Front Line Finance – A Team in Focus

This article appears in our Q1 2022 issue of Finance Transformation Magazine. To download the issue, click here

Rachael Long led the Breedon Group Accounts Payable team through the Pandemic facing remote working, furlough and mental health challenges on a daily basis.

When I was asked to write this article, I struggled to know where to start as we have all been through so much in the last two years. From the moment Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced we would work from home, due to this horrible virus, little could we have imagined how much this would affect us all.

I lead the 24 strong Accounts Payable Team of Breedon Group Plc, a £bn Turnover Construction business with operations throughout the UK. When the virus struck and lockdown commenced, we had to move fast to keep our teams safe, our SLAs met, and our suppliers paid!

In the days and weeks that followed I faced the challenges of remote working teams, furloughed staff and as a mental health First Aider, supporting the mental health of our people.

I had many difficult conversations with Breedon people across the whole business who were struggling with the pandemic, furlough, loneliness and much more. I listened and helped as best I could.

In facing the first challenge we had a stroke of luck as due to Breedon being in the middle of a business acquisition, we had several hundred new laptops in stock. In a matter of hours our team was equipped with new laptops and transitioning to remote working.

It was all done so fast and was a complete shock to the system. Overnight we went from an office-based team, familiar with each other and our habits to seeing each other only on Zoom! However, we coped, we are an Accounts Payable team in a large and complex business, coping is what we do!

Very quickly we then had to look at our processes, as we were a paper-based team. We got our heads together and came up with some easy solutions ensuring everyone had access to the correct drives and systems.

As the country and business slowly closed down, we did the same, I had to make the decision in conjunction with my Team Leaders who would carry on and who would be placed on furlough. This for me was the real challenge of the pandemic and one that I lost sleep over, but I faced it as best I could by putting myself in their shoes.

I personally called those team members who would be furloughed, as I was concerned about the impact on them and their families. The reaction was pretty much the same, "OK I understand but I want to come back as soon as I can!"

We created a WhatsApp Group so everyone could stay in touch. Communicating with the team was key for me whether they were furloughed or not and that sense of team we had built in the office carried us through the pandemic.

Once the core team were in place, we worked non-stop, processing invoices. We worked with suppliers to ensure queries were dealt with as most of our site administration had been furloughed.

We had to make decisions to ensure suppliers were paid even though some of our customers had stopped paying us. I was concerned about ensuring our suppliers were paid especially the SMEs. We work closely with the local communities around our sites to ensure we do not have a negative impact, and this is the same for our supplier base. We moved from two payment runs a month to one payment run a week.

One major challenge we faced was the post. Our supplier base has many small to medium-sized businesses, and they send us paper invoices in the post. We had to reach out to them directly to start moving them to emailing invoices so we could ensure they got paid.

Myself and my Assistant Manager also attended the office twice weekly to pick up and scan any post, not just for our teams but also for other teams who were working remotely. We were key workers keeping a large process functioning.

It was very weird being the only two people in a large building, two cars in the car park and having to remember to bring your own milk in. It's always the little things you remember.

By the middle of 2020, as we were slowly released from lockdown and we opened more and more of our quarries and plants we brought the team back one by one as the workload increased.

During this time, Breedon had acquired another business which we integrated, which proved more challenging over Zoom and Teams, than if we could have had face to face discussions.

We also merged three of Breedon's largest businesses into one, integrated another acquisition and completed a full Finance system upgrade with the Breedon Cement Business.

We continued with our training programmes whether it be on Teams or Face2Face, this included Accounts Payable Association and Mental Health for Team Leader Courses.

Fast forward to 2022, we have two more Breedon Group Businesses to integrate, and a full Finance and systems upgrade with the remainder of the Group. This doesn't include any more businesses that are acquired in the meantime.

We now have a rota for team members to work from the office and I can't see this changing in the near future, with hybrid working being actively considered.

In the two years, since Boris announced the pandemic, we have faced all our challenges as a team. It was the greatest challenge of our careers and although fundamentally the way we work has changed, it has brought us closer together as a team.

About the author: Rachael Long

Rachael is a multi-award-winning Manager with Balfour Beatty, Siemens, Bosch and Breedon. An active member of the Accounts Payable Association and has been in the Top 100 Influencers for the last three years.