Small Change: Geoffrey Britton from GBAC Ltd
Welcome to Small Change, a weekly catch-up with an accountant in practice to find out their daily routine and ask them about the biggest trends in the profession.
When Geoff Britton established his Yorkshire-based practice nearly 50 years ago Edward Heath was the prime minister and Sage was still a decade away from development. But at 75 years old and five decades in the profession, Britton remains excited about accountancy.
Not wanting to contradict this esteemed feature’s title, it’s fair to say Britton has seen big changes in accountancy over the years from the services accountants offer clients to the rise of cloud accounting. But when he started there were no computers.
It all started for Britton when he moved to London. Soon after he was presented with a partnership opportunity but his home in the north of England beckoned. So he returned, taking that firm with him. As it happened, they didn’t mind a branch office.
The branch was a bit of a plaything for the firm. So in 1972, two years after the office opened, Britton bought them out. GBAC has since grown to a 40 person firm.
As you can imagine, Britton has plenty to talk about. He tells the Small Change team about evolving as an accountant, living with an assortment of animals on his farm, and retirement.
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What's the first thing you do when you start your day?
I'm usually greeted by two wonderful receptionists who are here before me. They'll ask if I want a cup of coffee and the answer is always yes and what I want for my lunch.
I've usually picked most of my emails up because I get up quite early; we live on a farm and I've still got that instinct in me, although we've only got a few hens, ducks, dogs and cats these days.
Making tax digital or making tax difficult?
It's an inevitable consequence of sharing information. It's possibly long overdue.
As an example, I used to be the president of the European Federation of Accountants and Auditors for SMEs for five years. We were talking with the Scandinavians and someone from Finland said: “high-speed broadband was a human right”. Then somebody from either Sweden or Norway said the chequebook was abolished in the year 2000.
We were talking about abolishing cheques in 2013/14. We are so far behind in lots of things. If you press a button and transfer money, what the hell do you want to be writing a cheque out and stick it in an envelope for the postal worker to carry it on their back?
It's just all in progress and Making Tax Digital is exactly the same - why not share the information?
Will your clients be ready for the eventual MTD rollout?
Oh, they will be, yeah, or they won't be clients of ours.
What's the biggest change in the profession since you qualified?
You’ve got to split it into two. Firstly, competition for work has altered dramatically. When I first started I was told that if you put your letters on the window saying 'Geoffrey Britton, chartered certified accountant' too big it would be decreed as advertising, and if we were competing we wouldn't be very good accountants.
We've now got lots of people coming in who are not qualified accountants and I am not saying that is a bad thing because it enables the people who are qualified to stand out.
But I do think it has a bad effect on ethics. I am amazed that the accounting profession still holds pole position in terms of its ethical standards. But I think we are trusted more than any other profession. I think the trust flows into what we sell. We sell independence.
And the other big change?
Connectivity. When I first started, if I wanted to make a telephone call from here to Doncaster, I had to do it through the operator.
We had no fax machines either. I thought they were amazing when they came out. I paid something like £3,000 for the first one. We had no mobile phones, no emails, and I didn't have a computer until at least the 80s.
Do you think you've sustained success due to your ability to evolve?
I was lucky to have grown up in the 60s. I'm an old hippy. We wanted change, and we embraced change like you've never known.
I've also been lucky because I married someone from fashion industry, and that's an industry that almost by necessity changes because you don't want to wear the same thing every day.
The fashion industry is also well known for accepting things which are considered natural now. I was in that world as much as this world: we were buying clothes in Paris, Milan and New York when very few people were doing it. So exporting and working with the Europeans as I did in later life has always been normal to me.
What do you do to escape the world of tax and accounts?
I don't think I'm ever in it really (laughs). When I get home, I take the dogs out, and have a walk around our little farm, which is 1000 feet up in the Pennines.
But I've told them here that I'm going to retire when I am 80. I think it's a younger person's profession. Although nobody wants me to go, I think this change has got to be imposed sometimes.
There are 40 people here and there are a lot of opportunities that they deserve to have. But all I can create is an opportunity for them to progress, but they've got to do the rest.
Can you remember your first calculator?
No. I've got a calculator on my desk now, but I very rarely use it - I'd rather do it in my head. I can't help working out the effects of numbers. I love playing about with them.
But for everyday conversation, it's easier to communicate if these numbers mean something to you and that's all we do. We're only communicators. We turn facts into figures and then we turn the figures back into facts.