John Culverhouse was working for a merchant banking company in London when he had his light-bulb moment: “I had a young family, a full-time job and I was looking after a number of private clients in my spare time, and I thought: ‘I’m working an eight-day week here, surely there’s a better way of going about life?’ So I resigned and set up Culverhouse & Co. That was in 1982 and I can say, hand on heart, that I’ve not had a single second’s regret.”
And why would he? His 33-year-old firm, now based in Farnborough Village, Orpington, Kent, is doing well, with revenues up by 14% in 2014 and likely to exceed 25% for this year. “We’re in a good position now,” he says. “Our client numbers are back up following the recession and they’re growing at a healthy and sustainable rate. We lost some ground during the two downturns – 2008 was particularly hard, with its effects hitting us in 2012/2013 – so we’re very relieved to see such a healthy increase in our turnover over the past couple of years.”
I set up my practice partly so I could offer the greatest value and benefit to my clients
The firm is actually two limited companies – Culverhouse & Co Chartered Accountants and Culverhouse Financial Planning, which was demerged from the accountancy practice in 2013.
There is such an overlap between the two professions, says Culverhouse, that it seemed an obvious next step to qualify as a chartered financial planner. “I set up my practice partly so that I could offer the greatest value and benefit to my clients,” he says, “and I felt I was missing a trick when I couldn’t advise them on financial products and services. My clients like the convenience of having their affairs managed by the same people and there are many, many advantages to being a one-stop shop, both for them and for us. We do have some clients who only use the services of one of our companies, but many are clients of both.”
The financial planning practice was awarded Corporate Chartered Financial Planner status by the CII in 2009, which is the industry’s gold standard. Culverhouse says he’s proud of this and of the rigid controls he implements over and above those imposed by the industry. “Financial planning took quite a knock in the 1980s when rogue traders and brokers, who weren’t properly trained, mis-sold products. That has resulted in far more rigorous regulations, thank goodness, but we also have our own internal procedures to ensure that we are absolutely unimpeachable. These are there to protect not only our clients, but also ourselves. I constantly evaluate our risk exposure – if it’s too high, I will not take on the case.”
The split between the revenues generated by the two companies is 70% accountancy and 30% financial planning. The core of its work on the accountancy side is accounts production.
“Accounts compilation work is our biggest source of income,” says Culverhouse. “As well as preparing annual accounts to fulfil clients’ compliance requirements, we also prepare management accounts and assist clients to make informed business and tax planning decisions. We also assist clients with their taxation affairs, both personal and business, and offer a comprehensive range of back-office services, including real-time information payroll, bookkeeping and company secretarial.”
Culverhouse says that his role as director of both companies is changing and in time he is likely to spend more time developing his companies and his staff than on dealing with clients. “Delegation and succession planning is key to every single business, mine included. I currently employ seven staff across the practice as a whole, and am in the process of recruiting another two people, one for each company.
“I have spent a lot of time and resources on training people who will eventually take on the day-to-day running of the office. Dave Knight, who joined me 11 years ago as a university graduate and has gone on to qualify as both a chartered accountant and a chartered certified accountant, is now a director of both companies, and my daughter Claire, who recently passed her CII Diploma in Regulated Financial Services, is taking a more active role in the running of our financial services company.”
“Recognise you are in a fortunate and privileged position to be able to run your own practice. Make sure you make the most of the freedom it brings you and make sure you get the right work/life balance so that you enjoy both your work and your life.”
“It takes trust and communication with those you delegate to for things to run smoothly. Without delegating you are not going to able to expand or take on new and bigger projects.”
“Don’t try to be a perfectionist. Always look for the optimum solution.”
“Develop your team, so that everyone reaches their potential. This should ensure that you get the best results.”
“Don’t get into the blame game; it’s negative and destructive. Instead view mistakes and errors as a learning opportunity and consider what you would do differently to achieve a successful outcome.”
Maintain the human connection
“Stay in regular touch with your clients, through face-to-face meetings, by letter, telephone, email, newsletter. Clients need reassurance and guidance from their accountant. They need to know that you are thinking about them and their business. Clients welcome such added value support.”
Recruitment can be tricky and particularly so for Culverhouse Financial Planning, where the bar for ethical conduct and practice is set so high that it makes sourcing the right people difficult. “Finding a great salesman is not hard, but finding someone whose ethics are as high as ours can be challenging,” says Culverhouse. “That’s why I often prefer to hire a novice, someone I can train myself, coach them to do business in our way.”
Culverhouse has implemented a process of “continually learning” across his companies and each member of the team has a structured continuing professional development programme that is specifically tailored to their circumstances and needs.
The firm has 140 clients, a number of whom have been with the practice since the beginning. Sole traders, family-run concerns, small businesses, retired and high net worth individuals are the main clients and, though the practice is bang up to date with its technology, Culverhouse still prefers the personal approach, regularly meeting with and talking to his clients in person.
“Long-standing relationships are at the core of our approach to business,” he says, “and I’ve made a point of having clients I like and whose company I enjoy. Getting on with the people you work with – and that also applies to your team members – is the best way of understanding what makes them tick.
“Mutual trust and respect are the best foundations for successful partnerships. We’re in a team with our clients, working with them to find the optimum solution for them and their circumstances. Ultimately, we’re not about chasing perfection but about getting the best possible outcome.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Be proud of your ethics “Use them to your advantage.”
You are, or you should be, an entrepreneur “Focus on the fact that you live in the results economy not the time and effort economy.”
Recognise the importance of having a quality team to support you “Nurture, invest in and continually coach the team and make sure they develop entrepreneurial as well as professional skills.”
Promote team culture “Make sure each member of the team understands and adopts the ethos of the practice.”
Shape, modify, improve and update your client proposition “Your clients should enjoy a great experience working with you.”
Continually evaluate risk “Get a risk/reward balance.”
Be pro-active “Look to see where you can add value. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to add value, then consider resigning from that account and recommending the client on to someone who can offer them the services they require.”
Founded in 1982
Based in Farnborough Village, Orpington, the practice comprises two limited companies
Income up by 14% in 2014 and 25% in 2015
Accounts work generates most income, but also offers a full range of tax and back-office services
Clients are mainly SMEs and retired and high net worth individuals