Technology and Google have taken away an accountant’s God-given right to dispense knowledge,” laughs Christopher Jenkins, co-founder of Ecovis Wingrave Yeats (EWY). “Before, we were able to make a very good living from selling what we knew, but technology has disrupted our professional landscape – more so than the recession. The only way we can survive is if we harness it and use it to our advantage – in other words, we have to view IT as the solution to the problem IT created. Firms that bury their heads in the sand hoping that technology will go away, or that hope their clients will keep paying them to do things they can do themselves for free, won’t have a future to look forward to.”
Jenkins and his partners have put a lot of energy and resources into ensuring EWY will be among the winners in the post-Google age. Having read the runes some years ago, they made a “significant investment” in reshaping the firm’s services by developing EWYonline, a cloud-based, document-recognition accounting system for clients. “We had to become authors of our own proprietary knowledge,” he says, “it was the only way of dealing with the impact of technology. We had to steer our thinking away from the high-margin, ‘analogue dollar’ profits we once enjoyed and focus instead on making ‘digital pennies’ from highly iterative transactions. We are now making profit from the wafer-thin margins on the low-cost accounting solutions owner-managers want.”
EWYonline enables clients to do their own accounting using document recognition: they scan in accounting documents, which are automatically posted to the right account, download bank statements straight into their cash books and use mobiles to capture a restaurant receipt, which then gets posted automatically into their accounts system. The take-up has been overwhelming.
Technology has disrupted our professional landscape more than recession
But aren’t they doing themselves out of a job? Emphatically no, says Jenkins. “What we’re doing is turning the chartered accountants we train into business advisers so we can deliver what our clients are prepared to pay for. What they want is sound business advice, based on common sense and in-depth technical knowledge, delivered in a language that they understand.”
Another important aspect of the firm’s work is providing surrogate FD services. This was the reason why Jenkins, ex-PwC, and Philip Hedges, ex-EY, set up their business – then called Wingrave Yeats – in 1983. “We were ahead of the curve,” he says. “Loads of people do it now but 32 years ago, it was quite a novel concept. We started from nothing, each of us bringing one client into the business, and went from there.”
In the pre-recession years, EWY was growing by up to 30% per annum, thanks largely to work referred to them by the Big Four. But the practice suffered badly when the referrals tap was abruptly turned off. And the Big Four were also undercutting them on price. “We decided from that point on,” says Jenkins, “that we had to be completely self-sufficient, not beholden to anyone for our flow of new business, so we did what we should have done many years before – we developed our own channels to market.”
Focusing on five sectors – media, professional service firms (including legal and architecture practices), hospitality, financial services and inbound international business – EWY used social media to build its reputation and to become a voice of authority in each area. It then targeted businesses within those sectors with what Jenkins calls “rigorous and consistent marketing”. By this he doesn’t mean “shouting” at customers to get them through the door, but rather using strategy and intelligence to ensure EWY was in the right place at the right time.
“You have to know your marketplace,” he says. “As one of our specialisms is media, it makes sense for us to be in Soho – at the very heart of the creative sector; we make our offices available for seminars and meetings to organisations such as PACT, the trade association for independent producers, and UK Screen, which represents post-production companies. That way we build the right connections, and their members might think of us next time they’re looking for a business adviser.”
EWY has more than 1,300 clients, from personal tax clients to international businesses such as Lufthansa, Carnival Cruise Lines and Marriott European Hotels. Its most lucrative revenue stream comes from acting for international companies doing business in the UK, a growing area of business that has helped boost its annual turnover to £5m and its estimated growth for 2015–2016 to over 11%.
The practice has been working with inbound international businesses for more than 25 years, taking many from planning stage through to launch, growth and beyond – to entry into markets overseas. Its clients’ expansion into other territories is now often facilitated through its membership of Ecovis, one of the world’s top 20 largest international accounting and consultancy practices networks, currently operating in more than 54 countries.
“We play a major role in Ecovis,” says Jenkins. “I’m head of its marketing board and one of my other partners, Robert McCann, is the elected chairman of its supervisory board. We could have approached any of the networks but this one was the best fit for us because many of the firms within the group were also started from scratch by ex-Big Four partners, so we share a common heritage.”
This partnership is good news for EWY, for its clients and for its staff, who have the chance of working abroad on secondment with some of the sister firms in the network.
The opportunities afforded to its employees is something that Jenkins is proud of. “We’ve created a nurturing environment based on knowledge sharing, where the people who work for us can develop skills they didn’t know they had,” he says. “Everyone who works here is asked to take on a responsibility outside their normal fee-earning role, either becoming a member of a sector-based marketing team or championing an area of expertise. We do our best to help our young people develop and we have a culture where the learning goes both ways. More than half the people who work here are under 30 and they think in a different way to the partner group. We give them the benefit of our experience and they teach us just as much in quite different ways.”
EWY takes a progressive approach to staff retention, sometimes encouraging talented people to leave, to gain experience of working elsewhere and then to re-join, bringing that outside knowledge with them. “We don’t like losing people we’ve trained but there has to be a natural process of promotion and sometimes we just don’t have a position for staff to step into,” he says.
Jenkins hopes not only to bring back ex-employees, but also to persuade people who have left private practice to work in industry to join EWY. “I left accountancy for five years and ran a bookselling business, so I know how valuable that kind of experience can be. We’ve recently employed the head of finance at Academy Films to strengthen our media team. It goes back to what I said about building a reputation and becoming a voice of authority. You can only do that if you know more about your clients’ business than they do.”
MAKING CHANGE WORK
1. Understand the professional landscape and keep abreast of how it’s changing. The only way to avoid being wiped out by technology is to use it to your advantage. Publish on Twitter, create and manage your own LinkedIn groups, make your voice heard.
2. Give your staff autonomy, mastery and purpose. Learn from the young people in your firm. They approach life and work differently and can teach you as much as you can teach them.
3. Become a champion of common sense: your clients may not need you to do their tax returns, but they may need you to supply them with the software that will enable them to fill in that return more easily.
4. See the world through the eyes of your client – it looks very different.