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EFM Global Logistics
Alan Cartwright’s job as group CFO for logistics firm EFM includes all the ‘usual’ things you would expect of a financial management role – as well as the odd collaboration with arguably the most famous and powerful space agency in the world: NASA.
This collaboration last year involved EFM moving the $10bn James Webb Telescope 5,800 miles from California where it was built, to its launch site in French Guiana. The telescope, which was successfully launched on 25 December 2021, is intended to study the formation of the universe.
“We do an awful lot of different things,” says Alan, “but nothing has been on the same scale and sensitivity as this project.”
NASA had worked with EFM for about four and a half years – mostly shipping scientific equipment to different parts of the world – before they asked the firm to move the telescope in 2020.
“It was an existing client, but then they gave us their biggest, most precious project to take care of,” says Alan.
“Initially, we just knew it was something to do with the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope. But we had no idea of what it became in the end – the size, the sensitivity, the special needs of the transportation because the security was paramount, and the fragility of that telescope within this container.”
While the project started in 2020, the telescope itself did not start its journey on a 76-tonne shipping container until the end of September 2021. But everything had to be planned perfectly, including ironing out potholes for the fragile cargo, removing traffic lights to ensure a steady pace and planning for emergencies.
Alan’s role as CFO was particularly important due to the foreign exchange elements of the job.
“I was quite intimately involved in some of the contract negotiations,” says Alan. “So my role was commercial, operational and financial.”
This included finding 17,000 hotel rooms for the NASA staff in French Guiana, and hiring a doctor because of the Covid pandemic.
“That was basically all the three and four star hotels in the country,” says Alan.
“Really, NASA wanted to just concentrate on getting this spaceship ready and not some of the administration – so we took care of that.”
However, the biggest challenge the team faced when moving the telescope was not knowing the exact date it was going to be ready.
“We had to look at how we could make sure that we were ready for it without absolutely costing a fortune – before and after. There was supply chain disruption in June, we had lockdowns and changes of regulations in many countries, including French Guiana, which made it more difficult,” says Alan.
“In the end, it was just planning, planning, planning. We had to be transparent with our suppliers and get appropriate flexible contracts.”
Despite the disruptions and unknowns, the international element of the role was something that Alan was familiar with.
“I joined Ernst and Young for about nine years after University and absolutely loved it.”
“One of the bits I enjoyed most was going on a one-year salary exchange program in the States in Boston. And ever since then, I’ve been working in an international environment – either in head offices or subsidiaries,” says Alan.
After EY, Alan moved into accounting within the entertainment industry, including working for a joint venture, CIC Video, by two Hollywood studios – Paramount and Universal, and a company within the Virgin Media family called Virgin Interactive Entertainment.
He then ventured into relocation services, working at several companies before joining EFM three years ago.
As big and high risk as the project was – navigating Covid lockdowns, changing timelines and the prospect of pirates due to the high value of the cargo – the NASA project came at a pivotal moment for EFM, who before 2020 mostly worked on music events, live sporting events and other mass gatherings.
“We thought we were recession-proof, we had proven that we were Brexit-proof, but then the pandemic came along and we definitely were not pandemic-proof,” says Alan.
“Literally overnight all the shows were cancelled. We were looking at a 90% drop in our revenues, and it did drop pretty dramatically. One of our largest clients was Cirque du Soleil and they not only stopped but went into administration, so it was quite a tough time from when Covid hit.”
The NASA project gave EFM a chance to really demonstrate its ability to take on large-scale projects beyond events, and on a global platform.
‘With all of our clients we have a 100% record,” says Alan.
“It’s not that the cargo may get there, we absolutely have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C.”
“We are highly communicative with our clients. Without this, and if things went wrong, they’d go wrong in a very public way. Reputation really is our biggest asset.”
Now, the business wants to build on this reputation within streams outside of live events.
“It’s part of the plan for us to start to build some other industries, like film location work, aerospace, medical and all mission-critical logistics, so that when live events recover, we will have these other new business streams on top of that business, which will make us much more resilient,” says Alan.
“So hopefully in the future, we will be a recession, Brexit and pandemic proof.”
"I would go to one of those upbeat disco tunes like Rozalla’s ‘Everybody’s Free’, something like that where everybody’s free to feel good!"
"A guy called Paul Evans who was a true entrepreneur. I was part of the management team that bought his international moving company, Interdean. He helped to transform not just a company but the industry. Sadly he passed away earlier this year, but he had such a sense of fun, purpose and a unique style."
Chris is the founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model and a contributor to many articles on our platform. Chris focuses on the shift toward digital transformation in accounting and finance, shows you what good looks like, then helps to get you there!
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