7 Jan 2014 10:34am

Tales from the frontline: Heidi Harris

Heidi Harris on establishing community interest company, Harris Accountancy Services

When I tell fellow accountants that I run the only chartered accountancy practice in the UK with community interest company (CIC) status, they tend to have one of four reactions. The most cynical assume it is a marketing tactic. Others warn me that it is not tax efficient. The majority ask: “What does CIC mean?” And a few say it is a very good idea.

Working for a smaller practice gave me the opportunity to manage people and I was promoted very quickly to CEO

But the real reason I established Harris is simple: my career path has involved so much zig-zagging between accountancy and social enterprise roles, both of which I was passionate about, I decided to create a practice that would allow me to do both. Rewarding as this is (and much as I enjoyed my varied roles), I had to overcome a number of challenges along the way to reach this stage.

My first challenge came in 2002. I was an ACA student, fresh from university and just 20 months into my assistant tax consultant role at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Birmingham, when I was suddenly made redundant. The news was crushing and I honestly thought PwC had ruined my career. It took me a while to rebuild my confidence, even after I found a new job at BMS, a smaller practice in the West Midlands where I qualified with my ACA.

Terrible though the experience was, it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. Working for a smaller practice gave me the opportunity to manage people and I was promoted very quickly to CEO. But after almost three years with BMS, I left the profession and devoted a number of years to writing bids, managing finances and preparing reports for various charities and social enterprises, including the Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs.

What I loved most about the social enterprise sector was the people. They are unfailingly passionate and driven to do the very best for their cause. But by 2008 I started asking myself: “When am I going to combine my accountancy skills with my interest in social enterprise?” Which is why, in October 2008, I opened Harris Accountancy Services.

To qualify as a CIC, I had to prove that the community would benefit. I do this by giving talks to help local young people find employment; providing free support to other social enterprises and charities in Birmingham; and making donations to local charities, such as Birmingham-based Bloomsbury Cyber Junction. Were Harris Accountancy Services ever to close down, the assets would also be used to fund other charitable projects.

Re-entering the profession in 2008 was a culture shock in some ways. Suddenly we were tangled up with regulation and the market was far more competitive. Previously customers had selected an accountant and stuck with them for life, but now they were willing to shop around.

Fortunately, at Harris, our client numbers have steadily grown. After starting out with just four clients in 2008, we now have more than 150 of them, 75% of which are social enterprises with fascinating purposes ranging from supporting young offenders to providing mobile vegetarian catering.

My goal now is to grow that client base to 2,000; ideally I would like to work with 25% of all CICs in the UK. At times this seems like an impossible feat but then I look at the amazing achievements of my clients and some of the people I have worked alongside, such as Penny Newman, former CEO of Cafédirect, who built it into the first fair trade business to float on the stock market.

Inspiring people, such as Penny, remind me that sometimes the seemingly insurmountable really is possible