For Colin and Julie Hutson and their son Sam, their thriving practice in Northallerton, North Yorkshire is very much a family affair.
When Colin and Julie Hutson set up their own practice in 2013, they had no idea quite what a family business it would become. “I trained with Price Waterhouse, and that’s actually how we met – I went to undertake an audit on a grant claim Julie undertook at the local county council,” says Colin. “We weren’t really meant to date clients, but I asked her out and 10 months later we were married.”
After Price Waterhouse, Colin worked at Haines Watts and the regional firm Clive Owen before becoming a partner at Kenneth Easby in Northallerton. “I was there for about 15 years, but the partnership changed and it wasn’t what I wanted to do – I wanted to work more closely with clients and be able to give that personal service,” he remembers. He hadn’t really considered the possibility of setting up on his own, until he and Julie got talking one day.
“I’d always worked for the county council in the children and young people service, and was very passionate about what I did,” Julie explains. “I had all these skills that Colin didn’t, and vice versa, and we thought maybe we could match together and do something. Knowing that Sam would potentially be going into the profession too, we thought it would be something he could have in the future for himself if he wanted.”
It didn’t take long for Sam to join them – despite the fact that he initially had no intention of becoming an accountant. “I’ll be honest, if there was one thing I never wanted to do, it was going on an audit – and I thought that’s what accountants did,” he says. “After my degree I was starting to warm to the idea, then I got chatting to Lorna Hansell, a Regional Business Development Manager at ICAEW, at a careers fair. She knew my Dad, and she suggested a course at Newcastle university, and also made me realise that I didn’t necessarily have to end up at a big firm. I said I’d give it a look – and a few years later, here I am.
“In no small part it was from talking more with Dad and understanding what his work really was,” Sam adds. “Understanding that there’s tax, there’s VAT, there’s accounts preparation – you get the whole picture of the client from start to finish, which is one of the things I really value. It’s turned out to be everything I was promised. You’ve got that personal relationship with your clients, and you feel like you’re helping them in a way that’s tangible and meaningful. It’s really fulfilling.”
For Colin, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that Sam ended up following in his footsteps. “We always knew he had the skills,” he says. “He was very strong with his maths, and he was obviously interested in business and finance. He’s very personable, so we knew he had that side, and the underlying technical ability – but he wouldn’t entertain it because it was what I did! So we always knew he had it, but it was whether he wanted it or not. He’s gone from strength to strength, and developed a lot of strong relationships with his clients these past few years.”
The practice started with just four members of staff: “There was Colin and myself, a lady called Samantha, and a young man called Samuel – not the same one,” says Julie. But it was only two months before their own Sam joined them – and it was the promise of two computer screens that really clinched it. “He was in another firm of accountants that didn’t use computer software so much, whereas here all the staff had two large screens,” says Julie. “It sounds like a dream come true when you’re writing in pencil on A3 sheets of paper – particularly as my handwriting is very poor,” agrees Sam. “So that was pretty much it.”
A few clients came with Colin, and it wasn’t long before the business took off, in part thanks to his and Julie’s involvement in the local community – as well as their friendly, personal approach. “We’re reasonably well known because of the circles we move in – we were part of Round Table, Ladies’ Circle, Tangent Club, 41 Club – and people started asking us to do their accounts and tax returns,” says Julie. “People kept coming to us and it started snowballing. There was one instance where a client’s books were delivered to us by mistake instead of another firm down the road. When we rang to let them know, we told them to come to us if they were ever looking for a change of accountants – and they’ve been with us ever since. We’re just very friendly really.”
The fact that it is a local, family firm is a key selling point for clients, many of whom are family businesses themselves. “We often get people saying, ‘It’s because you’re a family business, we know you’ll understand us,’” Julie says. “We decided from the early stages that we didn’t want to go that big or that corporate – we wanted to provide a more bespoke, private client type of service,” adds Colin. “A lot of the clients that have come with us were with me at Clive Owen and Kenneth Easby, so we’ve known them for 30-odd years. We know their sons and daughters, and we’ve helped them through a lot of strange and difficult times – and none more so than the last 18 months.”
The Hutsons are very much part of Northallerton’s community, which has been thriving in recent months. “Julie and Colin have been very involved with that, especially the Business Improvement District, the town council, and all sorts of projects and community events,” says Sam. “We try to put back and work with others and get to know people,” says Julie. “Colin always says I have guerilla marketing skills, because we don’t do the corporate thing – we just support our friends and colleagues. We’re on the high street and we know all our neighbours, so we’ll drop in and say hello to them, and they’ll drop in and say hello to us.” Colin adds: “Julie ran a service of over 80 at the council, so our company has been child’s play by comparison – but it’s enabled us to have that more community-based feel, that greater connection with the people and the town.”
As the firm has grown, they have taken on more staff – including a sister (now retired), aunt, two nephews and a third contracted on the IT side. There are now 15 members of staff altogether, with plans to add at least three more this year. “It’s all about who we know – all of the staff bar one we’ve known before we took them on,” Julie says. “So we have a lot of trust and confidence in them. We are our own little community and family. We are very supportive of our staff, and we’ve looked after them as well as we could during the difficult times.” They make sure they enjoy themselves too, adds Sam. “It’s not all work and no play – if there’s a chance to bake a cake, we bake a cake.”
As well as working together, Sam has been living with his parents since the start of the first lockdown in 2020, along with his younger brother Jonathan. “One of the positives of working together is that you’ve got that base of support and trust; you know you can go to each other with more or less anything,” says Sam. “And then I suppose one downside is that you can’t complain about your boss at breakfast!” In return, he brings a different dynamic to the firm, says Julie, and a relatability for some of their younger clients and staff. “I can translate and maybe talk about a TikTok meme!” he says.
As a result of living and working so closely together, it’s important to Sam that he has interests and outlets outside the office – one of which is his current role as ICAEW Student Council (ISC) Vice Chair. “I’ve always been interested in getting involved with ICAEW and the communities they offer,” he says. “I started off getting involved with the Northern Students’ Society, NCASS, and soon took over as the Teesside representative. Having those outside interests helps give me my own space and room to learn about other stuff. My work with ICAEW has helped put a face to the organisation; it’s helped personalise it and make it feel very much like a community. That perspective is something I want to try and give not just for us, but for firms across the Northeast and across the country.”
For Colin, too, one of the advantages of having their own firm has been the opportunity to get more involved with ICAEW. “When we were setting up and Julie and I were looking for support, we found the Northern Society of Chartered Accountants really, really great,” he says. “They were fantastic in helping us set up. We went on the new firms’ course – and two years later we were asked to go and present and tell our story. You get to talk to fellows in the profession, and it’s not a competitive thing. That’s the thing I’ve come to understand, particularly about the Northern Society: people are very supportive of each other and just happy to help.”
Sam has also been making new connections through the Developing Leadership in Practice (DLiP™) programme at ICAEW, as part of the family’s long-term succession planning. For Colin and Julie, it’s about ensuring a successful business that will hopefully be in Northallerton for many years to come, eventually with Sam at the helm. “People like it that Sam’s here and that they can see that there’s a future there,” says Colin.
“We’re certainly on our way,” adds Sam. “It’s just trying to make sure that we grow sustainably and conscientiously in such a way that it’s not too big too quickly, or too slow. The last thing we want to do is grow into something that we’re not by becoming more corporate; we want to keep that close family feel that we already have. It’s making sure that when we do come to expand and grow, that we keep that culture all the way down.”