Black Feather Does Expense Management Differently with Float
How a Canadian wilderness adventure company transformed their expense reimbursement process with smart corporate cards for the whole team.
October 12, 2023
Much of Stef MacDiarmid’s life has been shaped by Black Feather, a Canadian wilderness adventure company that specializes in expeditions to Canada’s north.
Not only has it been her employer for the last ten years, but it’s also how she met her now husband, Ken, with whom she shares a two-and-a-half-year-old, and a second child due in December.
“I had been working as a head instructor of a canoe and kayak school and ended up wanting to get back to my roots in canoeing, so I contacted Black Feather,” says MacDiarmid. “Each year they do a guide warmup, and my husband had already been working with them for a number of years, so it was in that guide warmup that we ended up meeting each other, and then paddling together for the first time; I guess you could say the rest is history.”
Bringing a legacy business into the digital age
After a decade working side by side — first as guides and later in management — the husband-and-wife team took over Black Feather as co-owners earlier this year. At the time the duo felt it was their responsibility to shepherd the now 50-year-old business into the 21st century. One area most ripe for improvement, according to MacDiarmid, was the company’s process for expense reimbursement and tracking.
“Everything was manual; each guide was given an advance for whatever expenses they needed to procure on whatever trip they were guiding, and we asked them to keep hard copy of the receipts, and a hard copy hand-written expense form, and mail those back to our head office, where our bookkeeper would sort through them,” she says. “It was painfully slow, the receipts would get damaged, we’d have to follow up with people all the time, and sometimes not get them back because someone had lost them, misplaced them, or was poor at getting stuff back.”
At the time MacDiarmid, who now serves as director as well as co-owner, says the team of four full time staff and three part-time helpers dedicated significant time and resources to managing the expenses of between 50 and 60 guides, who lead between 60 and 100 trips each year.
To make matters more difficult, the nature of the work meant paper receipts were commonly lost, damaged, or misplaced. During peak season guides may only have a few days between trips, and often didn’t have time to fill out expense reports before their next expedition. This ultimately created a range of challenges for Black Feather when it came to financial management.
“Forecasting and actually having an idea of how we’re doing in terms of profitability to make decisions about gear-buying for the following season was the biggest challenge,” MacDiarmid says. “I need to order canoes in August for the following year, and I could be spending $15,000 to $30,000 on canoes, but I wouldn’t know if it made sense to spend that money, because I didn’t know what our profit was going to be at the end of the year, so I couldn’t budget properly.”
Finding one solution that met a range of needs
MacDiarmid spent some time exploring potential solutions with her accounting team, and ultimately chose Float for its unique approach to expense management, seamless onboarding and integrations, and high level of customer service. Specifically, MacDiarmid says she was most interested in Float’s Spend Management features, which allowed her to distribute physical and digital company cards to her team, while having the ability to set limits, controls, and custom approval policies.
“We were looking at other platforms that helped us track expenses, but it was still going to be out of pocket for people,” she says. “Float allowed them to have a company card without the hassle at the bank and the extra fee for each of those cards.”
MacDiarmid adds that Float gave Black Feather’s guides access to the funds they needed to run expeditions without dipping into their own bank accounts, while providing the company with real-time financial visibility, oversight, and security. It also saved its guides and accountants countless hours of manual expense tracking and filling through Float’s Automated receipt collection and Accounting integrations.
“Especially with the integration and being able to export directly to Xero, that saves a ton of manual data input,” MacDiarmid says. “Not only is the spend tracked in a way where I can go and look at who spent what whenever I want to audit a little bit better and have that insight, but because we can export automatically to Xero it means our overall manual woman-hours ends up being drastically reduced.”
Ongoing improvements add more value
MacDiarmid notes that onboarding Float proved relatively seamless, adding there have already been several meaningful improvements to the product since Black Feather began using it just six months ago.
“The onboarding for me felt really good — there was lots of transparency in how things were set up and how they would work best for us — and there have been a few improvements as we’ve been rolling through,” she says. “One is having more than one account linked, so I don’t need to log out of one to log into the other… and the same thing with the expense reimbursement rollout; that felt like an added bonus within the program.”
MacDiarmid has also been impressed with Float’s customer service, and its ability to meet the needs of its large and diverse community of guides.
“If we have an issue and we don’t know how to solve something, the support comes quickly, and in a really great solution-oriented manner,” she says. “It has essentially saved us a huge headache and time wasted and a lot of manual data entry. That is not where we want to be at this point, so we’re very happy with the switchover.”
Getting ready for the next generation
Though she would love to see her children take over the business someday MacDiarmid says she and her husband don’t want to pressure them into it, either. No matter who takes the reins next, however, MacDiarmid feels a strong responsibility to pass along a stronger and more financially sound Black Feather, and not just because of its place in her family’s story.
“We’re at an interesting crossroads right now in terms of tourism and travel and climate change,” she says. “When you experience a place, you’re much more interested in conserving it, and much more connected to the land and the water and the people.”
Finding new, more efficient ways of operating, adds MacDiarmid, is the best way to ensure Black Feather remains a strong conduit to Canada’s northern communities.
About Black Feather
For over 50 years, Black Feather adventurers have paddled wilderness rivers, hiked remote landscapes, and sea kayaked along pristine coastlines and through sparkling fjords. Find Black Feather at www.blackfeather.com.
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