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Nurturing enterprise. By Dan Martin

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5th May 2006
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Flicking through the television schedules, it's hard to avoid shows featuring wannabe entrepreneurs looking to start their own business. Yet that is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that 139-year-old accountancy firm MGI Wenham Major is looking for. Executive chairman John Joyce, who recently led a management buyout of the business, believes that serving entrepreneurs is key to the success of Wenham Major and the profession in general.

Alfred Ebenezer Wenham founded Wenham Major on Birmingham's Cherry Street in 1867. Since then, the firm has sought to help thousands of other business brains looking to set up, develop and grow successful firms.

Wenham Major executive chairman John Joyce puts great store in serving growing companies and says it is an area in which accountancy firms can find rich pickings.

Thousands of people are looking to set up in business, he says, many inspired by high profile personalities such as Alan Sugar or Peter Jones, Theo Paphitis and Duncan Bannatyne, three of the millionaire advisers on the BBC's Dragons' Den.

"Lots of people seem to be very positive about the future," Joyce reveals. "We have many new companies on the books looking to establish themselves. There are great opportunities for advisers to dedicate themselves to excellence."

His firm's proposition appeals to individuals who became accountants "not just to crunch numbers but to be entrepreneurial advisors to businesses," he says.

"Entrepreneurs crave advice, ideas, guidance, inspiration and fresh thinking outside the box," Joyce claims. "Many assume that all these things are a given but in the real world they are still a very rare commodity."

Overcoming the perception of just being 'number crunchers' is something many accountants face as they look to promote themselves also as business advisers.

Several of the professional insitutions have sought to do this through specialist enterprise initiatives.

Regional offices of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), for instance, run special committees which seek to get accountants in front of Business Links, Regional Development Agencies and other government-run business support organisations to raise the profile of accountants as entrepreneurial advisers.

One of the key aims of these committees is to assist members in gaining a role as intermediaries for small businesses seeking funding, a major area of difficulty for new start-ups in particular.

Professor Robin Jarvis, head of small business at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), says it is very important that accountants move into business advice.

"Lots of the compliance work many accountants used to rely on has gone," he says. "Due to the government raising the audit threshold, thousands of firms which used to get work from audits don't anymore.

"As a result, we are pushing for more accountants to become business advisers. The experience in the US shows small practitioners are heavily involved in assisting entrepreneurs."

Jarvis advises that when accountants are approached by small business clients for general accounting advice, they should seize the opportunity to offer other services. This, Jarvis says, is something "small businesses are willing to pay for" particularly guidance in complying with government regulations.

One area in which ACCA believes qualified accountants have a key role in supporting the small business sector is succession planning.

With around 100,000 businesses closing each year owing to failure to plan for succession, ACCA says qualified accountants should look to provide SME clients with objective and expert advice on a range of different succession situations, specifically related to each
business' individual circumstances.

In an effort to improve the way his company serves businesses, Joyce recently led an MBO from existing partners at Wenham Major. When he joined the firm it had an annual turnover of £2 million. Today, the business generates £10 million a year as it looks to break into the top 50 firms.

"We took the opportunity offered by an MBO to drive the business forward," Joyce said. "We approached Bank of Scotland and secured the finance to fund it."

Joyce's key recommendation for securing finance for an MBO is to ensure the organisation understands the business concerned.

"It is vital for me to ensure that our bankers understand growing businesses and their needs," he says. "That is what they [should be] about. Helping businesses grow."

Joyce says the MBO process took three months and passed off smoothly.

Looking to the future, his company is planning acquisitions both in the West Midlands region and further afield. It is also focusing on international development of the business.

For Joyce, the specialist services offered by an accountancy firm are vitally important but he advises that businesses looking to grow successfully should also remember the traditional values that have allowed certain firms to flourish for time immemorium. Excellence, integrity, professionalism and value for money are all things Joyce believes businesses should maintain.

"There are great opportunities for firms with a very clear direction," he claims. "The ones which succeed are those with a well defined business strategy as well as a focus on looking after their clients and employees."

As part of efforts to maintain the "traditional values", the company has established the "Wenham Major Charitable Trust" to coordinate charitable activities and to maintain good links with the local community.

Being part of the West Midlands business landscape for well over a century means local links are important to the firm. While an international presence is a key issue in the modern world, remembering where you've come from is also vital, says Joyce.

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