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FD's Diary: Excel, OK. Access, no go. Why is that?

29th Apr 2005
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April 29 ' I admit it, I'm an Excel junkie. I always have been. Well, I have since about 1990. Supercalc and Lotus 1-2-3 had teased my affections until then.

So of course I find what's going on about Excel on AccountingWEB fascinating.

But one thing troubles me. That's the comment in the review of David Carter's recent presentation that those of us who spend hours building complicated Excel spreadsheets should really get to know Access.

I fear he's right. After 20 years of spreadsheeting I try to avoid databases whenever possible. Why is that? What is the phobia? I'm not sure, but I know it's real.

So I've been really good. I think it's time I went on an Access course. Unless someone knows a good on line one. Any recommendations? Either way, I've been even better than good and have added this to my CPD objectives.

Now, having done all this sanctimonious stuff it's time to go and ear blast a few late payers.

* * *

April 27 - The inventor of breakfast meetings has a lot to answer for, but Ops and I had one this morning.

I've been to Belgium and he has been ensconced with our UK manufacturer of the key component previously sourced solely from Belgium.

Three things emerged. One is that the Belgian company has gone down hill fast. I think it's a wreck and past saving in its current form now. It's as if the owner gave up when we pulled out of discussion. The second thing I learned is that we're now the only people buying the product we acquire from them. Thirdly, I have a strong suspicion we own it anyway! I have to get back into our archives, but it seems to be the case that we paid for the development of the design of this product. Ops now thinks we did too ' the issue is, can we find the evidence? I just hope my desire for a clear out of old records last summer hasn't destroyed the records. It would be neat to find we can simply lift the design out and have it made elsewhere ' even if it feels a bit like Shanghai Motors. If we can, then we will be walking away. As it is, we're going to offer cash on delivery terms to them to cover some small stock shortages we have, but that's it. No more support. If it goes belly up, I think we'll take the risk and make the stuff here. I now think we have enough technical data to do so, as I have also now located their one key supplier of technology supplies I did not previously know.

And Ops has agreement from our UK supplier to take this on, and he thinks they could.

Now to more mundane issues. Like the reminder for the P35 we have got. Why is that when it has gone?

* * *

April 22 ' There I was worrying about Shropshire when all the time the problem is in Belgium.

Our Belgian supplier has phoned. He has another cash flow crisis and could we pay up front for orders?

No, I politely replied. In that case we're going bust he said. That's why I won't pay upfront I explained.

But Ops and I went into session. The new UK supplier's stuff is good. We're only pressing on with the new business idea because field tests show their remote testing system works, well, and can be set to err on the side of caution anyway. But, they have yet to be asked to make the range of parts the Belgians have made in the past to provide us with replacement stocks. We're still quite well covered with these after last autumn's purchasing spree, but they won't last forever. It does however prove the worth of the overstocking to the auditors!

We decided on two things. Ops is off for a session with the UK suppliers to talk about the chance they could take over manufacture today. I'm going to Belgium to see what chance there is of the company surviving on Monday, and what we might be able to salvage from the wreckage if it fails.

The sad things is, if there is a problem it's all because the owners did not cut the one real extravagance the company has, which is their own pay. It makes it hard to be too sympathetic.

* * *

April 20 ' All my other excitements aside, Ops and I have continued research into the new business idea. I admit he's done more than me (he's had to) but we're making some progress, of a sort.

What we're discovering by direct and indirect discussion (i.e. formally set up meetings and surreptitious chats in the car park, or wherever) is that the reason for people being unwilling to open up on the subject of the new product is that they're sure it threatens jobs in our maintenance division.

Now, I have to protect the innocent here, but in essence we now do two things. We install our kit (and then walk out again) as one job and we then maintain it. We have four divisions but in effect each of these two activities is split into two geographical areas split simply to make sure one person doesn't have too many people report to them. In theory Ops has those four divisional managers, the sale manager and me report to him ' although as he says, I don't so much report to him as help share the load (which is what we intended from the time we set this structure up).

Now, the installation guys aren't threatened by the new business, but the maintenance chaps feel they are because the new technology we can now use means we won't have to visit all our kit as often as we have to check it's still meeting required standards. In effect it will be able to call us and say when there is risk of that. So routine visits might fall dramatcially, albeit with some alternative costs for running this technology. That is, of course, unless we can differentiate the service and prove there's other value added to having people turn up, which is in part what we're looking for to justify a price differential.

So, what we've found is we shouldn't have put all the managers in one room to ask them how we could differentiate the product ' because they think they've got different objectives but don't want to look as though they're undermining each other. I guess it's good to know they have a loyalty to each other ' but finding out what they really think is like getting blood out of a stone.

That worries us. Is there something we need to know we don't? As Ops has pointed out, when was the last time he (let alone I) went out on van to see what really happens on a day's maintenance work? I did it once, for less than a day on a run near the office. But what is happening in deepest darkest Shropshire (or wherever)? We know we reorganised routes to improve efficiency, but we're still wondering what's actually going on now. It suddenly seems like a very big question to which we have no answer.

* * *

April 18 ' Had to tell the staff about the 'good news' of impending fatherhood today. It had to be obvious something was up ' I've been dashing home early too often to cover for my wife to look after the existing brood as she's been feeling too grotty to do it.

I shouldn't have worried about the reaction. I just told my (entirely female) department and I was taken to the pub for lunch.

We may not have got a totally positive feedback from all people last week on new business ideas but apparently new babies are quite OK. It's a strange world.

PS Has no one really got any good P11D hints? What do people use?

* * *

April 14 ' I hate P11Ds. Now, I admit, before you even ask, that I've delegated the job of producing them. That's #3's job working with #5. But I get involved.

Of course we've got an exemption from reporting much of the routine stuff (except for the shareholders, Ops and me). But that still leaves vast amounts of hassle.

Cars are the easy bit. And we don't go in for them anyway.

But vans we have a plenty, and they're a nightmare. I can't be sure things were done properly before we got here (he says, carefully) but we try really hard to make sure they are. And it's time consuming, to say the least. Anyone got any clues?

And how do people record staff entertaining, sandwiches in the office and all that other gubbins which appears to give no benefit but needs recording none the less? Ours is (inevitably) spreadsheet-based, and we don't seem to have had much joy at looking at the payroll as a database source for this. Seasoned user tips on something better would be appreciated.

* * *

April 12 - Met with the auditors yesterday to deal with initial audit queries. This was actually an in depth review of the accounts and nothing like the old fashioned tick and bash approach with fairly meaningless enquiries about who signs off what process on the flow chart of the credit note system (or whatever).

I have to say I was quite impressed, and feel increasingly confident that the choice of auditor we made is the right one. It seemed like they'd considered some real commercial issues and done sensible analysis of trends in our data to ask meaningful questions related to the actual business we undertake. The vast majority of them I was able to answer without difficulty but they had noticed one or two trends that made me think quite hard, especially as when all is said and done this was still my first complete year with the company.

So that started the day with a grilling and then we moved on to have a brainstorming lunch over sandwiches (which is so annoying for the P11D). This was with the more senior sales team and some of Ops people about whether we could clearly differentiate our product with different levels of service. As is so often the case on these things, the process was pretty stiff to start. I'm still not used to the idea that people are suspicious of my motives. It's still not that long ago that I was one of "them" to still feel uncomfortable about being treated as being one of "the management". But that's a fact of life you have to get used to.

However, when they realised we were serious about knowing what they thought with regard to introducing more and new products which might be good for employment they relaxed a bit, but I suspect we should see this as the first of a series of meetings and not one in isolation. Candidly, we didn't get much from this one, but I think we will, and probably if we follow up on a one to one basis. There is clearly stuff to be learnt, but w haven't got to it yet.

Which is an important lesson in itself, because it makes me realise we're not quite as trusted as I'd like to believe. Maybe the axing of the "troublesome division" has created more suspicion than we had realised.

* * *

April 8 ' I think I owe some people a sincere apology. When referring to BMC yesterday I had no idea that Rover was going to call in the Receiver. But my timing looked pretty poor all the same, and if anyone was offended in consequence all I can say is, I'm sorry.

It's my suspicion that all over the country this morning there will be many people wringing their hands in despair. Of course sympathy goes to all those who might lose their jobs at Rover, but the impact of this is much bigger than that.

Like many accountants, I've been made redundant in my career. It was no fault of my own, or even of my then bosses. If they made a mistake it was supplying too much to one customer, who in their case dropped the product line we were the sub contractor on. About half the people in the company went as a result (although it did survive) and I was one of them.

I suspect that this morning in sub contract supplier's offices, dealer's showrooms and more besides there will be such anxious reviews going on. For dealers this must be the ultimate nightmare ' how do you change track when committed to just one marque? For those who face this agony ' you have my sympathy. I have fired a few people in my time ' but so far have been spared the obligation to make people redundant through no fault of their own. But I can imagine the sheer hell of it, especially when your own livelihood might be at risk as well.

In comparison those firms who just face a few possible small bad debts get off lightly ' but even we do that as we do have some Rover dealers in our client base. The impact is small ' not even enough to think about increasing the year end bad debt provision, but it just shows how far these things spread. And I admit I could in that case understand those who might be angry if there is suggestion of mismanagement at Rover (although I have no idea whether the suggestion is true or not, and leave it to others to decide). It makes me realise how big the duty of running a company is.

Time for a sober cup of coffee.

* * *

April 7 ' Met with Ops to discuss new business. This took a long time. He couldn't see that unless we make the new product very different from the old one to make sure, as far as possible that people don't shift from the old, higher priced product to the new lower priced one then we could actually be worse off. This took a lot of drawing of graphs of demand curves remembered from my long ago days of doing economics until he could see how doing both could add up to us having a win over the existing single option, but just taking the new option may leave us no better off.

So, I think I've won the point that (metaphorically) we're not going to stack them high and ship them out, and we've got to have a selective marketing campaign instead at quite specific new market sectors for which we say this is the right product.

Now, I accept that within two or three years (maybe less) technology and everything else may well require us to think about changing everyone onto the new product, but even then I think we're going to have to work out how we make them look different to justify price banding.

In fact, we've already begun to work on that idea as well, just in case it's the right way to go. In the bad old days when Rover was BMC they did this by working all the way up from Austin's to MG's, Riley's and Vanden Plas (I always wanted one of them ' we only ever got to Riley's). I know we now do it through numbers and heaven knows what else in the style of BMW, but we're musing on bronze, silver and gold service ranges, or something like that as the other option to severe market differentiation.

Having got that far we agreed to go away and think about what bronze, silver and gold might mean. For that we might have a brain storm with more of the staff.

Thinking like this is hard work ' but I have to admit it's fun.

* * *

April 5 ' Whatever you do, as an accountant you can't write that date without some sort of sentiment. By an accident of fate it's hard wired into the UK bean counters sub conscious.

Very much in my consciousness is the continuing shock of impending fatherhood. Being a modern Dad to be, I was at the GP's with my wife yesterday. November 21st is the expected due date (although my previous experience of these things suggests they're as about as reliable as my budgets in that they predict something will happen, but not exactly when). And my wife is now resuming her form from previous pregnancies and her quite dramatic morning (and even all day) sickness has started. One advantage of having been there before is you know about these things.

But in other respects so much has changed. Sure the Nipper (as she/he is being called) will be much the same to start with, but we're older, s/he will have somewhat older siblings (to whom we have to break the news now) and that means life is different. We're used to two incomes. What will we do? Will the Nipper go to nursery? What paternity / maternity leave will we / can we take? It's amazing what you don't know and have to decide upon. It's no exaggeration to say my life has changed in a week.

Still, enough of that, business life goes on. But when do I tell the staff? They already wonder what's wrong with me. I never go to the doctors but had to say I did yesterday. I couldn't think of another excuse.

Ops knows. And we still have a new business to plan. That's now on the agenda for tomorrow. Today I still just need some gentle data processing. I think #4 is going to be surprised at the degree of interest I have in purchase invoices today.

* * *

1 April ' Now I'm not kidding when I write this. If we hadn't had enough of a week with late leaks and misunderstood objectives I have another little problem to deal with this morning. Mrs FD thinks she's pregnant.

This was not in my planning scenario. Nor was it in hers. We all know the jokes about the Blairs and unplanned late pregnancies and that it would never happen to you. Well, that little blue line on the pregnancy testing kit seems to be saying it is.

I have to say I thought my days of nappies, bottles and all that paraphernalia were over. The existing offspring did, I think, provide more than enough opportunity for upset without adding more.

So why then am I quite so elated? Why, when this means I might have a child at university after my official retirement date does the world seem quite so good this morning? The reality of late nights, fatigue, the new car to carry all that baby junk ' let alone where will it sleep? ' has yet to hit home. At some very basic level I'm just chuffed to bits ' and as worried as can be for Mrs FD and the nipper.

Now, how do I tell Ops about my application for paternity leave?

In March the FD focussed on his year end accounts, and then looked to the future. But as with life in general, not all went to plan.

For previous installments of the FD's Diary, see:

February
January
December
November
October
September.
August.
July
June
May
April
March
February
January
December
November
October.

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Replies (18)

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By Richard Willis
17th May 2005 14:03

Differentiation!
I was just browsing your April ramblings (sorry!) and came across your reflections on differentiating products. This won't be any help, I guess, although I don't know what you make; however it may raise a smile. The figures are representative as I can't remember what they were.

An aquaintance of mine used, many years ago, to work for a firm that made weighing scales, very high tech. They made three versions; an industrial one that was painted black and cost £150, a military one that was painted green and cost £500, and a medical one that was painted white and cost £750. The only difference was the colour of the paint!!!

Now THAT'S marketing.

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Simon Hurst
By Simon Hurst
11th May 2005 09:24

Access for accountants - shameless sales plug
I have tried to produce an initial introduction to databases based on taking a simple Excel spreadsheet and converting it to an Access database. It is available in the AccountingWEB Resource Centre

If you want more specialist follow-up material or training, feel free to contact me via The Knowledge Base
Hope it helps

Regards

Simon

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By Robjoy
11th May 2005 19:03

Excel to Access link
Sorry, should have mentioned - it's an add-in, I think it's just called 'Access Links' - which gives you converting to Access, as well as using Access reporting. It's a standard MS add-in, so you should be able to find it via the help file.

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By tomtrainer
11th May 2005 12:34

convert to Access tool
Joyce - where can I find the "convert to Access tool"?

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By slarti
06th May 2005 14:43

How can Accountants have probelms ...
... with relational databases?

Don't you use an accounting package?

What is an accounting package? It is a relational database, or at least all of the ones I have seen are.

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By Robjoy
05th May 2005 17:38

Hold nose, deep breath . . .
Pick a spreadsheet with any sort of list of stuff - transactions, customer details, doesn't really matter what, and use the convert to Access tool. Just PLAY with the resulting database, rummage around the help file (it really isn't bad, just huge), and you'll probably soon realise why people tell you that Access is brill.

Sure, you can get obscenely complicated with it, start getting clever with VBA and DAO (wassat? you say) such that a non-geek would struggle to understand, but you can do an awful lot of useful stuff without going bonkers.

Once you've had a go at it, find a local MS solution-provider-type company and get them to show you how to progress with what YOU want to do. More expensive than any out-of-the-box training, but much more likely to motivate. Apparently Microsoft are going to give it some serious development attention, so I wait with baited breath.

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By neileg
29th Apr 2005 11:32

Access
David is restating what I have said a number of times in this forum, over the years. A relational database like Access is great tool for accountants and one I would not like to do without.

You will have a problem, though. Anyone who has a high degree of competence in Excel will need to relearn their approach to problems. In Excel, you tend to store manipulate and display your data all in the same place. In Access these are separate functions. Excel junkies tend to try and use an Access table like a spreadsheet and that doesn't work.

I frequent www.access-programmers.co.uk and there's a load of helpful people, sample databases and FAQs. Not a substitute for formal training for a beginner, but a valuable resource if you want your databases to really perform.

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By listerramjet
29th Apr 2005 12:06

Access
I agree with Neil. Can't live without Access, and there is a distinct lack of good relevant training - too much is focussed on Access itself, which is not what is really required. The useful bits are the queries (or SQL) - which allow you to manipulate data, join up data from different sources, extract data, and do complex calculations.

I too am an excel junkie, but about 4 years ago i started to dabble with Access, and also with vba and dao, which allows me to manipulate access data and present it in excel.

I had a kickstart because i was involved in a project to implement a new time and fees system, part of which was to port existing data from 9 existing systems to 9 new systems, using access database structures, so i spent some time with an expert in sql, and learnt at the coal face.

My other useful source is the computer magazine PCW - there is an "experts" section at the back, and it has a regular feature on databases - pitched at the right level for the enquiring novice - I still learn lots from it. I think you can buy back copies of these from the website?

I have also over the years found nuggets via google.

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By AnonymousUser
02nd May 2005 08:30

Access
It is a bit of a mental leap to go from spreadsheets to relational databases, but once you've made it it's pretty much impossible to go back. I didn't find it clicked until our IT guy sat me through it one day with a pencil and a bit paper (and a lot of lines and arrows) and I've never looked back since.

There's a very good free set of online tutorials at www.functionx.com and any time you are stuck you can always rely on the users at www.utteraccess.com to help you out.

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By Anonymous
22nd Apr 2005 10:13

Thanks Helen
Appreciated.

I'll have a look at them

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By neiltonks
28th Apr 2005 09:20

P35 - don't panic!
Was the P35 reminder you've received an 'AR1' form?

If so, and you've sent your P35 electronically, then the reminder has probably been sent in error. HMRC (the new name for the Inalnd Revenue) issued the following statement a few days ago:

"Employers who had their 2004/05 P35 Annual Return issued electronically have been sent an AR1 reminder in error. Please be reassured that where the confirmation email has already been received ... following submission of the P35 or where the 9004 xml message code is received, we do have the details.

We apologise for any inconvenience caused by this problem. Investigations are underway to ascertain why this has happened and to ensure that the problem cannot arise again.

You will also find that the incorrect year of 2019/2020 is shown on reminders."

So if your software (or HMRC's email) has told you the P35 has been received, you can ignore the reminder.

Neil.

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By Andrew Goodall
28th Apr 2005 09:28

P35 reminders
See HMRC watch: P35 reminders for 2019/20.

Andrew Goodall
Editor, TaxZone

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By Anonymous
28th Apr 2005 10:39

Thanks re the P35
You're all right

Flipping annoying though isn't it?

And that's the polite version!

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By Abacjm
11th Apr 2005 18:01

Congratulations, Auld Yin!
Good to know that there is still some lead in the old pencil despite using it for so many Spreadsheets!

And all this after you tut-tutting about AJ's hem-line at the year end stocktake!
No doubt, you will need lots of advice to keep two incomes flowing and here is a link to get your started.

We wish you both all the nappiness to come.

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By Helen Crowley
19th Apr 2005 10:22

P11D software
We currently use PTP which works well for us but we're a firm of accountants preparing the forms for numerous companies after the year end. I recently looked at alternatives and came across one that I thought was better suited to individual companies to be used throughout the year and you can get a free download or arrange for a free trial version for 30 days;-
www.p11dorganiser.co.uk/
Another alternative recently recommended to me is PKF P11D software;-
click here to see it

(Please note that I'm not connected to any of these companies in any way)
P.S. Could some kind person make the above into links as I haven't a clue how that's done!

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By NBWNBW
06th Apr 2005 12:21

Good news!
Congratulations. As a 44 year old father of a ten month baby boy and a 4 year old girl, I too can say that parenthood at this great age brings much joy.
It also makes you very knackered and puts your planned retirement date back by a fair few years!!
Perhaps the siblings will be able to assist with nappy changes and night time feeds?!

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By eusjaka
05th Apr 2005 20:26

Congratulations!
Congratulations, as a 43 year old mother of an 8 month old baby girl, with a 12 year old stepdaughter, I can say that parenthood at this great age brings many rewards and much joy. Your new addition is going to be adored by his/her siblings and don't forget you will also have some built in baby-sitters/baby amusers!

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By Anonymous
06th Apr 2005 09:16

I hadn't thought of that one
I hadn't thought of the baby sitting point. Our eldest will be on for this (suitable bribes no doubt being supplied). That's one relief because we were just about over that era and I wouldn't like to have gone back to it entirely.

Mind you, I do recall having no energy to go out anyway when the existing brood were young.

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