My purpose is simple,” says Bruce Cusworth, managing director of Newcastle-based JBC Management Solutions (JBCMS). “It is to help owners of SME businesses assess their situation, plan their next steps and increase their profit. My role is to help them understand where they are and why they are there and to help them think about where they want to be and how to get there. You’d be amazed at how many people start a business on nothing more than a wing and a prayer, hoping a good idea will see them through.
Cusworth, who trained with PwC, is exceedingly well qualified to help enterprises get off the ground. Before setting up JBCMS, he held senior roles in industry, most notably as group finance director at Jackel, the parent company of leading baby products manufacturer Tommee Tippee. During his 15 years there, turnover increased from £4m to £48m, with Cusworth guiding acquisitions, organic sales growth, marketing initiatives and the move to manufacture goods in Chinese factories.
“That wealth of experience in so many areas is what I bring to my client businesses now,” he says. “That’s really what makes us stand out from our competitors. I have spent more than 25 years working in SMEs, at the coalface of industry, so to speak, and that’s what I have built my reputation on. In that time, I’ve steered business through recessions, through flotations, through mergers, into new markets, so there isn’t anything that can floor me.”
Cusworth set up the first incarnation of JBCMS in 1998 after he was made redundant from Jackel. Soon after, he was headhunted by one of his clients and it wasn’t until 2004 that he was able to return to his own business full time. By then his wife Janet, a former maths teacher, had retrained as a bookkeeper, so they combined their efforts, bringing both sets of clients under one umbrella.
The husband and wife team became a family firm in September 2016 when their accountant son Martin joined them, a step that should increase their capacity to advise more clients.
“We didn’t have the manpower to take on any more work,” says Cusworth. “For several years we’ve been operating at 11 days a week when we only had capacity for 10 days. Now, with Martin on board, we’ve increased our capability to 15 days, so can push for growth in existing and new areas. We’re hoping to work with more automotive companies, for example, since this is Martin’s background – he was with the Benfield Motor Group for a few years, and then Bell Truck and Van Mercedes-Benz.”
The firm currently has more than 100 clients, ranging from sole traders with a turnover of £10,000 to £20m multinationals. Mostly, though, JBCMS works with companies that make between £50,000 and £500,000. “That’s our sweet spot, though we do like to say that no job is too small or too big. In my experience, even the smallest client has the potential to grow or to introduce you to other businesses that are much bigger, so I make a point of never turning anyone away unless there is a clash of ethics. I have had people who have misunderstood what accountancy is all about, and who’ve asked us to bend the rules, or turn a blind eye, and we’ve had to walk away.”
Clients come from all areas, including retail, charities, the service industries, and restaurants and leisure, but JBCMS’s biggest sector is manufacturing and imports, not only in relation to the number of customers it has from this field, but also in terms of the revenue generated.
JBCMS provides a full range of services including bookkeeping, VAT returns, self-assessment, payroll, financial management, company secretarial and all the compliance work you’d expect a chartered accountancy practice to do. Auto-enrolment pensions administration is likely to become an increasingly important growth area: Cusworth anticipates that companies won’t have the time to do the necessary paperwork (likely to take 7.5 minutes per person per month according to Sage), and fully expects accountants to pick up the slack. JBCMS is already geared up to handle this.
In addition to processing what he happily describes as the “boring admin”, Cusworth also acts as a part-time financial controller to numerous owner-managed enterprises, designing accounting systems for them and steering them on to greater profitability. “I do everything a full-time finance director or finance department would do for a fraction of the cost,” he says. “I manage every aspect of their finances. It’s a hugely varied role and one that is specifically tailored to the needs of the client. Broadly speaking, I’ll negotiate with banks for finance, provide management information, write business plans, manage the cash flow and work hand in glove with the MD to ensure maximum financial health. Even though I’m part time, I am very much a part of the team – it wouldn’t work any other way.”
Saving clients money and helping them run their businesses efficiently is, he says, one of the most satisfying aspects of his job. “People come to us after having spent years with the same practice and we only have to take one quick look at their accounts to know instantly that we can slash their costs, and I don’t mean by undercutting the other firm. Sometimes people are paying for services they don’t need or, worse, there are anomalies in their books that have been overlooked.
“To give you just one example, we’ve had a client come to us having paid VAT on the same sales twice. Can you believe it? We all make mistakes, but I can honestly say nothing like that has ever happened on my watch, and if it ever does, well that will be the day I walk out of the office and close the door behind me for good.”
“Build a reputation and guard it with your life. Your reputation takes years to build and it really does precede you, particularly in this day and age of internet searches. Most new clients who come to us have done their research – they’ve checked us out online and they’ve read the recommendations. If you’ve compromised your reputation in any way, no amount of marketing or brand-building is going to help you.”
“Be yourself. You can’t be anyone else, so it’s no good trying. You have to be authentic – there will be people who will like you and who want to work with you, and there will be people who won’t like you and who will choose another accountant. What you can’t do though, is pretend to be what you think they want just to win their business.”
“Spend time on your business. Every business needs essential maintenance. Take the time to look at what you’re doing objectively – in other words, be your own accountant.”
“Nothing is beneath you. Don’t think you’re above rolling your sleeves up and buckling down to get the job done – whatever that job is. Your SME needs a hands-on adviser – and that’s you. You may find yourself doing more than you had intended, but don’t walk away.”
“Nurture your contacts. Remind your contacts to recommend you. Once you’ve known people for a while you tend to fade into the background of their lives. It does no harm to gently remind them to pass on your details to anyone they know who might need your services.”
Keys to success
“No client is too small. I had one client who made no money, which meant that I made no money from working for her. But she introduced me to her friend, who introduced me to her husband who ran a multi-million pound business.”
“Treat your clients as people, and talk to them. Take the time to explain things to them properly, no matter how busy you are. You may be the expert, but ultimately you are working for them.”
“Under promise and over deliver. I’ve been doing this job for decades and have a pretty accurate idea of how long it will take me to write a business plan, or complete a set of accounts, but I still err on the side of caution, because there is nothing worse than disappointing your client. Give them realistic deadlines and contact them if you’re not going to make them. Don’t bury your head in the sand hoping they won’t notice.”
“Be reliable. And leading on from that, always do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. This applies to everything, from turning up to meetings on time, to phoning people back, to emailing them.”
“Only sell your clients services they need. Tailor the services you provide to fit your client’s needs. Your job is doing what’s best for your client, not what’s best for you. If they only need you to fill in a tax return every year, then that’s all you should do.”