Brentford FC's FD talks football finance, career progression and becoming sustainable
“Brentford can't win by outspending the competition so we have to out-think them.” Those were the words of Brentford FC's co-director of football. With limited means but limitless ambition, the club's FD is charged with taking Brentford forward on a budget. AccountingWEB chatted with Natalie Burkitt about her role at the club and her journey to becoming FD.
For the last four years Natalie Burkitt has been finance director of Brentford Football Club, the ambitious west London team preparing to move into a new stadium next season.
Burkitt started out in the retail sector, developing her finance skills at Fat face, Mosaic Fashions and its subsidiary Shoe Studio. A move to Mama Group, which produced festivals such as Lovebox, ran venues such as the Hammersmith Apollo and managed a roster of artists, was her first foray into the leisure space.
Burkitt then gravitated to the sports sector when she joined analytics specialists Opta Sports Data as financial controller, playing a key role in turning around the business that was eventually sold to digital sports media outfit Perform Group.
The opportunity to become a finance director came when she was hired by sports modelling firm Smartodds, owned by Matthew Benham, who is also owner of Championship club Brentford FC. After initially helping to finesse finance at The Bees, Burkitt took a break to have a second child, rejoining toward the end of last season.
She is now poised to play a key role in the club’s efforts to win promotion to the Premier League, with finance playing a key role in ensuring the club is run in an efficient way as possible. Given the recent push for football clubs becoming more sustainable, through the Financial Fair Play regulations, there is an onus on finance functions ensuring financial clarity at clubs.
How valuable a career grounding was working in the retail sector?
Starting out at Fat Face was a brilliant first job out of accountancy practice as fashion is such a fast-moving industry. A move to Mosaic Fashions was followed soon after by a switch to its subsidiary Shoe Studio, which because of the nature of the sector, being more labour intensive, meant my role was more analytical.
When the finance director left, I was thrown in at the deep end and soon realised I just had to get on and get the job done. I sought guidance from the former FD at weekends, because the area of work was something I’d never done before.
How difficult was it to step up to become financial controller at Mama Group, given the music industry has a reputation for being extremely volatile?
I had moved on because Mosaic, which had Icelandic owners, was hit hard by the financial crisis, and I was keen to ensure financial security for myself.
I ran finance for the artists and consumer divisions, which involved managing bands and the merchandising of related products such as t-shirt sales. The biggest name on the roster was indie pop band Franz Ferdinand.
The role consolidated everything I’d done already such as statutory accounting, cash management, budgeting and forecasting, but the role was a dramatic change because it was a completely different kind of industry.
As we didn’t manage a huge pool of artists, we were really reliant on a few people. I quickly learned that if your band doesn’t turn up at a gig, it could have a big financial impact.
Did you move into sports data because you have an interest in the sector?
The reason I went to Opta was because they did rugby statistics and I like watching rugby, so for me it was a really interesting proposition to understand a bit more about how the sport works.
It was a loss-making business when I arrived, but as part of the turnaround team we managed to get ourselves to a position where we were sold for a fairly large sum.
How difficult was it to make the step to finance director at Smartodds?
It was a bit of an adjustment, because compared to financial controller, as FD you can be more flexible. You can be more strategic, working with the leadership team. The team would meet every week to go through what we thought was needed to happen next and how things were going.
How did you gravitate to Brentford FC and what were the challenges when you arrived at the club?
Given that Smartodds is owned by Matthew Benham, who is also owner of Brentford FC, the business model gave me capacity to be able to move into work in other areas of his business empire. As a result, I came over to the club to help improve the budgeting process, so that it was possible to gain more visibility over what was happening in each area, such as retail or catering.
I also helped the marketing director put together a ticketing pricing model to help us understand what we should be expecting on each matchday if season tickets numbered 6,500 (out of 12,500 capacity).
I became the finance director when the person hired resigned after two weeks when they were offered a role elsewhere. We’d just finished the first season in the championship, which is financially very different to division 1, when I arrived at the club. I was soon aware the aspiration to get into the Premier League, so my role is about making sure we get those systems and processes in place, to win promotion.
How important is the move to a new stadium, that raises capacity form 12,500 to 17,250 at nearby Kew Bridge?
For us to be competitive as possible in what we do off the field, a lot of impetus will come from being in the new stadium which has good transport links, being sited by the M4 between central London and Heathrow Airport. The stadium will have a much bigger hospitality area, with more bars and food point, catering for 3,000 hospitality guests, which allows you to monetise much better.
How important is it for the club to have a sustainable model?
We want to have a stadium that is sustainable, that is ready for the Premier League but not of a size that we wouldn’t be able to service. Sustainability is a big issue for football clubs, since the Financial Fair Play rules were introduced, which allow Championship clubs to lose £39m over three years with a maximum cap of £13m a year. Last year Brentford lost £4.4m and total losses are £55m but that was over a number of years, so we’re well within FFP requirements.
Given the importance of the commercial side of the club, how has your role changed?
When I first started I was finance director, I’ve also had responsibility for IT, but now I look after retail and HR as well as finance. Although I’m not heavily involved with the transfer window, the finance function has a role to play looking very closely at the cash position to make sure we’re very comfortable with what’s going in and out of the club at any time.
In order to drive through the club’s ambitious plans off the field, how is finance playing a key role?
Previously all the budgeting and forecasting and all the commercial side of things were undertaken done by me. This year we are setting up a new department to take on some of that work, so we can be more strategic.
Instead of having one team in finance I’ve now got two. We’ve got accounting and control looking at the day to day, management accounts, statutory accounts, the process driven stuff and then separately we’ve got another team focused on FP&A, so we can be nimble in terms of decision-making.
What has been your experience as a woman working in a senior role in a male-dominated sport?
There are a lot of women based at Brentford’s ground Griffin Park, so it doesn’t feel any different to other businesses. Having worked in retail which is predominantly female, versus football and data which is predominantly male, I think things have changed for the better for women in football.
But there’s probably a long way to go. I think rugby is ahead of us as a sport, but female football has taken a big step forward in the last year, so that is going to propel us forward even further.