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Nikki and Nigel Adams
Accounting-Excellence

Ad Valorem: Lessons from a pioneering firm

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Nikki and Nigel Adams explain how their pioneering strategy of running a firm like a tech business has created a culture of team empowerment, collaboration and transparent pricing. 

 

9th May 2022
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These days, leading practitioners look outside the profession for the latest trends and draw on the experience of other industries to grow. They see what they do as a ‘business’ and don’t so much associate it with the word ‘practice’.

Nikki and Nigel Adams, the driving force at Milton Keynes-based Ad Valorem, pioneered this way of thinking in the profession. It also drives everything in the business, from the team-driven culture, collaboration with other practices and use of technology, and led to the husband and wife team being crowned the 2021 practice pioneers at the Accounting Excellence Awards. 

Nikki and Nigel spoke to AccountingWEB and outlined how their pioneering approach to the profession has built an accountancy practice that ticks every box in Accounting Excellence. 

See yourself as business

While Ad Valorem is a professional services firm, Nikki and Nigel see themselves inwardly as a technology company. “Our office is modelled on the tech industry, encouraging a relaxed atmosphere, with flexibility at its core. It is pioneering to see what successful businesses are doing outside the profession,” said Nigel.

Part of that is embracing specialist disciplines outside the normal realm of the profession. “Our sales guys are not accountants that do a bit of business development. Our tech guys are proper tech guys with proper tech qualifications, not a partner who fancies doing a few spreadsheets,” said Nigel Adams. 

Having the right mix of personalities is integral to the success of the firm. Coming from a recruitment background, Nikki is a proponent of employee profiling.  “Pretty much every team that I've profiled for acquisitions are very similar. I think that stifles creativity and growth because the partners are only recruiting mirror images of themselves.”

Profiling also leads to a more open culture. “We're then able to have conversations about improving how we deal with each other and understanding where there's conflict and why there's conflict,” said Nikki.  

The power of collaboration

And similar to how a tech firm views others in their app ecosystem, Nikki and Nigel see the value in collaborating with other accountancy firms. The pair have worked with the ACCA, schools and over 40 other practices.

From the early days of Ad Valorem, they both recognise the advantage of calling someone in a managing partner group if they had an issue and asking: ‘how did you deal with this?’

“It's a massive marketplace,” explained Nikki. “There's room for everybody - there are not enough accountants. In the old days, there was always this thing about keeping hold of your clients and worrying if you lost a client. I think it’s a bit pioneering that we've built a sales team. So while we don’t want to lose a client, we don't worry if we do. 

“If you've got a sales and marketing function that's constantly bringing in new business, you don't sit there worrying about another accountant taking your work because you have confidence in what you're delivering.”

And there are other benefits to collaborating with the rest of the profession. “We have helped support firms doing payroll where they don't want to offer a payroll service, or we've done R&D for them because they don't want to offer an R&D service. So, we've helped [these smaller firms] with specialist services they are not big enough to do yet and supplemented their income by providing things they can't do.” 

While Ad Valorem has also picked up acquisitions off the back of this collaborative approach, the firm has also provided personal growth opportunities for its employees. 

“It helps us keep our team doing different things. We've got experts in different areas, so [collaborating with other firms] gives progression to our team,” said Nikki. 

Empower your team

Remembering the “hard yards” as a trainee, Nigel knows all too well the “mind-numbingly boring” tasks and promises from partners that “one day you might be allowed to sit on my shoulder”. That’s why Nikki and Nigel recognise the need to make the work environment interesting and to create a space for youngsters to do the job. 

“A lot of small firms, because they tend to run lifestyle businesses, struggle to attract talent because there’s no future in that business for someone who's coming in as a young trainee. Where do they go in that business?” said Nikki. 

“I think you've got to have a vision of where you want to take your business, otherwise, why would [new talent] come to you and not go somewhere else? So for us, we get excited by growth. The latest acquisition we've just done enhances our audit service line - we had started to lose people because they wanted audit experience.”

Wherever Nikki and Nigel decide to take the firm next, they filter the decision through what it will mean not just for clients but also for the team. Even their top tip for achieving Accounting Excellence is to “Listen to your team, they are your biggest asset!”

It’s why they recognised the need for the whole team to have a forum to voice their opinions and ideas - not just the senior managers. The firm created the ‘innovation hub’ for anyone to make suggestions, where examples include “how to build a scalable management account service” and launching new service lines.

The firm also launched the ‘Culture Club’ during the Covid lockdowns, with a mix of representatives from each team deciding on ways to retain the family-like culture as the business grows.

Price like a tech firm

The way the firm structures pricing like a tech company also gives team members a hierarchy to progress throughout their careers. This is even more important as the talent crunch gets more competitive, and the urgency to retain staff challenges firms across the UK. 

The firm has six pricing 'bands': three of which are compliance-based and three are transactional advisory. With the base-level transactional advisory service, for example, the firm uses Syft Analytics to start working with clients on basic KPIs to help them put a foundation in their business. 

“Like a tech company structure, we could say, ‘right, you're on the top level of compliance, but we can give you three to six months at the ground level of the advisory package at your existing price. If it's not for you, you can go back to your old package price. We're giving them the opportunity to see what they could have without forcing them down a channel,” explained Nigel.  

The structure enables companies to progress through the different packages. The same is true for the staff. Rather than the traditional partner model, Ad Valorem has a six-member pod system which provides a pathway for development. 

“From a staff perspective, experience and knowledge grow with the packages and each package has got a pod attached to it. So staff can see a progression, going through the pods into that more advisory area, from a more grounded basic knowledge with the compliance side,” explained Nigel.

Offer broad services to clients

Having these broad sets of services is driven by the need to support their micro and small business client base. The firm is then able to give these clients access to experience and insight that quite often small businesses can’t afford or are simply not aware of.

Nigel pointed out that these clients, because of size, are often “ignored by the majority of accountants because they don't hit the magic million-pound turnover figure,” which he said is nonsense. 

He compared this to something said by the former coach of the Rugby World cup winning England team, Clive Woodward. 

“When he took over, all that the international players were doing was what he did as a kid: run around after the ball while there’s acres of green space - just stick the ball in that green space. There's nobody there. That's the biggest market; the micros and SMEs. Yet, it's largely ignored and underserviced dramatically.”

Take risks

The pioneer of the year award isn’t usually a joint prize, but it’s from the initiatives that Nigel and Nikki have rolled out in Ad Valorem that both are equally responsible for the pioneering way the firm is run. 

“The advantage that Nikki and I have, and probably the question we get asked the most is, as husband and wife, how do you work together and stay sane? Obviously, we do different things. But together, we're totally on the same page,” said Nigel  

“It might be a personal thing, or it might be that you're not on the same page, or your partner doesn't want you to put the house on the line. What we do isn't for everybody, and we perhaps try things that other people wouldn't. But we used to talk about our £20k punts - it's gone up a bit more than that now - but we’d say let's try this.”

Accounting Excellence

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