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What does it mean to be a challenger audit firm?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Sep 2022

A people-first ethos, an openness to collaboration and a strong growth strategy are helping Cooper Parry make a distinctive mark in audit.

For Midlands- and London-based audit and assurance firm Cooper Parry, a people-first culture is the primary reason why it is making such a strong impact in its sector. Consistently ranked in the upper tier of the UK’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, the firm is now doubling down on its values-driven ethos via a strategic partnership with Waterland Private Equity.

It aims for a five-fold expansion over the next five years, through a combination of organic growth and acquisitions. If any firm is eligible to talk about what it means to be a challenger in the audit sector, it is this one.

“When we approach prospective clients, we’re seeing significant alignment around culture-related issues,” says Partner Katie Warrington. “There’s a lot of intrigue and interest from all the CEOs and CFOs we speak to about what we’re doing, and vice versa.”

She notes that its people-first outlook resonates clearly with its target market. As the biggest audit firms are under increased regulation, their focus is moving much more closely towards large, listed companies. “Our sweet spot is AIM-listed, private equity-backed enterprises in the mid-market.”

Human touch

In other words, explains the firm’s Head of New Business Relationships Ben Eason: “Our people focus is not about gimmicks – it’s about handling the basics extremely effectively. In a world that’s becoming ever more remote and digitised, applying a distinctly human touch, with all the consistency and quality of communication that implies, leads to high levels of client satisfaction. As does our focus on a host of small details that, in isolation, may not seem to count for much – but, tackled together, make our service feel quite different.”

Warrington explains that the firm has a dedicated business development team that has been tasked with identifying and qualifying new opportunities meaning that its relationship partners can focus on spending time with clients, overseeing and signing off audits.

According to Eason, being a challenger firm means that knowing when to say no is as important as knowing when to say yes.

“Coming to Cooper Parry from a larger firm,” he says, “I saw that there’s a genuine authenticity to how we operate. When I was still relatively new to my role, we had an opportunity to pitch for a particularly sizeable prospect. We had an initial call – which Katie was on, too – and, following a really open and honest conversation, we politely declined, on the grounds that the prospect wasn’t quite aligned with who we are as a business.

“It was the first time I’d ever been in an environment where it was okay to say, ‘This doesn’t sit well with us.’ It may have been a great fee – but it wasn’t the right fit.”

Collaborative partner

In parallel with its mid-market focus, Cooper Parry regularly collaborates with the UK’s largest auditors. “Regulatory shifts often lead us to work in partnership with Big Four firms,” Warrington explains. “Some of the rules around audit mean that, if you’re an auditor, you can’t necessarily provide lots of additional services for your clients. So, we have plenty of relationships where, for example, I may be a client’s audit partner, but we’ve brought in PwC as tax adviser – which stems from the strong relationships I have from my PwC days.”

Similarly, she says, in certain cases where Big Four firms have tax clients but can’t be their auditors, too, Cooper Parry will happily step in and take on the relevant auditing.

Alongside that collaborative work, Warrington says: “We’re currently seeing huge growth in assignments to help clients get ready for audits with Big Four firms. That covers a wide variety of tasks – from writing up accounting papers and getting the client’s accounts in order to preparing statements on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability activities.”

Growth priorities

Judging by his conversations in the market, Eason says capacity is a significant challenge for firms right now. If the Big Four are trying to create more capacity to advise on larger, more complex opportunities, smaller firms can also collaborate with them to help mid-size clients transition away. 

“We’re not trying to be a mini-Big Four. We’re targeting that major opportunity in what Germany calls the ‘Mittelstand’, which is arguably underrepresented a lot of the time,” says Eason. “And looking at the depth of knowledge that our Partner Group has built on companies from AIM-listed mid-caps to second-generation owned manufacturing outlets, the types of questioning, nuances and lenses through which we can examine those businesses are difficult to replicate in other parts of the market.”

For those reasons, Cooper Parry is unlikely to get involved in the managed shared audit space, for which legislation is pending. “That’s not within our three-year vision of the way we want to grow,” Warrington says. “We can’t say definitively what our position may be further down the line. But for now, we think that managed shared audit falls more within the remit of the Top 10 firms. Instead, we plan to use the investment from our strategic partnership to grow organically in the mid-tier.”

She adds: “As a consequence of Brexit, there are so many audits that need doing because some of the technicalities mean you can’t take parental guarantees. So that’s much more relevant to our priorities for how we can grow profitably.”

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