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Scaling new heights: How Crosstown’s FD is pioneering a new path in finance

From climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to navigating the financial landscape of a startup, Maliha Ahmed, FD of Crosstown, shares her journey of resilience, growth, and innovation

Scaling new heights: How Crosstown’s FD is pioneering a new path in finance

When Maliha Ahmed turned up at the airport in December 2020 to embark on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, she did not know if she would leave UK soil.

Covid-19 had rampaged across the globe by this point, locking numerous regions down into isolation. Travel companies had grounded flights, and there were rumours Tanzania – the home of the mountain – would be shutting its borders.

“In the weeks leading up to my expedition, people were telling me not to go. I basically said to them ‘Look, I am going to show up at the airport and if I am meant to go, I’ll go,” she recounts in a recent interview with the CFO.

Maliha, financial director of Crosstown, is a 40-year-old single mum of two children. On January 1, 2021, she reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. Her personal journey is as compelling as her professional one. She climbed Kilimanjaro as part of Fit Banker’s leadership summit, an 11-day leadership program which pushes professionals to their limits.

“The first day up there, I fainted,” she says. “The mountain really humbles you; helps you put things into perspective and realise what is important in life. But I never had any doubt that I couldn’t climb the mountain.”

Her mountain adventure serves as a metaphor for her professional journey in the finance world. Just as she navigated the treacherous terrains of Kilimanjaro, Maliha navigates the complex and often challenging landscape of finance in a start-up environment.

Crosstown, known for its artisan sourdough doughnuts and speciality coffee, started as a market stall in London’s Leather Lane Market in 2014. The brand quickly gained a following for its innovative approach to doughnuts, using high-quality ingredients and unique flavour combinations.

Over the years, the business has expanded its operations, opening multiple stores across London, and even branching out into online delivery. In 2023, Crosstown launched 2 new stores, 1 kiosk and 2 trucks across the country. The company has also diversified its product range, introducing vegan doughnuts.

Rising to the occasion

Maliha was drawn to Crosstown by the opportunity to face new challenges and push her boundaries, much like her Kilimanjaro climb.

“I wanted to test my potential as a person, as a woman,” she says. Maliha joined the company as a management accountant, after moving her family following her daughter’s acceptance to a prestigious school nearby.

Within her first year of employment, she helped the business navigate the impact of the pandemic, uncovering half a million pounds in VAT errors for the business. Crosstown’ s finance director position then opened at the start of 2022 and she jumped at the chance to take on the opportunity.

“I like to challenge myself. Being an FD I am constantly thinking how I can contribute to the company at a broader level,” she says. “For example, if a cash flow challenge arises, how can I solve this.”

But there is more to Maliha’s decision to join CrossTown than just professional growth – their product reminds her of her late father. Growing up, Maliha recalls her father buying sourdough for the family, a weakness of hers. Today, her favourite is Crosstown’s homemade raspberry jam doughnuts.

A recipe for growth success

In March 2023, the business appointed Howard Ebison to lead CrossTown into its next stage of growth – the new CEO has already put new structures and processes in place following the co-founder Adam Wills’ move to a NED position on the board.

“Ebison has gone to work in all the retail stores, bakery, and logistic department, he wants to really embed himself within the business,” Maliha says. “He wants to make sure we get the next part of our strategy right as we exit the initial founding stages.”

Unlike many finance executives who are primarily focused on numbers, Maliha is now involved in the operational side of the business. She believes in improving customer service and laying a strong foundation for future expansion.

Her strategy is not just about rapid growth, but sustainable and profitable growth. This involves a careful analysis of the company’s resources and a commitment to efficiency and effectiveness.

“I think our strategy right now is to slow down a bit, not much, but to focus on reducing wastage and ensure we have a strong team,” she says.

One of her core focus areas is to ensure some of the youngest members of the Crosstown family understand the business. Maliha notes a lot of students and recent graduates work in their stores across the country.

“I want to ensure they have a full understanding of financial literacy, for better decision making. Are they aware of what stock is coming in and out, what takings have they made during the day and how does this relate to profit and loss,” she says.

“If we can provide them with this knowledge then they can not only make suggestions about how we run our stores, but they can take these skills forward to run businesses of their own in the future. There is a misconception that retail jobs are not forever, but these people are investing their time – they might as well learn a skill which will set them up for a lifetime.”

‘Baking a difference’ – how to drive efficiency.

Maliha’s innovative approach extends to her views on resource management and automation. She sees a challenge in fully utilising business subscriptions and ensuring a return on investment.

To address this, she advocates for accountability and responsible resource management. By automating repetitive tasks, she believes that the finance function can evolve and contribute more strategically.

“How we can evolve the finance function is one of the biggest challenges, we need to make sure we are not isolated from the operations side of things,” Maliha says.

The majority of Crosstown’s finance function has been outsourced to Paperchase – an accounting service that has a significant presence in India – which was an adjustment that was not without challenges.

“They just had a different way of doing things,” Maliha says. “Initially it was hard, and we had to learn how to report and communicate with one another. But the efficiencies we have gained since are incomparable.”

Another area of focus for Maliha has been recurring spend management. Business subscriptions are important for making every day work easier – not only since the expansion of remote work.

Whether it is communication within the team, project management, regular image editing or CRM and marketing, there is a suitable tool for every part of a company and every subtask. Since programs have been set up as cloud solutions, the hurdles to implementation have been knocked down.

Subscriptions are completed with one click and tools are up and running. For small to medium-sized businesses, software subscriptions are now the second highest cost after salaries.

“For Crosstown, it is not whether we have the money or not. It is whether we are using the service efficiently – it is easy to buy a subscription but to fully utilise it to get the best ROI is difficult,” Maliha says.

I need to ask whether we are using a service to its full potential, and this involves holding people accountable – are they using it, and if not why. If they are using it, is it really needed or have we got the subscription as part of a box-ticking exercise.”

If you would like to learn more about Maliha’s Kilimanjaro journey, click here: (2) Maliha Ahmed – Conquering the Mountain within – FITBANKER Kilimanjaro Leadership Summit 2020/21 – YouTube

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