A godly man working with Mammon

The Young Accountant of the Year is also a Salvation Army elder. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online
At 30, Mark Garratt may seem a little young to be a financial director. But what he lacks in years he more than makes up for in self- confidence.

His central role in the management buyout of his company helped him to win this year's award for Young Accountant of the Year. As the operation's then chief accountant, he was prominent in drawing up the plans under which the company now known as Interior went its own way on the takeover of its parent organisation, Stanhope, by British Land following the expiry of the main company's banking arrangements at the end of 1994.

Even in straightforward circumstances this would have been a tough assignment for a young financial specialist. But Mr Garratt's experience was given an added dimension by the collapse of Barings earlier this year.

The company formerly called Stanhope Interior was originally formed to fit out offices for projects organised by Stuart Lipton's property development company, Stanhope. But with increasing shares of its revenue coming from other sources, it was a logical move to spin it off.

However, this policy nearly scuppered the whole deal. Since the pounds 18m contract to fit out the bank's new City premises at London Wall accounted for one-third of the operation's turnover, there was a lot at stake. Mr Garratt and the managing director, David King, recall spending an anxious Sunday at the end of February watching events unfurl on a teletext screen.

By the end, they were sure the deal would be called off. But then their legal and financial advisers took the view that - since the project was being managed by a separate company rather than Barings itself - it would not go into administration.

As a result, the buyout - which, after all, was a condition of the deal being worked out between British Land and the Broadgate developer Stanhope - went ahead, albeit a week late.

As the person responsible for preparing the business plan on which the buyout would be based, Mr Garratt became immersed in the project - to the point where he will gladly rattle off the most intricate details of the arrangements.

But not, however, to the extent of ignoring outside activities. In addition to being married and the father of three children under five, he is a senior elder with the Salvation Army. As such, he recently attended a forum designed to encourage closer working ties with other denominations.

Though he accepts that "construction, finance and Christianity don't often come together", he does not feel that his job is inappropriate for somebody with his beliefs. Indeed, it is another sign of his self-confidence that he is able to act as a sort of conscience for the company.

Moreover, in an industry infamous for late payment of debts, he has encouraged Stanhope to set a standard for prompt payment and other methods of dealing fairly with clients and contractors. The strategy is borne out by the amount of repeat business the company gets, he says.

Mr Garratt also maintains that the approach encourages people to stay with the company. In the six years of the company's existence, only a handful at a significant level have left to join competitors, he says. Not only does the board analyse the reasons behind each person's departure, but it has also organised an induction course to change the attitudes of people who join the organisation from rivals.

"Quality of service and quality of people are first equals" in the company's priorities, Mr Garratt says, adding that "once you start thinking client- oriented, attitudes change".

Not that such attention to the "softer" issues distracts him from maximising financial performance. "About a third to a quarter of our profit is due to savings on tax," he says, pointing out that the company even advises some of its clients on such matters as the tax gains to be had from capital allowances.

Nor, Mr Garratt is anxious to stress, is he the only accountant of his acquaintance guided by Christian beliefs. The senior partner at the High Wycombe office of Grant Thornton - where he trained - was also a Christian, and encouraged him to attempt to combine God and Mammon.

However, the idea of graduating to managing audits did not appeal to him. So at the end of his training contract, he applied to recruitment agencies with the aim of moving into industry, and starting an accounts department from scratch. "I see myself as an innovator and creator of systems rather than an implementer of other people's," he explains.

Consequently, he joined Stanhope in October 1989 - three months after it started trading. As someone who lists time management, delegation and leadership among his skills, he quickly built up an efficient team, including a top-class book-keeper, to allow him to spend time on strategy, tax planning and the like.

Since his interest in information technology leads him to the view that it is "all about a systems approach", he is planning to extend this through the introduction of an IT system that he says will improve profitability by allowing all personnel access to it.

Not that the figures are giving any cause for concern. Turnover in the year just completed was pounds 67m and the profit before tax was pounds 1.6m, with net assets standing at just over pounds 1.2m, compared with the target of pounds 1m. The aim for the year to June 1996 was turnover of pounds 80m, but since the company has already billed pounds 50m, that looks likely to be easily surpassed.

Since he is still five years within the age limit for the award, Mr Garratt could - on this evidence - perhaps be a contender for a repeat performance.

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