Interview: Helen Marshall CA, CFO, Falcon Coffee
Helen Marshall CA is CFO at Falcon Coffees, a coffee trading company that aims to positively impact a complex and often vulnerable supply chain. She talks to Kitty Finstad about the real impact accountants can have on your daily grind
Capsule, cafetière or bean-to-cup machine? Americano, latte or flat white? Extra shot or decaf? When it comes to the approximately 95 million cups of coffee consumed each day in the UK, we’ve come a long way from the time when our only choice was between instant or percolated.
The world’s favourite bean is also its second-most traded commodity (after crude oil). And to satisfy the demand for the nearly two billion cups a day consumed globally, a complex supply chain is responsible for growing, picking, transporting, trading and roasting the beans that end up in your cup. Enter Falcon Coffees. “We coordinate getting coffee from origin countries to roasters,” says Helen Marshall CA, company CFO.
“We sell to roasters that supply big brands like Starbucks, as well as Taylors of Harrogate and Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in the UK. We also sell to small roaster clients – speciality coffee for small operations and one-man bands who have their own micro roasters and sell coffee in cafes and restaurants.
"Overall, we have around 500 clients – some very big and some very small.”
Falcon Coffees was set up by CEO Konrad Brits in 2008 with the belief that the far-reaching nature of the industry had enormous potential to drive positive socio-economic change. The smallholder farmers who produce the majority of the world’s coffee grow their crops in regions – often conflict-driven, resource-heavy – where parts of the supply chain are being exploited.
“His vision,” says Helen, “was that we could trade coffee and have an impact on those smallholder farmers in a positive way.” And so Falcon Coffees was born.
Marshall joined the company in 2015 after spending a year volunteering in Rwanda.
“I felt I needed a bit of a change after six years in London in audit [at EY],” she recalls. “I asked for a sabbatical, which EY very kindly gave me, and then decided I’d like to go somewhere in need and use my accounting skills. Instead of, say, teach – I’m not qualifed to teach – or build a wall – I’m not a qualifed builder – I thought, ‘I have this set of skills – surely there must be businesses in Africa that need accounting and fnancial support.’
“I found a charity called African Entrepreneur Collective, which was supporting small businesses in Rwanda [and now also across East Africa]. It was exactly what I was looking for, so I went out there to volunteer for them for six months. I was involved with helping people set up hotels, a pigery… a really random mixture. I also worked really closely with a medical centre to help them apply for some funding.”
Not only was the experience interesting and personally rewarding for Marshall, working with these businesses hands-on provided a practical advantage, too.
“The last set of exams for ICAS is the TPE [Test of Professional Expertise], which is a case study. Basically there was a case study for TPE every time I looked at one of these businesses in trying to support them.
“It was an amazing experience. Rwanda is a beautiful country, and so safe. While I was there I got really interested in coffee. The charity I was working with made loans to coffee farmers to develop their washing stations. My focus changed to finding how I could use my skills to make a big impact on bringing people out of poverty and helping with development.”
That’s when Marshall began working for Falcon’s Kigali-based sister company, Rwanda Trading Company. It had been operating an agribusiness training programme (ATP) for 10 years, coaching thousands of farmers in financial literacy, agribusiness management and sustainable agronomy practices.
In 2018, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, 34,000 farmers were enrolled in the programme. The impact statistics for that year tell an encouraging story: average yield increase per farm of 161% and a 209% increase in average fee revenues per household.
“That’s a tripling of household income in some areas,” says Marshall. In addition to the core training, the ATP also supports education in the importance of family management and empowering women.
“They’ve been doing that for six years and communities are starting to see the positive impacts. And the coffee is getting better – the quality is better, which means we can sell it for more, so we can pay the farmers more. It’s circular: because we’ve invested in the farmer training, we can make more money from the crops, which we can re-invest in the farmer training.”
It was the CFO of Rwanda Trading Company that introduced Marshall to Konrad Brits, who was in the country on a visit.
“Coincidentally, Falcon was restructuring at the time and needed a financial controller. I was in the right place at the right time in an amazingly fortuitous way,” Marshall recalls. “I still can’t quite believe how it all turned out. I was offered my dream job in Rwanda.”
Marshall moved back to the UK in 2015 and started working with Falcon Coffees from its HQ in Lewes, East Sussex. She was appointed CFO in 2018 and now sits on the management board, which oversees the UK operations, a US office of five people in Austin, Texas, four people in Ethiopia and a project in Peru with half a dozen employees.
“My main responsibilities are reporting, managing bank relationships and stewarding shareholder and stakeholder relationships. But the great thing about working for a small business is that I’m not just an accountant – I’m part of the management team and we look after everything from HR and technology to impact and sustainability.”
Marshall’s six years at EY in London, training and working as an audit manager, gave her the foundation, experience and support network to embrace all the challenges of her current role.
“I started with a cohort of peers and we all did the ICAS qualification together. I met some people who are still mentors to me today. It was an amazing start to my career. “I got to work on multinational companies and learn about their businesses. EY gave me an exceptional foundation. Yes, it was high pressured, but the training is incredible and so is the support. They paid for my studies and exams – and gave me the time off. Then when you get a bit more senior, they pay for leadership and management training. You end up managing teams so quickly compared to other places.
“It also gives you networks all over the world. If there’s ever a question you don’t know the answer to, there’s somebody out there you can ask. Which is a difference I really found when I moved to a small business. ‘I don’t know the answer to this – who on earth am I going to ask?’”
Fortunately, Marshall also sits on the ICAS Sustainability Panel, a network of cross-sector accounting professionals.
Their collective aim? To promote best practice in sustainability and related CSR issues through communication with ICAS members, as well as holding ICAS to account over its own policies.
“People on the panel are quite closely involved in developing non-financial reporting standards and also aligning what we do with the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).”
Part of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development, the 17 SDGs include the eradication of poverty and hunger; improving health, education and gender equality; responsible consumption and production; and climate action, among others.
“When you look at that set of goals, there’s actually a lot that accountants can do to help address them,” says Marshall.
The goals align with Falcon Coff ee’s own values, too. Alongside ensuring traceability and fair payment for the 34,000 tonnes of coffee it ships around the world every year, Falcon also supports a number of social and development projects in origin countries.
In Ethiopia, the Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF) has ongoing financial support from Falcon and its clients. According to the GGRF website, girls in Ethiopia are often forced to drop out of school because of early marriage or pregnancy, food insecurity, child labour or responsibilities at home, among other complex socio-cultural reasons.
“The foundation helps teenage girls stay in education through sponsorship that goes towards school fees, and supporting families so they’re less likely to take children out of school early in order to work,” explains Marshall. Falcon also supports the World Coffee Research charity in its work to research coffee as a commodity from a biological point of view – looking at different genetic strains, as well as problems such as coffee rust and other diseases that attack the crops.
“We support them not only directly through Falcon,” says Marshall, “but also by asking our clients to support them, and we handle all the admin. Clients pay a little extra, we amalgamate the funds and then hand them to the charity.
“While I do spend most of my time on traditional finance functions, I’m also very interested in sustainability and how we can use impact metrics to measure what we’re doing and the impact we’re having. How much of that £3.50 you pay for a flat white in a central London cafe actually gets to the farmer who grew the coffee beans? It’s such a complex question. Coffee goes through five or six different processes before it even gets roasted. Through each process the coffee changes hands. How do we get back to the farmer who grew the beans and how much was he or she paid? Was it a living wage in that part of the world? We’ve not got to the bottom of it yet, but we’ve invested a lot of money into a traceability platform to measure – as far as we can – the traceability of the coff ee we’re trading right back to farmer level.”
That big-picture perspective is something Marshall attributes to her training.
“When I think about [the Covid-19 pandemic], I’ve never experienced anything like this before – no one has. And the one thing I’m falling back on is my training. What did we learn in accounting or TPE about how we could handle this situation? It gives you a level of professionalism in scenarios where you’re not really sure whether you’re doing the right thing. It gives you the ability to focus on the minutiae while also seeing the whole picture.”
We may all want to raise a cup to that.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of CA magazine.