Finance Director at WildHearts Group, David McCrossan CA, on how office supplies have led to global social change
The WildHearts Group’s purpose-led businesses are fuelled by its founder’s visionary energy. Finance Director David McCrossan CA helps to make his dreams a reality, reports Ryan Herman
When David McCrossan CA was Senior Audit Manager at BDO he often worked with charities and social businesses. One stood out. “Most charities will be very small organisations without the internal financial expertise,” says McCrossan. “So I felt I could add value. But also they don’t always think innovatively or sustainably and tend to rely solely on donations. That’s what made the WildHearts Group interesting. This was an organisation finding a way to do good in the world, but doing so in a way that was innovative and sustainable. There was a solid business idea underpinning it all.”
That solid business idea was to use the profits from an office supplies businesses to fund a series of projects and social businesses worldwide, principally in the UK and Africa. Indeed, Africa is where it all started for founder Mick Jackson, who endured a near-death experience 20 years ago on K2 in Tanzania. On the ascent, Jackson’s Kashmiri guide suffered a collapsed lung brought on by the altitude. Jackson spent the next four days carrying, sometimes dragging, him down the mountain to where the air was less thin. Jackson himself eventually collapsed, only to be revived by a four-year-old girl giving him water. “It clarifies who you are and your deepest values,” he told the Scotsman. “It cuts through all the transient nonsense in our culture.”
Jackson had an epiphany. He asked a friend how much her company spent a year on office supplies. The answer was £250,000. “I can do that,” Jackson insisted, without knowing how. But as a serial entrepreneur, he has a can-do attitude. As a CA, McCrossan brings the nuts and bolts to back up that optimism. “If you can supply the same goods, the same standard of service, and the profits go back into doing good, why wouldn’t you switch suppliers?” asks McCrossan. “[It was] the innovation which immediately attracted me, this concept of letting companies reimagine their procurement spend not as an overhead but as a tool for social change.
“Businesses don’t have to pay a premium or sacrifice service standards to buy from us, yet the money they’d be spending anyway helps us to sustain a diverse and growing range of programmes that all seek to address the inequality of opportunity that exists today. When you include pro bono work and volunteering time, the average CSR spend of a FTSE 100 company is £10m, but the average procurement budget is nearer £4bn. There is enormous potential for businesses to make a transformational change simply through strategic purchasing decisions. I’m proud to be part of an organisation that has shown how that can be done.”
WildHearts Group is now a portfolio of companies – including WildHearts Horizon’s document management offering and Micro-Tyco’s entrepreneurial talent training, as well as the WildHearts Office foundation stone – all with a common purpose of creating global social change. Having been an adviser for four years during the group’s start-up phase, McCrossan got the chance to join full-time in 2013, and help kickstart a period of significant growth.
“It was an easy call,” he says. “I was excited by the huge potential and the challenge of building the infrastructure and embedding the systems and processes needed to achieve it. There were six of us in a small office in Glasgow and my role was very hands-on. I was the finance, HR, IT and operations lead and the one tasked with troubleshooting. Today, including our teams in Africa, the group has more than 250 employees and another 100 who represent us through our various partnerships. My role has evolved to become much more strategic and project-based.”
After a tough pandemic, when its Office business was hit by home-working, WildHearts has successfully rebuilt. Turnover is up to £10m and McCrossan expects to hit £12m this year. The company has been recognised in a string of awards, with Jackson being named in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 and WildHearts Group winning the 2014 Social Innovator Award from Babson College in Massachusetts for its Micro-Tyco programme. “Micro-Tyco is an entrepreneurial training programme that enables participants to practise fundamental business behaviours in a safe ‘micro’ environment,” McCrossan explains. “It’s a highly effective tool for identifying and developing talent. Customers use it as a core part of their recruitment and employee development.
“We also embed the Micro-Tyco method as a core part of the WildHearts Schools Programme, which aims to inspire young people to fulfil their potential and which we provide free of charge to schools across the UK. Through Micro-Tyco, pupils complete a structured programme of learning, centred on the UN sustainable development goals, and are taught about what global businesses are doing to champion the goals. They then work in small teams, supported by business mentors, to develop and implement their own ideas that address issues important to them, their communities and the world. All young people, regardless of background, require inspiration, knowledge and networks to succeed in life – our school programme is designed to equip them with those tools. We’re also launching a degree apprenticeship later this year in partnership with a leading academic institution and global corporates that share our values.”
WildHearts companies have transformed 1,500,000 lives since their inception, according to the website. The group operates mission-led microfinance institutions in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, providing training and business loans to more than 70,000 women in poverty. “We also fund and oversee a WildHearts franchise in South Africa that supports 10 high-skilled jobs for vulnerable women,” McCrossan says. “It manufactures reusable sanitary pads that we distribute to schoolgirls in period poverty to help keep them in school. The theme that runs through all our work is empowering the individual. We seek sustainable, business-led solutions that give individuals a hand up as opposed to a handout.”
Yin and yang
McCrossan adds: “In the early days, the business was perhaps guilty of trying to do too much too quickly with too little. We stretched ourselves very thinly. We pulled it off because we were a cohesive, driven team who shared similar values, but we had to push through some major challenges that were outside our control, and that left us feeling vulnerable at times. As we’ve grown, we’ve built a larger team and stronger foundations. There is still a lot of opportunity, but we are much more measured and selective in those we pursue.”
McCrossan’s CA training is core to WildHearts’ success, bringing business discipline to balance Jackson’s visionary flair. “The CA has helped me develop strong commercial awareness and a rounded skillset that I’ve built further as my career has progressed,” he says. “I work alongside a very creative, entrepreneurial leader and the way I probably add the most value is by having the knowledge and experience to constructively challenge his ideas, then help refine and implement them. [We] are very different people. But we have complementary values. He has great ideas, I help make them a reality.”
McCrossan’s expertise means WildHearts has the business credibility to back up its promises. “[The CA taught me] what excellence looks like. WildHearts is a ‘compassionate disrupter’. In the early days, our vision and mission allowed us to punch above our weight and engage major brands that wouldn’t have otherwise entertained us. What secured their contract, though, was that when they looked under the skin, they saw substance and high standards of professionalism. Proving we could deliver operational excellence was necessary to give them the comfort to make the switch – and to stay with us.
“Now, as businesses are under pressure to show credible ESG strategies, WildHearts’ proposition has become even more relevant. But we are seeing more and more examples of ‘impact washing’ where businesses overplay their social credentials. We are differentiated by being a purpose-led organisation, with a leadership team that has a strong focus on ensuring accurate, evidence-based impact measurement. Our customers tell us they value this authenticity and my background and skillset has been invaluable in instilling the necessary processes to achieve this.”
What advice does McCrossan have for other CAs looking to create an impact beyond the bottom line? “Find an area you’re passionate about,” he says. “For example, I’m really interested in microfinance [he is CFO of WildHearts’ MicroLoan Foundation]. We saw in 2008 how catastrophic it was when businesses lost access to finance. So when a woman in Malawi can’t get access to banking how is she going to make a life for herself, even with the drive and ability? Just a small loan of £25 or £50 can make a difference. Microfinance can be delivered irresponsibly, but when it is done right it can have a transformational impact on people’s lives.”