Wild experiences: working for the London Zoo finance team 

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Amanda Smith’s office is next to the otters, as well as the moose, and Penguin Beach is just over the road.

She worked in corporate finance in Deloitte for 22 years, but the varied and rewarding work she did there is no match for the experience of working at London Zoo.

“I remember my first day here, walking through the door and all of a sudden realising: ‘Wow, I’m in the zoo.’ I had this thrill of excitement, as I found myself in Barclay Court [the centre of the zoo]. It was really amazing.”

Smith is finance director at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the organisation that runs London Zoo, in Regent’s Park, and Whipsnade, the UK’s biggest zoo, in Bedfordshire. Smith is usually based at London Zoo, which makes for some unusual experiences.

She recalls a budget meeting with ZSL’s directors in a building near the Outback section of the zoo.  Suddenly one of the directors said: “Look at that!” The group looked up: “All of these kangaroos were bouncing excitedly around the Terrace. I remember thinking: “Wow, where else can you sit and do budget planning and see that?’”

The art of conservation

It’s not just her workplace and its inhabitants that Smith loves – ZSL does very important conservation work in more than 50 countries, including Kenya, Nepal and Australia. Both its zoos play a part in its preservation efforts, as a crucial source of funds. Through the two zoos and ZSL’s other fundraising initiatives (weddings, events and so on), ZSL generates around £65m a year in income.

Of this, £19m goes into science and conservation work on site at London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, and in the field throughout the world. Current science projects include research into the diseases affecting UK garden wildlife, and monitoring biodiversity from space. Such research then feeds into the society’s conservation projects, which currently include the #OneLess campaign to reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans (Smith has personally overseen the reduction of plastic use at the zoos) and efforts to save the pangolin (a scaly, anteater-like creature found across Africa and Asia).

Around £37m goes towards supporting the animals across both sites, and the rest goes towards supporting the commercial activities of the zoos and meeting the capital needs of the organisation. It’s critical that ZSL strikes the right balance between its conservation work and the commercial activities at each site.

“We work very closely together to make sure that our work here in the zoos integrates with our science and our conservation work,” says Smith. “That’s really important. It’s about who we are as a conservation charity.”

The evolution of finance

In the three and a half years that Smith has worked at ZSL, she has done much to develop the finance function so that it can help the organisation manage and spend its money more effectively. The finance team adheres to a ‘business partner’ model, working closely with specific departments to deliver tailored reports, support and advice to help them meet their objectives.

The key to this model, says Smith, is hiring the right people. Having done so, she has built up ZSL’s international finance team, based at London Zoo, to ensure that the organisation’s global conservation efforts are better supported, and can therefore expand.

“Finance is the lifeblood that flows through an organisation,” she says. “It touches every single part of it. So, for me, it’s really about having finance enabling all the other teams to carry out their important work for wildlife. Fundamentally, that’s why we’re all here.”

It’s critical that ZSL strikes the right balance between its conservation work and the commercial activities at each site

Commercial animals

Helen Miles is commercial finance business partner at ZSL, working closely with the admissions, marketing, commercial, catering and digital communications teams. “Being a finance partner, you’re the first point of contact for those teams for anything finance related,” she says. “I work closely with all of them. I’m part of finance, but I’m part of the commercial and communications teams too.” Her work involves any kind of analysis or reporting that those teams might need – for example, predicting visitor numbers, reviewing income and expenditure, and identifying ways to save costs.

“Every day is different,” Miles says. “Also, I really feel like the work that I’m doing has a positive impact on how the organisation operates. My role means I have direct exposure to the activities of both zoos… The way we work, particularly since I’ve been here, feels like it’s constantly evolving, which makes life in the finance team interesting.”

Although Miles works on ZSL’s commercial activities, the conservation side is never far away; the bulk of the revenue from the zoos must go into ZSL’s animal welfare, science and conservation work. That means a smaller pot for commercial activities, which poses an interesting challenge, Miles explains:

“The teams have to be really imaginative and efficient with the resources they do have.” Miles has the autonomy to make improvements to the reports, KPIs and analysis that she does for the teams she works with.

Having previously worked in the finance department of McDonald’s, she introducednew ideas that allowed the ZSL teams to look at things in a much more commercially focused way.

“Since I started, there’s been a huge improvement in the reporting we’ve been doing, which enables the teams to look at their resource in a different, more detailed, way,” she says. “They can then make improvements and be more efficient in their decision-making.” The finance team is very close-knit, says Miles. Passion, communication skills and personality are key attributes.

“We enjoy working and socialising together, and we’re looking for new people to join the team,” says Miles. “It’s really important to us that people work well with the rest of the team. I think that’s the key for us – we want to make it an enjoyable place to work.”

Smith agrees: “It’s having an inquiring mind as well. It’s important to wonder what the numbers mean for the organisation, and how we should respond to them. It’s not just number-crunching – it’s far more than that.”

This article appeared in our summer 2018 issue of 20 magazine.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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