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The view from the top – a CEO’s perspective on the accountancy business

The view from the top – a CEO’s perspective on the accountancy business

Accounting

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min read

The view from the top – a CEO’s perspective on the accountancy business

The view from the office of an accounting company’s CEO is always different from that of other members of the team. In the nature of things, the CEO is afforded a unique window into what is happening in the company he manages, as well as the wider accounting business.

We spoke with Rachel Martin, a young and highly ambitious accountancy company head from Buckinghamshire. Aged just 28, Rachel has been running her company for the past two years and sees the entire UK as her market. She says that she has scaled her business list from 50 to 350 in the last 12 months. And that client list includes a wide range of businesses – all the way from influencers to electricians.

The reality of the accounting services market

The accountancy business is continuously changing. Clients’ demands are growing, competition is stronger than ever, marketing and promotion are critical. We see the need for companies to invest in digital marketing, and software that is regularly updated. Related to this are the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation of tasks.

With this in mind, can we start by asking you, as an experienced accountant and company head with many years of experience in the field, how the business has changed over the years?

We came into the industry as a completely cloud-based practice, leaning into software developments and using them to enhance the service we provide to clients. But, even so, AI has had huge impacts on the business, how we engage with clients, the training and development that we offer to clients (and staff!) and we are just at the tip of the iceberg, there are so many more exciting things to come.

What would you say are the traits needed by a CEO of an accounting firm?

This is an interesting one: compassion and honesty are huge for any leader, but specific to accountancy, wider business knowledge and guidance is really important. I studied towards an MBA to prepare me for this journey.

Which part of the job has given you the most satisfaction? Are there elements of the position that cause you frustration and, if so, what are they and how do you deal with them?

Supporting business owners during the pandemic has been a real privilege. Guiding and supporting those having a difficult time was really humbling, and being able to empower and enhance the thriving business owners during the pandemic was equally as rewarding. The biggest difficulty we often face is that we are financially fluent individuals working within the firm and our customers come to us very often because they aren’t. As a result, even simple things like billing and fees can sometimes alienate the customer before you’ve started. But, every touch point with a customer is a learning opportunity and it’s up to us to find new ways of translating our world into theirs. We now use YouTube videos to run through billing methods as it’s best to have a face to face explanation.

What were the main ways of working when you started out - was the use of technology widespread when you began your career, or did the industry operate as it had long done?

I’m still in my twenties, so even though technology has always been present during my career I started my career at a top 100 firm which was nearly entirely paper based. So, even if the client worked on accounting software, all of the working papers and clients’ files were paper based.

What management style should be taken in the accounting business?

What has been your management style, and did you bring in large-scale changes?

Our firm’s motto is “we rise by lifting others” and that applies to our management style too. Staff benefits are a big part of our internal processes, because if staff feel respected and valued they’ll treat our clients in the same way!

Do you work according to a structured strategy, such as a five-year plan?

Yes and no. Parts of our business, such as long-term strategy and finances, are planned five years in advance and we have some huge goals as part of them. But the shorter term strategies are more fluid, because they have to be!

What kind of innovative changes has your company made to adapt to challenges?

During the pandemic we leant into social media hugely, to communicate and explain any plans and changes to clients, and potential clients, quickly and easily. Social media has played a huge part in our business growth and it’s created an incredible community alongside it.

Finance is clearly a highly sensitive area, so how do you persuade a potential client that you are the right firm? How do you build and maintain their trust?

Persuasion isn’t a part of our pitch. Clients say they sign up with us because we are interested in what they’re doing (you’d be surprised how many accountants aren’t) we are passionate about what we do and we are growing a business and a network that they want to be a part of.

Rachel Martin standing in front of a large wooden door
Rachel Martin

Have more sophisticated fraudulent activities and money-laundering become more prevalent than they were when you started out?

Yes, and we are taking on a part of the responsibility in terms of educating clients on specific fraud associated with HMRC activities.

How have the qualities that you look for in accountants changed?

They’ve never changed for us because we look for the qualities that you can’t teach. We can teach someone to bookkeep or to process journals, but we can’t teach people to care, to be passionate about their job or to go the extra mile for our clients. If someone displays those qualities, we are onto a winner. Of course, being an Excel nerd always helps too.

Do accounting firms now need to recruit a range of accountants with different skills to be able to deal with a wider range of issues than was previously the case?

It depends if your firm has a specialty. We work with clients from all businesses and all walks of life so we have people within the firm that deal with niches or groups of clients as it enhances the service we are able to deliver.

Is retaining top employees a big problem for accountancy companies? If so, how do firms deal with this?

For us, it’s not been a problem. Every member of staff we’ve taken on is still here now. We attribute that to really looking after them, making them feel valued and paying them well.

On the marketing side of accountancy, have firms adopted digital marketing, such as Google and Facebook adverts and using social media platforms, to promote themselves to potential clients?

We have a large following on social media and it’s changed everything for our business. We’ve gone from 50 clients to 350 clients in 12 months, and whilst recommendations are and should always be our number 1 source of referral, social media comes a very close second.

Do accounting firms accept the need for a solid and growing marketing budget to ensure continuing growth?

Absolutely.

New opportunities and threats in the bookkeeping business

Artificial intelligence and robotics are automating complex and repetitive tasks and processes while cutting operating costs and increasing efficiency. Do you regard this as a good thing? Do you agree with the view that it can be seen as a positive factor since it enables accountants to free up time from detailed processes and focus on the client’s overall business?

It really is a great thing and the future of your accountancy practice depends on embracing it. It provides us with opportunities to help clients in other ways which have bigger impact than we had before.

Smiling Rachel Martin - CEO in accountancy business
Rachel Martin

Is there a fear in the business that technology will eventually cut the number of accounting jobs?

Not at all, our clients come to us because they want someone they trust, who can provide real value in growing and scaling their business, not just the statutory stuff.

Are accounting firms willing to invest in new company-wide software and, as a result, in the need for cyber-security measures and staff (whether in-house or outsourced) to administer all the IT infrastructure?

We deal with such confidential and sensitive information that we can’t not invest in software and infrastructure.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business? Cloud computing, or Internet-based computing, has enabled people in many professions to be able to work from literally anywhere since data can be easily shared company-wide. Has the accounting business been able to easily adapt and allow staff to work from home, or do firms still prefer employees to work from the office?

We offer flexible working options as standard for all of our staff. Cloud accounting and remote working really is brilliant and it enables us to be able to work during the pandemic, the recent fuel crises, or if an employee needs to be at home for the day.

On this same issue of working from home, has there been a change in productivity or has it remained at the standard of office-based work?

Not at all, our jobs are outcome based so productivity is very easy to keep an eye on. If you trust your employees and enable them to work remotely in a way that supports and encourages them, then they’ll repay you.

Have the changes caused by COVID-19 led to a huge new workload as forecasts changed and dramatic revisions across the board regarding clients’ business outlook?

Not really, we love to do full reviews and have conversations with clients each year so it hasn’t added any extra workload to us that we wouldn’t normally do.

What are the main issues overall affecting accounting firms today, be it competition in recruitment, technological demands, clients that request many more services than in the past, or other issues, and how do you deal with them?

Unqualified or unregulated accounting firms or firms which outsource their work to other countries and therefore charge much lower fees are our biggest issue. We are a UK-based firm and we do all of our work in house. Every single member of staff is paid at least 7% above the industry average, we have office overheads, we pay for full study support for every member of staff and we are competing with firms with no overheads who outsource their work abroad. Most business owners are aware of the issues surrounding not being qualified and outsourcing work to third parties, but it does lower the value of our work.

How do accountancy companies deal with staying abreast of myriad changes to taxes, regulations and accounting standards?

We all have Continuing Professional Development for this purpose. It’s a great way to keep up to date. It’s also hard not to keep up to date when you’re an excited and passionate accountant. You learn something new every day.

Do these constant changes and updates lead to burnout among staff and decline in morale?

Not at all, as long as staff as supported and encouraged, they’ll feel empowered to embrace the changes.

Could you comment on how clients’ demands have changed over the years? Are they more demanding, for example?

It all comes down to communication. If you’re managing a client’s expectations from the very beginning, they shouldn’t become demanding. Response time is also very important. We have a 24 hours maximum response time which really helps clients when they need it.

Have accountancy firms embraced the use of accounting software, and which do you use?

Absolutely, we are proud partners of both QuickBooks and Xero! We love them and clients love them. We also provide free software training for every client.

How are automation and workflow streamlining programmes improving and accelerating accounting processes?

Workflow streamlining really helps us to never miss a deadline, ensures we are being paid correctly, and ensures that we have completed all tasks and managed the client’s expectations.

Clearly accountants need to be detail-oriented, analytical, creative, to understand accounting processes, to be multi-taskers and to be able to prioritise. Which other qualities do you look for when recruiting staff?

We look for the qualities that you can’t teach. We can teach someone to bookkeep or to process journals, but we can’t teach people to care, to be passionate about their job or to go the extra mile for our clients. If someone displays those qualities, we are onto a winner. Of course, being an Excel nerd always helps too.

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