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Business spotlight: escaping the challenges of lockdown

10 August: Laura de Poitiers, financial controller of AIM-listed plc Escape Hunt, tells ICAEW Insights how the business coped through COVID, about her work in the charity sector and the benefits of ACA training.

Astrophysics, ethically bottled mineral water and accountancy may at first glance appear to have little in common. 

But such an analysis might betray a slight lack of imagination: a criticism that couldn’t be levelled at Laura de Poitiers. 

For de Poitiers, the 33-year-old financial controller of AIM-listed plc Escape Hunt, the links are deep and what ultimately brought her to her current position. 

For it was while supporting herself with a part-time job for a property asset management company to help pay her way through an astrophysics masters at UCL, that she discovered her love of business and ultimately accountancy, through her ACA. 

On leaving university de Poitiers secured a training contract at London-based firm Arnold Hill. Having learnt a broad range of skills across multiple sectors such as charities, LLPs, tax and audit, she was duly offered a job at Belu Water by a hedge fund client she was auditing, who was a NED at the social enterprise. 

Once at Belu Water – which sells ethical bottled mineral water but gives away all profits to WaterAid – she duly set about professionalising its finance function, which until her arrival had consisted of a part-time bookkeeper.

“The biggest thing for me was communicating with management,” says de Poitiers, who relished the challenge of building something from scratch and implementing proper controls and systems. 

“I was able to provide real insight rather than just numbers”.  

After five years and having played her part in watching the business she describes as “a wonderful place to work” grow its revenues from £2.5m to £6m, she set about finding a new challenge. 

Not long afterwards, she found herself discussing a role about a new escape room venture that “within 10 minutes” de Poitiers knew she was fascinated by. 

What was then little more than a cash shell looking for a business to buy in the UK – having had its initial plans to purchase restaurant chain Wahaca fall through – the opportunity to buy Escape Rooms came up. 

That business soon became her current employer.  “When I found out I could set up the finance function from scratch, I realised that’s what I wanted: it was the next step,” recalls de Poitiers.

While at Belu, senior colleagues had stressed the importance of learning the art of ‘commerciality’ and running a business rather than just ‘doing finance’, so she soaked up all she could learn from a plc. That was almost three years ago. And within a few months of starting at Escape Hunt, de Poitiers had quickly learnt how to set up the controls, a UK-wide payment system, how to collect franchisee debts and integrate everything into its numerous websites. 

Theatricals  

Despite all this, the achievement that generates the most pride for de Poitiers is her voluntary work as Treasurer for Deptford-based Montage Theatre Arts, a charity which provides numerous dance, singing and acting opportunities for children in Lewisham. 

At the interview, recounts de Poitiers, the charity’s chairwoman sat her down and said: “The charity’s fantastic, it does wonderful things, but the problem is we don’t know from one day to the next how much money we’re making. And we definitely don’t know until the end of the year when the audited accounts are done to even find out how much we made that year”.

“When I started, if they had had one more year of losses they would have had to close their doors completely. They had so many years of unexpected losses behind them they pretty much had no reserves left. They couldn’t work out why, so I showed them. It was all very simple stuff but for people who don’t know accounting it was like I was doing magic.” 

And why is she so proud? 

“Because it’s a charity that really needed some help and they didn’t know who to turn to - and I stopped them from going under.” 

No escape from the pandemic 

Escape Hunt, the London-headquartered escape room and interactive games outfit, has 10 UK sites and dozens more peppered throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific.

At the close of business on 20 March, every escape room shut its doors. “Income was immediately reduced to nothing,” says de Poitiers. It hit their network in “various different ways” but the net effect was zero income. 

Together with her finance director, they immediately “ran with” the situation, implementing a cashflow forecast and clamping down on payments out of the business.

The firm’s property director renegotiated deals with their landlords and helped secure several rent holidays, while all 120 on-site staff were immediately furloughed, keeping on just 15 head office staff to keep things ticking over. 

To help build a new income stream, their games development team rapidly created a series of downloadable puzzles that can be printed off and played – essentially a tabletop board game where players follow a series of clues to solve a set of challenges. 

In July, nearly three-months on from the initial lockdown, all Escape Hunt’s UK sites reopened. For now, and at least until September, de Poitiers and her head office team will continue to work from home and catch up via Zoom and Teams.

ACA – a badge of honour 

Part of that successful approach in securing the future of the business and those it employs can be directly attributed to her ACA training. 

“The ACA training was always very good at teaching you the underlying premises of what you need to build on top – so learning the absolute fundamental and having them instilled in you constantly means that it doesn’t matter what business you go into – that’s just what you overlay – you have the skills that can take you anywhere,“ says de Poitiers, who is a member of ICAEW’s Business And Management Faculty and a faculty board member.

“One of the reasons I love being part of the Business and Management Faculty board is that a lot of the people who are going to be accountants need to understand that if they are ACA, they can go wherever they like. Their training means it doesn’t matter if they are in a hedge fund and need to learn more about hedge accounting or need to learn about retailing and VAT, or in a business dealing with overseas tax – everything you do in the ACA gives you that underlying skillset on which to build on top.” 

de Poitiers has also found that it can be a useful leveller both in terms of being a woman and puncturing through the occasional episode of innate sexism and when dealing with much more senior figures in the job title stakes. 

“Sometimes it’s about having that title. So if you are sitting in a room you can say to people even if they are vastly superior to you in job title, ‘I’m registered with the ICAEW, I’m an ACA chartered accountant’, and it gives you that badge to say ‘yes I do know what I’m talking about and I am allowed to join this conversation’”.