Harris Lipman prides itself on building long-lasting relationships with its clients and its team. Martin Atkins, the north London firm’s managing partner, has worked there for 20 years, while two other partners, Barry Lewis and Ashok Shah, have clocked up 47 and 29 years respectively. They have a way to go before they catch up with their most loyal clients, some of whom have been with the practice since it was set up in 1954 by Solomon (known as Syd) Lipman.
Solid personal relationships have underpinned the firm from the start. “It was one of the things that most attracted me when I came on board in 1994,” says Atkins. “Seeing how happy everyone seemed, and how well they got on was a powerful incentive to join.”
The other factor that drew Atkins was the firm’s way of doing business. Sixteen years after Lipman’s death in 1998, the standards he set are still in force. “Syd was all about personal service,” says Atkins.
If clients take the trouble to come to our office, then we'll clean their car
“So, for instance, all our customers get a card on their birthday, and if they take the trouble to come to our office, then we’ll clean their car.” Putting such thought into its customer relations has helped the firm win, among other prizes, a WOW Award for client service, based purely on their recommendations.
“Syd wanted his firm to stand for integrity and excellence,” says Atkins. “If you keep those two factors in mind in all your dealings, you can’t go far wrong.”
Responsibility for producing excellent work with integrity lies with the Harris Lipman team, currently numbering nine partners and 48 staff. Recruitment rests at a healthy three to four new members a year, and people join at all levels, most often as graduates, but also as senior managers or occasionally even as partners. Recently, the firm also took on its first ever apprentice.
Everyone works hard but is well-rewarded, not only financially but also with ‘softer’ benefits; there are regular social events, while the Solomon Lipman Memorial Prize, awarded each year to the most outstanding team member, also includes a £1,000 donation to the winner’s favourite charity.
Training is key: Harris Lipman spends £70,000 a year on courses and professional qualifications including ACAs, ATTs, JIEBs and ACCAs, and all staff have a clearly-defined career structure with set goals and timelines. Without realistic targets, says Atkins, people tend to drift, or to end up disappointed. “We promote people when they are ready for the next step. Eight of our nine partners are home-grown; they’ve all completed our Path to Partnership Programme, which trains up any managers we think have the potential to lead the firm in the future.”
The scheme is crucial to Harris Lipman’s succession planning: those enrolled typically take between three and four years to complete it, which means the process of having the right people in place to safeguard the firm’s future is ongoing.
The other major investment is technology. Harris Lipman uses remote access and secure document exchange systems, telephone and video conferencing, and Cloud technology to stay in touch with clients.
“Technology has revolutionised the way we do business,” says Atkins. “It saves us a lot of time and money because we don’t have to travel to meet clients face to face, and it also makes us available outside office hours.
“There’s a new generation of clients coming through our doors with an ‘always-on’ mentality; they expect their service providers – their accountants included – to provide answers when they need them; we can no longer afford to stop the clock at five.”
Harris Lipman took a hit during the recession, when its turnover dropped from £5.5m to today’s £4.8m. This was down to clients curtailing their discretionary spend rather than taking their business elsewhere, but the loss in revenue gave the firm the push it needed to look at its own overheads. “We had to find ways of saving money, not just for ourselves but also for our clients,” says Atkins.
“In 2008 we decided to outsource our account preparation and bookkeeping to India. We were completely upfront with our clients about our plans. Many of them appreciated that this was the only way we could continue to offer them the standard of service they were used to without raising our fees.”
The process, he says, is seamless – the eight-person team in India does the essential number crunching and data processing – and then sends the files electronically to London for checking and filing.
The vast majority of Harris Lipman’s 1,000 or so clients are owner-managed businesses from diverse backgrounds. Insolvency accounts for 40% of revenue and the other 60% comes from tax, audit and businesses services, including start-up, consolidation and expansion, and retirement and estate planning.
Probate work will tie in well with the deep knowledge of client assets we have already
Harris Lipman has always been known for its insolvency work and the firm has dealt with some headline-making liquidations, including Our Price and Watkins Books. The curious thing is, the recession brought not an increase in business but a dip. “Our revenue from liquidations dropped from 50% to 40% post 2008,” says Atkins.
“We were expecting bankruptcies to jump up, as they had during other recessions, but they didn’t. The difference between this one and others is that HMRC and the banks have taken a much softer stance this time. Normally they’d be straight in there, forcing zombie companies into liquidation but instead they’re allowing them to carry on trading.”
And he doesn’t think this will change when interest rates go up. “Logic tells me that a hike in interest rates will bring down any companies that are just treading water. But my hunch is that there will be sufficient government help, and help from the banks, to keep them going. If I am wrong, we’re well prepared to expand on that front. We have the expertise to save failing businesses, or, if that’s not possible, to make the insolvency relatively painless.”
Harris Lipman is currently putting two people through the licence probate process to expand its portfolio of services. “Probate work will tie in very well with what we do already,” says Atkins. “We already have a deep knowledge of our clients’ assets, based on all the tax work we do for them, so it’s a natural next step to then be able to take their estates through probate.”
The firm also remains open to other opportunities, including further acquisitions. “In 1998 we acquired an insolvency practice in Cardiff, which has worked very well for us. You have to be willing to hear people out. Over the years we’ve had several approaches from other firms wanting to merge with us, but none has been quite right. But who’s to say what will happen next week, or next month, or next year?
“Accountancy is just like any other business – if you stand still for too long you’ll eventually wither away.”
Following the London 2012 Olympics, Harris Lipman set up the Harris Lipman Foundation to help fund Olympic Legacy projects in schools, clubs and associations throughout the UK. Successful applicants receive up to £1,000. “The Olympics gave us all such a boost that we wanted to find a way of encouraging youngsters to get active and find a sport they enjoy,” says Atkins. “You never know, our Foundation might play some small part in developing the talents of a future Olympic gold medal winner.”