Finding the right balance between profit and purpose is something Ali Lane, Financial Controller at BOL Foods, has been striving for within his career.
“It’s definitely been an important aspect of every company I’ve worked for,” says Ali.
“It’s an exciting thing when you align your career with something you believe in and enjoy.”
Ali’s finance journey
Ali’s career started off by taking some temporary finance jobs in the engineering industry after studying maths at university. “I like the behind the scenes action that comes with financing and how the inner workings of a company operates.”
After deciding to pursue a career in finance he signed up to study for his ACCA qualification alongside working for a wealth management company in Bristol.
“I joined at a period of intense change where one large company was onboarding a smaller arm they had recently acquired. This made it an interesting place to join and learn my craft – that’s where I really cut my teeth.”
But after three years he came to the realisation that he wanted more influence within the company he worked for, and he wanted to find a place that aligned more with his personal values.
“My favourite topic of books is very doomsday,” he says. “It’s sustainability and the future of humanity – for example I love Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction.”
While looking for something that had sustainability at the forefront, he came across BOL Foods, and met with the CFO and CEO. Ali ‘loved the story’, he says, and ended up joining the business as a Finance Manager three years ago and was promoted to Financial Controller in 2021.
BOL Foods, sustainability and being a B Corp
The business was originally founded by Paul Brown, who came up with the idea for the business while in California. There, he found fresh, vibrant food in different combinations than he’d seen before, and wanting to bring this back to the UK in the form of a solely plant based, sustainable business.
In March 2021, it received its B Corp certification, marking progress on its journey with sustainability.
“Joining BOL was a big culture change,” says Ali. “It was unlike anything I’d experienced before.” This, Ali says, was because a small startup can be a ‘very competitive’ space.
“Everyone here is empowered to make decisions and be the best version of themselves.”
“There’s a true effort to share ideas and challenge each other in a collaborative way.”
“It’s an energising environment to work in – and great for everyone’s development.”
How the pandemic changed everything overnight
Like most businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic was a challenging time for BOL, as consumer behaviour completely changed practically overnight.
“People weren’t browsing in shops, they were buying long shelf-life products and we primarily make short shelf-life food,” says Ali.
“So overnight we lost half of our sales – April was about 50% of our March turnover in 2020 — and we were hitting record months prior to that.”
“It was difficult to see and had huge implications for the business.”
But, the startup adapted, beginning with moving to a zero-based budgeting approach where every penny was challenged.
“It was testament to the relationships we have that we were able to keep delivering a high level of service to our retailers,” he says. “We temporarily lowered our retail price to help move products from the shelves to support retailers who were really challenged with high waste particularly over the first six months.”
But after the initial shock of the pandemic, the business moved quickly to ‘take advantage of opportunities’, launching seven new products in October 2020.
“Most companies were rationalising their range and stopping all innovation, but we continued,” says Ali. “We were working really hard to make it work, and ultimately that paid off – this last year we’ve nearly doubled in terms of distribution. We’re up about 80% since April last year.”
This propensity to change has to be ingrained in the culture of a small company, where the competition is so great, says Ali.
“You’ve got to keep changing, keep pushing boundaries, keep testing.”
Driving valuable insights
Something that enabled this decision making within the pandemic was a push towards improving the quality of insights and analysis at BOL, which Ali has brought into the business.
“As Financial Controller my bread and butter is in making sure we have integrity in our reporting, largely by having the right systems and controls in place.”
As part of this, he overhauled the reporting processes and models, starting with budgeting and forecasting, and upskilled other teams so they could quickly understand drivers and drainers of the business.
“These changes were key to making informed decisions through the pandemic and shape a lot of the strategic choices we make.”
Ali’s Power Profile
What music empowers him?
“I absolutely love music and regularly go to see artists. Someone I’m into at the moment is Sam Fender, who I think is absolutely amazing with his guitar riffs. He also covers important topics within his songs.”
Who is his hero?
“Someone I have massive respect for is the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. He’s kept Wikipedia as a not for profit so anyone can use it for free, but he’s clearly sitting on a goldmine of a business – he could either make a profitable business or sell it off for someone else to do so, but he’s kept it free for public use.”
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