Chris Sheasby, CFO at Ark Schools

Chris is chief financial officer at Ark Schools. Ark is a charity that runs 34 schools across the UK. Ark’s ambition is to transform young lives through education. Chris, and Ark, believe in the power of people.

34 schools translates to around £150m of income, more than 2,000 staff, a great number of ambitious students and huge data flows. Moreover, Ark has big plans to expand.

Ark is backed by some well-known giants of the hedge fund industry, intent on using their position to make a difference.

We talked to Chris about how numbers flow through Ark and Excel’s role in that.

The role of Excel at Ark

With high data volumes Chris told us that Ark has recently implemented a proprietary management information system. Add in a finance specialist focussed on running numbers for each of the 34 schools and that system helps ensure consistency.

Still there’s a big role for Excel. For looking at ‘what if’ scenarios across Ark’s schools Chris will ask his team to use Excel. And, inevitably, there are still a few finance managers at the schools who maintain a lingering love affair with their old Excel spreadsheets

Modelling style: integrated financial statements with full balance sheet

In the ‘old days’ local authorities would have taken care of balance sheet issues for schools, leaving individual schools worrying about their operations

In contrast, Ark’s forecast models include a full balance sheet, starting from the individual school and consolidating up. According to Chris, modelling the balance sheet at the operating unit level is essential:

“It’s your check. It provides the link to cash flow.”

Plus individual schools need to keep a close eye on unique balance sheet items such as funding provided and set aside for items like capital expenditure.

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We asked some very direct questions of Chris.

What was your worst job ever?

“Serving in Manchester Airport café, having to eat there, getting food poisoning but keeping on working because I needed the money. Being too diligent in making sure customers were completely aware of the company’s 100%-satisfaction-or-money-back guarantee. Being relegated to scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees as an enforced penance.”

The best thing about your current job?

“Working with a sense of purpose. Our job is to help people succeed at life. That’s a great job to have.”

The worst thing about your current job?

“Uncertainties around future government funding for the sector. That holds us back and so it’s difficult to trigger the investment decisions we really want to be making.”

Best job perk?

“Travelling to India and Africa with work in the charity sector.”

Best modelling moment?

In his previous job Chris worked to provide a working capital loan to a charity providing low-cost food in emergency situations. In two days he worked to create a model that looked at how milestones and targets could be met and the enterprise saved. It wasn’t the neatest most beautiful model Chris has produced. It was something that, in his prior jobs (in corporate finance and private equity) he would have taken weeks rather than days over. But the model provided the rationale for advancing the finance and now that charity is still busy doing its work driving down the cost of emergency food provision around the world. It might not have been the prettiest model ever but it got the decision made and probably had the most impact of any modelling work Chris has done.

Any Excel tips?

“Establish a control sheet with key checks so you know how your model is doing on internal consistency”.

“Learn keyboard shortcuts. They make you so much faster.”