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Gary Turner, founding managing director of Xero UK
Gary Turner

Gary Turner looks back after 12 years at Xero

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Shortly after announcing his intention to step down as Xero’s UK country manager, Gary Turner met with AccountingWEB to look back over a mould-breaking career in accountancy software. 

12th Aug 2021
Editor in Chief AccountingWEB
Columnist
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Gary Turner is the kind of software executive who likes to look over computer books and magazines to keep up with the latest thinking. That persistent curiosity about the business he works in adds an extra dimension when he talks about how things have changed over the course of his career. 

Turner has seen and heard a lot of software history first-hand, first as a salesman and later managing director at Pegasus Software, then as a marketing executive with Microsoft. But he made his biggest mark during the past 12 years as the managing director of Xero UK. When he joined the UK subsidiary in 2009, it had three employees and a turnover of £50,000. Under his watch, the annual income in this company swelled £110m from around 750,000 customers. With those stats on his CV, Turner has been acknowledged as the great populariser of cloud accounting in the UK - the business software equivalent of Brian Cox, perhaps.

Now preparing to hand over the reins to a successor, Turner quipped about being an industry fixture whose time had come to move on, but was still happy to pass on some of the lessons he picked up during his great accounting software adventure.

Looking back, what are the most important things you’ve learned in your 30+ years in the tech industry?

What I’ve learned is universal. It applies to anything: do not get too comfortable and cosy where you are. Remember bookshops? You could walk in and buy books and read them. I always go to the computing section, where there would be volumes on SQL Server, ecommerce or whatever the next revolution was going to be. And those titles were often remaindered after six months. 

Technology is constantly changing and innovating, as we've seen with books written about technology - which are out of date before they're six months old. This has always been the case, but since tech is so prevalent today, this now applies to everyone in business. The minute you get complacent is the point where you’ve lost the thread

How have customer attitudes changed since your days with Pegasus?

In the late 1980s and early 90s, technology was not very approachable. It was expensive and complicated to set up and run and you had to worry about the server app you were running and things like back-ups. That limited its accessibility. Tech has become more and accessible in the last 15 years - it’s no longer the cryptic, mysterious dark art it used to be and that’s reflected in a much larger audience. 

A startup web designer can now have quite sophisticated tech to run their tiny little business. The scale of the customer base we’ve built, with hundreds of thousands of customers in one country and millions globally, wouldn’t have been possible 20-30 years ago. You wouldn't see primetime TV commercials for accounting software back then. Business software has become domesticated. 

Where do you stand on the issue of technology dependence - for example with accountants and bookkeepers who learnt their trade with Xero, but don’t really grasp the underlying principles? 

There’s no replacement for practitioners to learn accounting through professional training and education. They clearly need to learn skills and qualifications properly. But removing the complexity of accounting from a business user is not a bad thing. I used to occasionally have to change the spark plugs and distributor cap on my car. Now I have no idea how my car works. I’m nowhere near being able to service it. 

If I'm a landscape gardener, do I need to understand double-entry bookkeeping? We are happy to draw a veil over that unnecessary complexity from a business point of view to let them make business decisions. 

I’m also encouraged that more business owners and managers are devoting time to selecting apps. Thirty years ago, the accounts department had software that was very functional for invoices, statements or maybe getting a payroll or P&L out. Software has broadened beyond those needs to address personal productivity, email, CRM and the needs of the service desk or sales team as well as finance and strategy. 

What’s really interesting now is this evolution of discrete point solutions almost down to the process level. I think we’re getting business owners to think about how to optimise their businesses - and that must be a good thing.

You have been very eloquent in the past about the people-first approach to AI, where it acts as a supplement to human activity rather than a replacement. But that debate has subsided during the past year or two. Are we in Gartner’s “trough of disillusionment” with accounting AI or do you see a realistic path to the “slope of enlightenment” and “plateau of productivity” beyond?

I think Gartner might need to remodel their thinking on that. How about the “Gully of bewilderment”?

There’s a lot of punditry about AI and AI-washing [where] developers talk of having an AI app instead of code based on an if/then statement. I’m a bit cynical there - it’s a massive misconception. The people talking about AI don’t know what they're talking about and the people who know aren’t talking - they’re quietly getting on with it.

We’re not in an AI winter, but we need to rethink it. There’s still a big Hollywood conception that it's robots sitting at our desks. I also think AI is already out there in the wild in ways that are invisible to most humans.

I remember being in a debate at Chartered Accountants Hall where they talked about bringing AI into your business as though it were something in a box that you elected to buy and turn the key. But it’s already there in apps you’re using and you don’t know it's there.

What’s happening in parallel, in opposition to the automation of work, is a huge awakening and realisation of the importance of people in the workplace. As much as the world might be moving down the automation path, there’s an equal and more compelling argument about humanising the world of work.

What qualities do you think you’ve implanted within the Xero culture?

As far as Xero is concerned, when I reflect on our culture and what we’ve built, I think we have championed humility and being genuine. What you see is what you get. They’re important characteristics of our brand. 

In recent years [that’s extended to] inclusivity and diversity. I was reading an [industry trade magazine] Computing from the late 1980s over the weekend. Computing was one of the biggest UK publications and was reflective of that time. Every single photo showed a white male. There were no women. The only female depictions were in adverts. That seems abhorrent from today’s standards. 

The world in general and technology have become much more inclusive and that’s an important part of what we’ve strived to achieve in our culture. I hope that’s a positive legacy. 

I also think it’s important to be human - to have a laugh and be genuine. I over-rely on my personal preference for humour and levity. But if you create an environment where you can introduce levity and also have fun, that's worthwhile… I hope people will miss my jokes and totally inane humour.

Replies (4)

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By BryanS1958
12th Aug 2021 11:36

Xero is the new Sage, pretty awful, but seems to be popular for some reason! The support is terrible compared with QBO, e-mail only and can take days to get a problem resolved, whereas QBO is phone, web chat, etc. Reporting is also very restricted compared to QBO. For the functionality and level of support I have found QBO to be far superior and at a similar or lower price point. My clients who have changed from Xero to QBO have also preferred QBO.

Xero has also changed to 2FA (no businesses I am aware of have been clamouring for this!), which is a real pain and is currently stopping me even accessing the product. If I want to I have to spend time trying to find how to re-authorise access. Wil my clients pay for this research? I doubt it! Yet another reason to move them to QBO.

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Replying to BryanS1958:
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By AdamMurphy
12th Aug 2021 21:46

You can't come on here and say that, it's John's buddy!

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Replying to AdamMurphy:
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
13th Aug 2021 15:10

You can say what you like, Bryan, so long as it stays within the boundaries of the Defamation Act and our site rules about denigrating fellow professionals.

To be honest, the kind of assessment you've given of the the relative advantages/disadvantages of Xero vs QBO is really useful and I expect other readers who pass by here will appreciate your views.

I make no secret that Gary Turner is one of my longstanding contacts in the industry who has kept me informed and entertained through the years. But I also have professional "friends" at Sage, Intuit, IRIS, Dext, TaxCalc, CCH, BTCSoftware, AccountancyManager etc etc etc. Our job here is to stay in touch with as many people in the industry as we can so we can bring their insights to you on the site when the occasion arises.

Some of my fellow commentators on the software scene have been speculating about the reasons for Gary's departure ever since the announcement last month that he was leaving, without an obvious successor lined up to replace him.

Some of the moves that have been coming out of Xero since that announcement have been more than "tone deaf" as some AccountingWEB members have noted. Xero appears to have turned the screw on its app partners by increasing its commission from sales through the app marketplace, and many accountants were angered that Xero has started to market services directly to their clients:
https://www.linkedin.com/posts/willfarnell_whose-client-is-it-anyway-hav...

I was wondering if Gary might have been uncomfortable being the frontman for a new, no-holds-barred approach the market from a company that famously likened its early adopter strategy to that of a shark. However, Will Farnell reports that after seeing his feedback on LinkedIn, Xero's accountant channel relationship managers have promised not to send out the offending emails.

So, even without my old mate Gary around, there are going to be plenty of opportunities to discuss the pros and cons of Xero and other cloud apps here. Please keep the comments coming - but try and make them informative and useful to other readers, please.

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Replying to BryanS1958:
Chris M
By mr. mischief
14th Aug 2021 08:00

I think that's a bit harsh. I have no axe to grind here, I think VT is a lot better than either QBO or Xero in terms of allowing me to knock out accounts quickly and accurately.

I have 5 to 10 clients on each of QBO and Xero. I end up resolving about the same number of queries on each, where the client has tried the fixes and the helplines suggested by the companies and still ended up needing me to sort out whatever it was they needed doing.

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