Each week, AccountingWEB’s Practice Talk series catches up with a different accountant in practice. This week we speak with sole practitioner Martin Tregonning who runs Shetland Island-based firm Tregonning & Co.
Moving from Bristol to the Shetland Islands wasn’t that big a culture shock for Martin Tregonning. Qualifying as a chartered accountant in New Zealand, he was used to sprawling, unspoilt landscapes. His wife is also from Shetland, so he knew what he was getting himself into.
The lack of small business infrastructure is a challenge, however. You can't just nip down to PC World to get your computer fixed. But long gone are the days Tregonning used desktop accounting software. Cloud software has been a boon for his firm ever since the islands’ broadband was upgraded five years ago.
The close-knit Shetland community played to Tregonning’s willingness to get his fingernails dirty when interacting with clients. This hands-on approach to client support comes from his 20 years working as a finance director before starting his practice in 2009.
Something of a screen veteran, Tregonning has appeared as an extra on the BBC drama Shetland and featured in a Sage video that documented his life in practice (below).
What is the first thing you do when you start your working day?
Being a sole practitioner, every day can be different, but the days always start the same: no matter what I’m doing, I'll check my emails. I'll go through and flag whether it is urgent, something I can deal with later or if it should be deleted. The next thing I do is to check my bank. A lot of people think accountants are rolling in money but actually, I am a small businessman just like my clients. So I need to keep an eye on money coming in and money going out. Depending on what I have planned, I might head out to see a client or I might be in the office.
Has living in Shetland changed the way you interact with clients?
I qualified in industry so I don't like dry accounting: I like to apply it to real-world situations. That lends itself quite well here because I like to know my clients and what they do and how their business works. I like to get involved and clients like that too because they see me as somebody who is prepared to go out, meet them and learn about them.
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How much time do you spend visiting clients versus the amount of time behind the desk?
I probably visit two to four clients a week on their premises. There are a few clients I see once a week. I spend an hour or two on site with them because they are new and I am teaching them how to use the software and how they should be running their accounts. With others it’s as and when needed.
I charge a flat fee so I don't charge for phone calls or extra on-site meetings. We've agreed on a service level and that's what they get. I do answer a lot of calls from clients during the week. The cloud has been a great boon for me, as I can sort out problems over the internet rather than go out for little problems, so our time out with clients can be a little more structured and planned.
Emails are a common issue emerging in the practice talk series. Are you guilty of this?
It is the problem of having a smartphone you use for business and your personal life. When you hear it ping you don’t know if it’s work or personal. If it’s something that can wait, I'll leave it. If I got a client that is really stuck on something and they need help out of hours and I can assist, I will. It doesn't hurt me, but it helps them.
Because of the lifestyle here we traditionally get a lot of crofters or other self-employed people, you do blur the lines between work and private life. You don't tell a crofter you only work five days a week. Its part and parcel of everyday life and mine is the same.
Saying that I enjoy being self employed. I got an email yesterday saying there is a school trip tomorrow and they're short of parents to help. I looked at my diary, shuffled a few things, and so tomorrow morning after I've checked my emails and bank balance, I'm off on a school maths trip somewhere.
What's been the biggest change in the profession since you've qualified?
When I qualified the PC was taking off. I remember one big debate in a place I worked as to whether the mouse would ever take off! The PC completely changed the way the accountant worked. Along with that was the spreadsheet and desktop software. I think that the cloud is a similar game-changer for accountants, just like the PC in the mid-to-late 80s and those who don't embrace it will get left behind.
Let's move away from this modern tech: can you remember your first calculator?
My first proper calculator was the Casio fx82, which was the recommended one for both accounting and economics at University. I still have it and it still works. One of my children had to get a scientific calculator for their Highers exams and she got the exact same calculator just updated. I thought it would be quite sentimental to pass the calculator down to my children. But no, they wanted the new modern one that all their friends had.
What do you do to escape tax and accounts?
There are lots of family things I do. You become a taxi driver, especially for the teenagers. You get involved in different community activities like the county show, and Shetland had a film festival the other week curated by BBC Radio 5’s Mark Kermode. I am in the local drama group and we always put on a comedy in the drama festival. We also go to the local church. Occasionally, not often, when the minister is away and they're desperate, I might get to do the Sunday sermon.
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.