For most accountants, thinning sea ice due to climate change wouldn't rank high on their list of business concerns. But as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) and as vice-president of finance and operations for Frontiers North Adventures (FNA), Jennifer Ash pays close attention to the issue.
"It's crucial to any business to stay on top of changes that are going to affect them," she says. "As CPAs, we've got all these core analytical skills, and risk management is one of them."
For Ash's employer — family-owned FNA — climate change represents a sizable business risk. The company, which operates out of Churchill, Man., on the Western Hudson Bay, was built around ferrying tourists out on the tundra to see and photograph polar bears in the wild. But with the Canadian Arctic warming fast, the sea ice in the bay has begun forming later and breaking up earlier, and that has resulted in fewer and "less robust" bears, says Ash. "Polar bears rely on the sea ice to hunt and feed on the seals," she explains.
The team at FNA was determined to build a solid growth strategy for the company, but in order to do so, they needed to diversify their product offering and insulate FNA against future risks. "Although we want to grow, we also want to be mindful that an increased volume of guests puts a burden on the environment," says Ash. "We want to be working in harmony with the wildlife."
When it came to setting a course for the business going forward, Ash brought to bear her strong analytical skills to assess risks, increase FNA's operational efficiency and contribute to strategic planning. First she tackled the operations side of the business, noting, for instance, that the easy route for FNA was to buy flats of bottled water for guests and transport them up to Churchill.
"But that's in direct contravention of our philosophy as a company," Ash points out. So, they opted for reusable water containers instead. "Not only was that a smart decision for the planet, it also made financial sense when we considered Churchill's remote location and the logistical challenges and expenses of shipping to the North."
Ash also conducted optimization modelling aimed at ensuring that FNA's air-charter schedule was at maximum efficiency. That involved looking at a complex range of factors, from the various departure times to the company's freight requirements. "We were very pleased with the gains we made," she says. "And we reduced our greenhouse gas emissions on a per-guest ratio."
The bonus: When the freight train (which FNA also uses for shipping) to Churchill reduced its runs to once a week, the company was somewhat insulated from the effect.
Diversification was also a key element of FNA's business strategy. Ash and the team began exploring other tourism opportunities to round out Frontiers North's offerings and bring tourists to Churchill at different times of the year, reducing its reliance on just one attraction — the bears.
"We saw the potential in Churchill and we've expanded our offerings to capitalize on that," says Ash.
In summer, guests come to view the belugas in the Churchill River estuary and to enjoy the spectacular local flora and fauna. And the company now offers Northern Lights viewing in wintertime, as well as a special evening culinary event — RAW:churchill — held in a cozy tent with a partially transparent roof, set up within the stone walls of the 300-year-old Prince of Wales Fort.
"Guests are transported over the frozen Churchill River estuary in a tundra buggy," says Ash, "and they can see the Northern Lights while they dine." The good news for FNA: bookings are up for all seasons.
For Ash, it's all just part of the job. ‘As far as I’m concerned, CPAs are leaders. We are forward-thinking and well equipped to look at how change can impact any organization."