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Spotlighting innovation in small practices

The profession is facing its greatest shake-up for a century – and ICAEW members in small practices across the world are showing willingness to innovate and adapt. William Ham Bevan meets the movers and shakers.

The nature of work is changing. It’s no longer controversial to suggest that the world has already embarked on the most profound transformation of commerce in a century: the Fourth T Industrial Revolution, in the phrase championed by World Economic Forum chairman Klaus Schwab. Accordingly, working practices in accountancy are changing at an accelerated rate. Within a few years, it’s likely that some of the most enduring symbols of the profession – from the desktop PC running finance software to the dreaded receipt bag – will go the way of the leather-bound ledger.

Digital platforms, using the power of cloud computing, are transforming client expectations. Having instant, secure access to key figures and indicators is now a given. Automation of regular tasks, such as producing receipts, will only increase over the coming years. And in the UK, HMRC’s ongoing Making Tax Digital (MTD) project will make it all but impossible to stick with outdated methods. Innovative firms are also adapting their working culture to the new realities of the marketplace and providing services that help them stand out from the crowd. And ICAEW members around the world in small, progressive practices are finding ways to ensure they stay ahead of the curve.

As Howard Gross, founder of UK practice Gross Klein, says: “The role of the practising accountant has to change. Helping clients with online record keeping for HMRC will encourage more regular accounting. Quarterly accounts will become the norm. More mentoring and coaching will be an essential tool to help business. And there will be opportunities to work more closely with your clients and earn more fees during the transitional periods to come.” Understanding the forces shaping accountancy, and what services clients might want, will be the key differentia - tor between the successful and less successful practices.

Chang Weng Hoe

Lim, Cheh & Chang, Malaysia

Chang Weng Hoe is a partner at Lim, Cheh & Chang, headquartered in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. He gained his ACA in 2012 and worked in audit for Folks DFK & Co in Kuala Lumpur before joining his current firm. With a head count of around 25, including 10 in the audit department, Lim, Cheh & Chang is a small firm with a determination to stand apart from the big players in Malaysia. Over recent years, it has carved out a niche for itself as a go-to practice for forward-thinking SMEs, start-ups and scale-ups – including many in the country’s flourishing tech sector.

Chang, an audit partner with the firm, says, “There’s no audit exemption in Malaysia yet, so a lot of small and medium enterprises engage us as audit practitioners – and they come to rely upon us as their business advisers as well. “We differentiate ourselves from the bigger practices, the Big Four, by providing these advisory services such as tax and compliance. So, whenever we start the audit process, we’ll also look from the tax point of view on how we can assist our clients and what value-added services we can provide.” Chang, who took over from his father as a partner in 2016, takes pride in having been involved at floor level with successful companies that have witnessed exponential growth.

“Many small firms have grown with us in the last five years – some, for example, becoming large construction companies,” he says. “We’ve provided their business advisory service, showing them how to grow and manage the recruitment. We’ve helped to set up their control systems, and made sure that their accounting and tax compliances were all in order.” The firm uses cloud-based software so that staff can access data at any location – something that has found favour with the firm’s IT clients. Chang’s vision for the next five years includes maintaining a reputation as a full-service practice and further growing the client base. “We do have plans for expanding the corporate side of the firm,” he says. “We cover insolvency now, and we’ll start engaging more with advisory work.”

Nikki Firth

Your Accounting Sanctuary, Australia

After gaining her ACA and spending nearly 12 years at the Yorkshire firm Business Focus and Systems, Nikki Firth relocated to Australia. She set up Your Accounting Sanctuary in 2017 and now sits on the committee of ICAEW’s Sydney group. As business names go, Your Accounting Sanctuary stands out from the more usual acronyms and surnames. It’s also an accurate description for a business that is as much about wellbeing as balance sheets – to the extent that founder Firth is planning the world’s first accountancy spa.

“There’ll be nice lighting, nice music and perhaps a masseuse going round, giving people quick shoulder and neck massages to relax them before they come in for a meeting: very spalike. Then, they would come in and sit with us – not in a boardroom but a comfy lounge where they can feel relaxed, talk about things properly and honestly, and get to the decisions they need to make,” she explains. It’s an idea that may invite a sharp intake of breath from more conservative practitioners and clients. But from the moment she uprooted herself from Yorkshire and flew to Australia, Firth has been planning to shatter some preconceptions about accountancy. She says: “The whole idea behind the firm is that we wanted to be business advisers more than accountants. I think there’s a terrible stereotype of accountants being old men in dark rooms, with dusty books and no personality. “For years, I’ve been trying to fight that stereotype. We actually have fun when we talk to our clients, we know them on a friendly basis as well as professionally. It makes the relationship much more enjoyable for all. It’s a happy place to be.”

Remote working, cloud storage and paperless workflow have been part of Your Accounting Sanctuary from the start, with client folders hosted on Google Drive. Timesheets are not part of the business model. “I don’t like them,” says Firth. “Everyone just gets aggravated by them: the stress of filling them out and the arguments from clients because they don’t understand where all the time goes to. “We take clients on a subscription basis, so they know exactly what they’re going to pay every single month.” Entrepreneurs and early-stage companies make up a large part of the firm’s client base, which is growing rapidly. “We’re a team of four at the moment and taking on about one client a week,” says Firth. “I just sit back sometimes and wonder what’s happening. But it’s lovely to take a step back and think, wow, it’s really working. People like what we do.”

Paddy Quinn

Paddy Quinn & Co, Ireland

Paddy Quinn gained his ACA and spent five years at Baker Tilly in London and seconded to the Belfast and Sydney offices. He went on to finance positions at Zurich Insurance and Walkers. In 2016, he established Paddy Quinn & Co in Dublin. While many firms are now waking up to the advantages of the cloud, it’s technology that enabled Quinn to realise his ambition of starting a company with a difference.

He says, “We set up as a remote-based practice with no office, with staff who worked from their homes. I’ve always had the ambition of making this as technologically-savvy a business as possible and using that as my edge over other more traditional accountancy firms out there.” The firm has since gone a step further, providing a proprietary app that clients from the Republic of Ireland and the UK alike can use to keep tabs on their accounts. “We took the decision that we would have our own app to provide the information that lots of our customers would potentially be asking us for on a regular basis. So your tax tables are all there on the app. You can generate your own payslips and we can share information with you on there,” he says.

The app is valuable not just for its functionality, but as a marketing tool. “When you have your own firm app and it’s branded in your logo, you’re presenting yourself as a modern sort of practice,” says Quinn. “It certainly helps to build your reputation and your brand a bit better.” For similar reasons, Quinn launched a series of podcasts that have proved popular both with clients and the wider SME community in Dublin. “I thought it was important for entrepreneurs to be able to listen to somebody who’s been down that path before. We’ve interviewed all different types of individuals who’ve set up their own businesses – and if we get a client who’s operating in a similar space, we can direct them to the podcast.

“It also helps us to tap into different businesses sectors and reach people who might not otherwise have heard of us. When you do a podcast once, it’s there for ever, and you can market it and re-promote it again and again.” Although Paddy Quinn & Co has recently taken on premises in central Dublin to grow the team, remote working remains the norm. “It’s about flexible hours: you can work on the weekend or the evening, and you can go to pick up your kids during the day – I don’t really care as long as the work is being done,” he says. “We’ve a good task manager system in place where we can see when returns have been filed and when they haven’t been done. It’s very easy to keep track of who has done what.”

Suzanne Spicer

Spicer & Co, UK

Suzanne Spicer set up the Dunstable firm Spicer & Co in 2013 with her husband, having previously spent 10 years at Hillier Hopkins. She has been an FCA since 1997 and is a member of ICAEW’s Practice Committee. Spicer & Co is a family firm with strong roots in its community. It aims to provide local businesses and individuals with a personalised service, facilitated by new technology. It’s a formula that has brought the company recognition on a national level: last year, it was shortlisted for small practice of the year in the Accounting Excellence awards.

Spicer says: “We have people changing to us from other accountants all the time in the local area, because they’ve heard of our reputation, they see that we’re winning awards and they want to be with a proactive accountant using today’s technology. They don’t want to be stuck with somebody who’s using a desktop version of Sage; they want something they can use on the move.” Xero Online Accounting has been a real game-changer, according to Spicer.

“Technology has had a huge impact on our industry,” she says. “We decided a few years back that it was only going to gather pace and we embraced cloud bookkeeping. Since then, our use of technology has developed – we’ve been adding on apps to make all our processes a lot more efficient.” Each year, the whole team decamps to Accountex at ExCel in London. “We get to see the whole spectrum of software that’s available, and what’s new on the market,” says Spicer. “Then we come back and debate it as a team to see what we like, what we don’t like and what we want to investigate further.” Recruiting the right mix of talents has been vital to the firm’s success. While expertise with tech is important, Spencer says you’ve got to get the right balance between tech-savvy people and those who can deliver customer service.

“We know all our clients well. It’s about taking an interest in their business and having those personal conversations. Then, of course, you’re top of their list when people ask for a referral,” she explains. Spicer’s plans include growing the advisory side. “I think that’s where the profitability will stem from,” she says.

Piotr Dalak

JP Weber, Poland

In 2018, Piotr Dalak became an associate partner at JP Weber in Warsaw. He previously worked in financial and transaction services at KPMG and EY. He holds the ACA and AQ, and is one of two ICAEW Country Contact Members for Poland. Having worked for long spells at two of the Big Four firms, Piotr Dalak was ready for a different kind of challenge when he joined JP Weber. With offices in Warsaw and Wroclaw, a head count of around 65 and a global reach through Eight International and M&A worldwide organisations, it’s an independent firm with a strong entrepreneurial ethos.

“We don’t sell a boxed product,” he says. “We specialise in M&A transactions, transaction advisory and restructuring. We have legal and tax practices as well as a financial practice. As a founding member of the Eight International global consultancy, consisting of like-minded firms sharing the same vision and approach, we’re also a truly international player with a deep local understanding. This allows us to service our clients from A to Z.”

While bigger firms may be expected to rubber-stamp the decisions of owners and executives, Dalak believes JP Weber is hired by clients seeking more active engagement in decisionmaking. “Being a smaller organisation gives us independence,” he says. “We can freely express our opinion on what we think is a good decision. We don’t do audit, so we’re not bound by those restrictions. Our clients want someone who’ll be their sparring partner in discussions. They want to feel confident that they are being challenged.” The firm’s advisory services are often sought when projects are at a very early stage, which demands a high level of trust. “It’s different from a Big Four company, where you don’t start work before you have a precise definition of the scope of the work, your responsibilities, limitation of liability and so on. It’s an entrepreneurial approach. We’re always ready to change and adapt – I think that sums up how we run the business and differentiate ourselves.”

Originally published in Economia on 6 June 2019.