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How Carpenter Box coped with the crisis

MHA Carpenter Box partner and head of cloud accounting Nathan Keeley told AccountingWEB how the south coast firm managed the transition to home working.

21st Apr 2020
Editor in Chief (interim) AccountingWEB
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MHA Carpenter Box_Gatwic

Part of the MHA network, Accounting Excellence Award 2019 finalist Carpenter Box operates three offices with 180 staff spread between Worthing, Gatwick and Brighton. When the coronavirus lockdown took effect on 24 March, the firm had to switch overnight to remote operations.

Logistics

With fewer premises to run, some central staff were put on furlough during what is typically a quiet time for accountancy firms. Some partners and admin staff take turns to go into the Worthing and Gatwick offices during working hours to handle filing, scanning and other tasks that need personal attention. Otherwise all the firm’s chargeable staff are working from home at full capacity, Keeley said.  The firm is now starting to bring some of the furloughed people back to work.

Carpenter Box has an IT team that runs its internal systems. “We had a capital spend in our budget for server replacement. [The crisis] just accelerated that to ensure we had enough remote desktops to work,” Keeley explained.

“Our tech team came in and built the terminal hosting themselves. Most of our software was cloud so we could use it through a browser. The only thing we needed hosting for was CCH [ProSystem tax and practice software suite]. We had about 30 remote desktops, but needed about 100 to use it.”

How they work now

CCH provides a central database for client files and audit workpapers, but is not currently used to co-ordinate workflows extensively. In the new, remote set-up, the firm is relying heavily on Microsoft Teams alongside the work-tracking Trello app and Slack SMS text chat system.

“We already have Microsoft Office 365 licences and Teams is part of that,” said Keeley. “We are using it a lot more and having daily check-ins with the wider team including those on furlough.

Different channels support group chats and file sharing among several sub-groups, including a central Covid-19 hub and one where partners can all can view shared performance reports.

In a typical day, Keeley will have up to five meetings with other partners and departments in Teams. 

The firm experienced some initial teething troubles with Teams, Keeley continued, “But the lockdown has made us all use it properly.”

The main hurdle around digital co-ordination was training, where the initial approach had been to give people their log-in and tell them to get on with it.

Since the lockdown, team members who knew how to use Teams led the way and hosted online meetings to show other staff members the ropes. Now, after nearly a month, “Everyone is logging on and using it at the right times,” Keeley reported.

Accelerated transformation plans

A bit of disruption was always likely when shifting to remote working, but the process has gone relatively smoothly. MHA Carpenter Box did have continuity plans in place for things like server failures or single office closures, said Keeley. “Actually moving 180 people to work from home wasn’t really foreseen, so we didn’t have a formal plan.”

However, since the turn of the year, Keeley had been working on a longer-term digital transformation plan. This had been refined down to a list of 17 priority projects. “It took me about 3-4 months to build it and we were about to get started. Coronavirus made that plan more relevant,” he said.

The transformation revolved around redesigning and standardising tasks such as client on-boarding, job delivery and client workpapers.

Given his role as head of cloud, Keeley was keen to implement online processes for bookkeeping and outsourced finance functions and to roll out tools such as Receipt Bank (receipt capture), Futrli and Fathom (reporting and forecasting) to other partner groups.

With multiple offices, partners and departments, Carpenter Box faces some challenges in managing work reviews and handovers. “Some people use their own spreadsheets for that stuff, so that’s a new area we’ll be looking at as part of the digital transformation,” Keeley said.

Impact on client service

The test of the transition was whether or not clients noticed any disruption. Keeley reported that he had experienced “no slow down”, but has devoted a lot of effort in recent years to manage the client base to minimise panic calls.

There are two prongs to this strategy, the first of which is “enabling clients to do their jobs better than they did before”, he explained. This means getting them onto online accounting systems and using automated tools to get them to submit their accounts earlier.

“That’s been facilitated from what we’ve done in the past,” he said. Clients who use Xero for bookkeeping are equipped with Receipt Bank not just for expense capture, but other documents too. “If we need a copy bank statement from a client, they can use Receipt Bank to get that to us.”

Keeley recently fielded a request for a cashflow forecast to support a client’s coronavirus loan application. “Because the accounts were pretty much all up to date, I did that in about 30 minutes with just a bit of tinkering with stock provisions,” he said.

The crisis has increased interest from other partners in rolling out similar facilities to their clients. “There was a movement towards this among younger fee earners. Now some of the more traditional partners are moving towards it too. We’ll be cracking on with software conversions.”

Virus information hub

The other key feature in the Carpenter Box coronavirus strategy is its online information hub. Whenever HMRC releases new guidance, the firm translates it into English and put it in the hub, Keeley said.

The hub features a menu of downloads and webinars on how to apply and follow the correct processes for different Covid-19 support schemes.

“Clients want to relate guidance to their particular circumstances. Originally smaller clients with £8,000pa payrolls were ringing to ask how the furlough scheme affected them. Having a place where they can find that information has kept down the client enquiries. Otherwise, we would spend all our time talking to clients, but not being able to tell them anything or bill for it. It’s a way to avoid problems until the dust settles,” Keeley said.

Sharing experiences

Many mid-size and large firms join networks like MHA to expand their reach for new business, both nationally and internationally. MHA is not a single entity, but a federation of independent firms. The affiliation has become a useful forum for sharing expertise and ideas during the crisis.

“We’re having catch-ups where different functional groups such as HR, IT and marketing share the issues they are encountering and how they solve them,” said Keeley.

“What we’re finding is we’re all approaching it in a similar way. The percentage of staff furloughs and cancelled direct debits we’re experiencing are pretty much at the same level. And there’s a lot of similarity in how we’re getting information to clients and assisting them.”

As a finalist for four Accounting Excellence Awards last year Keeley has gained a reputation for innovation, much of which comes from his forward planning and sharing ideas beyond the firm’s walls.  Having tackled the firm’s own transition, he is already thinking beyond the immediate challenges posed by the lockdown.

“Now is not the problem,” he said. “It’ll be January next year, where there will be 150% self-assessment payments to make, deferred VAT to make and corporation tax too. Firms are hoping to get back to some sort of normality, but government help will be reduced by then. When January comes, some of them will be in real pain. We’ll need to advise clients on what to do to give them the best chance to make those payments – and what to do if they can’t.”

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