Interview: Natalie Milsted, FD, Woolley & Wallis
Natalie Milsted FCCA works in a culture that could drive other finance directors mad. ‘Our executive chairman doesn’t believe in budgets; he believes in the quality of the catalogues and how the clients react. We don’t look at the figures with the departments. It is that attitude that makes us so successful.’
The business is Wiltshire-based auctioneer Woolley & Wallis Salisbury Salerooms. Over the past decade it has laid claim to the title of the UK’s most successful regional auction company based on hammer sales, which in 2018 amounted to £19.8m. Its key intangible asset is its reputation, built on the expertise and knowledge of the staff, and boosted by strong ties to brands such as the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Milsted says she has heard the business – founded in 1884 – described as an ever-evolving museum full of the curious, the wonderful and the strange.
After school in Salisbury, Milsted’s introduction to this world was when she worked as a finance assistant at the auctioneers. She moved to Aberdeen in 2005 as her husband’s job changed, combining working in finance with looking after a young family. ‘I did it all the wrong way round,’ she says. ‘I got to 30 and realised I had all the practical experience, but not the qualifications.
So she enrolled with ACCA, did distance learning at weekends, sitting three or four exams a session, and four years later became a member. ‘I was determined to get it done,’ she says. Her experience encompassed financial roles at a house builder, in the oil sector (inevitable in north-east Scotland) and even a spell in a practice to gain further practical experience.
‘Unless I had the ACCA Qualification I could not get the jobs that I wanted, even though I knew I could do them,’ says Milsted. ‘ACCA gives you confidence. I would not have been offered this job without it.’
When family circumstances changed and she and her husband moved back down south, Milsted was lured back to Woolley & Wallis at the second time of asking. Initially she took on the company secretary role and then in 2018 joined the board. Her passion for the business is evident. ‘The tone is set by the board; it doesn’t feel like coming to work.’
Whether or not it seems like work, selling at auction is at the heart of this enterprise. Buyers pay the hammer price, plus a 25% buyer’s premium, plus VAT. That cash flowing through the business is many times the turnover in the accounts, which records the buyers’ premiums and sellers’ commissions.
Business seems largely impervious to normal economic headwinds, selling being driven instead by ‘death, divorce and debt’. The March 2018 Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury did keep a few buyers away from the sales rooms, but there are other means of bidding. ‘We work on the basis of integrity – our clients know that,’ says Milsted. ‘They entrust us with personal aspects of their lives – objects that are very special to them. And through work such as insurance valuations, we are part of their lives for a long time.’
Staff can bid in auctions just like any other client. ‘My weakness is jewellery,’ she says. ‘The head of the department knows exactly what I like. But I don’t like holding items like ceramics; I’m terrified I’ll break them.
Aside from the personal risks of gem buying and breakages, Milsted sees two key corporate risks. The first is the reputation of the sector as a whole, not just company-specific: ‘We spend a lot of time researching items. Our specialists are given free rein to ensure we get it right. It is rare, but stolen and fake items do turn up.’
The second is loss of key specialists. If an expert left, a department could struggle to continue. But staff turnover is low, with many like Milsted having connections stretching back many years. ‘For instance our head of tribal artefacts started out as a porter,’ she says. The family feel is completed by the fact that around a third of the 70-plus people on the payroll are viewing staff who work only when sales are taking place, welcoming and handling the phone-based bidding.
Milsted lives equidistant between the city centre sale room and a new building housing that amalgamates previously scattered departments. The company also has a central London Mayfair base. On rejoining, one of her first tasks was helping to oversee the completion of the new-building project and bringing the warehouse into use.
Her role encompasses a lot of compliance. ‘We buy and sell all over the world and our specialists don’t want to be bothered with admin such as imports and exports. I take that away from them so they can do what they do best.’ And the business often throws up what Milsted describes as ‘VAT funnies’ that have to be dealt with.
Although the chairman doesn’t hold with budgets, Milsted does track estimates and sales prices, and the percentage of lots that are sold. A relatively small business, Woolley & Wallis still has to deal with minute detail. It sells 1,000 lots in a month, and the accounts function has to process all those payments. Specialist auction software logs and tracks an item and is used to store its description. A recent project that absorbed Milsted’s time was leading on setting up an online bidding system, then examining the statistics on how it is being used.
She has mixed feelings about digital: for her it will be a sad day when the auction happens in an empty room with everyone online instead. ‘I come and watch every auction and I encourage other staff to do the same. I love it.’
The hammer turnover of Woolley & Wallis from January to December 2018
The number of sales held each year. The company also holds monthly valuation days where anyone can bring anything
Sale price of The Northern Girl (1987) by Yang Fei Yun, one of the 13 £1m-plus sales outside London that Woolley & Wallis has achieved
'Never be afraid to say you don’t know the answer and to go away and find out. Everything changes all the time. Situations are often complex, and you want people to trust what you tell them.’
‘Don’t forget that the people you work with often aren’t accountants; they don’t understand why you need a certain piece of paper. We’re a support function making life as easy as possible.’
Peter Williams, journalist
This article was first published in the June 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.