AA Projects is a midsize construction consultancy in the UK that’s slated to be acquired in December 2023 by leading European construction consultancy business Drees & Sommer, a minority shareholder in the company.

Founded in 1999, AA Projects has been ranked a Building Magazine top 50 employer and has offices in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, London, Liverpool and Oxford. The carbon-neutral business helps its clients grow their organizations through the maintenance and development of their buildings, while espousing a sustainability-led approach.

AA Projects uses Datarails for financial reporting, budgeting and forecasting – and ultimately, to support the business’s continued growth.

The problem: 1 out-of-control spreadsheet, 2 versions of the truth

AA Projects was using accounting software for monthly reports it needed to submit to the bank following a loan, in addition to a massive Excel workbook for other reporting. 

“We had two versions of the truth, both using the same numbers but interpreting them in different ways,” said AA Projects CFO Neil Grindrod. 

What’s more, the spreadsheet was getting out of hand fast.

“The spreadsheet we were using for management accounts was huge – a 30- or 40-megabyte spreadsheet that probably had so many errors we didn’t even know about,” said Grindrod. “One tab on the spreadsheet had thousands of columns.”

The company was trying to cram in too much data. “The structure got out of control,” said Grindrod. “We were using it for management accounts, forecasts, sector targets, divisional targets. Just one small change could then throw loads of other items out.”

“It wasn’t sustainable. It had had its day,” he said. “I created it 10 years ago and just added to it. It was probably unusable to anyone but me.” 

“We needed to invest in something much better than my spreadsheet.”

—Neil Grindrod
Finance Director, AA Projects

The solution: A reporting and planning tool that enables staying in Excel

Grindrod looked at multiple solutions, but wasn’t satisfied. He wanted something that would facilitate both reporting and planning and would allow him to continue using Excel – even though he knew he needed “to completely rewrite what we had.”

Then he came across Datarails. “You could see that this could not just boost what we’ve got but quite revolutionize what we had in terms of our financial forecast, our financial plans,” said Grinrod. “It simplified a whole lot as well.”

“We’re happy with it,” he said. “The reporting is more accurate, it’s easier to understand.”

 “We’ve taken a huge spreadsheet and narrowed it right down because Datarails is doing the major part of the work. Datarails is doing the grunt work in the background,” said Grindrod. 

“I’d say we’ve probably improved everything that we had before,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Better head count forecasting

As a professional services business, AA Projects’ forecasts focus on head count and potential recruitment for various divisions and locations. 

The forecast also needed to take into account temporary subcontractors – but that massive spreadsheet of Grindrod’s wasn’t up to the task. Plus the workbook did not integrate with the data from the payroll system

“My previous spreadsheet didn’t have any real method for head count on that sort of stuff, and that was giving us problems with our fees per head, for example,” he said. “We’ve cleared that up with Datarails.”

“Now we’ve got more accurate information in the system to be able to drill down with more confidence,” said Grindrod. Overall, the company is now better able to accurately report both actuals and forecasts.

Another element of forecasting that Datarails has been able to help with is projecting the impact of potential acquisitions.

“If somebody came along and said, ‘We’re looking at that particular company as an acquisition. What does that look like if you plug those numbers in?’ the previous spreadsheet wouldn’t have been adaptable enough to give a proper answer,” said Grindrod. 

“Datarails is flexible and adaptible enough to be able to support the business’s growth. There is one version of the truth.”

—Neil Grindrod
Finance Director, AA Projects

The impact: Supporting business growth and building stakeholder confidence

AA Project’s reliance on a huge error-riddled spreadsheet didn’t just make it harder for the controller, Michelle Lawless, to get her work done. It was holding back the whole company, which had been growing at 20 percent a year for the past four to five years.

“It was going to stifle the business development, the growth of the company,” said Grindrod. “We needed to invest in something much better than my spreadsheet.”

That something was Datarails.

“Datarails is flexible and adaptable enough to be able to support the business’s growth,” said Grindrod. “There is one version of the truth.”

That makes it easier for the finance team – and for the bank.

“We just plug one set of numbers in and it populates everything – management accounts for the board, bank reports for the bank,” said Grindrod. “I can now provide the bank with everything, and they’re happier because they’re seeing even more financial information than before. It works really well.”

Getting the reporting straight also saves time, mitigates the risk of inaccurate financial data, and builds stakeholder confidence in the company, said Grindrod.

“We spend less hours now doing reports, and they are much more accurate,” he said. “When borrowing money, people want to do due diligence on you. Showing what we have in Datarails is a massive tick in the box and gives a lot of confidence to whoever is looking through those numbers.”