Sandra Haurant 5 Jun 2018 04:24pm

The generation game

Family firms have always played a part in the accountancy profession. Sandra Haurant spoke to three to find out how they have made a success of their own family affairs

Caption: Illustrations: Daniel Frost

David Grunberg started his business, Grunberg and Co, in May 1990, with his wife Louise as part-time secretary and one other accountant. From small beginnings, it has grown into a successful firm with 65 employees and seven partners.

One of those is Ben Grunberg, David’s son. “It was never a given that Ben would join the firm, or go into accountancy,” says Grunberg senior. “My attitude was that, if he did decide accountancy was for him, he would start off somewhere else, do his training, qualify, and maybe, if he wanted to, come back to us once he’d been around the block and learned a few things.”

In fact, to everyone’s surprise, Ben decided to start his career with the family firm. “Ben was adamant he wanted to be with us from the ground up. He trained with us and qualified with us, and became a partner a year ago.” Of course, it has not been without its challenges. Joining the family firm is rarely straightforward. “It was difficult, because he felt he had to prove more than he would in a normal situation, and work a lot harder. But he has achieved it.”

His son’s decision to join the firm has been hugely positive. “We have always been a very family-oriented firm, and for many of our clients we are not so much a business partner as a partner to the family. They trust us because we know what their family expectations are, we understand what they want. I’ve often been asked to be the executer of people’s wills, for example,” he says. “And when Ben came on board our clients were happy; to them it meant continuity and longevity. They love that there is a family relationship within the firm.”

Ben’s arrival also bridges the generation gap, Grunberg explains. “What is interesting is there is a generational match; a lot of my clients are my age, and I can relate to them, we are on the same page. But then these clients recommend their sons and daughters, and they come along and have a different approach to the world. And of course Ben, who is in his early 30s, can relate to them on their level.”

Father and son do occasionally disagree. “We have had some great fights, of course. Sometimes we have different points of view and it’s difficult to be challenged because you think you’ve always done it right.” But, says Grunberg, it’s part of the learning process. “When I go to meetings with Ben, I learn to keep quiet and give him the floor. Usually, because I’m the senior, I would speak, but Ben has a lot of ideas, which are not always the way I would go, but, dare I say, I am learning from him. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

It’s also common for people to train elsewhere and then return to the fold. Amanda Digne-Malcolm, director, practice, at ICAEW, says: “If it’s something that interests you, even if you haven’t trained in the firm, there is every chance that you will come back and join the ranks.”

Indeed, younger family members bringing new ideas into a business have a positive effect, as Graham and Chris Lamont have discovered. Graham Lamont took over a small accountancy firm in the Lake District in the 1970s when it consisted of just “one and a half staff members”.

As he built the practice up, he began to make a name for himself and gradually acquired other firms in different locations across the area. Today, Lamont Pridmore has eight offices and is a quintessential family firm, with both the Lamonts and Pridmores actively involved in the practice.

Lamont’s son Chris joined the ranks in 2008, a decision that surprised his father. “Our attitude has always been very open, we never pushed. Chris’s two best subjects at A-level were business studies and biology, and he decided to go to London to do an applied biology degree,” explains Lamont. “He worked at one of the top pharmaceutical companies in London, but eventually he said he had been fighting the accountancy gene and had decided to apply to accountancy firms.” Chris joined Wilkins Kennedy, a top 20 firm, for his training.

“I didn’t think he was coming back,” says Lamont. Chris had met his future wife, originally from Sussex, at university in London, and Lamont assumed he would settle in the south-east. So when
he announced plans to return to Cumbria and join the family firm, the news was as unexpected as it was welcome.

Chris took over the newly-acquired Carlisle office in 2008 and has built the business from no staff to 20 employees. Lamont believes that, for them, the fact that Chris trained outside the family firm has had real benefits. “I think one of the advantages of family members working somewhere else and then coming back with a skillset is that it really helps in winning the respect of the staff,” he says.

“You get a skillset the firm might not have had and you can bring that back with you, and it benefits the company. Chris gained a valuable range of skills and experience; he had real ability, he wasn’t just the son of the owner of the business.”

And while working together can bring its challenges, Lamont says: “Occasionally, we have a discussion about things, but 99% of the time we are on the same page. I think it would have been harder to come back to a more traditional practice where new ideas were not taken on board. We haven’t got many differences of opinion on direction, it’s more how quickly we can do it.”

Lamont Pridmore specialises in family businesses, so the firm’s own structure offers a level of knowledge and understanding their clients find reassuring. The team are able to advise on succession issues with authority and experience, something to which the team at Sopher + Co in Hertfordshire can relate.

Daniel Sopher, senior partner at Sopher + Co, has been at the family firm since 2004. He became a partner in 2010 and took over the reins of the practice in sombre circumstances when the founder, his father Ivan, passed away in 2014.

Through the leadership of father and then son, the firm has gone from strength to strength since its humble beginnings more than four decades ago. Ivan Sopher founded the firm in 1975 from the spare bedroom of his home in Elstree, before moving to offices at Elstree studios, where the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars were filmed. This prime location made the firm a natural choice for resident film industry professionals, from directors to on-site caterers, and helped Ivan Sopher to build a solid foundation for what is today a 130-person practice with multiple offices and clients in many sectors.

Daniel was not sure at the start that he would follow his father into the profession. “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, so decided to do a law degree at university, because I thought it would be a useful degree to have,” he explains. After graduating, the accountancy profession began to appeal. He applied for trainee positions with all of the Big Four, and subsequently joined PwC. Five years later, he left to join the family firm.

As with most decisions, there were many factors at play, but one of the key attractions for Daniel was the type of work he would be able to do at Sopher + Co. “It was an easy choice to make because the work is more interesting. A lot of the work I was doing at PwC was advising big corporates, and now I advise the owner-managed businesses of entrepreneurs. It is more interesting; there is more reward; I have better impact.”

Daniel worked with his father for about eight years, although, in a firm which had around 80 staff at that time, there were weeks when they would not cross paths. And while he recognises that there can be additional pressure on family members joining a firm that bears their name, Daniel says: “At the end of the day you have to work hard anyway, and I think I worked just as hard as I would for anyone else.

“You treat everyone with the same respect. The firm has a very flat structure, where even if you come in at a low level, people will respect you as much as a senior person. We consider that you can make contributions as much as the next man or woman, regardless of your level,” he explains.

Since running the firm, Daniel has tried to maintain this positive working culture, while making changes that will prepare them for future growth. And while Daniel made the decision to join the family business, he does not necessarily expect his own son to do the same.

“My son is only 10, so we would be looking at 15 years’ time at the earliest. But it’s entirely up to him what he wants to do. If my son wants to be a scriptwriter or work in computer games, then working for a firm of accountants is going to make him miserable. If you start forcing people into roles they don’t want to do it doesn’t work – you have to know if you are the right person for the job,” he says. “The work I do is accounting and tax, but it’s also about helping people. It’s a people business. There’s a whole range of interpersonal skills involved. What it comes down to is that I find what I do interesting.”

That interest and passion for the profession is key to building a successful family business. And it brings multiple benefits, as Digne-Malcolm says: “We have heard of many examples of practices with three generations working together, and many practices have served three generations of the same family as clients.”

Top tips for successful succession

Working together and passing a family firm from one generation to the next comes with many challenges. So how do you make it work? Here, Graham Lamont, of family firm Lamont Pridmore, offers his advice:

Be honest. Have a frank discussion with your prospective successors to see if taking over the family firm really is what they want to do. It’s easy to make assumptions, but if a person’s heart is not in it, then it is unlikely to be successful in the long run.

Encourage experience. While knowing the family business inside out is a huge advantage in many ways, it can also be extremely beneficial to gain experience – and of course vital qualifications – in the outside world. Bringing in skills learned externally can be a big boost to a business.

Plan ahead. It makes sense to have a comprehensive succession plan in place for the short, medium and long term so that continuity can be assured if the head of the firm is no longer able to work.

Don’t be blinkered. While it can be tempting to think those staff members who have the family name are best placed to take leading roles, don’t ignore other talented employees who could help you, or your successors, take the firm to the next level.

Separate work and pleasure. Talking shop is inevitable for families who work together, but don’t forget to play together, too.