Four firms on how fintech helped them to adapt during lockdown

Four companies tell Craig Johnson how getting to grips with financial technology has helped them adapt during the lockdown.

Thursday, 10th September 2020, 6:00 am
Joanna Macpherson, owner of Attadale Estate in Wester Ross.
Joanna Macpherson, owner of Attadale Estate in Wester Ross.

Empowered by Cloud

Accountant Laura Taylor saw the potential for financial technology long before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

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She set up her own practice, Empowered by Cloud, in 2018 and based it around Xero, a cloud-based accounting software platform.

The system came into its own in lockdown, giving Taylor and her team the ability to produce up-to-date cashflow forecasts and management accounts for clients, so they knew the exact impact lockdown was having on their businesses.

“Before the lockdown, our clients liked us, but now they love us,” Taylor says. “Using a cloud package like Xero means more than one person can work on the accounts at the same time.

“We’re experts in Xero because it’s the only package we use – big accountancy firms may use five or six pieces of software, so they never become true experts in any one of them.”

Dealing with clients’ accounts online speeds up the process and allows the firm to offer additional services, such as more in-depth advice from Graeme Morrison, Taylor’s fellow director, who is an experienced financial director.

Using a cloud package has not only brought benefits for Taylor’s clients but has also boosted her own business too. She has been able to win contracts in Bedfordshire and Liverpool during the lockdown, expanding her Glenrothes-based service across the UK.

Working online has also meant Taylor has been able to accelerate her longer-term plans to switch her business to 100 per cent remote working, with her seven Xero consultants spread across Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Fife, Glasgow and Kilmarnock sharing a “business huddle” at 8am each day to plan their workload.

The switch to remote working also means Taylor can look at expanding her practice more quickly, with an aim of growing her headcount to between 15 and 20 members of staff over the next couple of years.

Attadale Estate

While Attadale Estate in Wester Ross had already been using an online booking system for its gardens and self-catering cottages for many years, the infrastructure has come into its own during the lockdown. Being able to sell admission tickets to the gardens in advance gave estate owner Joanna Macpherson, pictured, more confidence when it came to reopening to the site.

“Our gardens are about three miles from the North Coast 500, so a lot of our visitors come on the spur of the moment, rather than booking in advance,” she says. “But now being able to sell tickets in advance is one of the recommendations from the Scottish Government, so we’re able to do that.

“Our gardens extend to about 20 acres, so there’s plenty of space for social distancing, although we had to introduce a one-way system and ordered plenty of hand sanitiser.”

An electronic version of the gardens’ guidebook was also already available online, which Macpherson says has been especially popular with overseas guests, who can download it before visiting the estate, which sits between Plockton and Strathcarron.

As soon as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that self-catering cottages could reopen on 3 July, Attadale was flooded with bookings. The estate made it clear to guests when they booked that some facilities in the local area may not be open over the summer, but Macpherson was excited about welcoming back guests.

Macpherson – who is also a director of Discover Scottish Gardens – also highlights the role that social media has played during the lockdown, allowing businesses to keep in touch with customers.

Discover Scottish Gardens also turned its summer gardens festival into a virtual event, running tutorials and workshops via webinars, and sharing videos online.

Alexander Wines

Scotland’s hospitality industry was one of the sectors hardest hit by the lockdown, after bars, restaurants and hotels were ordered to close their doors on 20 March to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Shutting down the on-trade had a knock-on effect for every business in the supply chain, including Alexander Wines, a Glasgow-based wholesaler founded in 1981 that, before the lockdown, supplied a range of more than 400 wines to premises throughout Scotland.

Yet, within hours of the closure of bars and restaurants, Alexander Wines was back on the front foot with the launch of Wine Line Scotland, its online retail arm.

“Retail was something that we’d dabbled in over the years – selling to a small number of private clients and to our friends – but we’d never actively promoted it before the lockdown,” explains Paul Graham, one of the firm’s directors. “We used the Shopify platform to build the Wine Line Scotland store – Charlotte, our stock controller, had used it before and was able to create a basic website in about 48 hours.”

The website was an instant hit, with sales soaring by 800 per cent during the opening two months, with around 50 per cent of the sales now coming from repeat customers.

Data has been a key part of the site’s success, with Graham and his colleagues having built up their own database of customers over four decades in the business.

Having information about what’s popular on the retail website also helps with managing stock, and allows for direct marketing and special offers for customers.

“Supplying wine to the on-trade has always been our number one priority, but we’ll continue Wine Line Scotland in one form or another even after coronavirus,” Graham says.

“I think we will develop the site by having wines that are available to everyone, and then others that will be exclusive for our on-trade customers.”

Bowhouse

Since opening in 2017, Bowhouse has become a permanent home for food and drink producers in the East Neuk of Fife, and it has welcomed local traders to take a stand at its regular weekend markets, which offer consumers the opportunity to meet the people behind the produce.

Businesses based at Bowhouse, which sits on the Balcaskie Estate between the towns of Elie and St Monans, range from shellfish supplier Langoustine The Box and flour maker Scotland The Bread, through to organic brewery Futtle and the East Neuk Market Garden.

The last weekend market was held just days before the coronavirus lockdown was announced in late March, with movement restrictions meaning that the monthly markets had to be cancelled from April onwards.

As an alternative, market manager Rosie Jack, pictured, set up Bowhouse Link, an online marketplace which allows producers from the estate and traders from further afield to carry on selling their produce directly to consumers.

After looking at other e-commerce platforms, Jack selected Open Food Network, which she favoured because it uses open-source software, and also involves an online community of users, similar to her real-life community in and around Bowhouse.

“Some of our producers signed up straight away to use the site, so they could carry on selling during the lockdown,” Jack says.

“Other producers were a bit more reluctant at first but, as word spread about how easy it was to use, more and more of them signed up.

“We’ve also had some traders that have never been to one of our weekend markets joining us on the site – hopefully they’ll come and take a stall in person at Bowhouse in the future.”

The Bowhouse Link site has been so successful that Balcaskie Estate has been able to launch another business during lockdown – Butchery at Bowhouse, run by Sophie Cumber, which sells beef, lamb and game from the estate.

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