I’m not dazzled by a first-class degree and a string of A*s,” says Carl Elsby, joint founder, with his wife Clare, of Elsby & Co in Sywell, Northamptonshire. “What matters most to me when I’m recruiting is a person’s potential.
“When we set up in 1993, we drew up a list of what we wanted our firm to be known for, and right at the top was a commitment to training and mentoring staff to help them achieve their goals. As long as they share our ethos and have a willingness to learn, then they’re welcome to join us.”
Elsby is talking from personal experience when he says that it isn’t always a glowing set of grades that make a great accountant. He left school at 16 with three O-Levels and when he qualified as an accountant six years later, he did so with marginal passes. And yet here he is, running a successful practice, with 24 staff, including three partners, 850 clients and an annual turnover of more than £1.2m – expected to grow by 20% over the next year.
“We invest a lot in training and developing our employees so they take on more responsibility, and there’s no hierarchy,” he adds. “We promote people when they’re ready, not when someone moves on. Staff progress as quickly as their ability allows, and seeing them grow is one of the most rewarding aspects of running my own firm.”
If you're methodical, analytical and precise, you'll find the right answers
He says his route into accountancy was more a happy accident than a carefully calculated game plan. After leaving school he worked for his parents’ sports club and then, when they sold it, he started as a clerical assistant at a firm of accountants. Realising accountancy was a good fit for him, he backtracked on his education, re-sat his O-Levels, took a BTEC, a foundation course and then his chartered accountancy exams, all within the space of five years.
Elsby started Elsby & Co after he and his wife were made redundant from Grant Thornton and Haines Watts respectively. “Our motivation was to build a firm that embodied our principles and what we stood for. That’s what really tipped the balance in favour of us going it alone,” he says. “We’d seen how big firms operated and we wanted to do things differently, starting with putting people – clients, staff, suppliers – first. We knew we could improve on how the corporates went about things.”
Working from the back room of their house, they got their first client through pure chutzpah. “A farmer contacted me saying he was retiring and needed advice on his tax affairs,” says Elsby. “His accountant had told him he was facing a tax bill of £108,000 and he wanted a second opinion. At that stage I’d never done anything like that, but I went away, did my research, worked through the figures and saw that I could get his tax liability down to zero. That’s one of the brilliant things about accountancy – the fact that, if you’re methodical, analytical and precise, you’ll find the right answers. You just need a can-do attitude and the confidence to take on new challenges.”
The firm’s expansion was rapid, fuelled mainly by word of mouth but also through business contacts and networking. By 1997 they were “growing like crazy”, so they moved into new offices and recruited more staff. Since then, Elsby & Co has grown by 30-40% per year, even during the recession, with retention of clients and staff remaining extremely high – over 90%.
The emphasis is on creating a happy environment: staff benefit from flexible working, including working from home, and a profit-sharing scheme, while clients know they can pick up the phone for advice without worrying that the meter is ticking.
Billing is on a per-service basis, but more than that, the practice offers a guarantee to clients that they can pay what they feel the job is worth. Thus far, says Elsby, it’s never been an issue – no one has claimed on the guarantee, but it’s a good marketing technique. “We have complete confidence in the service we provide – more often than not, we exceed clients’ expectations, but that guarantee is there on our website to show clients we put our money where our mouth is.”
And there is also give-back for clients through the firm’s membership of Perkz, an online benefits scheme that gives generous discounts at hundreds of retailers, including Apple, M&S, Boots and Thomson. It’s a way of saying thank you and of showing that he appreciates his clients’ loyalty to his firm, Elsby says.
We like working with people we can get to know personally - you can't do that with big companies
The practice has clients in a wide range of industries – catering, beauty, marketing, construction, retail – and that’s how Elsby & Co likes it. It has chosen not to specialise in any one sector but its market positioning is, nonetheless, highly focused – concentrated on owner-managed small enterprises they can help to grow.
“This is our place in the market place,” says Elsby. “It’s where we can make the most difference and it’s where our expertise lies. Aside from that, we like working with people we can get to know personally. You can’t really do that when you’re acting for big companies.” Elsby believes the best way to provide an exceptional service is to get close to clients. “We handle sensitive information,” he says. “So building strong, trusting relationships with our customers is imperative.
“The more we know about them and their business, the better placed we are to advise them. Our clients see the same accountant each time because with continuity comes familiarity. By getting to know the businesses we represent inside out, we can identify any potential weak areas and sort them out before they become problematic.”
The practice provides a variety of services, including VAT, tax returns, payroll and CIS, business valuations, management accounts, retirement planning and company sales and mergers. It also offers more strategic consultations, such as brainstorming with clients and creating five-year goal and target plans for them.
“Broadly speaking, everything we do is designed around the life stages of a business,” says Elsby. “We aim to be there at every key moment, to help people start up, grow, prosper and then exit their business, whether that means selling up, handing it to another member of the family, or winding it down.”
As to what the future holds, Elsby is interested to hear from sole practitioners with similar values who might join the business as joint venture partners. A recent partnership, Coopers Elsby, in Milton Keynes, which they set up with ex-employee, Kupesh Patel, is showing great promise. “I’d definitely like more joint venture partnerships,” says Elsby. “They’re great for us because we gain new clients and a presence in a different city, and they’re great for our partner, who benefits from our support, and also from sharing costs, for instance, IT, admin and reception staff.”
And he’d also like to hear from enthusiastic young accountants who feel their skills aren’t being fully harnessed. “We’re constantly on the lookout for new talent to develop. For me that’s the best way of securing the future of Elsby & Co.”
CLIENT: SYD GOODEN, ADL PROPERTIES LTD
“Carl has been my accountant for more than 20 years. In that time, it’s no exaggeration to say that he has shaped both my business and my private affairs, making sure they are in good order. His advice has always been right on the money and I trust him implicitly, knowing he has my interests at heart. He negotiated an amazing £250,000 reduction in what my company owed the bank, and I’m not sure what we’d have done without him during a very fraught legal dispute. I ask for his advice on every important decision I have to make, whether that’s writing my will, planning what will happen to my business after I retire, and setting up trusts for my family. It’s fair to say that I think of him as a friend.”