Isaac Parnell ACA qualified in 2015 and is now finance director at ever-expanding gourmet popcorn-makers Joe & Seph’s. Here he shares his favourite flavours, and how he has harnessed the company’s creative spirit to bring financial stability and opportunity.
Is your office like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory?
It is a bit. There are lots of creative people in the senior management team, and we’re right above the kitchens, so there’s new product development going on all the time. We all feed back on the flavours. It’s a buzzy place to work, and there are loads of like-minded businesses nearby (in Park Royal, northwest London). It’s a real hub for exchanging ideas and information.
What’s your favourite Joe & Seph’s popcorn flavour?
I’m a bit boring, I like our best-selling salted caramel. We also do these white chocolate and raspberry popcorn bites that are pretty amazing. I’m sure I’ve put weight on since I came here! I took some madras curry, lime & black onion seed popcorn home for the family at Christmas, which was interesting. My previous experience of popcorn was the cinema variety, but this is another world of flavour.
Did you always want to work in the food sector?
No, but I was drawn to the manufacturing industry quite early in my training contract (with audit and advisory firm Baker Tilly, now RSM). I found I really enjoyed going out to audit at different clients’ sites, mixing with non-financial people and seeing how all aspects of a business worked.
Did young Isaac dream of being an accountant?
I didn’t, funnily enough. Both my parents were teachers and two of my elder brothers are teachers, so I thought that might be my path. I studied maths and music at Cardiff University and then I became a teaching assistant and supply teacher in and around Cardiff for a couple of years. I was also in a band. We were called Silver Gospel Runners, I was a multi-instrumentalist: keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel. We got a little bit of exposure on BBC Introducing on Radio 1 but then everyone went their separate ways and got grown-up jobs!
What made you decide to train with ICAEW, and how did you find the experience?
The aspect of teaching I really enjoyed was the coaching and training bit. I thought: ‘How can I do this without having to manage a classroom of teenagers?’ I looked at lots of different graduate training courses and honed in on audit because as you progress you quite quickly get supervisory responsibilities. I think that going to a mid-tier firm, still in the top ten, was best for me. I got such a breadth of experience in different sectors and sizes of business.
How did your career develop after qualifying, and what helped shape your progress?
My second job after I qualified was financial accountant at Sofa.com. Their CFO Edward Knighton moved to YO! Sushi and later asked me to join him. He’s been a real mentor to me. I learned so much from shadowing him. At YO! Sushi I ended up as their UK financial controller, where I was very much part of a central team. Prior to that I had been in the factory day-to day, getting a great balance between longer-term financial strategic input and being on the shop floor, spotting where something is going wrong and helping to improve it. That’s what really interests and excites me. Getting that balance back is what drew me to Joe & Seph’s in the spring of 2022.
What does a typical day at Joe & Seph’s involve?
No one day is really the same. It’s a very broad role. We have about 50 employees on site, and I’m directly responsible for 8-10 of them, in finance, admin and operations. The challenge in a smaller-sized business is you have a much flatter structure and you can find yourself getting lost in minor queries. But it’s good for learning because you’re exposed to every part of the business. For example, I wouldn’t understand how time-consuming a label printing process can be if I wasn’t sitting right next to the person who was doing it. I can put in a little tweak to their system and it will improve their life ten-fold.
What do you enjoy about working at a company like Joe & Seph’s?
Smaller-to medium sized businesses like Joe & Seph’s are often entrepreneur-led and really creative and fast-paced, but it can sometimes be at the expense of having good controls in place. I was brought in to – not slow things down – but bring a bit of structure to their systems and processes. Business has grown rapidly: Joe & Seph’s were at £4 million turnover a couple of years ago and now we’re £8 million. If you’ve got good entrepreneurial spirit and sound financial control, then that’s a successful company. But if you’ve got one but not the other, then you’ve either got a really slow company that doesn’t take any risks, or you’ve got a reckless company that could be going under in the next six months. I like the challenge of bedding in systems and processes to help normalise peoples’ days, while keeping that creative fire burning. And I love the popcorn.
What have been your biggest achievements so far in your career?
During Covid I was working at one of the subsidiaries of YO! Sushi that put sushi in supermarkets. It was funded by the restaurant side of the business, which obviously was suffering in lockdown. Me and the managing director had to redesign the processes of how that factory worked – all of the shift patterns, the daily cash-flow process, to make sure we could live within our means. We went into the pandemic as a break-even operation; we came out at the close of 2020 with a profitable manufacturing business, and saved hundreds of jobs along the way. That taught me that cash has to be one of the primary focuses of any financial director. Having good rigour and process around cash forecasting and cash reporting is the number-one priority for me.
What ambitions do you hold for the future?
I’m keen to be involved in more exit processes. At the end of my time at YO! Sushi we were preparing for an exit, which unfortunately didn’t complete during my tenure, but I learnt loads being part of this process. The work involved in preparing for exit is where financial controllers and finance directors get to show their value-added: the accountant becomes the star!
What advice would you like to impart to ICAEW students?
Embrace change – my challenges have come at periods when I’ve transitioned from different working environments and it can be daunting but worth it in the long run. Take opportunities when they arise, be that internally or through changing companies/jobs after you qualify. And work hard. It’s a tough balance between study, home life and work life, but the end goal is worth it: you get a respected qualification that opens so many doors.