Practice Talk: Alastair Barlow from flinder
Each week, AccountingWEB’s Practice Talk series catches up with a different accountant in practice. This week we speak with Alastair Barlow, the founding partner of flinder.
Alastair Barlow only launched his firm flinder in February 2017 but it’s already bagged two 2018 Accounting Excellence nominations in the innovative firm and new firm of the year categories.
Barlow’s story is far from an overnight success, though. It was 16 years in the making. But during the latter stage of his time at PwC he led and helped grow My Financepartner, the Big Four firm’s tailored accounting service for start-ups. At first it was the itch he wanted to scratch but while working there he saw a gap in the accounting advisory and data analytics market.
Although he’d wear PwC on his sleeve he became frustrated by the long and protracted decision-making processes inherent when working in any large organisation.
“I didn't think that a big corporate like the Big Four was the right place to incubate a type of business that is talking to small, energetic, nimble and growing businesses. It didn't have the same values as those businesses,” he said.
And so flinder was created out of fixing those frustrations. The better-improved processes, tech and connected infrastructure means the firm can be more embedded within their client’s businesses rather than an external operating centre that doesn't have any face-to-face contact.
“What we do is very relationship focussed; having those regular touch points is important to me. We have our team in London go out to clients and sitting in client environments and being very involved and feel part of the team, not a separate service provider.”
Barlow talks about these themes in this week’s practice talk along with the usual questions including whether he remembers his first calculator.
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What's the first thing you do when you start your working day?
There are three different types of working day. The first thing I do on a typical working day when I am heading into London is very bad and that's to check my phone. I'll see what's happening on social media, email, and Slack. On Wednesdays, the first thing is to have a personal training session at 6.30am. Then, every other week my daughter lives with me. On those weeks she's with me it's very hectic; get her up, get her ready for school, make her breakfast, get her lunch ready, sign her homework diary, and then get her off to school on time. Trying to get a ten-year-old ready for school is a challenge.
What do you do to escape the world of tax and accounts?
I don't feel like I'm in the world of tax and accounts, I live and breathe what I do because I enjoy the big concept of building a business and building a brand. It doesn't feel like I need to escape, but when I do I hit the gym or jump on the bike. But the most important thing for me is spending time with my daughter after school, doing something with her, taking her to cafes, taking her shopping, shopping or playing a game. Whatever it may be, having that time with her grounds me and helps me reflect and recharge.
Do you check your emails outside traditional office hours?
I think back to a time when we first went to the Netherlands in 2004 and we were working with a lot of US inbound companies, so they're on a different time zone. So we were expected to stay in touch and see what was going on. So the management team put a business case together for us to have Blackberrys so we can check easily rather than log on to our computers, dial in through a VPN and all these passwords. That improved our working lives and our work-life balance because we had these Blackberrys.
Now I have one phone for business and personal use so it is normal to have my phone and use it throughout the evening. I tend to go to bed reasonably early when I am not late back from London. I do put my phone away and put it on charge at 10pm and don't check after that point.
Any self assessment horror stories?
Unlike some of my peers, we actually take our team skiing at the end of January. That's because our practice deals with corporates. We know what we do well as a firm and we do not focus on personal tax planning. We know a great partner and we'll introduce them but personal isn't a forte. We work with data and improving their management information - that's what we do well. Without that deadline, we can go skiing in January.
What's been the biggest change in the profession since you qualified?
I remember getting my first laptop in 2001 with PwC. You'd be at a client and you'd have to unplug the fax machine and plug in your computer to dial into the office.
Cloud technology is the typical one that everyone will say is a huge change. For us, it goes beyond that. Using APIs is a huge shift because we're delivering back real-time information to our clients and that could be financial but in a lot of cases we mash other data sources in and that could be CRM system, an EPOS system, an eCom system, project management system. Because these are all readily available APIs and we're bringing that data back real time and then giving it back there's this huge speed of understanding what's going on - not just finance but the business.
Can you remember your first calculator?
The first one I remember was when I studied further maths at sixth form college and it was one of these graphical ones where you can draw lines. The main thing I remember was its huge screen. It pretty much did everything that I asked but the batteries were so bloody expensive. The first in accounting was the most basic with 12 buttons and you can add up really quickly without looking at the screen as we were using cashbooks then. Now we use an iPhone to add up which is a shitty calculator because it never works. The old ones are the best ones.
Alastair recently talked to IRIS about winning their Customer Award for the Best use of Technology Firm of the Year and how he approaches client relationships. Read more on IRIS' industry insights page.