Sam Bradley of Cookson Adventures found a way to combine his love of travel with his financial skills. With Pleo, his company found a way to work smarter, make travel expenses more secure… and stage gladiator battles in ancient Roman ruins.
What’s the journey that brought you to being Head of Finance at Cookson Adventures?
I grew up on an apple farm in South Africa before I qualified, but travel is where my heart is. So I did a gap year in the Cotswolds, spent time in Peru, did a season at a ski resort in the US, then worked as a tour guide for safari companies in Zimbabwe and Zambia. But I decided I better get a degree if I didn’t want to be doing random jobs my whole life!
So having avoided finance all the way through school, because I had this perception that accountants were boring, I realised my mind was more mathematical. Also, one of the most portable types of expertise is accountancy – you can work on a hotel on a desert island, on a ski resort, anywhere.
After moving to London, I saw the job at Cookson Adventures on LinkedIn. And I think they saw that I wasn’t just an accountant, that the love for travel is real.
Tell us about Cookson Adventures.
We’re a luxury adventure company that makes the impossible come to life. It’s all about taking those crazy dreams people have and making them happen. Whether that’s a submarine trip in the Mediterranean to see ancient shipwrecks, relocating giant tortoises to the Galapagos Islands or a flying safari in Antartica.
Cookson Adventures take a family ice climbing in Antarctica’s vast wilderness © Cookson Adventures
And that same love of travel flows through everyone. When a new client enquiry comes in, we all sit down in the board room and brainstorm: “What are we going to do for this customer?” So everyone needs to have that passion for travel.
How did you discover Pleo?
I’d known for a long time that there must be something better out there. Before this, I’d been using traditional bank business cards and it was an absolute nightmare.
People lose their receipts, they don’t want you bugging them. They’ve got better things to do — and I’ve got better things to do!
So after joining, I spent some time doing a thorough investigation into the options out there. That’s when I found Pleo.
What are some unique challenges your company faces when it comes to spending?
The biggest thing is: when we go off on a trip, it normally involves one of our guides taking up to $10,000 petty cash in their pockets and off they go.
You had the risk of travelling who knows where, into weird and wonderful locations, with this money — often in different currencies.
It was a security risk and reconciling when they come back is a massive headache. They just give you a bag of receipts and it’s “good luck!” It was like going back to the Stone Age. Having Pleo helps massively with that as now most of our spending is done on Pleo. So our guides don’t need to carry as much cash and they don’t collect millions of receipts.
How did you pitch Pleo to the rest of the company, especially as somebody new to Cookson Adventures?
We kept both live for at least a month: Pleo and the bank cards that we had been using. I told the team: “Let me run with Pleo, let me implement it, if you don’t like it, we can go back.” Literally, within two weeks, everyone was like: “You can cut up my bank card” because they had Pleo.
And because everyone making the decision [about how to handle expenses] needs to carry a card around, like the CEO and the Sales Director, they felt the pain of me bugging them for receipts. So that helped!
Can you remember a Pleo “a-ha moment” that an employee had?
I remember someone coming to me, someone who’s out of the office a lot. She was trying to give me a receipt, saying “I’ve put it on Pleo, but here’s the receipt”. I told her she could throw it away because it was already recorded on Pleo, and she just looked at me. She couldn’t believe it!
What has Pleo meant for how you do your job?
Think of the spectrum of work for a finance job like mine: the bottom end is the donkey work, inputting stuff. The top end is the strategy, analysing figures, doing cool stuff.
So the question is: where do you go on that spectrum? Pleo has meant a massive shift in how much time from an average day is spent on strategy and not donkey work. And I can be so much more friendly with everyone because I don’t have to ask them about their receipts!
Has Pleo changed the way your company works?
For us, it’s about trying to be at the forefront of things. The way we put trips together, the way we handle our relationships with our clients, so having finance at the forefront of things too is a must.
What’s next for Cookson Adventures?
It’s to keep exploring really. Every trip for us has to be a first, so it’s striving to do more of that. We definitely want to expand our reach, we’d like to open an office in the States, open an office in Asia, reach more people. Keep on delivering more imaginative experiences and world firsts.
An image of a man exploring Son Doong, the largest cave system in the world © Cookson Adventures
On the spot…
Any expenses horror stories?
I’ve been at companies where everyone’s relaxed with expenses. If they see the CEO catches an Uber, they think it must be fine for them to get an Uber too. Then the policy changes, it tightens up and it’s a real culture shock for employees.
What’s been the coolest use of Pleo so far?
We hired gladiators to fight in an old Roman amphitheatre, with the full equipment, for a family who was on the trip of a lifetime – and we did it all on Pleo.
What excites you about the future of work?
I think that the founder mentality of treating the company like it’s your own company is so exciting. Encouraging employees to make every decision as if they own the business.