Danny McCance 2 Jun 2017 09:00am

Tales from the frontline: Sally Spencer

Sally Spencer, head of operations at PKF Cooper Parry, thrives on challenges but, she explains to Danny McCance, success depends not just on what you do but on the way that you do it

Caption: Photography: Jon Snedden

I did a slightly random degree, chemistry at Durham University, and I fell into accountancy. I didn’t want to carry on the chemistry road, and I got a job at PwC in Cambridge. They worked with a lot of biotechs at the time – I thought I could use my chemistry knowledge, to some degree, with their clients.

In what appears to be a recurring theme of my career, about two and a half years after qualifying I felt I needed a new challenge. I moved to transaction services and was incredibly lucky that I began working in the mid-market team across lots of different industries, and I loved that. It gave me the chance to get to know different industries and what made them tick.

I was working on a vendor assistance piece for Griffin Global and started to hone in on the travel industry because of the jobs I’d been working on. Griffin offered me a job, and it was at the time that I wanted to take ownership of what I was doing. I would write a report saying “have you thought about X, Y or Z?”, but didn’t get to put it into practice. So the offer was perfect timing.

I’ve always liked challenges. The prospect of working across different countries and cultures really floated my boat. It was amazing to see the other side of the table. You’re a little bit blinkered in practice and don’t necessarily prioritise things that are important to your clients. I encourage people to take secondments in industry, even if it’s only for a short time, to be able to get
that perspective.

Working at Griffin was incredibly challenging. For example, we didn’t really have our own offering in Norway. I ended up setting up an office from scratch, and we came out of the two joint ventures we had there.

The key is understanding the people you’re working with, knowing what motivates them and what makes them tick. It’s important to have the right people – people that have the values of the company you’re in. Clear communication of what is expected is crucial. I don’t like to beat around the bush. It is important to have open relationships and no hierarchy. Just empower
the team so they can work more efficiently.

This attitude runs across the company at PKF Cooper Parry (CP). You know when you walk in the door if you’ll fit. I immediately felt that here.

I never envisaged going back into practice – although I’m on the internal operations side now. It is a company like no other.

I’ve been incredibly lucky: the reason I moved on from Griffin Global was that I had my first child. I knew that the travel wasn’t going to work. When I came back to work I was lucky to find CP. It offers the challenges I need. It’s a place where I can make a difference. But it also offers a work/life balance. Six months ago I had my second child so it’s been a busy time.

Thankfully, there isn’t a normal day at CP.

My new role involves working with team heads, to look at how I can support them to achieve their individual vision. We have a very clear firm vision, and then each department will have their own. Growth is a big part of this. When I started, in November 2014, we had fewer than 250 people – we’re now at 420. At this time we just had the East Midlands office, now we’ve got the West Midlands office too. We came together with Clement Keys in January last year.

We had to bring two cultures together. At CP we purposely set out to disrupt, to set ourselves apart and to be bold and entrepreneurial. Taking that to another culture and accountancy firm is a big shift.

As you get bigger the most important thing is to remain agile. This all comes down to the lack of hierarchy and empowering people to make decisions. My key role now is to make sure we are scaleable. That comes with challenges. You don’t want to put processes in place that straightjacket people. I’m passionate about removing noise, so any admin tasks that aren’t adding value and frustrate people get removed.

Within the next three years we want to be up to £45m turnover. We’re doing £30m this year. Within 10 years we want to be doing £150m. We know where we are aiming, we’ve set our targets and so far we are achieving, if not exceeding, them.

One of the most rewarding things is seeing a team develop. I’m proud of the fact that I still have some people who come to me for advice.

CP definitely provides me with the challenges I’m looking for in the future. I come to work with a skip in my step and I leave with one too.

You only live once, so you’ve got to be happy. I’m extremely happy.