Amy Reeve 8 Feb 2018 09:18am

A day in the life: Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans talks through her role chairing the International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society with Amy Reeve and explains what skills she draws on to successfully manage a mutual

Caption: Photography: David Bebber

How I changed career

I qualified with Price Waterhouse in its small business group in 1989. It was looked upon as the poor cousin of the firm at the time but in many ways it was much better training; I got to see the whole of a smallish business. I then spent a year in the marketing department, at a time when the FTSE 100 audits were coming up for tender. You could see the manoeuvering between the big firms, which were going from eight to six. It was an interesting time. In the summer of 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, I went to Prague because there was an enormous amount of business proposal writing going on.

I was only the second person to go out there from the UK office. I was sent around the country to pitch for bits of work with an assistant and an interpreter. The office grew from six to 70 in 12 months. It was inspirational and humbling. But I had a terrible accident and came back to the UK.

After a secondment of about 18 months to the newly formed Serious Fraud Office, I returned to Price Waterhouse as part of the very first forensic accounting practice until I was headhunted by EY, which I joined as forensic accounting partner. I worked there for 10 years, including a stint in the regulatory practice. I had a road to Damascus moment in 2007 where I thought, “I love the intellectual challenge of what I do but it can be utterly demoralising.”

You spend your time sorting out things that have happened in the past; there’s never any looking forward. So I left. We bought a barn, moved out of London and I spent the next six months overseeing the conversion. I joined the Wine Society in 1998 as an “ordinary member” (they were looking for accountants to join the committee) and took over as deputy chair in 2007.

The challenges I’ve overcome

As we were moving out of London I saw an advert in The Sunday Times for Ipswich Building Society, which was looking for NEDs, so I applied. I began chairing in 2013 and stood down in December 2017. I saw huge change in those nine years. The burden of regulation is enormous, even for a small, straightforward business like a building society. The board probably spends about 60% of its time thinking about risk and compliance rather than future strategy and direction. But the Society is doing well. Its branch network in Suffolk almost provides a community service.

At the Wine Society, we need to make a profit but we don’t seek to profit-maximise. We generate sufficient profit and cash to reinvest in the business, or hand value back to members by reducing margins. Therefore how we measure our business is an interesting mix between financials and member satisfaction. If you’ve got satisfied members they will vote with their feet and you’ll generate a healthy, efficient business.

So improving wallet-share – cases per member – is important. I think there’s a perception by non-members that we’re expensive; actually we’re not. The perception partly creeps into the membership because of things like supermarkets doing deep discounting. We don’t do any of that; we do everyday low pricing, which is unsexy but doesn’t disappoint members. What disappoints members is if they bought lots of wine and then the following week it’s hugely discounted.

My responsibilities

My overall function is to manage the committee – that’s the non-executive board – and look at strategy and governance. Most boards would have six or eight people. The committee here is up to 13 people, eight elected members and up to five co-opted, one of whom is the CEO. The co-optees are brought in for a year. It’s an oddity, but it works well for a member organisation.

There are half a million cases of wine stored in the warehouses. If you get a good vintage (in France, say, it was 2005, 2009 and 2010), members want to put large volumes of wine into storage and it could be there for 20 years. So our warehouse capacity growth has been built on us having more members wanting to store their own wine here. It’s a big business and we’ve got planning permission to build two new warehouses, which will double capacity. We’re waiting for the right time: we will try to do it from cash rather than borrow. It’s a trade-off between the cost effectiveness of that and the cost of having wine in outside storage for a time.

My typical day

The first thing I do is feed the dogs and bring the horses in, come rain or shine. I’ll grab an apple or banana for breakfast but coffee has got to be the most important start to the day. Every week is different and for me that’s the joy of my life. I go from being in my breeches to being in a suit, it’s hugely varied. The AGM is busy, we get about 500 people. I could have a one-to-one with the CEO; members meetings; sub-committee or executive team meetings... And I’m a trustee of the pension scheme as well.

Industry quirks

Because we’re a co-operative, a mutual, people think of belonging to the Wine Society. Our number one focus is not on external shareholders and how much we can earn so that their share price goes up and they can have a lovely dividend stream. It’s around satisfying the members to make sure they continue to trade with us for the next 30 or 40 years. We don’t have any borrowing, we don’t have to satisfy bankers. Trust and transparency underpins everything we do.

How the ACA helped my career

It gave me not only the understanding of how a set of financial statements hang together but the moving parts of the business as well. My mother was a nurse and my father was a doctor so it gave me a huge new knowledge base.

The habits of an accountant

I’ve always been good at remembering numbers – that probably helped me as a forensic accountant. I can spot the oddities, or I’d see a number and think “I know where that number is”. Or if it was a number that should have been X but was X minus three. There’s that attention to detail.