An intense rowing challenge and its management accounting lessons

A finance executive taking part in a transatlantic rowing competition explains how preparation is going for the 2023 race, what open-water scenarios the team could face, and this event’s tie-in to management accounting.

David Tiplady, ACMA, CGMA, head of commercial, Vodafone Automotive, is in training for an intriguing and difficult competition. He's part of a four-man team rowing without support across the Atlantic Ocean, from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, in 2023.

He joins host Kyle Hannan to discuss the planning and training that's underway, along with contingencies already being considered, well before the team hits the open water. He shares advice for reaching a stretch goal, concern about marlin strikes, and risk management lessons.

Resources mentioned in the conversation:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • A recent FM podcast conversation that stood out to Tiplady about skills development.
  • The rowing experience of Tiplady and his BlueTusk teammates.
  • A critical need to plan and its link to management accounting.
  • The support the group has received in the areas of planning, nutrition, and "crew dynamics".
  • Why Tiplady says now that "success is defined as getting to the start line".
  • What the team's key objective is, and why he says, "It's a very dynamic situation."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Kyle Hannan: From the London office of the AICPA & CIMA, I am Kyle Hannan. In our conversation today, if you've ever heard the expression "all at sea", normally, it doesn't mean the positive thing, unless, of course, you are our guest today. We'll be talking about inspiration. We'll be talking about aspiration. How you identify challenges. How you rise to them and how you find the resources you need to make a success out of that challenge. Most importantly, we'll look at why the accountant financial professional is almost uniquely positioned to be able to do this well.

David Tiplady is about to go from thinking that the toughest thing that he might have to face in the morning may be month-end reconciliations, or figuring out where to find that last box of receipts. He's got a different challenge in front of him. David, welcome to the podcast. Give us a quick idea of where you are at the moment physically because we talk to people all over the world. Where are we talking to you today?

David Tiplady: Thanks, Kyle. It's so great to be talking to you. I'm in the home office, not the Home Office in London. I work for Vodafone, but I'm in the home office in Fleet, famous for its M3 service station in Hampshire.

Hannan: For someone who doesn't know what Vodafone is, give us an idea of where that sits, what kind of company it is, and what you do there?

Tiplady: Sure. Vodafone, best known for its mobile telephony, high street stores. There's probably a great many people out there certainly in the UK, certainly around Europe who have Vodafone telephones and have Vodafone telephony contracts. Actually, what I do within Vodafone is work in a slightly different part of the business. I work for a part of a business called Vodafone Automotive. We're a small group of companies within the larger Vodafone. What we do is work to make travel safer, secure, and more accessible. Put that in practical terms. If you're fortunate enough to drive a high-value vehicle in the UK, you have to have a certain quality of alarm system. We manufacture the black boxes that get installed in those cars, and we monitor them constantly, which is lovely because, if you are unfortunate enough to either have your car stolen or to have an accident, we recognise that, try to make contact, and if we can't, we will send the emergency services to your last location.

Hannan: This is something that you do on a day-to-day basis, but you don't have a lot to do with boats, do you? But that's about to change.

Tiplady: That is about to change. Myself and three colleagues from Vodafone have formed a team, a team called BlueTusk, and we are entered in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Hannan: Which means rowing, doesn't it? A lot of rowing.

Tiplady: The clue is in the name, Atlantic Challenge. What that is, is a rowing race that starts in La Gomera in the Canaries. La Gomera is one of the more southerly of the Canary Islands. The start date is the 12th of December 2023. We intend to row all the way across to Antigua. That's about 3,000 nautical miles if you go in a straight line, which we won't. The key thing about that is that — although we're in a race, so there will be a small flotilla of about 30 rowing boats we're racing against — it's unsupported. We have to take everything we need to survive for that amount of time with us — all the rations, the spares, the equipment, the medical kit, even a water maker to make desalinated water.

Hannan: That is amazing. That's exactly why we're having this conversation today for the podcast. Because especially from the perspective of management accounting, this actually sets you up really well to do all the planning and that detailed look at exactly what you're going to need to make sure that everything is lined up so that the resources, the logistics, everything is taken care of when you need it. That's what we're going to be talking about and figuring out how someone who may not be rowing across the Atlantic anytime soon can still learn quite a lot from the approach you've taken to prepare for this. David, how do you wake up one day and think right this morning, I'm going to be working with motor cars and black boxes, but at the end of that same day, you head home having decided to row across the Atlantic? How do you make that leap? That this was the thing you are going to do.

Tiplady: I've never rowed before or at least before two weeks ago when I rode on our boat for the first time. I was listening earlier to a previous podcast. Actually the one by Oliver Rowe and Gary Cox on skills development. Interesting names for this subject matter, there are plenty of puns to be made, this one coincidental. But one of the points that Gary was making in that podcast was that as a group, accountants are really ready to move on but perhaps require the skills to do that. I like to think that's always true professionally, but very much also true in life as well. Always looking for new skills, ways to acquire those skills, new challenges is absolutely what our team of four from Vodafone is very much about. Before coming together and entering this challenge, we didn't know each other, we haven't known each other for an extended period of time. But the one thing we definitely all share is we all positively seek those new experiences. Perhaps we have a passion for adventure and searching for, I think strange new worlds would be to coin a phrase.

Hannan: I would imagine that not all of you are finance professionals or are you the whole team going over?

Tiplady: No. Uniquely positioned in the team as (a) the oldest member of the team and (b) perhaps not in that order, the finance professional. Aaron [Kneebone] is an ex-Marine. What he hasn't experienced in terms of challenges just doesn't bear thinking about. Andy Curtis, he's our Vodafone's group health and safety and wellbeing manager. Coming from a health and safety background, quite an interesting position on risk-taking perhaps. Chris Wood, previous experience again in the army and the signals, but spent actually a lot of time out in Nepal with the Gurkhas. Chris is our rower on the team. He is again uniquely positioned, as the one person who has a good degree of rowing experience behind him.

Hannan: I would imagine that when you are rowing across the Atlantic, it's always good to have an experienced rower on board. But as you were saying, as the finance professional on that team, what is it that makes someone from the profession, an accounting professional, someone who is very well suited to do the planning and logistical forecast that this kind of project would require? Obviously, on the one hand, you've got to say, right, we're having to raise money for it, and we'll talk about how that's going and how much this kind of thing can cost to do. But you've also mentioned the fact that as an accounting professional, you look at not only bottom line, how do we pay for all of this, but how long is it going to take? Do we have all the resources in place that we need? Because all of this, as you say, is unsupported. You've got to make sure that you plan incredibly well forensically because you have to audit everything that you put in that boat because once you're out there, there's no turning around and going back to the supermarket because you forgot something. Let's talk a little bit about where management accounting actually started because, of course, you are a CGMA yourself, aren't you?

Tiplady: Correct. Yes, absolutely.

Hannan: Right. What do you think a management accountant can do? What makes them almost uniquely positioned to be able to plan for this kind of project or any kind of project particularly well, because that goes right back to the roots of management accounting, doesn't it?

Tiplady: Yes, it's a wonderful reflection. I think you're absolutely right. It's not a cheap undertaking in terms of the costs involved in doing this. In addition to that, we aim to support a great couple of charities, Tusk and Blue Marine Foundation along the way, so experience and training in the financial accounting aspects is useful. But actually, in addition to that, I do believe that the management accountancy profession has a great deal to offer, as well. Going back to the roots in terms of time and motion studies. Just a fundamental grounding in data-driven decision-making. To use a parallel, I'm very much reminded of the acid test that the very successful Olympics GB rowing team used to apply in the days of Cracknell and Redgrave, which was to ask the question, does it make the boat go faster? Well, I think from our roots in those time and motion studies, let's get the stopwatches out and test that and record the information and make the analysis and provide the information upon which to make those decisions.

We're all very familiar, I'm sure as a group of management accountants looking at things like investment appraisals, how do you go about doing that? I believe in the best way you assemble a team of subject-matter experts around you. You gather the best information you can from all those various people. You can never be an expert in all those areas yourself, but you come together as a team, crystallise that into one place and allow people, therefore, to make the best decision. It's very much the same thing that we're doing here. Four guys, the backgrounds I've mentioned, we don't have a great expertise in rowing, much less rowing across the Atlantic. But we can gather the team around us and we are, there are some fantastic experts out there. Duncan Roy, who was coaching us, who's done the crossing multiple times. Gus Barton, based out in London, for our physical training, also rowed around the UK. Again, what he doesn't know about physical preparation for doing this isn't worth knowing.

The Vodafone Foundation has been massively supportive in terms of fundraising for the whole enterprise and the organising organisation itself, Atlantic Campaigns, they lay down rules in terms of these parameters that you need to comply with. But actually, you can draw a great deal of information from that in terms of what things you need to focus on, how you need to qualify, when you need to be doing those things. We've also had a great deal of support from Henley [Business School] as well in areas such as nutrition and looking at resilient teams. One of the questions we get asked quite a lot at the moment is, how's the training going? You can absolutely understand why people would ask you about the physical nature of the challenge. Actually, what the biggest challenge is is the crew dynamics. Getting together all those experts, drawing out that information to make the best possible decisions. In a very similar way to how we would act as management accountants approaching an investment appraisal is very useful.

Hannan: You're also looking at things like bottom line and time and motion analyses, etc. How are you using some of that management accounting skillset to make sure that you're properly set up for this project, because you're going to be doing this at the end of next year, and we'll be talking a little bit more about the charities that you mentioned earlier, Tusk and Blue Marine as well, and we'll link to that in the show notes for this episode as well as to your project website as well. But let's talk about bottom line because as an accounting professional, bottom line is a big thing. What would you say is the bottom line for this getting there or we're getting there in a particular time. If you look at the return on investment once you've put in all this effort, this resource, what makes this a success?

Tiplady: Actually, right now, the success is defined as getting to the start line, and that is absolutely all about being as prepared as we can and trying to understand all the risks that we're undertaking. Again there are huge parallels here in terms of business and project management and doing all of that planning before you start implementation, in order then for the implementation to go as smoothly as possible. Once we push back from La Gomera on the 12th of December, next year, probably all bets are off, because whatever you can imagine happening, probably will happen, and the risks are multiple and potentially quite serious as well. All the way from storms, boats capsizing is a fairly regular event. Power failure, fire, injuries, even going as far as marlin strikes. Marlin are the big fish with great big spears that are attached to their noses.

Last year, there were four marlin strikes, and when I say marlin strikes, what that means is the marlin swam at speed towards the boat and the spike on the front of the marlin pierced the hull. The hull of these boats is only one layer of fibreglass thick. Hopefully, that best result comes through into the storage area and then you need to be prepared to be able to fix that. If you're less lucky, it comes through into one of the cabins. Actually last year, it missed one of the participants just by a few inches, which was a very lucky outcome indeed.

So, preparing for all of that, understanding the drill that you would need to go through when you capsize, how you cope with that as a team. What you do next is all incredibly important, and that's absolutely what we're about for the next 18 months in order to get to the start line as prepared as we possibly can be.

Hannan: Do those marlin strikes ever happened twice or is it just generally a one-off?

Tiplady: Actually nobody has been that unlucky yet. Having said that, that's probably us for next year.

Hannan: That is one double entry you hope as an accountant you never see?

Tiplady: Never get to account for.

Hannan: OK, good. We talked about working as a team, and finance partnership is a big part of any finance professional development and how they work these days, and you've given us great examples of how you're having to work in partnership with other people, other professionals, other skillsets. I did ask about the success, but let's say you get to the end on time and your plan and your schedule works like clockwork. What are you hoping to achieve? Is there a record you're hoping to break? Is there a particular objective that you have?

Tiplady: Objectives is a really interesting question because when we first sat down to discuss how we were approaching that and the objectives is one of the first conversations we had as a team because clearly then that informs how you approach the race. We initially decided that we would treat this much more as an expedition. Very much more important for us to get to Antigua than to actually win the race. At least that's how we start. The trouble is it's a very dynamic situation once you push back after the 12th.

If all of a sudden you find out that you're only a couple of hours behind the lead boat, what does that do to the crew dynamic and does that change your objectives at that point in time? If we had decided to say no, absolutely, we want to beat the record of 30 days. Then what happens? What's your plan B, plan C, plan D, if you just get five days into this 30–50 day voyage and recognise that you're already three days behind and you're never going to win. Actually what we started to understand that the objective setting needed to be multilayered and you have to peel back many of those layers of the onion to really understand the scenarios that might play out and hopefully preempt as much as possible everything that might happen. Clearly preempting everything is an impossible task, but just having a framework to approach those situations. Be they first thought of or be they completely novel is super important.

Hannan: Also important are the two charities you mentioned. So tell us briefly about Tusk and Blue Marine.

Tiplady: Yes. We're super happy to support these two charities. Tusk, supported also by the Duke of Cambridge, often gets into the news by being very vocally against the trade in ivory and also do super incredible work in South Africa, being very progressive and proactive in reducing the conflict between humans and wildlife. Fundamentally about protecting wildlife, they go about that in an awesome way. Blue Marine Foundation, a relatively new charity, set up by a chap called Charles Clover. Think about 13-15 or so years ago now, they're very much about creating marine protected areas. For me, the state of our oceans goes hugely unreported. But actually you don't have to investigate too far to understand that this is a very serious situation. The rate at which we're exploiting the oceans and taking fish, fish stock out of the oceans at a far greater rate than they can ever replenish. Little bit tongue in cheek. The investment advice would be to at this stage, invest in jellyfish and sea cucumber processing plants. Because frankly, that is the only fish food that is going to be available in 20–30 years time if we carry on at the current rates.

Hannan: Well, when you talk about bottom line, that is a very sobering one. We'll link to Tusk and Blue Marine's websites as well as to your project's website in the show notes for this episode. Before we let you get back to your training, David, if you had to pick one piece of advice that you would give to anyone, let's say they're not rowing across the Atlantic, but they've got a project or stretch goal, something that they're doing in their own professional environment as a finance professional, what piece of advice would you say to anyone looking to discover, take on, and succeed at a new challenge?

Tiplady: I would say just say yes, give it a go.

Hannan: Sounds good. Just say yes and obviously do your planning, I would imagine.

Tiplady: Exactly.

Hannan: David Tiplady, you will be doing this at the end of next year, 12th December 2023, so if anyone is listening in 2024 afterwards, the links to those charities as well as to your project website will be in the notes to this episode. David, if you had to pick one more challenge, what comes after this? What do you do next?

Tiplady: Absolutely terrified to find out — you're absolutely right. This is a question that I've been asking myself also. I have a little bit of blindness to that point at the moment.

Hannan: That means you're going to have to come back in 2024, and we'll figure out what you've done to top this.

Tiplady: Thank you. I would absolutely love to talk to you again, perhaps about this experience, but also what comes next. I'm sure there'll be something on the agenda. Absolutely.

Hannan: I think you may have a point there. Our guest for this episode of the FM podcast, joining us from Fleet, the town, not the collection of ships, that is, though he will be in one quite soon. From the town of Fleet in the county of Hampshire, here in England, Chartered Global Management Accountant David Tiplady, currently head of commercial for Vodafone Automotive.

He's also, as you've just heard, rower in training for 2023 cross-Atlantic race. you can find out more about the BlueTusk Atlantic ambition, as well as about the charities David mentioned ,Tusk and Blue Marine, and you can find that on his LinkedIn profile. We'll put that link in the show notes for this episode. We appreciate his time on the podcast, and we appreciate you taking the time to listen to it. If you'd like what you're hearing, we invite you to follow, subscribe, share, and rate as well as review the FM podcast. You can do that inside the podcast app you're using right now. From the UK office of AICPA & CIMA here in the City of London, I'm Kyle Hannan. Thank you for listening. Bye bye.