Demystifying the apprenticeship levy: Flying Tiger on the benefits of hiring a finance apprentice

Tiger Cardiff Ltd is a £5+ million turnover business and part of the wider Flying Tiger Copenhagen brand, a design-led homeware and stationery store.

For Tiger, taking on a finance apprentice has been a highly successful move. We spoke to both Directors, Kate Methuen-Ley and Helen Corsi-Cadmore, plus their finance apprentice, 20-year-old Olivia Evans.

Why is hiring an apprentice of value to the company?

‘The main benefit is that apprentices are receptive and show a real willingness to learn in a field they are actually interested in,’ says Helen. ‘A dedicated finance team is essential in ensuring that the business is running smoothly and efficiently. It’s imperative to have the correct procedures in place and that they are adhered to. And it’s vital that new ideas for working smarter are looked at regularly. We’ve made some mistakes along the way but would be more than happy to take on more apprenticeships that have the correct guidance from their peers.’

How do you find an apprentice – and how much do they cost?

‘Olivia came to us through Acorn Recruitment who specialise in placing apprentices,’ Kate says. ‘She’d previously started an accounting degree but decided she wanted a more hands-on introduction to her chosen career.’ Tiger took on 20-year-old Olivia as a finance apprentice in January 2016 when she was 18, she was made full-time in August last year, and started her AAT course in September. ‘Whilst Olivia was still an apprentice, we did pay slightly above the government apprenticeship rate. This was a cost-effective investment for us,’ Kate adds, ‘yet we did feel it was still a very low rate for attracting the calibre of apprentices that the technical functions such as finance needed.’ However, being an SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) means Tiger is not subject to the apprenticeship levy, a new Government funding initiative where companies with annual pay bills of more than £3 million a year contribute 0.5% of that pay bill to help fund apprentices.

What are the financial benefits to the organisation?

‘As a local SME we always wanted to create in-house roles and functions, and therefore local jobs, rather than outsource,’ says Kate. ‘But with finance this has been harder than anticipated.’ Neither Director comes from a finance background, so whilst both Kate and Helen have an understanding of what the business needs from a finance point of view, by necessity they are placing a lot of trust put in the people employed to run the finance function. ‘Having confidence in our finance professionals is therefore very important to us,’ Kate says.

Maintaining cashflow, for instance, is likely to be even more important in a small company than a large one. ‘For an SME and a start-up keeping on top of finance deliverables is imperative to businesses success, and getting it wrong can be at best expensive and at worst catastrophic,’ Kate says. ‘We have recently employed SME Finance Partners, who provide us with a part-time Finance Director who provides experience, expertise and guidance freeing up our time to concentrate on running our business with confidence.’ Olivia is a vital part of this – Tiger Cardiff is a joint venture partnership based in Newport and operates nine stores across South Wales and Bristol, with 120+ team members.

What are the benefits to the apprentice of working for you?

‘I chose an apprenticeship as it enabled me to get lots of practical experience as well as giving me the opportunity to gain qualifications at the same time,’ says Olivia. Much job satisfaction comes from the extra opportunities that being part of an SME brings. ‘It means I can be involved in all parts of the business – not just the finance team.’ Not only does this allow Olivia to get a comprehensive view of the finance function, but it also helps her to get to know how all the different parts of the business work together towards success. ‘In a bigger business this may not be possible as I would be dedicated to being solely in the finance team.’ Olivia also gets the opportunity to work with key stakeholders at all levels internally, externally and internationally.

What responsibilities does the business have to the apprentice?

‘It was important to enable Olivia time to spend with the Acorn Recruitment representative monthly, and to have time for study,’ Kate says. ‘We also believe that we have the responsibility to provide her with relevant opportunities to grow her knowledge and experience.’ What does this mean in practice? ‘Good quality support from other finance professionals who can mentor her – such as our external FD and our business auditors; a nurturing, safe and stress-free work environment; plus other benefits such as staff discount and cake!’

What finance technology do you use?

‘We’ve always used cloud-based system Xero for all our accounting reporting,’ says Kate. ‘This is a really easy-to-use interface, accessible anywhere, which when used comprehensively, allows us to see a snapshot of our profit and loss at any point of the month.’

And for the future?

‘Olivia is working towards her AAT qualification which we allow her to take off in lieu in order to attend college,’ says Helen. ‘This is currently covered by Acorn who have been a great support to Olivia.’ Is it challenging to juggle working with studying? ‘I’ve never really had a break from studying,’ says Olivia, ‘so I don’t find going to my classes a chore. The classes are on Tuesday evenings and I also get study leave for exams.’

Are apprenticeships just for younger people?

Absolutely not. ‘We’ve previously taken on a member of staff who wasn’t on an apprenticeship but was on an over-50s back-to-work scheme whose salary was part-funded by Government,’ says Kate. ‘So not an apprenticeship as such, but she came to us as a sales assistant and is now a supervisor.’ That was just two-and-a-half years ago, Kate says. ‘We’ve also taken on people through long-term unemployed schemes.’

Olivia is ‘a huge asset to our business,’ Kate concludes, ‘and shows maturity beyond her years both professionally and personally.’ She’s taken control of the role, ‘growing and shaping it and undertaking a huge responsibility with both confidence and humility. I think she’s a future finance leader.’

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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