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Practice Talk: John Brear from Brown Butler

18th Mar 2019
Practice Editor AccountingWEB
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Brown Butler
Brown Butler

Not only are Leeds-based Brown Butler celebrating their centenary year by launching their own beer and numerous charity events in support of the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, but their longest serving partner John Brear also joins this week's Practice Talk.  

John Brear (pictured above with Brown Butler's audit director, Linda Cooper) joined Brown Butler in September 1978 and has been there ever since. Being a longstanding partner no one has a better insight into how the firm has endured for so many years. For Brear, the secret to the firm’s longevity is easy – it’s the firm's quality of service. “We get very close to our clients,” he said. “Many become friends.”

While client service remains at the heart of the firm, it’s with technology that Brear has seen the firm’s biggest evolution. Fortunately, the technology change has played into the strength of Leeds. “Leeds has always been able to adapt to where the new market is. It's a strong IT centre now, and we're attracting new business,” said Brear.

Celebrating its hundredth year, Brown Butler has become a staple in its hometown of Leeds. But that doesn't mean the firm has stood still. When Brear joined Brown Butler was very much a small firm with 32 people and the average client was the smaller type. But the firm is now moving up to the mid-tier market client and has become a well-known brand in the centre of Leeds amongst other professions.

But one area in the profession that hasn’t changed for the best is emails. “It’s the bane of our lives, but it is a necessary evil.” However, it’s not all bad. “We have much more computerised systems than I'd have ever of dreamed of when I started. I started with a pencil and rubber but I don't use either very much now.”

* * *

What's the first thing you do when you start your working day?

Number one: turn the computer on and get rid of all the rubbish emails, which takes a while. I probably turn my screen and I've got 70 emails. I can quickly get rid of 30 to 40 of them and then start picking through and prioritising them. That's the first job every morning simply because people don't phone you up anymore, they send an email and it sits on your screen until it’s finished.

Emails crop up often in this feature. Do you continue checking your emails beyond the 'traditional 9 to 5 working hours'?

I am guilty of it, but it doesn't concern me. I realise that my phone has an off-button. I don't use it very often, but know I can. I'm guilty on holiday – we all just flick through and see what's come through.

What do you do to escape the world of tax and accounts?

All sorts. It's amazing I've got any time to do any work. I sail, I cycle, I play guitar in a band, and we’re going through a house renovation at the moment – so that's taking up a lot of thought process as well as money. I sing in a choir, I play squash. I've taken up golf again in my old age. It's an old man's sport so I thought I'd have a go.  

Is that the secret to not getting caught up in the always-on culture?

Absolutely. I've seen some of my previous partners get the work-life balance completely wrong and suffered from it. I refuse to do the same. I've always had strong interests outside the office. Separate social friends as well; I think it's very important. It's very easy to drop into a regime of going out to dinner with your clients all the time. It's important you have people outside that circle to break it.

What has been the biggest change you've seen in the profession?

It's sad that I spend so little time on the phone because you can't put sentiment into an email. I think that's been the biggest change: moving away from the personal touch and also, the loss of personal touch with the other professionals like the banks or with HMRC. You can't speak to an inspector you know. When I started, we knew all the inspectors, so you could actually talk to them. That's impossible now. That's a big change and a big loss in my mind, the loss of the personal touch to other professionals.

Are you ready for Making Tax Digital?

We still have quite a lot of small clients who have traditionally been on paper-based systems. We're doing quite a bit of hand-holding in getting them across to some form of digital recording. A lot have no idea or interest in it. HMRC doesn't recognise that fact, I don't think. I don't think it's a fantastic idea for everyone. It's a harsh regime of change for a lot of people and it's creating work for us. So for accountants it’s a good thing, but for quite a lot of clients, this could be the thing that finally makes them retire. Ask me in ten years’ time if it's a good thing, but long term, it will probably prove to be a good thing.

Can you remember your first calculator?

My first calculator goes back to my school days. Sadly it's gone somewhere. It wouldn't have had enough digits because they were LED at that point in time, so you only had eight digits. It wouldn't be big enough for a lot of our clients now.