The role of the bursar is a pivotal financial function. He or she is more than just an FD in the commercial sense; the bursar wears a number of hats and spans roles that traditionally would be undertaken by a variety of people such as a procurement professional, cost controller, estate manager, financial controller, management accountant, project manager and others.
While it may be unreasonable to expect one individual to fully explore the breadth of all of these roles, for an independent school to be successful all of these business areas must be handled effectively.
It is rarely possible for the bursar to delegate whole functions of the job to dedicated teams, since only a small number of independent schools could support such a structure and there is danger of introducing a top heavy, slow moving and expensive administration function. The solution is, therefore, twofold. The role and influence of the bursar must remain firm, but there must also be contribution from either the governors or an established, external professional team, or ideally a combination of both.
The role of the governors cannot be underestimated; most successful independent school governors have worked hard and not only have a passion for the success of the school, but bring a variety of skills to the table. Boards of governors may boast specialists from the legal, property, development, financial worlds, among a whole host of other professional backgrounds. It is here that informed and open-minded bursars draw from a wide skillset to seek advice and input on aspects of their role which may be less familiar than those gained within their own professional training.
It is also prudent to seek professional advice. Some functions – like financial audits – are routine but a common pitfall is to be purely reactionary. Identifying cash flow problems in the third term of the year and phoning an advisor in the accountancy market seeking a speedy solution seldom gives a positive result. However, an ongoing relationship with the aforementioned specialist means the advisor can work together with the bursar to deal with long-term trends as opposed to short-term spills.
Estate management is a key area where successful bursars reap the benefits of an ongoing relationship with building surveyors to maintain and maximise a school’s assets. Many independent schools occupy period buildings with modern additions and successful bursars develop a planned preventative maintenance or long-term cost plan, with scheduled routine works across a five-10-year period drawn up by building surveying specialists. In this way, the bursar can plan and budget accordingly and will usually save money in the longer term.
Property specialists’ interaction with bursars has traditionally been initiated by a lending bank focused solely on bricks and mortar, but in this market the remit of companies such as ES Group often extends to a full trading analysis too. In turn, many bursars quickly realise for themselves the value of an ongoing relationship following the instigation of that initial analysis. For example, where the need for capital expenditure is identified, be it repair of physical buildings or need for modifications or extensions, outside experts can introduce building surveyors, planning specialists or a whole host of specialists with whom they regularly work.
A well placed advisor can provide financial models suggesting how specific projects will impact on medium and long term value or how they could affect the trading model in terms of income, costs or surplus generated. A successful two-way relationship allows the bursar to model scenarios and select the best fit for the school. Advisors can introduce bursars to various parties such as marketing specialists, cost control specialists and in many cases specialist bankers and financiers with a deep understanding of the sector.
Bursars are critical to the business but should ensure that the abilities of their governors are fully utilised and that they have the ear of an external professional team whose support can be called upon on an ongoing basis. After all, a well-designed medley of hats is imperative, but so is having the right people wearing them!
Tom Robinson is an Associate at ES Group