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A chef preparing a flame meal | AccountingWEB| From bookkeeping to reality TV: Managing the finances for Top Chef
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From bookkeeping to reality TV: Managing the finances for Top Chef

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Ahead of speaking at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping, Lara Manton describes how pressure in her bookkeeping practice reached boiling point when she ended up managing the finance function of the production of the US reality show Top Chef.

22nd Jan 2024
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Sometimes you never know where a close relationship with a client will lead. For Lara Manton, the founder of LJM Bookkeeping, a project with a longstanding client went from picking up the finance admin to essentially running the full finance function of reality TV show Top Chef

Manton was able to stand the heat of running the finances of the restaurant-based reality show through calling on her skills and expertise in technology and collaborating with her fellow bookkeepers. These important skills will be discussed over the course of the two-day Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping (FAB) event at the NEC in Birmingham on 13 and 14 March, where Manton is one of the many expert speakers. 

Starter: Out of the frying pan into the finances

Manton became involved in the project after a client who produces corporate videos, alongside doing production service jobs for companies like ITV and Netflix, was approached by the Top Chef production company. Manton was brought in, with her job limited to doing the books, reconciliations and making sure everything was paid correctly. 

However, that plan collapsed like an underheated souffle. The production manager quit the project three weeks in to work on a feature film and the HR team didn’t exactly step up to the hot plate. 

So with shooting about to start, Manton had to step up. “We had six weeks worth of filming ahead of us, so I ended up stepping up and asking: how do we make sure this process runs smoothly?” recalled Manton. 

Fortunately, Manton had already set up ApprovalMax to manage the strict budget and hundreds of purchase orders needing to be approved. She had scoped out other software to use, but before the line manager walked he opted to use a giant Google Sheet. 

And with 100 runners on set a week and they were filling out G-Sheets wrong, she immediately wished she had got Employment Hero for timecards. The reliance on the Google Sheet led to runners not filling out the template with their overtime, further shredding Manton’s patience. 

Main course: Finances at the chef’s table

A new production manager entered the pressure cooker and was immediately thrown into the deep end to sort out various issues and deal with an American production team who kept “changing their minds every two seconds and demanding more than they had the budget for”, recalled Manton. 

Manton worked closely with the new production manager and aside from an external payroll provider she picked up the whole finance side of the production. They attempted to bring on an external accountant who specialised in TV and film, but the curse of the Google Sheet struck again, and he couldn’t work out how to manage the document.  

So, since Manton was basically her long-standing client’s sous chef, she decided to step in and ensure the finance function ran smoothly over the eight-week project.

“By the end of it, my husband was threatening to divorce me,” she joked, recalling how on Sunday nights, he’d say, “Can you put the phone down?” as the clock struck 9pm. 

She also remembered travelling to a golf competition making payments in the car. “I knew I was teeing off in an hour and a half and I figured that I was not going to be able to make payments on the golf course,” reasoned Manton. 

Dessert: Technology was the secret ingredient

Manton declared that there would have been “no way” she would have been able to take on this project alongside continuing to service her 50-plus clients as a sole practitioner without the support of accounting technology. 

She will be talking more about the role technology has played in her bookkeeping practice, and revealing some of her must-have tools, at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping in March, where 100-plus software vendors will be exhibiting. 

“I was working 60-plus hour weeks on Top Chef to fit it all in,” said Manton. “So if it wasn’t for payments solutions, I wouldn’t have been able to process hundreds of payroll payments a week”

And although the production was using Google Drive, Manton built a zap that sent the Google Drive information to Dext, with ApprovalMax then linking everything up against purchase orders, and then she reconciled all that in Xero with the bank feeds. 

Having an in-depth understanding of accounting technology also assisted Manton in other areas of navigating the producers of the US reality show. “The US seems to be quite behind the UK in terms of accounting tech and knowledge,” explained Manton. “We have to print everything out for them. It all had to be labelled on a blank PDF, matching it to the spreadsheet, and then they print the spreadsheet and go through the numbers and tick them off line by line.” 

But Manton had all the information on Google Drive, Xero and Dext, so if anyone had a question about anything, she would “type the suppliers’ name into one of the systems, pull up the document, double check it and answer the question”.

Having all that information easily to hand also came in useful when her client had a VAT check during the production. 

“The last thing you want as a bookkeeper in January is HMRC saying you’ve got 10 days to provide them with the information for a VAT check. But I was easily able to pull off that report in Xero of the top 10 items on the VAT return, or whatever was requested, with the attachments, and drop them in a folder and send them across to the HMRC portal,” she said. “So having all of those systems in place meant that the process was as easy and smooth as possible.”

She also puts the success of the project down to the power of collaboration within the bookkeeping community – a key topic that will be discussed at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping. “Because I’m part of the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers (ICB), I was able to reach out to a couple of people who had experience working on production and have them, alongside my virtual assistant, double check the paperwork.”

The network of bookkeepers also helped her when things got “bonkers” during the middle of the production. “I was able to ask if anyone had a couple of spare hours a week to help with tasks like processing timesheets and putting them in the spreadsheet the accountants need.”

Petit Fours: Advice for bookkeepers

Reflecting on the experience, Manton said one of the lessons she learned is “there’s a difference between having not done something before and having a lack of knowledge or skills to be able to do something”. 

“This was obviously something I’d never done before, and was completely out of my comfort zone, but I still had the knowledge, skills and ability to fulfil that role. If someone had said to me, ‘You’re going to be the finance function on a TV show’, I would have thought I didn’t have the ability to do it. But actually, it was just using my bookkeeping knowledge and the skills in the tech in a slightly different way to fit the need for this specific client.”

You will hear Lara Manton, learn more about the power of collaboration and technology, and connect with other bookkeepers at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping on 13 and 14 March at the NEC in Birmingham. Book your FREE ticket today!

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By Rob Swan
23rd Jan 2024 14:17

WOW!! Sounds like exciting, chaotic madness. And nothing got flambéd in the process - just a few cloud servers warming up.
Well done Lara!

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