For an accountant steeped in the intricacies of running restaurants, Ben Bushell FCCA is in a different financial world now. Where once life was about the rigours of leases and how many covers are served, his domain now includes a marina, golf course, tennis courts, condominiums and a nature reserve.
He seems extraordinarily relaxed. While the new job is inordinately more complex than his previous positions, Bushell, 35, gives every impression that he bears his current workload lightly. That’s not overly surprising when you consider that his last two UK roles involved two company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) and managing the impact of the pandemic. But things are different now.
‘We essentially run a town,’ Bushell says, referring to Friday Harbour, a residential and resort development on the shores of Lake Simcoe, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, Canada. ‘Friday Harbour felt like a breath of fresh air, literally, as soon as I came up and saw the site.’
‘This was a vast opportunity to go into real estate, operations, golf courses, marinas, retail and hotels’
CFO, Friday Harbour Resort, Ontario, Canada
Head of Finance, The Restaurant Group, London, UK
Head of FP&A, The Restaurant Group
Brand Finance Director, Frankie & Benny’s, London, UK
Head of FP&A, Carluccio’s, London, UK
The business is unlike anything to be found in the UK. A 600-acre site, Friday Harbour is split equally between residential and commercial development, golfing and a nature reserve.
The site has zoning for 3,000 resort homes (1,250 are already built), a marina with around 600 slips (berths), a beach club and an amphitheatre for live performance. There’s a supermarket and a host of commercial tenants including restaurants, cafés, a bakery, a pet store, home furnishings, a wine store and a $28m Lake Club homeowner complex, providing a restaurant and bar, gym, activity lounge and theatre to the homeowners of Friday Harbour. There are also plans for a 12-storey hotel and a small retirement village.
Bushell wears multiple hats. He is CFO for the Friday Harbour development company and treasurer for the not-for-profit Big Bay Resort Association that manages the community. He also oversees accounting and financial management for the boards that manage condominium developments on the site.
It’s a dizzying set of responsibilities compared to Bushell’s previous roles. He started as a purchase ledger clerk for the restaurant chain Carluccio’s, named after founder and Italian TV chef Antonio Carluccio, and worked his way up to head of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) in 2018 as part of the management team.
In October 2019, Bushell moved to The Restaurant Group (TRG), which operates the Wagamama, Chiquito, Brunning & Price pubs and Frankie & Benny’s restaurant brands. Then, in January 2020, just before the pandemic crashed into the UK, Bushell was made head of finance for the group’s leisure and concessions business.
At both Carluccio’s and TRG, Bushell was involved in the gritty work of CVAs, a process designed to help rescue businesses. TRG’s CVA came as hospitality was ravaged by Covid-19 lockdowns.
The TRG workload had an impact. Redundancies, ‘many hours’ renegotiating leases, cutting outlets from 330 to 190 in his division, a £60m group equity rights issue, attempting to support the mental health of employees and a never-ending effort to reduce cash burn all made for a stressful period.
Bushell recalls: ‘Overnight it went from “Right, how do we make us more profitable?” to “We’ve got to flip this on its head, we’ve got to do it today, and we’ve got to get it right because that’s how we save more jobs.” That really was our focus: the quicker we can transition, the quicker we can save and look after our teams.’
He is, however, candid about the effects. ‘It was unbelievably challenging. But it bonded people, almost like a band of brothers.’
But there were lessons from working through the pandemic. ‘I was super-impressed with our ability to be flexible in such challenging times, for such a large organisation,’ he says.
Within 36 hours, all the group’s restaurants were closed and the process of ‘flipping’ them to delivery-only outlets had begun. It then came down to ensuring the company’s tech was up to the challenge of managing orders. That was another lesson.
‘A key element today is the digitalisation of the restaurant industry,’ says Bushell. ‘There’s so much technology available now. It’s the ones that either had something in place or had the know-how to transition that did well during the pandemic.’
It was an exacting time for Bushell and possibly helped sway his decision to move to Canada. He and his Canadian wife, Jenna, had always had it in mind, but the pandemic proved a catalyst and they and their son, Sebastian, now two-and-a-half, jumped on a plane. Another son is due in June.
‘It helps you develop a lot as a person, to start from scratch’
Friday Harbour real estate value
Acres at site (200 acres of real estate development, 200 acres of golf course and 200 acres of nature reserve)
Resort employees (in season)
Homes built so far (site has permission for 3,000)
So now Bushell is 3,500 miles away from London. Living just 10 minutes from work, he finds Friday Harbour a respite from pandemic stresses. And he readily agrees that the ACCA Qualification enabled him to make the move; he qualified with ACCA in 2016 and became an FCCA last year.
‘That really is the beauty of accountancy,’ he says. ‘Every industry needs us and needs us to be at the top of our game. It gives you flexibility for worldwide travel and exploration.
‘That’s one of the things I’ve always felt since receiving ACCA membership; it’s something that will always give me opportunities.’
Friday Harbour is not without its stresses. Bushell brings hospitality experience, for sure, but he’s had to learn new disciplines.
‘This was a vast opportunity to go into real estate, operations, golf courses, marinas, retail and hotels. It will give me more strings to my bow.’
Which is just as well, as Bushell wasn’t looking for the type of role he had back in London. ‘At no point did I consider passing up the job,’ he recalls. ‘I knew I had certain elements within my experience, with others to learn. But we had taken a lot of risk with the country move already, so a little bit more couldn’t hurt!
‘Now it is one of my favourite elements of my job: the sheer variety of the everyday and focusing on the different drivers of the different businesses.’
The real estate side was daunting, especially after moving country to a different legal and tax regime. ‘That was definitely the more challenging piece. Then the complexity of condominiums and the not-for-profit resort association,’ says Bushell.
So how does he stay on top of it all? ‘It’s really about having a tight level of internal control,’ he says.. ‘The biggest risk for Friday Harbour is keeping control during explosive growth. With so much expansion going on annually, there is always an influx of team members and training to ensure that our internal controls continue to be in place.
‘I have a strong and competent team; they provide me with the helicopter view I need to be confident that we have reduced any risk as much as possible.’
Bushell has no regrets. ‘I would honestly say to anyone considering moving country, do it, try it, you can hopefully always go back home. But I believe it helps you develop a lot as a person, to start from scratch.’
‘Studying for the ACCA Qualification day in, day out, is very difficult, but you’ve got to think that, at the end of the day, this is something very, very powerful that will help you for the rest of your life.’
‘Getting through the exams means sacrifice. Surround yourself with people who will support you; it’s that positive communication that helps drive you on.’
‘To mentees, I’ve always said you’ve got to do it little and often, with plenty of breaks. If you’re just studying and working, you aren’t going to find happiness. You have to find a balance.’