Michael Roberts is CEO of 2020 Innovation, a training and support provider for accountancy firms. He tells us how he reached his career goal – owning and running his own business.
Tell us a bit about your background – why accountancy?
I studied chemical engineering at university – I did sciences and maths at school, and my dad was a civil engineer, so it seemed like a logical choice. As part of my degree, I spent a year working at an oil refinery near Grimsby. While it was a good experience, it made me realise I didn’t want to be a technical engineer! So, I went back to university, and I had a year left to think about what I wanted to do. Some of my friends who had done three-year courses had joined accounting firms and I thought it looked interesting, so after graduating I joined Deloitte in Reading in the financial services audit team.
How did you find the ACA training?
It was intense! Qualifying was a nice moment, though: not only have you achieved a significant hurdle but when you become an ICAEW Chartered Accountant, you’ve got a whole load of doors open to you. I didn’t have a crystal-clear plan of exactly what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be, but I’d always wanted to own and run my own business. After qualifying in 2013, I decided to stay with Deloitte and moved into the corporate finance team. It gave me the opportunity to learn a new skill and move in the direction I wanted to go.
What drew you to taking part in your local student society and the ICAEW Student Council?
When I moved to Reading, I didn’t really know anyone apart from the other students in my intake at Deloitte, so I joined the Thames Valley Student Society (TVCASS). I went along to a few events and met some really nice people from other firms, so I ended up organising events for the society. I then became Chair, and represented Thames Valley on the ICAEW Student Council (ISC). I enjoyed meeting people who were like me: motivated to volunteer their time to be on the Student Council and share best practice. It was a lot of work, so I was really impressed by the commitment people showed. When my year as Chair of TVCASS came to an end, I didn’t want to say goodbye, so I became Chair of the ISC for a year, and got the chance to represent younger members’ views on the main ICAEW Council.
Where did you move on to after Deloitte?
I spent a couple of years in a private equity firm, building up a lot of really useful skills but knowing that I still wanted to own and run my own business. So, I left to do an MBA full-time at London Business School. I started to explore how I could get to owning and running my own business. I looked at startups, but to be successful you need a super-scalable, brilliant idea, and the chance of failure is very high. Then I came across a different structure, where you raise money from a group of investors who will support you to go out and search for a business, acquire it and then operate it. I thought that sounded really attractive. During my two-year MBA, I spoke to a whole load of people who had done something similar and built up a network of useful contacts.
How did the opportunity at 2020 Innovation come about?
I started fundraising during my MBA and raised enough capital that I was able to go out and search for a business once I’d graduated in 2019. With my background, I thought the accounting sector in the UK was probably where I wanted to be. I didn’t know of any particular business that wanted my investment or my involvement, but set about trying to find one. I used my network and reached out directly to people I found on LinkedIn and Google. Quite quickly, I was pointed in the direction of the founders of 2020 Innovation. I met them just before Christmas 2019, and we completed the acquisition the following August.
Where does the confidence to run your own business come from?
I was aware there was a chance of failure – if you look at the statistics, roughly a quarter to a third of people get the outcome they’re hoping for. But I knew this was where I wanted to go, and if I did want to go down that road, I was going to have to take that risk. If it doesn’t work, you’re not going to burn in a ball of flames! You’re still a chartered accountant, so you know you will always have a reasonable backup option. I think it was Peter Hargreaves, another ICAEW Chartered Accountant, who said the same when he founded Hargreaves Lansdown – it didn’t matter if it was a total disaster because he was a chartered accountant. You’ve always got a fallback.
Tell us a bit about 2020 Innovation and your role?
We provide technical training, practice management support and business advisory support to accounting firms in the UK. I’ve been CEO since September 2020. I came into it not having had any experience as a chief executive, so it’s testament to the team that they’ve enabled me to scale the learning curve while the business carries on doing what it’s doing. We implemented a strategy 18 months ago to develop our range of services and improve our sales and marketing efforts, so we can now provide more support to firms on the technical side and the marketing side. We’ve got more plans over the next two years to develop those services further, so it’s an exciting future.
How did you juggle that steep learning curve with having a young family?
It was pretty hectic - I have a 21-month-old son, and it was a pretty steep learning curve on that front too! The first 12 or 18 months were very busy, learning about the company, the industry and how to be chief executive, as well as thinking about our strategy for the next five or 10 years. Two-and-a-half years on from the acquisition, we’ve got a great team in place, so it’s not as hectic. There are areas of the business I don’t need to worry too much about now as we have people who are much more competent than I am in their area, and you can rely on them to deliver what they need to deliver. It’s going be a bit of a journey for me as well to be able to let go of everything and just support the directors in doing what they need to do. I can see myself being around a long time with 2020 Innovation. It’s a super business and a super industry and it’s got lots of exciting prospects going forward.
If you could give one piece of advice to today’s students, what would it be?
I would say keep as many doors open as you can. One of the themes early on in my career was just trying to keep doors open, and that benefitted me quite a lot. By doing the ACA qualification, you’re already keeping a lot of doors open, which is great. If you can think ahead and say, “OK, in 10, 15, 20 years this is what I’d like to be doing,” then that makes your decision-making process and the next one or two steps that little bit more straightforward. You know when you’re on the right path.