Duncan & Toplis has been a feature of East Midlands business life since 1925 when two chartered accountants, Mr Duncan and Mr Toplis, set up a firm in Grantham. Since then, the practice has grown to become one of the largest in the region, now with 11 offices throughout Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
Most of these have come through mergers and acquisitions, a way of empire building that managing director Adrian Reynolds says has proved enormously successful. “Merging with another firm is the fastest way of growing,” he says. “I know it can be challenging, but that’s only if you move too fast and absorb firms that don’t fit in with yours. We have a long and well-established track record of acquiring other practices so we know how to deal sensitively with the issues that can arise.
“We always look for practices that share our ethos and culture and we know how to bed them in so that their teams see the merger as an opportunity rather than a threat. We have recently merged with a firm in Loughborough, having spent some considerable time looking for the right opportunity in that area.”
Duncan & Toplis is itself very good at recognising opportunities and going for them before anyone else does. The firm’s diversification into other areas – through a number of sister companies dealing with related industries such as financial services, corporate finance, technology, and interim management and turnaround support – is a case in point. “We saw that some of our clients needed dedicated and specialist services that could best be handled by discrete companies working under our umbrella, so we set them up,” says Reynolds.
Adrian Reynolds on what Duncan & Toplis has learned over the years
Continually review service offering
“Firms can’t survive on compliance work and we all have to develop so that we can offer our clients the services they need. Over the years we have developed IT, turnaround support, financial services and outsourcing services so we can continue to keep pace with our clients’ requirements.”
“IT represents a significant and ever-increasing annual cost to us. While we keep up to date with our IT, there are times when technology is not the most effective way of carrying out tasks. Sometimes you have to fall back on your old skills, so make sure you don’t lose them.”
“The succession of the firm is reliant on us developing the leaders for the future. We have introduced an academy programme to assist with this and have found some hidden gems through this process. We invite those who show potential to join our academy, which gives training in many areas, including some that chartered accountancy qualifications may neglect. I’m referring to softer skills such as being able to network and talk with ease to other people.”
“In my opinion, there can never be enough communication. In team surveys the main area for improvement is invariably communication and we now hold an annual meeting for the whole of our workforce to explain our plans for the year ahead. You can’t rely on the grapevine as a tool of communication – people need to hear things for themselves.”
Keep it personal
“We all communicate more and more via email or similar methods. We need to remember that we are a service provider and direct communication – ie, speaking – is far more effective and engaging. So my advice would be to speak to your staff and to your clients. It’s easy to hide behind technology but make yourself pick up the phone to talk to your clients. Intonations in speech can tell you so much more about what your client is thinking than an email. And face-to-face meetings are even better.”
“We started first with Castlegate Financial Management Limited, which was established in 1994 to provide independent financial advice, and followed in 1996 with Bishopsgate, which is a corporate finance enterprise that advises entrepreneur-run businesses valued at between £2m and £50m.” The firm has since added Queensgate, handling interim financial management and turnaround situations; Fidentia, a one-stop administration, accounts, tax and audit service for Lloyd’s LLPs and Namecos; and, most recently, Datcom, which provides IT support and services to SMEs throughout the region. There are also plans to start a probate company by the end of the year.
“Merging with another firm is the fastest way of growing. We know how to deal with the issues”
“Duncan & Toplis is still the main part of our business,” says Reynolds, “but the other companies are collectively making a significant contribution too. Ultimately, they enable us to offer more to our clients while developing our brand.”
The firm now employs 370 staff across all businesses. Recruitment is ongoing, with about 50 new people joining each year. “We recruit to fill the gaps in our expertise, to strengthen our teams and to ensure our future,” says Reynolds, “so we hire at all levels, from beginners to seniors. We’re seeing more applications from school-leavers, which is one consequence of the cuts made in funding further education, and training is an ever-increasing expenditure.”
Duncan & Toplis is a training firm and spends something in the region of £400,000 per year on developing staff – putting its people through professional qualifications, refresher courses and masterclasses on softer skills such as networking. Retaining staff after they have qualified is a challenge, as it is for many regional practices, so Duncan & Toplis offers a generous package including a competitive salary, flexible hours, a pension and a commission scheme to reward those who bring in new business.
It also has an academy programme for its future leaders. “We have a rigorous assessment procedure to identify our directors of tomorrow,” says Reynolds. “The management board with the HR director decide who should be invited to join our academy, which is really an elite training programme for those who show most potential. We have had 17 people going on to the academy and they’ll only be promoted once they’re ready.”
The company currently has about 12,000 clients from all sectors, including haulage, academies, charities, renewables, and agriculture and food, which together contribute 25% to the annual revenue. Client businesses are almost all UK-based, though some are UK subsidiaries of overseas operations, and five years ago Duncan & Toplis joined global accountancy network Kreston International to support clients who have dealings outside of the UK. It also has an office in India, employing 12 staff who work solely for Duncan & Toplis.
“That’s one of the differences between us and many other firms that outsource to India,” says Reynolds. “We like to keep things within our family.
“It’s integral to how we operate.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Invest in your people
“Recruit the best people you can find and make sure you manage them properly by finding the right jobs for them. The best firms take a balanced approach to staffing – recruit people you can train straight from school or university, but keep an eye out for talented managers who can fill any gaps in expertise.”
Know your market place
“Get involved in your community by supporting local charities and centres of education. Having a presence and making sure your name is known is an easy way of building your business.”
Seek support from your peers
“Sole practitioners have a tough job ahead of them because no one person can know everything. If you can’t answer a client’s questions, don’t bluff. Be honest about what you can and can’t offer, even if that means referring a client to another firm.”
Get the culture right if you’re merging with another firm
“We’ve been through many mergers and the key thing we look for is a similarity in outlook and culture – a shared ethos is paramount. It’s often a good idea to embed someone from your leadership team into the practice you’re acquiring, someone who can help the staff see the change as an opportunity, not a threat.”
Spend on IT
“Keep ahead of your clients. Decide if you want to be a pioneer or an adopter. If you choose the latter, make sure you’re an early adopter so that you can demonstrate your knowledge to your clients.”