10th September 2019

Newcastle-based chartered accountancy and financial advisory firm UNW has provided support to The Alnwick Garden across a wide range of services. Most recently, this has been during the development of their Lilidorei Play Village, a project which will see the organisation launch the world’s biggest wooden play structure. We spoke with Mark Brassell, Director of The Alnwick Garden, about their Lilidorei project, as well as the organisation’s involvement with UNW.

Based in Northumberland, The Alnwick Garden is an award-winning visitor attraction that operates both commercially and as a charity. Funds that are raised through ticket admission, its restaurant and cafe, retail, adventure golf, events, and hospitality functions (weddings, special occasions etc.) are reinvested back into The Garden and fund a number of community programmes, such as: Elderberries, which provides an opportunity for the over 55’s for purposeful learning, and improving physical and mental health; and Education and Enterprise, which helps children build confidence and resilience, whilst gaining new skills

In reference to the work that the organisation does, Mark Brassell said, “We do operate on a commercial level, but fundamentally we are a charity. On the commercial side, we run The Garden, and charge people admission fees. We either use this money to invest in the development of The Garden, to ensure visitors continue to enjoy the attraction, or to support the community with a number of our hard-hitting programmes; these programmes tackle everything from childhood obesity through to social isolation in the local community. Our heart remains entirely within the community.”

The Alnwick Garden announced plans for their Lilidorei project, which means “the children’s adventure with play at its heart,” in 2017. The development involves the construction of the world’s largest wooden play structure, and will see the creation of 57 full-time jobs, as well as 40 jobs during the building phase. It is also expected to drive further tourism and growth across the region.

“Lilidorei is going to be our newest visitor attraction, situated right in the heart of The Garden. It offers a lot in terms of childhood development for families, with a focus around both physical and imaginary play,” Mark stated. “It’s going to be open 12 months a year, which will help draw visitors to Northumberland in the winter months, creating a much-needed economic boost and jobs in the area.”

Speaking about The Alnwick Garden’s relationship with UNW, Mark commented, “I have previously attended several of the charity briefing events that the firm organises, so I was well aware of the level of charity expertise available within UNW. After I developed a model which predicted the revenue and expenditure of the Lilidorei project over a number of years, we needed some feasibility work done on it, as well as further advice. After hearing feedback from various colleagues who had worked with UNW, and at the suggestion of our Chair of Trustees, we made contact with the firm, and they’ve been a huge support since.”

As part of UNW’s involvement with the Lilidorei project, Michael McCulloch of the firm’s corporate finance team carried out a review of the model, and assessed potential risks. Reflecting on this process, Mark said, “I was really impressed with the way the work was carried out. A ‘traffic light’ system was used, with areas of major concerns flagged as ‘red.’ It really helped me to improve the model by going back to the previous assumptions that I had made, interrogate them, and carry out more research. I adjusted it based on the feedback from Michael and, as a result, the whole model and business case for the project grew stronger.”

Recently, The Alnwick Garden also hosted a round-table discussion at UNW’s offices about the Lilidorei development. The panel included Andrew Wilson, managing partner of UNW, Mark Hetherington, VAT partner, and John Healey, corporate finance partner. Describing the event, Mark Brassell said, “We received £5 million worth of grant funding for the project, and knew that we needed to harness some capital for it that we could invest in order to kickstart the development. We required expert financial advice on an existing loan as well, and how we should proceed. The roundtable really helped with this; several ideas came from it that we hadn’t even considered, and it opened up avenues that we didn’t even realise were there.”

The Alnwick Garden has also utilised UNW’s audit services alongside the work completed on the Lilidorei project, after Mark selected to move their audit to the firm two years ago. On the motivations behind this, he stated, “One of the best business decisions we made in the last two years was to move our audit to UNW. We had previously been with a Big 4 firm when our audit came up for renewal, and it was decided that we should test the market and see if there was anyone better suited to our needs. After a pitching process, we chose UNW because their knowledge shone through. It’s the firm’s expertise in the third sector that really set it apart from the other organisations we dealt with.”

“In our discussions with the firm, it was also noted that there was a direct contrast to our previous advisors,” Mark added. “What we found with them was that it took some time to get the advice we needed; we’d have to phone our account manager, and we would have to deal with a conduit of various people to get the information we needed. During the pitching process with Anne Hallowell (charity and not-for profit partner at UNW), we realised this whole process would be different. They’re very much about us being able to pick up the phone to gain access to the expertise we need, whenever we need it.”

Reflecting with The Alnwick Garden’s relationship with UNW over the years, Mark said, “Anne and her audit team are incredibly knowledgeable on the sector, and not only do they go above and beyond for us, but they’re also extremely accessible. I know if I email Anne, I will get a response quickly, and I also value that we’re able to call through whenever we need to; I know my Finance Manager has a hotline through to the team. We’re getting advice faster, and the whole attitude with the firm is about ‘How can we best help you?’”

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