7 Feb 2014 05:26pm

Curo: With a little help from my friends

Anna Madden and Julia Whelan have created a practice that gives small businesses someone to lean on. The reason, they tell Xenia Taliotis, is because they know what it’s like to start from scratch

Anna Madden and Julia Whelan have been friends since they met 16 years ago at KPMG, the firm they both joined after qualifying at different small- and mid-tier practices. For eight of those years, they have also been business partners, having started their own partner-led practice, Curo Chartered Accountants, in 2005.

Though the majority of their clients are UK-based small- to medium-sized owner-managed businesses, their reach is global and they audit companies based in Germany, Sweden and Portugal. Other long-standing international clients include Bulova Watches, Pergo Flooring and a clutch of well-known multinationals.

Curo is from the Latin meaning to look after or attend, to manage and administer, which sums up what we do perfectly

“Setting up together wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Madden. They knew they got on well, boosted each other’s strengths and balanced out each other’s weaknesses, and they knew their friendship was strong enough to withstand the stresses of working together. So they resigned from KPMG, found premises close to where they lived in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and started from scratch, with not one client to their names.

“It does seem foolhardy when you put it like that,” says Madden, “but taken in context, it wasn’t; we felt we had it in us to succeed. And we used the fact we had taken a risk ourselves to help win business because we could tell prospective clients we had relevant first-hand experience of their situations. We knew all about the problems facing start-ups and owner-managed entrepreneurial businesses because we were one.”

They chose the name Curo because they felt it encapsulated their ethos. “It’s from the Latin meaning to look after or attend, to manage and administer, which sums up what we do perfectly,” says Whelan. “It’s our practice motto, that and ‘working with clarity’. Anna and I were only in our thirties when we started Curo – and we’re still a young and progressive firm – so we needed a name that counterbalanced that, a name with authority and gravitas.”

Their first year was relentless – they both put in 70-hour weeks – but by the time they filed their first company accounts in 2006, they had enough business to employ two members of staff. It’s an impressive enough achievement, but when you consider they had four young children aged between one and five between them, it is extraordinary.

“We did see phenomenal growth for the first three years or so,” says Madden, “growing by 100% each year, but we had our noses to the grindstone the whole time. We’d start before the children were up, stop to get them sorted in the morning, then work through until it was time to feed and get them ready for bed. And it would be back to work after that. It paid off, but it wasn’t sustainable.”

Today the award-winning practice, winner of the Chamber of Commerce Employer of the Year Award, 2012, past finalist in Worcestershire Woman of the Year 2013 award (for which it was commended for its unique approach to accountancy), and a recent nominee for ICAEW’s Small Accountancy Practice for the West Midlands, has 21 staff (five of whom joined in 2013), a satellite office in London’s Mayfair, opened in June 2013, and 600 accounts, split between limited companies and personal clients.

Growth in turnover and new business remains steady, at between 15-20% per year, with 50% of new clients coming from personal recommendations, and 50% from professional contacts, including banks and solicitors. If they continue growing at the same rate, they’ll surpass the 10-year-plan they drew up in 2005, and will have a staff of 30 by 2015, five more than anticipated.

Curo has clients in a range of sectors, including food, property, marketing and PR, engineering and sport. Both Madden and Whelan are keen to stress the diversity of their client base. “We don’t see the need to specialise in any one area since our skills and expertise are transferrable,” says Madden. “Our services can be scaled up or down, so we can work with companies of any size. All our clients are individuals and each business is different, but there are certain services they all need, whether they’re an international corporation turning over £70m or a sole trader with modest turnover.”

The bulk of their work comes from direct audit and tax assignments, but they also have clients who are audited by the Big Four, providing back up functions, including preparation of financial statements, assistance with audits and corporate tax support. Early in their firm’s life, they decided that one of them would focus on audit, and the other on tax. “We’re both fully trained auditors,” says Madden, “but Julia specialised in tax while at KPMG and is CTA qualified so it made sense to divide the labour according to expertise. It keeps things simple for our clients, too – if they need an audit they see me or one of my team, if they need tax advice, they go to Julia or her team. But quite often, clients will need to see both of us.”

In addition to their accounting and tax advisory work, which accounts for 70% of their revenue, they also derive a healthy income from providing an outsourced finance function (the British Chamber of Commerce is a client), giving training on Sage products, either in-office or off-site, and advising on mergers and acquisitions. Most of their work is on fixed-fee terms.

Last year, having identified a need for a bare minimum package that would suit sole traders, they created Curo Lite, a cost-effective bundle of essential services that includes the preparation of financial statements and submissions to Companies House, the preparation of corporation tax calculations, returns and submissions and dividend paperwork. “Some of our smaller proprietor businesses were feeling the pressure financially and we thought the best way to help them would be to offer them an all-inclusive product,” says Whelan. “Curo Lite covers the essentials for an annual, all-in fee. And if our clients do need other services, such as payroll, they can add them in as and when needed.”

Whelan and Madden are currently the firm’s only two partners, but with two senior managers and many talented young staff progressing fast, they are unlikely to remain so for long. “We’re both keen on staff training and professional development,” says Madden, “We’re an ACA and ACCA accredited training office. The people we work with – clients and staff – are the heart and soul of our business, so we do our utmost to nurture and build strong relationships with everyone we deal with. We pour a lot of time, energy and money into giving our staff opportunities to grow. That’s why we were delighted to win the Chamber of Commerce Award for Best Employer of the Year – it meant so much to us.”


Charity work

Curo is committed, on a personal and financial level, to the charities it helps. One of these is Dodford Children’s Holiday Farm, a Worcestershire-based charity that provides short breaks to disabled or disadvantaged children. “When we met the team there, it was clear they needed not just our money but also our time – they needed man hours to help clean the pigsties, stables and so forth, and that’s exactly what we provided,” says Madden. “Social responsibility is not just about signing cheques – we are very happy to roll up our sleeves and help out in any way possible.”

Xenia Taliotis