Hollis & Co: The relationship people

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Originally a one-man band with a single client, Peter Hollis tells Xenia Taliotis how he has built his Sheffield firm’s reputation on being able to offer all services to all clients

Illustration: Aron Vellekoop Leon
When Peter Hollis, chairman of the ICAEW Practice Committee, started his own accountancy firm, it was because he wanted to work with nice people. Having put in the years as a partner for Haines Watts and felt the pressure of ever-increasing demands from both clients and partners, he decided that what mattered to him at least as much as doing a good job was being able to enjoy doing it. He sat down, did his maths, worked out what he needed to earn to pay the mortgage and look after his young family and then set up his Sheffield-based firm, Hollis and Co, in 1990.

“When I set up the practice, I focused on such businesses because, being one myself, I fully understood the concerns and problems they’d have to face

He’s never looked back: “These past two decades have been the most rewarding of my working life. I started with one client worth £4,000 and I now have an annual turnover of £750,000 and 300 or so clients, though if you consider the amount of work we do for each one, and look at the number of accounts we handle, you could almost triple that number. We have very few clients who need only one service from us.

That’s the beauty of our firm – having people come to us with fledgling businesses and seeing them through those early years to the point where they need advice on growth management and succession planning. It’s deeply satisfying, and we’ve grown to keep up with our clients’ requirements.”

Hollis and Co currently employs eight accountants, each of whom is responsible for providing all services to a number of clients. Hollis says this is why his firm differs from most others. Where other practices might have a tax specialist dealing with tax issues, and other experts handling audit and business planning, his accountants are trained to advise clients on all aspects of their business.

His belief that his firm’s success is built on good relationships, and that people buy products, including accountancy services, from people they like, outweighs any concerns he might have about losing contracts if one of his accountants leaves. “My team has been with me for years – I trust them to do right by me, and they trust me to do right by them. There’s absolutely no question of them trying to poach clients. Like I said at the beginning – I started my own practice so I could choose the people I work with and that starts with my colleagues. I’m not saying this approach would succeed in other firms, just that it does for us. I know our clients appreciate having only two points of contact within the firm – they like knowing I’m there if there’s anything they need to bring to my attention, but mostly they like having the continuity that comes from talking to the same person week in week out about their business.”

Keeping all staff up-to-date with the latest legislation and developments so that they remain expert in all areas of accountancy requires on-going training, which Hollis is happy to invest in. “I employ people for the long term,” he says. “The last time I took on anyone new was six years ago; I’m proud to say that my staff don’t tend to leave. I invest a lot in my employees because that’s how I like to treat people, and also because I believe that’s the way to get the most out of them so that they continue to give their best to our clients.

Hollis and Co is a ‘get-it-right-first-time’ practice. That’s our modus operandi, the one thing that defines and underpins everything we do.”

Though the firm’s clients come from a wide range of sectors, including recruitment, retail, property, manufacturing and construction, the majority of them have one thing in common – they are owner-managers. “Dealing with owner-managed businesses is definitely one of our core strengths,” says Hollis.

“When I set up the practice, I focused on such businesses because, being one myself, I fully understood the concerns and problems they’d have to face.

Many of the businesses we look after are too small to have an in-house finance director, and we often fill that role; or else we’ll provide back-up, complementing and supplementing their existing

Many firms are winding down their auditing services but we view auditing as an opportunity to take our clients through an annual MOT

resource. We become integral to their operations, there to guide them through everything from basics such as filing their tax returns, to more intricate transactions such as renegotiating with their banks and suppliers and planning their growth or survival. We provide all the services that a business owner might need right from company formation, through compliance, acquisitions and disposals, to exit strategies, and even retirement and pension planning.”

Hollis says that though the country has now been in recession for five years, with little indication of an end in sight, there have been fewer insolvencies than one might have expected; the right survival strategies are enabling many more to keep trading than in previous recessions. But, and this is a big but, they have little opportunity for growth. “The thing that surprises me is how little government support there is for SMEs,” he says. “It’s generally accepted that economic recovery will come from SMEs and yet this sector is still finding it incredibly difficult to access finance. Every day we’re petitioning banks on behalf of clients who need funds to buy supplies so that they can grow. These people are being held back by the bureaucracy and the reluctance of banks to lend. I don’t think ministers have much of a clue. They do things they think will help, they deregulate this and regulate that and somehow manage to make things more complicated for small businesses. Right now there’s confusion regarding auto enrolment – this is the kind of issue that’s keeping our clients awake at night and the kind of issue we’re working through with them.”

The firm also does a lot of audit work for a number of charities. It’s an area of the business that Hollis would like to see expand. “Many firms are winding down their auditing services but we view auditing as an opportunity to take our clients through an annual MOT to identify areas where they need to direct attention.”

Hollis is eagerly anticipating the day when accountants can offer wills and probate services. Though the Legal Services Act 2007 established Alternative Business Structures (ABS) to enable non-lawyers to provide limited legal service, progress has been frustratingly slow. “Accountants are very well placed to deal with estates; it’s a natural add-on to the inheritance tax advice we provide. ICAEW has applied to the Legal Services Board to become a probate regulator so that it can authorise accountancy firms and license ABSs, but I don’t expect anything to happen for at least a year,” says Hollis. “Once that happens, accountants will have a new revenue stream to exploit. I’m doing everything I can as chairman of the Practice Committee to keep this and other issues that would definitely benefit general practitioners at the fore of ICAEW business.”

The work Hollis does for ICAEW is hugely important to him. “It’s tremendously rewarding. I’m there to ensure that firms like mine are heard. It’s all too easy for the Big Four and other listed firms to dominate the debate and drive the profession in a particular direction. My purpose is to stop that happening. The Practice Committee represents the interests of all the thousands of firms like Hollis and Co and I’m pleased to say that we are beginning to redress that imbalance.”

 

Adam Turner, managing director, Linear Recruitment

“I started working with Peter about six months before I set up my recruitment business. He did all the figures for me, sorted out my cashflow and financing arrangements and prepared a three-year forecast. That was in 2001, when my business was me, a telephone and a computer. Now we have six offices, 72 staff and a turnover of nearly £29m. I don’t think I could have done it without Peter’s guidance. He is such a safe pair of hands. I’m quite impulsive, but he knows when to rein me in. He’s certainly a key factor in my success.”

Xenia Taliotis

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