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A 'responsible finance' team's 3-step business partnering approach

A UK finance manager at Evergreen Garden Care says business partnering requires active relationship-building and adopting a questioning mindset.
A 'responsible finance' team's 3-step business partnering approach

Sustainability is just a part of what makes up “responsible finance”, according to Kirsty Taylor, FCMA, CGMA, commercial finance manager for Evergreen Garden Care.

Evergreen also prioritises social responsibility and fundraising work with charity partner Green Fingers, which supports children in UK hospices by creating gardens for them. Meanwhile, Evergreen’s finance team has focused intently on workplace wellbeing. “This has definitely come to the forefront during the pandemic and the lockdown[s]. We’ve recently [had] three of our team who have trained up as mental health first-aiders, including myself,” Taylor explained.

In May, Evergreen’s UK finance team took the Responsible Finance Team of the Year award in the ENGAGE Europe Finance Awards 2021. At a virtual ceremony, Nick Jackson, FCMA, CGMA, now CIMA immediate past president, presented a series of awards that also included Student of the Year, Finance Business Leader of the Year, and Finance Transformation Project of the Year.

Evergreen’s business, operating in 20 countries outside the US, makes lawn care, plant food, weed control, and soil, compost, and bark products under brands such as Miracle Gro, Weedol, and Levington. Sustainability is a major component of the business’s strategies — Evergreen has achieved carbon-neutral operations and a circular economy certification. It is also committed to creating peat-free products.

These efforts are supported by regional finance teams as well as a central finance function.

The business is increasing its range of natural, organic products — its compost product uses 50% less peat than ten years ago “and we're on that journey towards becoming completely peat-free”, Taylor said.

Packaging is also a major business consideration. “We’d love to go completely plastic-free, but sometimes because of the kinds of products this isn’t always possible. Where we can, we’re moving towards more recycled material,” Taylor said.

“Our compost bags are at least 30% recycled. We’re currently partnering with a large garden centre group to trial recycling stations in their stores to gauge how consumers respond and use these facilities to recycle their compost bags.”

Business partnering approach

As a business partner, finance is supporting Evergreen’s focus on environmental sustainability. Taylor said that to be an effective business partner, “to add value to the process and provide relevant analytics and information that will help the business run better”, you need to understand how the business and other teams work.

A three-step approach can achieve this, she suggested:

Ask why. Taylor said that while it doesn’t always come naturally to question why the business is doing something, “that really is how you get to the core of what the business does, how it works, what’s important to different people”.

Share your why. The world of finance and accounting can seem daunting to nonfinance professionals, Taylor said. “Sometimes you’re asking people for data because you’re completing some kind of regulatory return or for budget process or you’ve got certain deadlines.

“If you share more about why you need the data, then it helps that partnering relationship … It helps you.”

Build relationships. Relationships you have with the business are important. “The way it works best for me is to try and find something out about that person that we have in common.”

New joiners to the Evergreen finance team create a “personal postcard”, a one-page personal information sheet with a few pictures that tells others about their career, what’s important to them, what their hobbies are, who their family members are, what drives them.

“It’s worked so well during lockdown because you’re obviously meeting people virtually,” she said. You can discover that you have a lot in common, or it can be an “icebreaker”.

Product development

The finance team at Evergreen is continually developing its reporting. Management information is split by the type of key ingredient: natural product or synthetic, Taylor said. April 2022 will see the introduction of a tax on plastic packaging that is either manufactured in the UK or imported and that does not contain at least 30% recycled material. The finance team will continue to adjust its management reports to take this into account for products that don’t contain that proportion of recycled material, Taylor said. “And also peat versus peat-free. Again, we’ll be doing more reporting on that,” she added.

“All the knowledge that our team has gained by building those relationships and asking why a lot allows us to … have that seat at the table, be involved in discussions around product development, use the knowledge that we’ve got about changes to product ingredients, about how the plastic packaging tax [is] going to change, about regulatory issues, or just all that commercial knowledge about what trends … are going on in the industry at the moment.”

Sector volatility

Data from the Horticultural Trades Association demonstrates the recent volatility in the market, with sales of gardening products in UK garden centres down 89% in April 2020 compared with 2019. Sales then increased and in June last year were up 69% compared with the previous year.

The latest figures — for June 2021 — show a slight decline on 2020 but are still up versus June 2019 — by 52%.

Agile scenario-planning amidst this volatility has been essential, Taylor said. “We started lockdown with a large number of our sales channels all being closed completely — DIY stores [and] garden centres.

“And even the sales channels that remained open, ie, grocery [stores] and online channels, initially restricted deliveries of nonessential products.

“Then just as quickly as that changed, we also had to amend our planning. There was, and continues to be, such a demand for gardening whilst everybody was at home. During lockdown, gardening became quite important for people because it helped their physical, their mental wellbeing, getting outside, and enjoying being in a nice environment.”

Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.