Accountants are often cited as the number one business adviser for small businesses. Reports and research from ICAEW as recently as 2014 and IFAC in 2016 back this. But who do accountants see as their trusted advisers? Who do you turn to for advice and to grow as a business owner?
When I quizzed an accountant, who shall remain anonymous, on this recently, they replied: “Not any of my partners that’s for sure!” Another accountant quipped: “I Google everything.” And while the sentiment might ring true, research on LinkedIn reflects other options.
A highly structured approach
For some like Kevin Whitehouse, owner of Prime Entry, highly structured business coaching is the popular route: “We use a number of Elite coaching and mastermind groups, regular time together with experts from a variety of industries and monthly coaching calls. It's all about the accountability and implementation,” he said.
The use of coaches is repeatedly cited; AccountingWEB contributor Della Hudson noted: “My business coach and the collaboration group she facilitated for us” as being a prime example, and does reflect that many find reassurance and results linked to working in a structured way.
Clients as advisers
However, Christopher Vines, an assistant manager at Price Bailey, sees the benefits of coaching as an approach but regards clients as a valuable source of insight and support: “I have a very close relationship and friendship with some of my clients, so most definitely I value their input and honesty.”
In previous conversations it’s easy to see a degree of tension in accountants seeing clients as a source of advice; however, given that strong ties accountants form with clients over the years it’s perhaps no surprise that there is a high level of trust that grows with it. And trust is ultimately at the heart of this conversation.
Turning to other accountants
This level of trust builds between peers in other firms too. Will Farnell from Farnell Clarke commented: “For me it's probably my peers. It's certainly where I get most value when I get to chat with other innovative firms in my network. Lots of structured (and semi-structured) forums and environments where you get chance to chat about what's going on but equally I will pick up the phone and chat to those I respect.”
The existence of various membership organisations has always been testament of networking in this way, and although their reputation goes up and down over time, one of their major benefits has always been to provide the basis for discussion and sharing between individuals from different firms.
However, the thankfully irrepressible Carl Reader from Dennis and Turnbull doesn’t see that this in itself brings any benefit. “I do speak to other firms, but in honesty, the better ideas come from looking at businesses in other industries. Quite a few firms just regurgitate what they've been told by a software vendor or a CPD lecturer, with the ‘adviser’ having never been in business themselves.”
But working with accounting specialists on a more one-on-one basis works well, and can provide considerable direct value, as Margaret Thornton, tax and strategy director at Morgan Cameron explained: “For many years, until we sold our business, Mark Lloydbottom was our mentor - best thing we ever did was ask him to advise us.” Lloydbottom is a long standing specialist working with accountants globally (and to ease Reader’s mind, someone who has built up and sold several highly profitable businesses including an accounting practice).
A broad base to call upon
Reader revealed how his broader network helps to fill the gaps. “I've got an informal ‘non-exec’ board for advice in their own area. For example, in change management, legal matters, employee engagement, marketing etc it's a team of about 30 who might get called on 10 times in a year, or once. They are just mates, who also call on me when needed”.
Such an approach echoes how many CFOs operate with a broad network, called upon usually regarding specific challenges, and used as a starting point for advice and insight before deciding on more formal engagements.
The Soaring Falcon practice-owner Alex Falcon-Huerta, for example, relies on a less structured but no less complete mix. “I speak to people in the industry all the time. Also, close friends who have successful businesses, mentors, clients, ACCA, Xero. So many people offer support”.
Know, like and trust
The underlying themes revert back to finding those you know, like and trust, respect, and has the expertise or specialism that you need.
And in the end, Glynn Davison from Harlands concludes that accountants are not so dissimilar to their clients in this way.
“Accounting practices are businesses and we need to think at the same level as the best leaders. I’ve been a member of Vistage for three years now and it shapes your thinking. You need someone outside of the accountancy sector to push you to think outside of the accountancy box. It’s a private advisory group for CEOs and MDs and has been hugely valuable for my learning as a leader and our business as a whole - we now understand how little we actually knew about business growth, and help our clients understand that about themselves too. Numbers are only ever a part of the business growth journey!”
Thinking about the outcomes here is also the consistent theme. Whether it’s the ‘needs must’ of a specific hot challenge, preparing your business for a specific outcome like maximising value at time of sale, fuelling your passion for knowledge and new ideas, or working through a formal structure on a range of business growth areas.
Your adviser is who you need at the right time with the right insight.
Who is your trusted adviser? Do you rely on the same mentors mentioned above, or have we missed someone?