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Practice development networks - an overview. By Nigel Harris

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21st Sep 2007
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The 1990s saw the rise and rise of the practice development gurus. In fact, they were probably unavoidable - if you were in public practice they probably accounted for a sizeable amount of junk mail every week. Some of the names have changed in recent years, and some new networks have appeared. Here is AccountingWEB's brief guide to the current state of the UK market.

The common themes of these practice development experts include:

  • Systematising routine and compliance work in order to make it as profitable as possible
  • Reducing reliance on compliance work - in view of the reducing market for audits and the growth of computer software which has taken over much bookkeeping work - and developing specialist business consulting skills, often delivered via software tools
  • Remoulding the firm of the future, for example moving from time-based to value-based billing

The Accountants’ Boot Camp and beyond
The whole thing started back in the early 1990s with Results Accountants' Network very intensive Accountants' Boot Camp and its charismatic Australian front man, Paul Dunn. Many UK accountants attended a Boot Camp and came away with minds thoroughly blown and ready to take the profession into a new dimension. AccountingWEB technology editor John Stokdyk joined a Boot Camp in June 2000 and lived to tell the tale. John commented that "at £3,195 for four intensive days Boot Camp wasn't cheap, but then again it was only aimed at those serious about changing the way they ran their practice."

The trouble often came when delegates returned to the office. Those whose partners attended en masse generally did better at implementing the Results tools and techniques than those who only sent a few. The latter generally failed to convince their partners of the benefits of change, the enthusiasm was soon lost, despite the regular phone calls from the Results team (Paul insisted that your people were always your 'team', never staff!) and the whole thing fizzled out.

FTI (or Failure To Implement) the things learned on the Boot Camp was unfortunately the expensive reality for firms that tried to do the Results thing by halves. On the other hand, those who went for it hook line and sinker have become some of the most profitable and innovative small and medium-sized firms in the UK.

Results demonstrated one of the characteristics of many of these successful networks – having gained a critical mass of members it pulled back from mass-marketing to prospective members and concentrated on working with existing members, becoming effectively a closed group.

Results Accountants' Network became RAN-ONE in 2000. As their website explains, "RAN is a reminder of our initial heritage (the Results Accountants' Network), and ONE represents our position as number ONE in the global SME market", a pretty bold claim. They currently have 130 client firms in the UK and Ireland, 350-400 in the USA, 120 in Australia and others spread elsewhere across the globe. The change of name marked a turning inward, the end of public Boot Camps and the like, plus Paul Dunn's retirement to France, and a refocusing of the organisation as a consolidated global consulting network.

RAN ONE is not primarily about tools, as CEO Michael McKerlie explained to me, they teach people how to fish as well as providing the rod and bait. McKerlie and his team are primarily from a big firm management consulting background rather than from the accounting profession and their goal is to bring consulting skills to smaller firms. RAN ONE does provide subscriber firms with tools to provide strategic and management consulting to SME clients, but it also provides training to enable them to deliver consulting services, or “service lines” as they call them, to small businesses.

Curiously, an Any Answers enquiry about RAN ONE earlier this year failed to get any response, so their subscribers are either keeping tight lipped, or they seldom visit this site.

The impact of the original Boot Camps on the profession in the UK cannot be underestimated. Even those who rejected Results' evangelical fervour generally accepted that something had to be done, and most will have implemented some of the ideas. The original Boot Camp concepts have now spread far and wide across a whole inter-linked network of practice development gurus in the UK and beyond.

However, the Boot Camp is far from dead and Ric Payne, another Aussie who co-founded the original Boot Camps with Paul Dunn in 1992, continues to run them through his Principa network. If you wonder what you missed before, the next one is being held in the UK in March 2008. Members of the Principa Alliance receive a range of marketing tools, business analysis and planning software and the Delta-4 Consulting System, a turn-key approach to providing business advisory services to SMEs, and the Delta-4 Practice System as well as member training events and conferences. Principa has offices in the USA, Australia and the UK.

Well known in Canada and the USA, but with some members in the UK, is British ex-pat Steve McIntyre-Smith’s MFA (Marketing for Accountants) Group, which describes itself as “a 'boutique' consultancy, working ONLY with public accounting firms”. It provides a range of services from recruitment and mergers and acquisitions to marketing training, coaching and the popular 'Towards Awesome Client Service' programme (which is totally unrelated to the old Results programme of the same name).

A new name I came across recently is Mindshop, founded in 1995 by leading Australian management consultant Chris Mason as a consulting group specialising in strategic business planning, export market development and continuous improvement. Although it has a UK contact address, its main focus appears to be USA and Australia.

Look out too for ProFirm, a 12-month practice development programme created by two German accountants, Gunther Hübner and Lukas Höbarth. They have been guests at Practice Engine conferences in the UK. Unfortunately the Hübner and Hübner website is in German only, but at least it proves that the practice development movement is not confined to the English-speaking world.

Home-grown UK networks
Having learned from the Results Accounting Systems experience, UK chartered accountant Steve Pipe was able to move into the void left when Results became RAN-ONE. Steve's Added Value Masterclass is his take on the Boot Camp, but again, having achieved critical mass, his network has started to focus on developing member services rather than recruiting new members. The Added Value Network claimed in 2003 to be the "largest independent network of accountants in the UK" with 450 member offices, 1,001 partners and 5,141 staff. Steve was editorial advisor on the ICAEW's influential report 'Added-value professionals - Chartered Accountants in 2005'. While AVN is still taking new members, like Results before it, there has been a discernable move away from purely building the numbers to focusing on supporting existing members.

Still actively looking for new business is the 2020 Group founded by well known speakers on the UK CPD circuit, US-based Chris Frederiksen with Ian Fletcher and Gordon Gilchrist. The group now boasts over 1,300 members (in 2003 there were “over 700”) but still markets its services and products to members and non-members alike. Its Tax Tools & Tips CDs have been a top seller on AccountingWEB and have received enthusiastic reviews from users.

Chris has been a popular speaker on CPD courses for many years and users of the Tips & Tools CDs will recognise ideas which he was promoting many years ago. His ideas remain simple but effective, based on his track record of building (and selling) accounting firms in the USA.

2020 has taken its successful accountancy network model and built a parallel network of legal firms. Unlike the other networks, it also runs a series of technical and practice management CPD seminars across the UK, as well as its annual conferences, marketing and business development courses. 2020 is also noticeably open to working with other networks, and has featured speakers from RAN ONE and Harris Walters on recent seminars.

New kid on the block, the Probiz Network, founded by ex-RAN ONE consultant Feisal Nahaboo, has been around for a couple of years and now boasts 300 member firms. Probiz's main focus is on helping firms to get new business referrals, although exactly how is not widely publicised. Instead Nahaboo claims to have “made £50m+ for accountants, and associates this year”. Its website – which is apparently out of date – mentions that it provides a range of SME consulting tools and its own PQA9001 quality assurance standard to back up the Probiz brand. Probiz members enjoy an exclusive geographical area for new business referrals.

Feisal contributed his own comments on Probiz on a recent Any Answers item.

In the best tradition of rock family trees and the like, we have to mention Mark Lloydbottom. Mark was one of the first people in the UK to offer a range of marketing tools and materials to forward-thinking accountancy firms and developed PracticeWEB with Sift to offer website packages specifically tailored to the accountancy profession.

Harris Walters has been quietly making in-roads into the UK accountancy market as a provider of what it calls “proven business advisory services”, including its “Complete Business Advisory Solution”, which is aimed at practising accountants and business consultants. Again, it offers small business consulting tools and training with an ongoing support service.

Another up and coming UK network is MORE, which claims to be the only network that specialises in compliance for firms who have micro/small business clients and who don't really want high level business consulting services. MORE is moving away from being just a bookkeeping software company and re-positioning itself as a Marketing and Client Management System. They offer technical support, marketing guidance and will shortly be adding for its members market research and mystery shopping, websites with an online and lead generation from direct mail and telemarketing. MORE software has received enthusiastic user feedback in previous SAAS articles and has clearly come up with services that hit the right buttons for these very small practitioners.

Training groups branch out
Back in the 1970s the ICAEW encouraged smaller member firms to set up training consortia to provide the sort of training and technical services which had hitherto been the sole domain of the big firms. Some of these consortia have now moved beyond training and CPD into practice development too. One of the first, and perhaps the best known, is SWAT, established in 1976 (as South West Accountancy Tuition) by six firms of accountants in Devon and Cornwall. Today SWAT represents some 120 member firms and supports around 4,000 firms across the UK on an ad-hoc basis. It now offers a huge range of training seminars, products and services to non-members. Its annual practice management conference is a high point in the CPD calendar for many firms. Mike Sturgess and his team have pioneered practice development concepts such as Web Trust and offer a range of practice development courses and consultancy services to encourage firms to become more effective and profitable.

Midlands-based training group Mercia was established in 1979 in a similar way to SWAT, and likewise offers training and other services to both members and non-members. On the practice development side, Mercia has been a particular advocate of value pricing and the writings of US writer Ron Baker, author of the influential book the 'Professional's Guide to Value Pricing'. In January 2001 Baker and two like-minded American CPAs set up the VeraSage Institute, a think tank dedicated to teaching value pricing to professionals around the world. The Mercia annual members conference has been one such platform for Baker in the UK. Completing the circle of gurus, Baker's latest book 'The Firm of the Future' is co-written with none other than ex-Results figurehead Paul Dunn.

For an impartial view of Ron Baker and his writings, take a look at www.RonBakerSucks.com, a Monty Pythonesque tribute to Baker by accountant Paul O'Byrne, whose firm is a leading member of Pipe's Added Value Network!

Blogs – The new medium
A new development of the 21st century is the blog. Practice development experts have been quick to use blogs to communicate with their target market, and noteable among them and well-worth reading are:

  • David Maister, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on the management of professional service firms - or so his blog reckons, but with titles like the 1993 classic 'Managing the Professional Service Firm' to his name there is some justification in his claim.
  • Practitioner-turned-consultant, and regular AccountingWEB contributor Mark Lee.
  • Ric Payne has his own Make a Difference blog on the Principa website.

* * *
There are probably others in this tangled webs of networks and gurus that we have completely overlooked. Let us know in the comments area below.

This article is an updated version of Nigel’s 2003 guide to practice development gurus.

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