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Practice pioneers: Life on the cutting edge


What does it take to get ahead and stay ahead of the pack in the increasingly digital world of accountancy? Two award-winning practitioners share their secrets.

30th Jun 2021
Editorial team AccountingWEB.co.uk
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How do you define a modern, digital accountancy firm? And more importantly, how do you make that happen?

When it comes to addressing some of the fundamental challenges facing practitioners in a fast-changing market one of the best sources of advice comes from accountants who have explored different by-ways and backwaters of practice development and service delivery.

For the latest episode of our 2021 Accounting Excellence Talks, we invited two previous winners of our Practice Pioneer Award to explore some of the basic requirements for modern accountancy practice: Daniel Crowther of Thorne Widgery (2018 winner) and his successor, MHA Carpenter Box’s Nathan Keeley. 

Trigger for change

“When I started we were coding bank statements by hand. We used to type it all into a computer and produce accounts from that,” said Daniel Crowther about his early career at Thorne Widgery.

The trigger for change came when he discovered cloud accounting in the form of Liquid Accounts, though the firm switched soon after to Xero. But in common with Nathan Keeley, who had a similar revelation when FreeAgent’s Ed Molyneux showed him a cloud package for contractor clients, Crowther insisted that technology was an enabler for change – not the key driver.

“Technology plays a big part, but the thing we always focused on was how we could improve the client service,” said Crowther. “It could be the speed of communications, or that we were spending too much time adding numbers up rather than giving clients advice. That was the primary change we wanted to make. Technology helped us do those things.”

A series of incremental improvements

While long-term change may come from a lightbulb moment as it did for Crowther and Keeley a decade or so ago, they both also talked about how the long-term initiatives they implemented were the result of incremental improvements.

“At Carpenter Box, I had the freedom to move all our contractor clients onto FreeAgent and we’re still using it today because it’s the right technology for that client base,” said Keeley.

“That was the catalyst that started it and you take that into other elements… Over time that morphs into [new areas]: we need electronic work papers, electronic document management and a portal. You do it once over here and then it starts to happen elsewhere.”

The culture of change

If you tackle an incremental change and you get that right, the culture of change seeps into the whole firm, Keely continued. “We’ve done this enough times to realise that if we take enough time to get everyone on board with the change, knowing why we’re doing it and what the benefits will be – that’s the biggest learning curve we’ve picked up.”

Later on, Crowther made the point that pioneers have to explore new territories step by step, but it always helps to keep your eye on the main prize. “We never say we need to stay ahead of anyone else. We go about it by looking at what we need to improve. Change has become part of our culture… We’ve done a lot of change, so people just get on with it.”

The 50-minute episode is packed with similar snippets of hard-won wisdom and practical advice. After sharing their time and ideas, Nathan Keeley and Daniel Crowther both talked about how cooperative accountants are when it comes to the pursuit of excellence.

“There are a lot of people out there willing to share their time. What you tend to find that firms who have done this stuff are more giving of their time and collaborative,” said Keeley. “Take advantage of that and learn from the mistakes they’ve made rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Other people have done it, so share with them. That’s probably the one thing that would help the most.”

For more great advice from Daniel and Nathan, tune into the Accounting Excellence Talk on The future of the modern firm.

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