As part of the new Hero Award category at the Retailers’ Retailer Awards, MCA is profiling five senior managers who have gone above and beyond in steering their business through the crisis. 

Vic Stewart

Handling finances throughout the pandemic has required a unique skillset, one that combines tact, personability, and of course, a close eye for numbers, according to Simon Potts. 

He is grateful then to have CFO Vic Stewart by his side at The Alchemist, who he credits with helping steer the brand through the crisis with confidence and dexterity.

Joining the bar and restaurant brand from a distressed airline services business, CEO Potts pays tribute to her practice in turnaround situations, which helped safeguard the future of the 20-strong business in the early months of 2020.

“When March 2020 hit, those animal instincts from her previous job kicked in, which have been really quite powerful,” he says.

“She was extremely cautious with the cash we had in hand at that stage, and it allowed us to ride out that initially tough period, and to get quite creative in the summer.”

As well as skills in managing cash, he praises her empathy in dealing with stakeholders during difficult times.

“There’s a level of compassion that sometimes can be missing in finance, where things can be a little bit black and white.

“It’s the conversations with the harder nose credit committees at the banks, the landlords, being able to have that plain communication style and then sticking to payment plans.”

Like many operators, The Alchemist was forced to take tough decision on its outgoings, and payments to suppliers were inevitably under intense scrutiny.

According to Potts, Stewart was adept at keeping suppliers onside, even when payments were not possible, which has put the business in good stead when rebuilding its supply chain.

“Obviously we’ve had to do what everyone’s had to do, which has sometimes meant not making payments,” Potts says.

“There are ways of doing that though, you can yank the shutters down and not talk to anyone, or you can do what Vic’s done and keep that conversation very open. She hasn’t ducked the issue.

“We’ve made sensible payment plans and been very plain about our obligations, adamant that we want to get back to making those payments when the time is right.”

During the brief period of good summer trading, Stewart made sure these promises were honoured, and this has paid dividends in the current lockdown.

“When we were making some hay, we made sure that we weren’t just funnelling all that away, that it was going into the pockets of people who had been supportive through that initial process,” Potts says.

“When it comes to the leaner times as we’ve seen in winter again, the conversations have been that little bit easier to have.”

While finance directors are known for working long hours poring over spreadsheets, Potts highlights Stewart’s admirable ability to delegate and empower her finance team.

“I think there’s a tendency sometimes in finance, that they tend to be a bit controlling and do everything, and this is part of the reason they end up working so much,” he adds. 

“But if you don’t allow some freedom for people in those specific areas to evolve and to take responsibility then you can end up with quite a poor business,

“Putting trust in people, having that confidence that there is a good team of people beneath to come up and take responsibility has been refreshing.”

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