and create single AET accounts as opposed academy level accounts. We have also been working with Amazon Business and hope to be able to integrate this feature and create a 'punch out' directly from the PO system.
The main point to note above is that we firmly believe that the finance function can be delivered from anywhere remotely, as long as the systems support this way of working and the staff are aligned to our vision and meet the high level of customer service expectations that we uphold.
It's been exciting and rewarding to see how far we have come, given where we were, but I don't think we've done anything revolutionary so far, as much of what we have done - and are doing - is commonly found in the corporate sector. Managing the significant amount of change that we have been through requires a great deal of teamwork, dedication and time and the change in culture is one that is starting to be welcomed as staff see the tangible benefits.
What issues do you face in the sector and what actions are being taken to navigate them?
Funding remains the biggest issue and everything that we are doing is focused on alleviating this. Hence, centralising functions such as Estates, ICT, HR and Finance is paramount to achieving the savings that we need, not only help to combat the budgetary pressure but also to reinvest money back into frontline education.
Financially, we have transformed the organisation through such methods, following a four-year period of increasing deficits, AET made a loss of more than £8m in 2015/16 and this depletion of reserves meant that AET was on the verge of being unviable. Since the turnaround plan we have now had two years of surpluses and AET is now financially stable. At individual Academy level, the picture is similarly transformed: three years ago 40 Academies were running significant deficits. Today, we have reduced that to two and have clear plans to eradicate these entirely. I believe the trust has achieved just that over the past couple of years and AET today is nothing like AET of the past.
When I joined AET, the CFO and I shared a similar vision to build a young team that could be developed and retained long term. For me therein lies another big issue in the sector - staff retention. It could be argued that this is inherently an issue with finance in general, particularly in London where there are so many opportunities but much of this is to do with the work environment and line management.
As mentioned earlier, we have a strong team in place which are predominantly young and many of whom are studying towards an accountancy qualification. This has allowed us to train and develop the team to operate in a way which enables them to grow together and the office environment is not like any other I have experienced. Furthermore, many of them will likely remain with the trust for at least 3-5 years and that coupled with the savings we have made in the staff costs has shown this to be a real success.
What do you think the future holds for the sector and AET?
I'm not sure I'd be best equipped to speculate on the future of the sector given the current political climate. However, I am confident we can showcase some of the innovation and changes we will make over the coming months to others so that they too can help this sector as a whole to move forwards and be more aligned with the corporate sector - certainly in terms of how it manages its finances.
Have you got any advice for anyone looking to join the sector?
Yes, please do! It's not only relatable and extremely rewarding but also enables us to make a positive difference to society. It's interesting to see how things have evolved since we were at school and the fast pace of the sector means there is quite literally never a dull day.
We need more individuals from outside the sector to join and that's generally what we have brought in to our team and that variation in skills and perspective is important in making informed and balanced decisions.
Can you tell us something about you non academy/finance related!
I'm an avid Spurs fan and love football - watching and playing. My colleagues are not shy about reminding me that I dislocated my ankle playing football just 3 months into this role!