Hospitality Industry Finance Leader Discusses Managing Risk and Agility During the Pandemic

Neil Gribben, vice president of accounting and control at hospitality and leisure company Belmond, met with Workday’s Tim Wakeford to discuss how finance has pushed forward with digital acceleration during the pandemic.

There are countless stories from the COVID-19 pandemic of businesses that found a way to succeed in the face of unprecedented disruption. For many finance leaders, the pandemic forced them to press the accelerator on digital transformation. In this interview, Tim Wakeford, vice president, financials strategy, Workday, chatted to Neil Gribben, vice president of accounting and control, Belmond, to learn more about how the hotel company embraced financial transformation head on.

Could you start by telling us about Belmond and your role with the organisation?

I'm the vice president of accounting and control. I'm responsible for all of the operational finance of Belmond. We are a hotel company, but we also operate trains and river cruises. We're in approximately 25 countries, operating around 45 businesses and over 100 entities. In 2019, we became a subsidiary of LVMH, which is France's largest company listed on the Paris Stock Exchange. Prior to that, we were, in our own right, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. So we're very familiar with the rigours of public listing.

“What COVID-19 has done is to give us a sharpened awareness that we can run every aspect of our accounting from literally anywhere.”

Neil Gribben Vice President of Accounting and Control Belmond

You recently went through a large-scale transformation project. Could you tell us about some of the challenges you were facing that led to the search for a new finance system?

A big part of it was the speed of our growth and the fact that a lot of it was through acquisition. We had 15 accounting systems globally, and we knew that wasn’t the way forward. When we listed on the New York Stock Exchange, there was a lot of pressure from our auditors to bring in a more standardised system. That regulatory pressure, under the Committee of Sponsoring Organization framework, meant we had to address financial reporting and data. Like many companies, we kept saying, “We’ll look at this next year,” and we kind of procrastinated on our move to an enterprise resource planning system.

It sounds like the imperative was more around control than the typical elements that drive finance transformation, such as cost reduction or offshoring?

That’s a fair comment. We weren’t looking to reduce costs as a result of the project, although I would say that ultimately ends up being a byproduct from being more standardised and efficient. What COVID-19 has done is to give us a sharpened awareness that we can run every aspect of our accounting from literally anywhere. That gives us flexibility for the future, but wasn’t our initial motivation for choosing Workday. We were just so disparate in what we were doing, so unstandardised. We had control, but we had control in a manual that didn't necessarily marry up to what the accounting system was doing.

You've been live with Workday for a couple of years now. What are the challenges you're still facing, and what's next on your road map at Belmond?

I'd say that we have a couple of locations that are not on the Workday system: one or two of them because we delayed either through disposal or acquisition or for some other reason. The other thing that's on our road map at the moment is Workday Adaptive Planning. It's all Adaptive at the moment. Since the middle of last year, we've been rolling that out, and we went live with our first global consolidated forecast earlier this month. This approach to continuous planning quadruples the ability to get data out of Workday and maximises the capabilities of the product. Suddenly, all of the planning, future scenarios, and agility become powerful and meaningful.

Elsewhere we have about 95% of our world on Workday, and we're looking much more closely at project management, at balance sheet reconciliation, at expenses—all the bells and whistles of Workday that we probably didn't get in the first time round. We’re working closely with our service managers within Workday to team up to make sure we're on top of the next big thing that's coming in Workday.

What future trends do you see in the finance space over the next five years, and how will the CFO role evolve?

I think the two are closely tied together. Finance has always had to manage risk, but the pandemic has taken this to new levels and some people were caught off guard. Managing risk and understanding the impact of macro-environmental challenges will be absolutely key. Agility will be crucial for finance leaders as there is so much uncertainty. Scenario planning is playing a major role in our own business. We're following changes in legislation, in quarantining, reopening, or around vaccination. These things can change on a daily or weekly basis, and we're making our plans based upon that. Having the agility to be able to plan on the revenue side but also on the labour side, and around costs, are going to be really important. In summary, for me, risk and agility are probably two keywords we’ll be hearing more about for the foreseeable future.

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