Impressing the judges through using its ACCA training programme to spearhead their cloud offerings, Shoreham-by-Sea accountants PJCO has been chosen as the UK’s representative in Intuit QuickBooks’ Firm of the Future competition.
Last year was the first time the United States missed out on global Firm of the Future grand prize. So, will PJCO’s decision to hire graduates to drive their cloud department be enough to take home the global prize?
“We felt this year was the right year for us to apply and see if we could manage to get anywhere and amazingly, it's surprising that we managed to win,” said Peter Jarman, the managing partner of PJCO.
Jarman decided to enter the competition after attending the QuickBooks Connect conference in February this year, where he absorbed the advice last year’s UK representative Jo Tomlinson from Business Works gave on stage.
But by the time of this year’s QB Connect, Jarman’s cloud transformation was already well on its way. Key to their cloud revolution was their decision to appoint cloud champion from its ACCA graduate training programme.
This position was new ground for the 30-year-old firm. For many of those years, Jarman had described the firm as being a “traditional small accountancy practice” but three years ago that all changed.
With Making Tax Digital on the horizon, the firm assigned three people from its 15-person team to solely focus on cloud accounting and to investigate cloud apps. But cloud responsibility isn’t just confined to that team, as it has reached across all corners of the firm with everybody in the office attaining QuickBooks pro adviser status (five of which are in the top 10 rated pro advisers nationally).
Appointing a cloud champion
The idea of a cloud champion is a relatively new phenomenon for accountancy practices. While some firms have struggled finding someone that possesses skills in both technology and accountancy, others have simply disposed the position to an already overworked member of staff. PJCO, on the other hand, used its ACCA training program as the agent of change.
By the time the entries happened in August we felt this year was the right year for us to apply and see if we could manage to get anywhere
Since he began recruiting 15 years ago, Jarman has led trainees down the ACCA qualification path. It has proven fruitful for his trainees and has resulted in 13 out of the 14 who have started their career with Jarman staying with the firm.
With technology becoming so integral to the future of accountancy, the firm offered the ACCA contract to be based around cloud accounting.
The new graduate opportunity for practices
The economic crash a decade ago has had contradictory implications for recruitment. One school of thought suggests that the collapse dried up the Big Four’s training programmes which resulted in a dearth of talent currently available.
But this Big Four talent erosion has had the opposite effect for PJCO. They ended up with much better quality graduates wanting to work in a smaller practice. “Good graduates would go off to one of the Big Four firms and the pool of graduates we were able to bring into our training programme wasn't as strong as it became after 2010,” he said.
So when PJCO recruited graduates such as Rowan Van Tromp as part of its cloud department they knew the team had the ability to get their cloud ambitions off the ground quickly.
PJCO had dabbled with QuickBooks and Xero before, but the Van Tromp’s mission was to dig beyond the surface level and to find out exactly how the firm could use cloud accounting. In doing so PJCO gave the ACCA training programme cloud team the autonomy and breathing space in the form of a blank piece of paper.
Our graduate trainee simply had a blank piece of paper and to go off and research things and come back in nine months - a year to plan how we can get things going
“The firm at that stage didn't know that much,” said Jarman. “MTD helped a bit to focus our minds. My fellow partners and myself agreed we could bring this trainee in and give him the best part of the year to research what we need to do for cloud accounting and what business apps would work with cloud accounting software.
“Our graduate trainee simply had a blank piece of paper and to go off and research things and come back in nine months - a year to plan how we can get things going,” said Jarman.
What does this look like in practice?
Giving the cloud champion the year-long breathing space to explore how the cloud could work for the firm was key to getting things going. “Most smaller practices are too busy to worry about changing everyone's books and records to cloud accounting,” said Jarman.
“It would have been very difficult to get one of our accounts and tax managers who would have been dealing with accounts and tax on a daily basis to find time to train and support people as they switch across to QuickBooks Online.”
The first decision the firm made was realising that there are lots of cloud accounting packages available and they couldn’t be experts in all of them. “We could have dealt with all, but we wouldn't have been experts in them all, said Jarman. “We decided to choose one cloud package and concentrate on becoming an expert in that. We chose QuickBooks Online.
And then, “we looked at what the likes of Business Works were doing with business apps and took inspiration from the whole QB Connect conference as to how to take the practice forward.”
Cloud and apps in action: Norwich FoodHUB
Deep-rooted within PJCO is the ethos of sharing knowledge, whether that’s with prospects, clients, other accountants or the general community. This philosophy extends to their cloud technology approach.
The appointment of Van Tromp as their cloud champion presented an opportunity to apply this thinking. When he studied at the University of East Anglia he was involved with a group that helped set up the Norwich FoodHub, which collected and distributed food to people in food poverty. As someone doing an accounting and finance degree he naturally took the mantle of the FoodHub’s finance director.
But his new role with PJCO meant that he’d have to relocate from Norwich to Shoreham. He was of course torn between continuing to help people in Norwich and pursuing his accountancy career.
That’s why one of his first assignments with PJCO and as part of his cloud research project with the firm was to go off and find cloud solutions that would allow him to operate the Norwich FoodHub while living and working in Brighton. It’s a system that Jarman is keen to share with others that want to create a food hub.
“He was able to bring in apps that organised volunteers, organise food collections, systemise the whole system so now Norwich FoodHub can operate self-contained with our cloud manager nowhere near Norwich,” said Jarman.
He implemented a new online booking system for volunteers, which they used alongside Zapier to automate welcome emails, cutting the admin time. Next, he introduced Slack to integrate their existing GoogleDocs and volunteer co-ordinations for team collaboration.
The final element was moving to Receipt Bank and QuickBooks Online for the record keeping and budgeting. As a result the food hub are able to offer 60 volunteer slots a week, across 14 stores and have redistributed 30 tonnes of food.
He was able to bring in apps that organised volunteers, organise food collections, systemise the whole system so now Norwich FoodHub can operate self-contained with our cloud manager nowhere near Norwich
PJCO has applied the same solutions to their clients and internal processes, while also adding Futrli, Service M8, Expensify, Auto Entry, Acuity, PayPal, and Satago to the mix.
What are their chances on the grand stage?
Voting begins next month for the global phase of the competition, with the grand prize winner announced at QuickBooks Connect San Jose in November. Although it has been quite the turnaround for PJCO, they’re up against some stiff competition from the four other finalists:
- Cloud Bookkeeping Services, Canada
- Reconciled, United States
- Regional Business Services Pty Ltd, Australia
- Wealth Café Business Advisors Pvt Ltd, India
Like last year’s global winner AIS Solutions from Ottawa, Canada, Jarman modestly puts the firms three year cloud makeover success down to a process of trial and error: “We've tried to change things and got them wrong, then tried again - eventually we've got them right. That process of change is painful but at the end of it you end up in a better place.”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.