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Peter Ellington collecting the Small Firm award | AccountingWEB
Accounting Excellence

Green growth: Net zero doesn’t mean zero profits

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Accounting Excellence award-winning Triple Bottom Line Accounting’s commitment to sustainability demonstrates that helping clients align with environmental goals also leads to profitability.

8th Apr 2024
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Sustainability and the transition to net zero are becoming increasingly talked about in the boardroom but it’s fair to say this hasn’t exactly cut through yet for clients at the smaller end, where they’re more concerned about getting their tax returns sorted. 

However, that’s not the case for Triple Bottom Line Accounting. The Norwich-based firm are having more conversations with clients about sustainability and climate change. “That’s why they’re coming to us – because people buy accountancy services from people who understand them,” said Peter Ellington (pictured above receiving an Accounting Excellence Award), the founder of Triple Bottom Line Accounting. 

By branding themselves as environmentally conscious and offering discounts to those with credible net-zero strategies, the firm has built a portfolio of clients concerned about a climate crisis ranging from regenerative farms to environmental consultants, trauma centres and artists. 

The firm has experienced strong growth over the past year through attracting like-minded clients and by rolling out a new net-zero advisory service. This contributed to Triple Bottom Line Accounting picking up the 2023 Accounting Excellence Small Firm of the Year Award (Midlands, Wales and East of England). 

As the founders of the firm discuss, the drive to adopt environmental, social and governance (ESG) best practices shares a lot of similarities with the mindset of becoming an Accounting Excellence award winner.  

Beginnings

Ellington has always been driven to make a positive impact. He was the finance director of a FTSE-100 company up until 2008 but he found he was lacking purpose. “I was having great years, and I was making lots of money for other people and making lots of money for myself, but I found I was lacking purpose and meaning,” he said. 

This led Ellington down the path of sustainability. After an MSc in economics at the University of East Anglia, then a couple of year’s teaching in the business school, he set up Triple Bottom Line Accounting. The name was chosen to reflect the firm’s focus on people, planet and prosperity.

Embracing a commercial mindset

But initially, profit was not the priority. “Four years ago, we weren’t making any profit and I was subsidising the firm,” admitted Ellington, adding that for a long time the firm was focused on people and planet instead of profit. “I had to wake up. In some cases, I would be giving services way below cost,” he said. 

But the big realisation came when he tried to sell the practice and a buyer pointed out that there was a lot of work to be done. Through working with AVN, they have turned around the firm’s fortunes through adopting a commercial mindset. 

So as much as they’re asking “Where is the purpose in that?” they’re also asking “Where is the money in that?”

This commercial mindset has pushed profitability up to a 15% mark. They’re now economically sustainable, and they’ve done that with the same resources, working a four-and-a-half-day week. 

“Everything we do for clients now we say if we’d been paid for it, or are we giving it away,” said Ellington. 

Net-zero service

Adding a new net-zero service line has also contributed to Triple Bottom Line Accounting’s growth. The service was introduced to help clients align with environmental goals, improve their corporate image and contribute to long-term profitability.  

This has created a synergistic relationship with other parts of the firm. They’re seeing more and more of their traditional accounting clients taking an interest in this service, while those clients who just needed help with their B Corp certification or net-zero plans are becoming interested in taking on accountancy services too. 

Summing up the natural merging of the two areas of expertise, Ellington said: “We make money on doing a business plan through the net-zero plan and on the accounting side, we get to turn it into financial reality.”

Filling the gap in the market

Ellington’s partner Fran runs the growing net-zero advisory service. She will conduct a carbon footprint report for clients or have one prepared by a specialist carbon accountant and sit down with the client to discuss ways they can manage their reductions using science-based targets. 

The next stage in scaling the advisory service is to train their accountants in carbon accounting and also have them gain either an Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) or Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) sustainability certificate. 

Yet carbon accounting remains unfamiliar to most accountants. The firm sees this as a potential area to grow. “It’s inevitable because we’re going to have to be doing carbon accounting,” said Ellington. “We’re going to have to be net zero. But accountants are going to have to play their part. It’s just the accounting profession doesn’t fully see it.

“But, surprisingly, carbon accounting is not being done by accountants. The profession has missed it,” said Ellington. “Accountants don’t really know what carbon accounting is about, or what greenhouse gases are. So the carbon accounting is not going to be done by accountants. They’re behind the curve.” 

Becoming B Corp

Not by design, but the firm’s commitment to sustainability aligned with the key tenets of Accounting Excellence. Striving for excellence in client care, continuous improvement, and attracting and retaining employees are the characteristics that sets Accounting Excellence winners and finalists apart from their peers, while also being some of the key principles of the B Corp certification. 

As Triple Bottom Line Accounting found, the process of attaining the B Corp certification equipped the firm with the attributes needed to go on and win the regional Small Firm of the Year Award at the 2023 Accounting Excellence Awards. 

“The process of attaining the B Corp certification makes you up your game,” said Fran Ellington.

The B Corp requirement to exhibit transparency steered the firm to not only list out their clients and charitable clients and what they do, but also to conduct anonymous surveys with employees and clients. A growing trend among Accounting Excellence firms, anonymous surveys can be “painful” but the results have driven Triple Bottom Line Accounting forward into being a better employer and a better business. 

“People tell you what you don’t want to hear,” said Fran. “So our employees will tell us, ‘You never listened to us’. We thought we did, so what do we need to do to make sure that we’re communicating better? And then you implement and act on that and you run workshops on that.”

The same can be said for clients, too. The responses came back saying the firm doesn’t check in often enough. “If we’re going to improve our client service we can’t just sit back and think, ‘We’re doing all right’. It’s actually quite a painful process because you have to listen to criticism and you have to act on it.”

The firm lives the B Corp values in other areas. Driven by being “a force for good”, Triple Bottom Line Accounting promotes fair pricing, with flexible pricing options to cater to diverse client needs, while also offering free 30-minute consultation calls, stacked up every Wednesday across 16 slots.  

“We provide information freely,” said Peter Ellington. “If we don’t win the business, at least we’ve helped someone in need and promoted the accountancy profession.” Ellington is content knowing that even if the person walks away without becoming a client, they’ve created a ripple effect where that person could help someone else. However, the free consultations resulted in an increase in client numbers and fee growth.  

The emphasis on people management has resulted in the firm offering remote work arrangements and three, four and five-day week packages. 

The shift to a four-day week comes with challenges. Peter Ellington was up until recently working six days a week but now works five days a week. He’s realised that four and a half days works best, having wrestled with four days where “every minute counts” and “every one of those minutes counts commercially too”. 

With B Corps having to undergo a verification process every three years, Triple Bottom Line Accounting is focused on continuous improvement. Summing up the firm’s mindset, Fran Ellington said: “You have to constantly strive to be better than you were last year.” 

Can you say the same for your firm? If so, enter the Accounting Excellence Awards 2024. You never know, you could be lifting a trophy at the awards night on 8 October. If you were inspired by Triple Bottom Line Accounting’s story, along with the firm awards, the Accounting Excellence Awards also has an ESG category.  

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