The City boy done good

14th March 2008 at 00:00

A former auditor in the Square Mile has turned his hand to saving a troubled college

The job was at a rural college in financial crisis that had the threat of closure hanging over it. Hardly the most obvious career move for a man who had been treading a well-worn path from public school via university to a high-flying City career.

But Mark Lumsdon-Taylor took the plunge. He quit as an auditor at MacIntyre Hudson - one of the country's top 25 accountancy firms - for a short-term contract to try to rescue Hadlow College. And he loved it so much that he's still there after five years.

Now, the Kent college is in the top category for its financial stability and rated good by Ofsted, while Mr Lumsdon-Taylor has an award as the public-sector finance director of the year.

From having to sell off its buildings to survive, the college is investing pound;16 million in new facilities.

"What's most rewarding is walking around the estate on a Friday afternoon and talking to the staff, having a laugh with them as colleagues, knowing that what you do is having a marked improvement on what they do in the college - that's priceless," he said.

Former colleagues wonder what made him give up the fast-paced, high- earning lifestyle as an auditor and troubleshooter in the Square Mile. But he tells them: "You're making a difference, but you're not really building anything."

Mr Lumsdon-Taylor's success comes as Lifelong Learning UK, the body responsible for developing the further education workforce, is trying to encourage more private-sector workers to apply for senior management jobs in FE.

Sue Gill, the project manager for the recruitment initiative, said: "This is exactly what we are trying to achieve through our business talent initiative. Colleges will benefit from the input of fresh skills and talent to complement existing management and leadership skills, as I'm sure Hadlow College will agree."

As the external auditor responsible for overseeing Hadlow College's books, Mr Lumsdon-Taylor was under no illusions about its problems.

But Paul Hannan, the principal, was convinced that the college could be saved with the right expertise. Both men believe Mr Lumsdon-Taylor's City experience was vital in the crisis.

The 33-year-old recalls sitting in the office deciding which bills they could afford to pay. The recovery was not painless: 60 lecturers and managers had to be made redundant, although the college also brought in 40 new managers to resolve its crisis in leadership.

"You can't behave effectively as a finance director if you don't know what it's like to go to the brink and back financially," said Mr Lumsdon- Taylor. "When you've worked in the City as an adviser, dealing with other people's money, it teaches you its value. In FE, you know you're getting paid every month from the Learning and Skills Council with a great big cheque."

But he warned that the private-sector mentality cannot be simply transplanted into colleges: anyone making the move has to understand their primary purpose of teaching students and not simply be a number-cruncher, he said.

"You have to find out what everyone does and work hard to dispel any divide between the support team and curriculum staff," he said. "It's not about sitting in an office and counting the money."

Leading article, page 4

HOW HE KEEPS HIS COLLEGE ON A SOUND FINANCIAL FOOTING

- Cashflow is king. Don't assume anyone will bail you out and make sure every expense improves the college's performance. Run your college like a business in which the bottom line is the difference made to students' lives.

- Spend time on the front line. Finance directors should not be locked in their offices with the balance sheets. They need to understand the work of lecturers and faculty heads intimately if they are to make the right decisions for them.

- Build a good relationship with your bank. Give them a credible, transparent plan for recovery and they can give you time and support to get back on a stable financial footing.

- Use consultants sparingly. In-house experience can be cheaper and more likely to lead to action and real change than piling up expensive reports by outsiders.

- Break preconceptions and take calculated risks. Hadlow College spent pound;1 million on new classrooms in 2003, when money was scarce. But that investment meant the college could increase student numbers and boost its funding in the long term.

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