As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to become an electronics engineer. In my teens, I would build electronic circuits (eg. amplifiers, radios, power supplies etc) using mainly the surplus components that my Dad brought back from work.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I did Physics and Maths to A Level (and Economics) and I was working throughout my A Level studies part-time in an electronics factory.  It brought me into contact with a wide variety of professions and professionals beyond electronic engineers. My undergraduate and post graduate studies, however, were in the Business/Management/Economics/ Accountancy fields. I also qualified as a CIMA accountant, and I have now reached the level of Professor at Lancaster University.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

I was offered a (rare these days) sponsored undergraduate programme in the broad field of business and, almost by accident, I became attracted increasingly to the accountancy work as I followed the programme. Accountancy took me into many areas of the wider business, and I was encouraged to ‘get involved’.

It was hard work in those early days with only very limited mainframe IT, although I remember with amusement and fondness the arrival of the first IBM PC which was sited on its own ‘altar’ and I could use it only if I booked time on it.

As a graduate, I was awarded certain exemptions from CIMA and because I had amassed significant on the job experience and was fully committed to following an accountancy career, I studied for my CIMA examinations on a full-time basis at Sheffield Hallam University which was a fast track accelerated approach.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Truthfully, I broadened my career roles well beyond accountancy as soon as I could, and I found that my first (and subsequent) CFO roles drew more from my MBA than from my accountancy pedigree, but I would never have been appointed into those roles without having the accountancy qualification, experience and credibility.

As a person, I behave instinctively as an accountant. For example, I look for evidence, strong and meaningful analysis, logic, ethical standards etc. and this applies to many situations both professionally and personally.

My early efforts and commitment to become an accountant have rewarded me with great opportunities in the private sector, and I have contributed first-hand to the successes of a number of businesses. I moved eventually into a portfolio career which spanned public sector, health, education and charity organisations including non-executive roles. None of this would have been possible without my accountancy pedigree, of which I am very proud.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The dream was to become a pilot.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

Being red/green colourblind, my commercial pilot career was a non-starter; however, I was able to get my private pilot’s licence so I did get some of the way.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

After various roles in retail and sales during university, I started my training contract at 21 with BDO. It was my dad’s suggestion and the best bit of advice he gave me when he told me that once qualified you would always be able to earn a living. I gave the same advice to my son who is now in the middle of his training contract.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

The training that you receive as an accountant is one of the broadest available. You develop technical and interpersonal skills in equal measures and what makes a successful business. What other profession allows you to add such value to both people and their businesses? With almost 30 years of experience, I don’t think that there is anything that could surprise me, and I know how to help clients with any issues or at least know where to look.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a dancer. In fact, I trained all the way through until I was 18 but didn’t make it. My biggest claim to fame was being a backing dancer for Boyzone when I was 16 – that’s as far as my dance career went.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I’d got a place to study drama in Exeter at 18, but something felt off and I didn’t fancy going into debt for a career I wasn’t sure I wanted. So, I deferred my place a year and worked while I considered my options.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

I’d been working as a runner on films and TV shows for a year and absolutely hated it! Therefore a career based on a drama degree was out. I went to my local careers office and asked for their advice. A bored-looking woman suggested accountancy and it seemed reasonable – so I walked across the road to a hotel and asked if they had any jobs in accounts (I was 19 and very sassy!).

The FD happened to be there and said their purchase ledger clerk had just left; they asked if I could do purchase ledger. I said “probably, and I’m a fast learner” – and that was how I started my career in accountancy! In truth, I had no idea what a purchase ledger was, but I was confident I could figure it out before my first day.

I studied in the evenings and weekends and discovered that I loved how the accounts told the story of the business. I’ve never looked back.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Although I don’t do any of the day-to-day accounting work for our clients, it’s obviously vital for me as a business owner. I have to present our financials at board meetings every month, as well as make strategic decisions about the business which heavily involve understanding finance.

Through my unconventional route into accountancy, I discovered that my true passion is business, and helping other businesses to thrive. My background in accountancy lets me do that in a very direct way, and it’s really given me purpose.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Fantasy job: Formula 1 driver. Who doesn’t want to travel the world driving fast cars! Real job: graphic designer, as I’m very creative.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I was too slow at both driving and drawing! I was an A* art/design student at school but it would take me ages to finish everything and I lost my passion for it. I still do the odd doodle.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

I was always very quick with maths and loved business studies at college, so took an accounting degree. That was so boring – the last thing I wanted to be was an accountant after it! I went into retail management for a few years before heading to the profession after realising retail was much harder work.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

It’s truly been life-changing. My dad went through some seriously bad financial times years ago that could’ve been avoided with a good accountant. It could’ve saved our house and help us all sleep at night… it’s that big a deal.

The stereotypical accountant is thought of as grey and doesn’t talk to anyone, when nothing could be further from the truth! Accounting is critical in my role, but it’s the way I remove the jargon to give real life accounting advice to those not in finance that’s the key skill. That’s meant improving my listening, communication and general social skills ten-fold since I started.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As a child I really wanted to be a teacher. I have always had a passion for sharing my knowledge and helping others to learn. I often played school with my three siblings pretending to be a schoolteacher, giving lessons, organising tests, and grading their performance.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

Being from a poor background, Teachers College in Jamaica was very expensive for me. There wasn’t any flexible option to work and learn at the same time. I couldn’t see how I was going to support myself through four years of Teachers’ College without working.  So unfortunately, that plan was placed on the back burner.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

I was first introduced to accountancy at the age of 16 in high school. I was fascinated by the subject ‘principles of accounting’ as I had a flair for numbers. I immediately became obsessed with the subject and took a chance at completing my national exam in year ten. I got one of the highest marks in my high school. I thought, right, this is it, I’m either going to be a teacher of this subject or become a chartered accountant. That summer I went to a careers fair where I was introduced to the ACCA; I was hooked, and the rest was history.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Not everyone speaks the language of accounting and, as a practitioner, an important part of my job is not only to complete the financial statements but to articulate those numbers in such a way that the client can easily understand. From start-up to the developing and growth stages, I love helping and supporting business owners and their company at every phase to drive positive business performance.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to finish the animated version of The Lord of the Rings! Did you know there was an animated film of the first half? I used to draw comic strips at home, so I went to art college after sixth form to become a graphic designer (the only reason my dad let me go to art college). But there was no graphic design tutor when I was there so that plan fizzled out.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do after art college, so my dad sent me to secretarial college. I hated every minute of it! But then I went travelling for a couple of years with a friend. I only came home to save enough to go away again.

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

When I was home, a temporary position came up to cover a secretary’s maternity leave at a local accountancy firm, and I grabbed my chance. I even included in my cover letter that I’d only be around for the six months’ cover to save up to go away again! I was about 21. Seven years later I was still there and offered partnership. I still managed to go away on my travels during that time, but shorter trips. Then we moved to Bath and I took a role in a larger firm.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Accounting was always seen to be dull when I was studying, and a conversation stopper (not in a good way) when I said what I did. I think my art college start has really helped me in my role now, as I love the visual aspect of a lot of the software we use, and my creative and curious brain is always looking for quicker and better ways to do things.

I was brought up in a hospitality business (we literally lived above the pub up to age ten) and helped out serving bread rolls in the restaurant from about six years old. So, it is in my nature to want to help people, and make things easier for them, and I really understand what it’s like to be a business owner.

Being trained in a small firm, then moving to a larger one also inspired my need to help people. The larger firm in Bath were just focused on high wealth clients and pretty much ignored the small businesses, so I felt the need to support small businesses.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A footballer – then I realised I was too slow and too bad at football, so my career choice was between a hairdresser and a football manager.

Where had that got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I actually left school before my GCSEs to become a youth training scheme (YTS) hairdresser, which lasted all of six weeks! You could say I wasn’t cut out for it…

When did you move into accountancy; why, and how?

Later that year I realised I had to get a ‘real job’ as I was living in a bedsit with my partner, and with no income. Honestly, accountancy wasn’t a conscious choice – I just applied for the jobs in my local newspaper, and it just so happened that I got offered two trainee roles.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Finance is the language of business. If you can’t understand where you are and how you’re doing, you’re driving with your headlights off – and I think that’s true for all businesses. So, not only did it give me a fantastic career, but it was also the platform for me to start helping other businesses.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had no idea what I wanted to be, and if you’d have told me when I was at school what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t believe you. I was very shy but heavily influenced by my father, who was a business and systems analyst, and my first ‘boss’ who was a very charismatic accountancy recruitment entrepreneur.

Where had the got to during your later studies (or not, as the case may be)?

I learnt on the job, leaving school after A-Levels and going straight into the workplace. Since then, I’ve been very keen to learn continuously, I read avidly and have mentors both inside and outside the accountancy profession.

When did you move into accountancy; why and how?

I started in an accountancy recruitment company at the age of 19, being given responsibility (directorship) very early running a finance team for a fast-growing company, and learning first-hand how hard it is to get a company from start-up to £6m and then being part of an MBO. After a career in London, I then had a family and joined my husband in building an accountancy firm of our own.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

Accounting has been the core of everything for me for most of my working life either directly in my role or now it is the industry our company is centred around. Working in another industry and in general practice, has given me incredible insight into what a business owner needs to know to build a successful business.

Business strategy, risk management, credit/cash management, pricing, people management, economic factors, geo-politics, business analytics, technology integration, requirements for R&D/innovation grant funding, change management, marketing strategy, networking skills, presentation skills, public speaking… the list is almost endless of what I’ve learnt along the way!

The driver for me is working with micro and small and medium owner-managed and family businesses that don’t get the attention they deserve.  Technology has changed that, and I’m excited about the possibilities it gives us to serve our marketplace better in the future.  I think we’ve just scratched the surface.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had no burning ambition, I was far too sensible! My mum said all I wanted to do was to learn – whether it was numbers, words, animals, cars – I just soaked it up like a sponge.

When did you move into accountancy: why, and how?

I completed my studies, including university, and was out in the wide world…so what next? A real crossroads for me as I lost my Dad at that time. He had mentioned accountancy – at first I thought “it’s just numbers’… before I knew it I had five offers on the table and things took off.

How important is accounting in your role – and how has being an accountant helped you develop in your career and as a person?

In those early days it was all about the technical skills and the numbers. But the last ten years has seen such technological advance that we have the opportunity to connect with people – building relationships and interpreting the numbers. Helping them understand and get to the next level.

When I worked at a Big Four firm, there were people who were technically excellent but couldn’t really connect with people – that may well come with experience for some, but you have to realise that the information needs to be translated into a language your clients can understand.

Catch the full article in the XU Magazine here

While living in a Covid world has been turbulent for people and their businesses, it has also provided an opportunity for accountants to get closer to clients. Phil Shohet reveals how accountancy partners and owners must now take steps to improve their service offering, be more efficient and better manage their operations to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

 

 

For many practice owners and partners, this period of time is crystallising their future plans, ambitions and prosperity. But they may not be controlling their destiny.

While Covid-19 and its huge impact is key to this disruption, it piggybacks other big changes in recent months and years: HMRC’s digitisation project through Making Tax Digital; the huge increase in automation of accounting, tax and client data collection tasks; and online/digital-focused accountancy practices have all made changes to the landscape.

Practice owners and partners, certainly in firms focused on compliance services, can find themselves in a quandary about adapting and evolving. Their vision only reaches out to the next wave of tax return and accounting deadlines – setting out a path for future prosperity and the impact on services and your people can be hard to undertake when the day job is of comfort. Covid has, understandably, seen practitioners undertaking emergency support for their client base but spending even less time on their practice’s own direction.

So, this is a starting point for what accountants must focus on to service their client base, how that will impact on a practice’s structure and then expectations upon partners and owners to deliver.

What your clients want from you

Fundamentally, there are five key areas that clients seek support on from their accountant:

 

  • Compliance services;
  • Wealth management/protection;
  • Tax mitigation/planning;
  • Consultancy/business advisory services; and
  • An opportunity to have access to virtual information and forecasting.

 

This can be distilled even further. Ultimately, you’re helping people and their companies make (more) money, keeping tax liabilities to a legal minimum and protecting their gained wealth – whether for the business or family.

Unfortunately, there is historically a dramatic underservicing of clients. And this is not just in the so-called ‘valued-added’ services, but more generally. Why? Because so few practitioners actively ask their clients how they are and what they might be able to do to help.

Correspondingly there is an over-servicing of compliance technical processing, for example on small audits where the external reviews often praise the compliance detail and box ticking, but ignore the additional advisory level services.

There is not an overly-complicated way in which to bill more advisory fees compared with compliance. The compliance services themselves often create an opportunity to provide advisory – unfortunately, so often the tail wags the dog.

Self-assessment is a perfect example. Practices receive SA-related information so late from clients that it creates the huge overload of work in December and January. This creates a vicious, not virtuous, circle. It means there isn’t time to then get to know clients better.

So, the cycle needs to be broken: How do you get information in earlier? Rather than send passive emails to clients asking them to file earlier (which doesn’t work), instead call or email them personally and ask what they are doing, and how that impacts the direction of travel for their income and subsequent tax bill. This may give an opportunity to provide them with extra support – but on the proviso that their income information comes in earlier for processing. The practice should be looking at a real-time information flow between itself and clients and encourage the use of apps for client data delivery. You may then be able to bill more for supplementary tax support, mitigate their tax bill further, and all the while reduce your January workload.

The beauty of working this way is that you are using your combined technical knowledge and experience to better help your clients. It doesn’t need to be something you feel is out of your comfort zone.

Crucially, success in this area will be conditional on outsourcing some of your work to create a lower cost base and a more efficient processing system. MTD is pushing the need for a more regular flow of information between yourself and the client. A combination of automation and a dedicated third party managing/checking the flow of data is now crucial for the survival of a profitable and sustainable accounting practice. However, outsourcing doesn’t mean losing control of your clients; on the contrary, outsourced processes should help you better understand and communicate more frequently with clients.

So, think about the systems you and your clients use. Uniformity and ease of flow of accurate data are key. And while accountants are ruled by deadlines set by lawmakers and enforcement agencies, they should work with clients towards the practice’s own, most optimal, timescale.

 

Creating a firm of the future

While calling more clients more often is, in itself, relatively simple to conceive, there are broader considerations about how a practice will operate in the future. In essence:

  • Fees will be earned on the basis of value for money;
  • Firms will be organised into specialist departments along service lines;
  • Statutory requirements will become a ‘smaller’ part of the firm’s work;
  • More competition will come from outside the profession; and
  • The firm will be, in essence, a provider of business services.

Practices that are more proactive with clients, use technology to automate input-heavy processes and look to support clients across a broad range of needs will need to take the above points into account.

There are a large number of diversification opportunities that exist for accountancy firms, for which the level and extent is driven by the market the firm wishes to service, but more importantly the business development acumen of the partners and their desire to operate in a structure as suggested above.

Making such considerations is crucial. For example, is audit a viable service for smaller firms? There’s no longevity necessarily there: audit thresholds creep up and clients will inevitably move to bigger auditors when they seek funding and grow in scale.

Entrepreneurs can be a difficult client base to handle: they often make excessive demands. But if satisfied they will be lucrative in terms of both direct fee income and their willingness to promote your firm through referrals.

But it is no good understanding who you want to serve – and how – if your partners are unable to help adequately support existing clients and bring new ones on board.

 

Leading in a new direction

Partners must want to develop business, and that must sit alongside their desire to steer current clients. On the latter, too many partners spend too much time processing compliance work rather than understanding the client to drive more fees.

Small teams, or units, must support the partner in providing the client service. The partner can remain close, but not undertake the grunt work themselves.

For many firms it is a lot of change, whether measured by client service provision, processes or operational management.

But while accountants are good technicians, the owner/s and partners have to improve their focus on running a business and supporting clients; moving away from the coal-face of computations.

Over the last six months, Covid-19 management has, for many practices, required flexibility and swift decision-making to adapt workflows, processes and communications. It is essential that pragmatism is carried forward in the future to encourage questioning of the status quo, provide channels for new ideas from internal and external sources and take action to change where deemed justified. An ongoing questioning of comfort zones by all partners and a commitment to adopt change agreed.

This is, in some ways, the toughest aspect of change – where practices and their people have operated in a certain way for a long period of time. But leaders must lead, using their gravitas and persuasion to bring partners on board to start turning the ship. This means the most senior people must be flexible: client-facing but not number-crunching, and playing a part in setting a strategy or plan to drive up profits.

Covid has driven clients into the arms of their accountant, but if these closer relationships fail to be nurtured then other providers will come in to fill the gap: be they accountants or broader business support organisations.

You may be left with just compliance work, in a world where that offering will be commoditised and the price driven down. And, as such, you make your own retirement or exit route a more difficult and certainly less profitable one to tread.

Ultimately, an efficient practice with strong processes, using technology to automate and support your people, with partners closely aligned with the needs of clients, improves its value.

Phil Shohet FCA is a senior consultant at professional services consultancy Foulger Underwood. He can be reached at ph****@fo**************.com