City-based firm Carter Backer Winter (CBW) has always been good at planning ahead. As far back as 25 years ago, when the country was enjoying something of a boom, managing partner Peter Winter and his then senior partner, Melvyn Carter, put in place a strategy to develop the firm’s corporate recovery team in anticipation of the recession they felt sure was to follow.
Now, with more prospects on the horizon, Winter is planning to stay ahead of competitors with the help of two business development managers, hired to bring in new clients; the team is already cash positive, with billing exceeding costs.
We're still a partner-led firm but we've remodelled our board to also include non-partners
The fact an accountancy practice should need a new business team is one aspect of the profession’s changing face, says Winter. Accountants can no longer rely solely on recommendation and reputation for growth; they have to court new clients. Many mid-tier firms, CBW included, also employ PR companies to help get their name known.
“Accountancy has changed enormously in the past decade,” he says. “Practices are much more business-like, in as far as they operate like other commercial enterprises. It’s now commonplace for even small firms to adopt a more corporate management structure. We’re gradually moving in that direction. We are still a partner-led firm but we’ve re-modelled our board to also include non-partners.”
There’s pressure on firms, too, to show ingenuity in how they manage their own financial health in difficult climates when clients cut back on the services they need. Flexibility and an ability to seize opportunities is key. CBW managed to grow during the recession to its current £10.5m per annum turnover – not through winning new business, but by merging with other firms. Two years ago it acquired Direct Control Ltd, a specialist provider of outsourced accounting services, and last year it took over tax specialist Blackstone Franks. The acquisitions have taken CBW’s staff levels to more than 100 and brought an expert property tax consultant to the firm, taking the number of partners to 16.
“Mergers with well-regarded specialist practices are a good way of gaining capacity and expanding and strengthening our expertise and business in different fields,” says Winter.
“We acquired Direct Control to create a new company that would provide financial controllers and FD services to clients who needed the discipline and rigour of an FD, but who weren’t yet in a position to employ one full-time. Venture capital-backed start-ups and fast-growing companies often find themselves in this situation, and that’s where we step in, providing that level of expertise on a part-time basis.
“Similarly we wanted to expand our tax consultancy and it made sense to merge with Blackstone Franks, a firm that already specialised in tax.”
Training staff is one of the firm’s biggest expenditures, something in the region of £100,000 per annum, with all employees having a structured career path. The emphasis is on developing people at a pace that’s right for them, though Winter concedes there have been times when the graduating trainees coming up through the ranks have outpaced the firm’s expansion, and times when others may have been ready for a partnership when one was not available. Nonetheless, CBW, like other practices, goes all out to retain the talent it has nurtured as part of its on-going succession planning.
We take a holistic approach to our clients' portfolios
In addition to excellent career prospects, staff benefits include medical insurance, flexible working and regular social events. “We encourage working from home whenever appropriate,” says Winter. “Family comes first for all of us and we have a very supportive working environment so our staff can develop their careers without compromising their home life. We’re proud to have been nominated among the top 12 best firms to work for in 2013 and to have appeared in The Sunday Times list of best small companies to work for in 2011,” he says.
CBW is a mid-tier general practice with no specific sector bias. It does, however, have its vision focused sharply on owner-managed, entrepreneurial businesses, which can be anything from small independents to huge international concerns with turnover in the tens of millions of pounds. There’s a popular misconception, Winter says, about family businesses:
“People automatically picture a corner shop, or a father and son combo, when in fact they can scale up to anything. We act for a number of clients whose turnover is between £60m and £70m, for example – they’re substantial concerns though still family-owned.”
Winter is vague about the number of clients the firm has, but it’s certainly in excess of 1,000 and the aim is to provide each of them with the package that will most help them prosper. “We take a holistic approach to our clients’ portfolios and look at all their interests before constructing a service plan for them” he says.
“Each client has one key partner as their point of contact, but that partner will call upon our other experts to ensure we give the best advice.”
The firm offers a full range of services including audit and accounts, payroll, advisory and consultancy, property tax advice and planning, human resources, and financial planning. CBW is one of very few accountancy practices employing chartered financial advisors, qualified to assess client’s personal circumstances and tolerance to risk and to tailor strategic plans for them. There is also a special department, CBW Focus, for small businesses – specifically for start-ups, which includes all the basic services at a cost-effective, fixed price, which can be paid in installments.
In addition, CBW operates three transactional businesses: corporate recovery and insolvency; corporate finance and forensic and investigations, interpreting financial data in cases of professional negligence, mediation and arbitration, asset tracing and fraud.
Around 12 years ago, CBW became one of the first accountancy firms to outsource services to India. “At first it was purely a cost-saving initiative but that’s no longer the case as there are companies in Britain that can compete on price,” says Winter. “Now it’s to do with quality of service. It’s a facet of our business that has proved tremendously successful.”
Another winning initiative is CBW’s membership of MGI, a worldwide alliance of independent audit, tax, accountancy and consulting firms. “We joined about five years ago, and it’s just another way of making sure we’ve covered all bases in terms of customer service,” Winter says.
“If one of our clients wants to do business in the US or Asia or South Africa, for instance, then we’ll be able to recommend one of our affiliates to help them. MGI has members in 300 locations across 85 countries. I’m currently deputy chairman of MGI.
“As a company CBW devotes a lot of time to building strong relationships with our partner firms so we do try to meet as many of them as possible. It’s always good to know we’re recommending people we’ve actually met.”
CBW launched a networking initiative, Foundation Thursdays, in June. Every three months, CBW senior managers and “rising stars” host the social event, inviting lawyers, bankers and other key contacts along. “Networking is key to the success of our business,” says Winter, “and we thought the best way of building strong relationships for the future would be to hold a regular social events for our next generation of partners. Our first one went down well – we had everyone playing table football – and our marketing department is busy planning the next one now.”