‘Find a job you enjoy doing, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’ It’s a motto that Keith Willis has lived by – and one he hopes to instil in the young people who join his small Nottingham-based practice. Having wanted to be a chartered accountant since the age of 12 – when, he admits, his dad told him the profession had more millionaires than any other – Keith’s passion for the job shines through. He studied accountancy and finance at university before training at a large independent firm in Bristol, where he worked with a variety of clients, industries and personalities. “It really was the good old days, and I genuinely loved it,” he says. A stint in industry and a partnership at a small practice followed, before he decided to go it alone. “I set up Keith Willis Associates [KWA] in a small room in this building in April 1996,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since and just grown with it.”
Today, there’s a team of 10, providing a range of accounting and taxation services to small and medium-sized businesses in the Nottingham area and beyond. “I’ve never wanted to have a huge practice,” Keith explains. “We’re a close-knit team, and we have a really good, relaxed, fun culture. We all sit together in one big office, and it gets a bit noisy at times, but we get the work done – and we think we do a good job.”
Once the practice grew to a size where they needed some junior staff, Keith started recruiting and training apprentices. It was a conscious decision to take on school leavers rather than graduates, he says. “When I started out, you had to have a degree to get a job – it’s great that you don’t need that now. With the apprenticeship levy and the funding that’s available, it makes perfect sense for us. We’re a small practice and we only take on one trainee every couple of years, so we can mould them to the way we do things. So far I haven’t had any apprenticeships that haven’t worked out.”
AAT gives them a really good, solid base of knowledge, for a firm like ours, it’s ideal – it starts at a nice simple level and builds up gradually.
Apprentices start by completing the AAT qualification before moving onto either chartered or certified. “AAT gives them a really good, solid base of knowledge,” Keith explains. “For a firm like ours, it’s ideal – it starts at a nice simple level and builds up gradually. Our trainees go to college on day release one day a week, which means they’ve got four days a week actually learning the ropes and gaining the practical experience.”
Brandon Woodhouse joined Keith Willis Associates in January 2019. Having been inspired to become an accountant at a school careers event, he completed a year of A levels before deciding he’d rather start an apprenticeship. “As Keith said, it gives you the basic understanding of what’s expected of you, and there are people around you who can help guide you through the process – you’re not just chucked in at the deep end,” he explains. He completed AAT Levels 2, 3 and 4 – passing them with flying colours – and agrees that it provided the perfect foundation.
Then it was a case of deciding which path to follow next. “Once Brandon finished his AAT, he had the choice to go down either the certified route or the chartered route. He chose the ACA, and I’m really pleased that he did, because I know the type of character Brandon is. He will pass comfortably, and he will become a great chartered accountant,” Keith says. “Working in a small firm like this, I’ve seen everything that Keith has achieved in his career by being a chartered accountant,” Brandon explains. “I thought that’s something I want to do eventually, whether it’s working in industry or owning my own practice. The ACA is seen as that premium level.”
It’s the reassurance the qualification gives – that if you’re dealing with a chartered accountant, you know they’ve been through that rigorous training experience.
Keith agrees: “It’s the reassurance the qualification gives – that if you’re dealing with a chartered accountant, you know they’ve been through that rigorous training experience,” he says. “If you do it right, if you’ve got the right training and the right experience afterwards, it puts you in great stead. It really is that assurance that you are going to get quality from somebody who has dedicated a lot of time and effort to qualify.”
Both have an eye on succession planning, too. “I like the fact that ICAEW has a joint programme with the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), so that’s something I’m looking into as well. The tax partner we had left recently, so if I can complete the CIOT qualification as well, it gives Keith that reassurance that I’ve been here, I’ve got the experience and I know the clients,” Brandon says. “I just thought it was a great opportunity,” Keith agrees. “With those two qualifications on his CV, and the experience you get along the way, Brandon could go absolutely anywhere. Of course, I’d love him to stay here and succeed me, but he’s got to make up his own mind at the right time. And I think that would really set him up for life.”
For now, though, Brandon is looking forward to embarking on his ACA training in a few months’ time. The AAT-ACA Fast Track route means he can apply for exemptions for four of the six Certificate Level exams. A member of ICAEW’s dedicated support team came to talk Brandon through the process of applying for credit for prior learning, as well as all the various elements of his online training file. “When I first signed up, I had no idea what I was doing, so having them come down and explain it really helped,” he says. “They must have been here for the best part of two hours chatting about it all,” Keith adds. “For them to take that time out to come and explain everything, I thought was absolutely superb. I came out of there really encouraged to know that they’re going to give Brandon all the support he needs, and he’s going to get a much better experience.”
I truly believe the ACA makes you a better accountant, it gives you that superior level of understanding, and the confidence to speak to clients.
Having staff who have completed the ACA as part of his team is undoubtedly good for business. “I truly believe the ACA makes you a better accountant,” Keith says. “It gives you that superior level of understanding, and the confidence to speak to clients. We have a flat-level hierarchy here, and Brandon has a lot of client contact. So for me as the principal, it’s important he has the experience and the knowledge and hence the comfort that we’re giving the right advice.”
For Keith, though, it’s also about the individual, and giving them the opportunities to carve out the best possible career – as he has done himself. “I just think it’s a great profession,” he says. “With the right training you have a wonderful toolbox of knowledge, and you can go on and do anything. If you know what you want to do and you’re driven, you’ll achieve it – and the ACA will certainly help you do that.”
AAT to the ACA
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