9 Feb 2016 11:06am

Wilkins Kennedy: Filling the niches

Supporting an office thousands of miles away in the Falkland Islands and winning customers by developing targeted specialisms, Wilkins Kennedy has made a virtue of grasping opportunity to protect its margins and grow its client base, writes Xenia Taliotis

Yes, it is unusual to have an office 8,000 miles away on the Falkland Islands,” says Michael Wesley, partner at Wilkins Kennedy, “but what I find more surprising is how my predecessors managed to make it work all those years ago, before we had the internet and digital storage and transfer systems. I’ve no idea how they did it, though I appreciate I’m viewing it from a 21st century perspective and speaking as someone who has grown up with technology.”

Wilkins Kennedy is now 134 years old and its connection to the Falklands goes back 40 years or so, to when one of its partners was asked to help write the tax legislation for the islands. The ties continued, with Wilkins Kennedy sending staff out for six-month secondments until finally, 18 years ago, one member of staff went out there and never came back.

“I suppose it was inevitable that someone would want to stay there permanently, which gave the firm the push to open its own office there,” says Wesley.

We all have regular contact with our clients, thats the best foundation for building good relationships. You cant do it via the internet

Karen Lee is now the Falklands office director in Port Stanley, managing a team of three who handle accounts and tax-based work for clients involved in key industries such as fishing, farming, hospitality and building and construction. (Lee won Accountancy Age Accountant of the Year in 2003 for her efforts in establishing the Falkland Islands office.) Despite the distance, the branch is still very much a part of the Wilkins Kennedy family, and is overseen by the senior partners in the UK, much like the firm’s other 14 offices are.

“It’s challenging but we’ve proved that it can be done, and done well,” says Wesley, who took over the long-distance management of the branch in May 2015. “The only real problems are the time difference, and the fact that the local broadband speed is slower than the UK, but aside from that, things run very smoothly.”

The practice now employs nearly 600 staff, including 68 partners, in offices throughout the south of England – in London, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. Much of its growth has come through mergers: in the past three years alone it has merged with four firms and plans to continue expanding in this way. “We don’t actively seek to merge with other practices, but we are approached constantly and we do seize opportunities that are a good fit for us in terms of ideology and which can also help us expand our business by adding to our specialisms or bringing in new clients. The most successful mergers are with firms that offer something different, or have a different type of client – they’ve been at the root of our growth throughout our history.”

Wilkins Kennedy provides a full range of financial and business advisory services, including audit and assurance, corporate and personal tax, financial planning (which is handled by a separate entity – WK Financial Planning), forensic accounting, human resources and corporate finance (handled by WK Corporate Finance). Its clients – of whom there are “many thousands”, come from all industries, but, says Wesley, among the most important for the firm are those involved in the property and construction sectors, academies, agri-business, not-for-profit, oil and gas, the legal profession, marine and retail and wholesale.

Even though Wilkins Kennedy is a general practice, it does have partners with expertise in certain areas, including R&D tax credits, VAT and trust and inheritance tax. It is also a cash flow specialist, helping businesses release cash tied up in assets and invoices, and provides a full range of services, including asset-based lending, invoice discounting, construction finance release and factoring.

Having a few niche specialisms is beneficial, says Wesley, because it brings in clients and protects margins. “Once you establish a reputation as being the expert in a particular field, you’re the first person clients come to for help. Your reputation also protects your income because people are always prepared to pay more for specialist advice.”

Having said that, Wilkins Kennedy is all about providing value. “We’re always looking for ways to be more efficient because it’s essential that clients get value for money – and that, actually, is more about the service we provide, than about our charges.

“More often than not it’s about perception. Sometimes misunderstandings occur because clients don’t fully understand what we do. And why should they? They’re not accountants.”

Wesley says it is the accountants’ responsibility to be fully transparent in their dealings with their clients. “It’s down to us to clarify our fees, to explain what we’ve done for that money, and to respond immediately to queries from clients by arranging to meet them and talking things through face-to-face. I’d say that that was one of the strengths of Wilkins Kennedy – the fact that none of us hides behind email. We all – junior staff as well as partners – have regular contact with our clients, and we go out of our way to get to know them, professionally and personally: that’s the best foundation for building good relationships. You can’t do it via the internet, however good your ‘virtual’ manner.”

Wilkins Kennedy is the best place Wesley has ever worked, again mainly because of that emphasis on personal relationships. “What’s really good here is that individuality is celebrated,” he says. “We’re a big firm now, with hundreds of employees and several branches, and yet senior staff always find the time to mentor younger recruits. I joined as an experienced auditor, but I knew I still had a lot to learn from my managers and I really benefited from working with some technically brilliant, talented people.

“That’s another one of our strong points – partners and senior staff are very generous with their knowledge: if juniors have the ambition and the talent then they will certainly progress.”

Keys to success

Understand client goals “Tailored solutions can only be provided by fully understanding someone’s individual circumstances."

Agree scope “Be clear what clients expect for the fee. Agree the scope of work to be performed at the outset, including the format of any output and timescale.”

Educate your clients “They’re not accountants or tax advisers and they may not understand why you’re asking for information or how they should provide it. Working with clients is easier and far more efficient if you tell them what you expect.”

Communicate “It’s often more convenient to fire off an email, but take the time to phone clients or, even better, to have a face-to-face meeting with them.”

Listen “Everyone you meet is likely to have knowledge that will be of benefit to you. There is a great wealth of experience and knowledge within your firm so use the opportunity to learn from other people. If you know enough across a broad range of subjects you’ll be able to spot opportunities and refer them to the right person.”

Lessons learned

Don’t undervalue yourself “Clients appreciate proactive advice, which is based on their best interests. They will be willing to pay for that advice if they understand they will benefit from it, so explain what you will be doing for them – and the expected fee – from the outset.”

Bill clients promptly “Do it while the service and benefits they received are fresh in their minds. Make sure your invoices give a breakdown of the work you’ve done.”

Value your staff “Your staff are your greatest asset. Wilkins Kennedy has an office on the Falkland Islands. Communication is, of course, becoming easier but my team is still 8,000 miles away and I have to rely on them to do their jobs well.”

Be clear about your ambitions “I knew I wanted to achieve partnership at Wilkins Kennedy soon after joining, but perhaps didn’t communicate that to my seniors as well as I could have done. I expected to make partnership without having a clear plan or timescale in mind. Again, it comes down to understanding and communicating. You not only need to understand your clients’ ambitions but also your own and your staff’s and you need to plan how to achieve them.”

Don’t make promises you can’t keep “Having said that, even the best-laid plans can come unstuck, so as soon as you realise you won’t make a deadline, contact your client, explain and give them a new date.”

Xenia Taliotis

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