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ICAEW Practitioners’ Conference 2007: Staff come first! By Nigel Harris

29th May 2007
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Small practitioners – that is, ICAEW members from small firms and sole practices – gathered last week at Moorgate Place in London for an annual conference with two objectives: “avoid exposure and add value to your practice.” Pity then that so few had heeded the call. A mere 25 delegates were booked on the conference, and of them only 20 bothered to turn up. The great hall had never looked so empty.

Gordon Gilchrist of 2020 Innovation Group chaired the conference and did his best to encourage audience participation, but never really managed to get much life out of the assembled few who looked rather lost in what was a totally inappropriate venue for a gathering of this size. Gilchrist abandoned any script, switched on a digital recorder (for his secretary to transcribe later and email to delegates) and used the first session to look at the issues facing smaller firms today. As usual, he came up with a few startling (although unsubstantiated) statistics:

  • The most common age of ICAEW members is 59 – looking round the room he was about right there.
  • 62 per cent of worldwide accountancy work is currently being done in India
  • Paperless audit systems will make you 25 per cent more efficient in the end - after an initial cost of about £1,000 per client
  • Accountancy is the most stressful career: partners in accounting firms have a 70 per cent chance of not making it to the age of 65 (is that why there were so few at the conference – have they all left the profession or died?)!

His key message was: staff must come first. Successful firms are spending most of their time, energy and money on keeping their people happy. This is increasingly important and the pool of available qualified accountants shrinks, a phenomenon being felt worldwide. Gilchrist reckoned employees want four key things:

1. Challenging work – especially where firms are able to outsource compliance work, qualified staff are able to focus on the services clients really want, such as tax planning, wealth care/financial services, business advice and exit route and strategic planning.
2. Training, especially in IT
3. Communication – staff want to know what’s going on in the firm. A regular Monday morning briefing can do wonders for morale and help staff feel involved and valued.
4. Flexible working day – there are all sorts of possibilities - how about closing on Friday afternoons from June to September? Staff will love the opportunity to make more of the summer, and experience shows that clients don’t mind.

On the other hand, goodwill can be a huge barrier to retaining staff with a view to becoming partners, which is a firm’s best prospect for succession. Goodwill is notoriously difficult to value, and expensive to buy! Gilchrist suggested that valuing goodwill at 70p in the pound and deducting the value of purchased goodwill from an incoming partner’s profit share over his or her first seven years is a viable solution for small firms.

Next we moved on to “exposure” issues, with Alun Morgan on UK GAAP and the FRSSE, followed by Chantry Vellacott DFK’s Dr Stephen Hill on Identity Theft and the Practitioner. Gilchrist then returned to look at the challenge of growing your practice.

After the customarily excellent lunch the afternoon’s menu maintained the high standard of the morning’s proceedings. Barrister, law lecturer and legal adviser Louise Dunford gave an excellent presentation on company law. If you get a chance to hear Louise speak, grab it – she was the surprising star turn at the conference. Gordon Gilchrist returned to look at outsourcing, followed by lawyer Daniel Izza on attacking cashflow and unlocking debt. Trevor Smith of the ICAEW’s Quality Assurance Directorate surveyed the QAD’s findings from visiting firms and pointed out the pitfalls to avoid. Amazingly, delegates were still on the edges of their seats when the final speaker took to the stage at 4.45. Organisers CCH had chosen the right man in Michael Reader to close the conference on tax investigations and enquiries, especially the offshore bank account amnesty.

This year’s Practitioners’ Conference was a missed opportunity for the many ICAEW members in small practices who could have benefited from this excellent series of presentations. Was it bad timing, poor marketing by CCH or just apathy on the part of members? I have no idea, but I do know that there are 20 smug-feeling practitioners out there who are better equipped to avoid exposure and add value to their practices, and who all felt that the conference was time well spent away from the office.


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Richard Murphy
By Richard Murphy
02nd Jun 2007 11:40

Nigel - let's face reality
This course looked as if it was about making money, treating staff well, providing client's with what they want and personal excellence.

Chartered accountants do not seek those things. That's sad, but true.

Unfortunately, the world knows that's the case.

Richard Murphy

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