Firms in the spotlight
There are highs and lows in running any business and in each edition of the Digital Accountancy magazine we are going to deep dive into some of the tech-focussed accountancy practices to learn a little more about the team and how they operate, the background on the business and their future goals and aspirations.
In this edition, we spoke to Ashton McGill and Thorne Widgery to learn some more about the founders behind the firm and how they juggle their work and family life.
Ashton McGill is a forward-thinking and proactive accountancy firm based in Dundee. They have embraced technology within their practice and a winner of the 2019 Xero Small Firm of the Year Award. The firm was founded by Alasdair McGill and his son Andy back in 2017 and we caught up with Alasdair to find out some more about the business and how they operate.
You created Ashton McGill in 2017. Tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to set up your own firm.
I qualified as an accountant back in 1993, and spent the next 25 years running businesses in a variety of industries. I’ve done the full journey – startup, grow, mature, buy, sell and, of course, fail. You learn a lot from these experiences! In 2016 we ran a Customer Experience programme for Xero’s Accounting Partners and it was during this, coupled with bad experiences with our own accountants at the time, that we decided to explore the possibility of applying our design expertise to the business of accounting. We spent 6 months doing research, interviewing users, and trying to understand the most common pain points in the accountancy service. We then designed a business model that was customer-centred and that our research told us was what business owners wanted. We finally launched in September 2017 and now work with almost 150 clients and we’ve just hired the tenth member of our team. Your business partner is your son so is he an accountant too? What is it like working together? Actually Andy is a designer & marketer. We setup Ashton McGill as a design consultancy together back in 2015, carrying out projects for clients including Scottish Power, Volkswagen, St James Place, Countrywide Group & Xero! Around 10% of our turnover today still comes from design projects and that is growing as our business matures. We have fun working together. Ashton McGill is like our family – that’s how we think of our team too. We have a rule that we only work with people we like and that work should be fun. Life’s too short otherwise! You recently moved offices in Dundee and your new offices look amazing - very trendy and modern! What made you decide to move? Quite simply the opportunity presented itself. One of our clients was moving out of the space, which is owned by another of our clients. We’d always loved their office, and so when we were asked if we’d be interested in moving in, we jumped at the chance! Previously we worked in a big open plan office – still very cool, in a converted mill, however the new space is a better design & layout for the business we want to be. Tell me a little about your team. What sort of people do you look for - do you look more for people who know about fashion and design or cloud accounting experience? Most important of all, we need people that are good communicators, who have great listening skills and the ability to explain sometimes complex and technical issues in a simple way that a non-accountant can easily understand. They need to be tech-savvy, curious, and someone you would want to hang out with. If they haven’t come from a design background, we then teach them design thinking and the principles of service design that sits behind everything that we do. Fashion businesses are one of your niches - how did this come about? Do you have a niche for the firm overall? Fashion is just one of our niches - it’s small at the moment, but growing. My daughter is a fashion designer working in London for a big company
and it’s an industry I’ve always been interested in. I’m answering these questions from my hotel in New York where I’ve been over running workshops & events during Fashion Week! Our overall niche is really people. A specific kind of person. Our ideal client is ambitious, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and they like to challenge the status quo. They’ll be innovating in their own industry, appreciate good design and even if they’re not a designer, they still pay attention to the details and focus on delivering great customer experiences.
When you say “Fashion”, what sort of clients do you have in this sector? Are they all clothes designers or do you have a wider range? We work with apparel designers, retailers, and wholesalers in the fashion industry. It’s an industry that’s going through a period of great change, with the High Street no longer as it was in the past. You are currently in America to go to Fashion Week. Is this the first time you have been there and did you take any of your team? I’ve been to New York before, but not for Fashion Week. It’s just me that’s going this time, at the invite of Kent State Fashion’s NYC Studio. Why do you choose to go to these fashion events? Do you find you win new work as a result of you going? I’m being paid to run workshops so that’s the main reason for coming over. There may well be opportunities that spin out of it. I’m also always interested to meet new people and to learn from them. Why did you decide to have a niche sector? Was it a tough sector to break into? Are many of your clients Scottish? Our niche is the person-type and not the industry. However as the business has grown, we have established clusters of businesses in particular industries. The biggest of those would currently be food & drink where we work with some fast-growing stylish drinks brands. We also have growing clusters in tech & fashion. We’ve found that once we win that first client and deliver an accounting experience unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, we soon start receiving referrals and it builds from there. What do you find to be the key issues that the fashion industry face and how do you help business owners overcome these? The change in consumer behaviour is the biggest issue facing the industry at the moment. There’s a move away from high street retail. Consumers want garments delivered to them, in several sizes, so they can try them on at home. Retailers have to figure out the impact of this on inventory & delivery costs. Sustainability is the other big issue for the industry just now. We don’t always have the answers, but our strategic consulting experience and design-led tools, allow us to work with clients to test & develop potential solutions. All of this, of course, built on the foundation of strong & robust accounting systems and reporting. Technology is at the core of what you do. What specialist apps do you use to help your clients and why? For all clients, irrespective of industry, we use online accounting platforms. This is mainly Xero but we have a couple of dozen clients on FreeAgent. We also use Receipt Bank with every client. After that, apps are chosen to do a specific job for the client’s business. For instance, in fashion, Shopify is commonly used for the online store. That will then tie back into something like TradeGecko to manage inventory and manufacture if it is applicable. Several clients are now using Pleo to manage expenses – there’s a lot of travel in fashion! We also use Spotlight as a reporting & forecasting tool, and more often than not, we will implement Float to help manage cashflow. What process do you follow when you are picking a new app and how do you keep up with the changes in technology? I find that accountants are really bad for chopping & changing the apps that they use and recommend. We don’t do that. We do our research, test the apps ourselves – we won’t recommend anything without first having used it – and then we implement them. We keep an eye on what’s new on the market - we are all interested in technology and one of our team is specifically responsible for new tech.
You created a podcast series, “Never Settle”, for creatives, entrepreneurs and leaders who do things differently. Why did you choose to do this and who have you interviewed? During our user research back in 2017 we found that our ideal client types loved listening to the stories of people like them. So we decided to create a podcast that would tell the stories of interesting people doing interesting things. We don’t just talk to business people – we’ve had forensic scientists, politicians and educators on the show. We’ve even recorded an episode with the Ashton McGill team discussing the future of accounting! It is a bit of a roller coaster running your own business and there are lots of highs and lows. How do you manage this and keep going? I’ve been running businesses for almost 30 years - it’s in my DNA. I wouldn’t know what else to do! I certainly could never work for anyone else. Back in 2014, after I had exited the contractor accounting business that I was brought in to turnaround, I was offered the role of Head of Entrepreneurship at the University of Dundee. It was a newly created part-time role, and I had a lot of fun, but ultimately I found the pace of change in the academic world too slow. That was when I left to set up Ashton McGill as a design agency with Andy. I’m still their “Entrepreneur in Residence” so it was nice to be able to maintain the connection. What are the biggest challenges that you face in your work? There’s only one big challenge really, other than a lack of time, and that’s a lack of good people. The accounting industry is still training people for the 90s and graduates today aren’t fit for purpose. We’ve had to build our own training program and increasingly we’re hiring people from design backgrounds as they have many of the skills that an accountant needs in 2020 and beyond. What would be your 3 top tips to an accountant thinking about or who has just set up their own cloud-based accountancy firm? My first tip would be to find your own path. Don’t just do what all the others do. Find your unique voice and deliver the service that you’d want to receive. My second tip would be to turn up your empathy. Really learn to understand what it feels like to be your client, what they go through each day and where accounting fits into their priorities. Then design a service that will make you indispensable. Finally, I would recommend that you find the right apps to help you run your business. For us that’s Senta, Go Proposal, Spotlight, Float, and of course, Xero. We use Zendesk for Support, and Slack for our team and community. Think differently!
You must be thrilled to have won the 2019 Xero Small Firm of the Year Award - why do you think you were nominated? We were absolutely delighted! I think it’s a testament to the team that we have and the good work that we do for our clients. We’re still a long way from where I want us to be but we are getting there and being nominated just two years into our journey means that we must be doing something right! What are your ambitions and what does success look like for you? We want to keep building on what we’ve done so far. The next phase is a complete redesign of how we deliver our services. It’s good, but I want it to be great. So we’ll start a design thinking process in the next couple of months once our new team member joins. We want to keep doing good work for good people. At the end of the day, our purpose is to help people build better businesses and so that will remain our main focus. How big that gets? Who knows? But as long as we have fun along the way, then that’s the main thing. Finally, what is your one killer piece of advice to firms looking to automate and improve the efficiency of compliance work? Remember that you are dealing with humans and non-accounting humans mostly too. So always bring it back to that, and find ways to harness the technology, but don’t make it the main thing. Focus on the people first.
Thorne Widgery is a two office accountancy practice which was originally established over 75 years ago. Being Xero Platinum Partners, they have embraced the technology and use this in their practice to provide their clients with a very proactive and personal service. We met up with the CEO of the practice, Daniel Crowther, to find out a little bit more about the firm, the innovative services they offer and how they use technology to meet their clients’ needs.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me Daniel. Can you tell me a little bit about Thorne Widgery and your goals for the future. Essentially, we have one main aim for our clients – to help and inspire the businesses we work with to achieve their goals. Our goal is to help, support and guide those businesses through the challenges they face and to get them to the place they want to be. Whilst that is our goal for clients, we also focus on our team internally. We aim to have an inspired, engaged workforce who share our values and beliefs. This is really the core to our business and crucial to delivering the outcomes we want for our clients. You’re quite an established firm so how easy was it to encourage the adoption of cloud-based systems within the practice? Despite our historic past, we have always been forward-thinking. In fact, we were probably one of the earliest adopters of cloud accounting technology. We started on this journey some time ago when we were more of a “traditional” accounting firm. However, like any change, it wasn’t always easy to adopt the new technology but we were quite clear on our vision from the outset and the reasons why we were doing it. As a result, we were able to invest the resources and time necessary to meet our goals quickly. I also think demonstrating our values was a key part of adoption throughout the firm. You were awarded Practice Pioneer in 2019 - which is an amazing achievement. Tell me some more about this award and the impact winning it had on your firm. This was a huge honour and something I remain really proud of. The award has given us the opportunity to share our story with a wider audience which is great. We have turned our firm from a traditional regional accountancy practice into one which I believe is helping challenge and change the shape of the profession for the future. You have a very innovative service called XfE which is a Xero based accounting service specifically designed for educational establishments. Can you tell me some more about XfE? We work a lot in the academy sector and it became apparent that many school’s existing systems and processes could be improved. Our knowledge of Xero, allied to what we have learned over many years as academy auditors, inspired us to create an intuitive, cloud-based solution for the Education Sector that is ideal for their needs and, because it has Xero at its heart, offers brilliant value for money. We were able to supplement the core functionality of Xero by developing our own applications through our sister firm “Bridge3”. The applications that integrate with Xero are specific to the Education Sector which enables us to deliver a bespoke solution. The result is that we have an intuitive finance software package that gives the academy or Multi Academy Trust everything it needs to run its business easily and efficiently. This dynamic approach has allowed us to expand our client base beyond our traditional catchment area and gain greater national recognition for our expertise. We even work with other firms of accountants who want to use our expertise and our software solution and introduce us to their own academy clients.
Some of your team are not what you would consider to be a “typical” employee in an accountancy practice such as Sam who is Head of Xero and XfE, Evan who is the Cloud Integration Specialist and Michael who is a Developer. What do you see as the changes in recruitment in accountancy in the future? Most people I speak to in the profession seem to find recruitment a challenge and we are no different. However, we are fortunate to have some really great people in our team which is partly because of what we look for. We have worked hard to refine our values and we use them as a team to guide our decision making, drive our behaviour and measure our success. There is a shift for other qualities required by the ‘future accountant’ such as tech and communication skills. Whilst certain skill sets need to be recruited, I tend to look for people with the right raw materials and values – if we can inspire those people, I truly believe success will follow. We can train the technical and provide the opportunities to progress.
Was there much resistance internally for the firm to branch out and hire team members with these more unusual roles? Actually, two out of the three people in these roles made the jobs their own. They initially started in accountancy but they became inspired by the tech world so much that we couldn’t ignore what they were good at and the results they could deliver. Whilst it perhaps isn’t the norm, it was an easy decision for us to make and it is something that we continue to encourage others within the team to do. Michael is your developer so what does his job comprise? Michael is an integral member of our “Innovation Team” and has already built apps to help improve our offering to the Education Sector, XfE and also to supplement the functionality of Xero Practice Manager. He is very experienced in all thing’s API related and is always working on anything that can save us, or our clients, processing time or deliver them extra value. There is a vast array of apps to choose from now so how do you keep up to date with the changes in technology? Have you a core app stack that you roll out to all your clients? We do keep an eye out for those apps that seem to rise to the top of the pile - the “best of breed” if you like. We have an innovations team who are constantly on the lookout for anything “new and shiny” that can either help us or our clients. We have a core set of apps we use and then amend this as things change. It’s an area that constantly evolves and so we must too. We also have a mindset within the firm to embrace this area – so I should probably name drop Sam, Lizzie, Sarah, Jarrett, Charlotte, Hollie and Harvey who actively embrace this area. You are specialists in the Education and Agricultural sectors so who is your ideal client and why? Regarding clients we work with and our ideals, whilst we have some specialisms in areas, it is not the specialism that is most important. We like to work with people who have a similar mindset to us. People with drive and ambition who are looking to achieve something with their business and who value a relationship with us to help them on their journey. Specifically, regarding the Education Sector, our ideal client is any school, academy, multi-academy trust or college, that is looking for modern, cloud based, financial management software that offers brilliant value for money. Although it’s a brilliant product Xero is not that well known in the Education Sector, although it is starting to gain traction. As we consider ourselves to be “disruptors” to an established marketplace, we really like dealing with schools that are up for change (obviously not just for change sake, but to achieve a better outcome) and have a forward-looking, forward-thinking Senior Leadership Team. What would you consider to be the top 3 pain points that accountancy firms are facing at the moment? One which I think is important is the move to advisory which is getting a lot of press and hysteria. My advice – it’s purely using your skills as an accountant and giving advice and interpretation on what you can see happening. Treat the clients and view their business as if it were your best friends or family members. What would you tell them if you saw their business and figures and wanted to help? Most accountants already do ‘advisory’ but probably don’t appreciate it.
Another issue can be the attracting, recruitment and retention of staff. Having up to date, cutting edge systems can be influential in attracting high-quality people. Thirdly I would say moving to the cloud if a practice has not already done so. Take advice from others, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. The profession is very collaborative right now if you need help. Automation is becoming increasingly important so how do you go about streamlining your processes and automating tasks? We have spent a lot of time developing this and improving the way we do things – it is something that is continuous and never finished. Tech is the main way we have streamlined certain processes and systems and I think that’s where our big wins have been. However, firms must do more than just streamline. This isn’t about cutting back on the number of hours to do a job, but how practices employ the time saved to add greater value to a client’s business through advice and support. What excites you about your business and makes you look forward to coming to work every day? Inspiring colleagues and clients to do the things they enjoy and want to do. Accountants are typically always busy and it is easy to allow work to take over. How do you manage to obtain a good work/life balance? This isn’t always easy and I’m working on improving this! Particularly, I’m not good at shutting off from emails so it’s something I need to get better at! What are your favourite podcasts and when and where do you listen to them? My current favourites (it changes!) are the Tony Robbins podcast and Ted Talks Daily and I usually listen to them in the car to and from the office. I find them inspiring and there is always something to learn. There is a shift towards remote and flexible working so is this something that your firm encourages? For sure. We have flexible and remote working which I think will only increase due to the flexibility tech now creates. However, I do still think being in the office and collaborating with other professionals has its place – sharing of ideas and communication is hard to replicate and I still believe the best form of meeting is face to face. What would be your 3 top tips to an accountant thinking about or who has just set up their own cloud based accountancy firm? My first tip would be decide on what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. The WHY is very important here. My second tip would be to decide on your ideal client you want to attract and then build your firm with them in mind. My final tip would be draw up a plan of the above and make sure you take action towards achieving that plan every single week! What about the future, where do you see yourself in 10 years time and what are your ambitions for Thorne Widgery? Total world domination! Maybe a step too far, but we are keen on expanding our services and expertise so that we are ultimately recognised as one of the UK’s most innovative accountancy firms. As for myself, well I hope to be at the helm guiding us along this path.