An Interview with Elliot Beaumont, Director at Blow Abbott
With an influx of ever-changing fintech into the sector, it’s easy for accountancy practices to become overwhelmed with the need to adapt and change. In the next instalment of our ‘Tax is Changing’ series, we speak to Elliot Beaumont, Director, Accountant and Business Advisor at Blow Abbott, about how new tech has helped to strengthen his firm’s offering, and the process they went through to identify which providers added the most value internally, and to their clients.
Get Elliot’s view on the sector, and how Blow Abbott is adapting to change.
What do you deem to be the main challenges that are facing accountants today in creating the firm of the future?
Disruptive technology is gathering pace in the accountancy sector like never before and commoditising a number of traditional service lines such as bookkeeping and compliance work. The interface with new software technologies is allowing clients to undertake these services themselves which reduces the perceived value to our client base as that barrier has been removed. Traditionally, the experience and knowledge of a good accountant gave them a platform to add value in a complex environment that a small business owner would not ordinarily be able to navigate successfully alone. This knowledge is being encapsulated in software in these traditional areas and therefore firms have to focus on adding value in other areas. A firm of the future should be moving clients to the cloud and interrogating the data using new and appropriate best of breed applications to help the client make real-time informed business decisions.
Do you feel overwhelmed with the range of technologies that are being thrown at you?
I think we were overwhelmed about 18 months ago, but then we went through a period of assessment to determine exactly what the new model should look like. Personally and as a firm I suppose we went on an exploratory journey and it has been important to be open minded and also to be prepared to accept that the old, traditional model, cannot be sustained in perpetuity even if it is still acceptable for the next couple of years. We realised that if we didn’t start evolving now, then we would be left behind. We attended events like Accountex, XeroCon and IRIS World with an open mind. It was just a case of speaking to as many providers as possible, and identifying what we thought were appropriate solutions for the new model. In any particular space there are competing solutions for example for bookkeeping we have SageOne, Intuit, Xero and others like FreeAgent. Sometimes you have to take a step back from all the noise, take a look which platform is best for your firm, and get behind it. That’s the way we’ve tackled it. We were overwhelmed, but I don’t think we’re overwhelmed now.
So, is there an order in which you adopt those technologies, and do you focus on certain areas over others?
Absolutely. I think we focussed on tackling the internal systems, first and foremost. We previously had an inferior product from IRIS called PTP, and we made the decision a year ago that we would make the step up to the full-blown IRIS solution. It’s still server based, but it’s all on a single database and we’ve been building a roadmap and begun to adopt the various modules within the product. The great thing about it is that we had a number of different client databases, which we’ve been able to consolidate onto IRIS. In terms of task number 1 for us, it was about making sure IRIS was firing on all cylinders. Once we had driven these internal efficiencies, it was about looking outside of that to see, from a client-facing perspective, what the best cloud accounting and bookkeeping product out there was. We’ve firmly set our stall out behind Xero, which probably isn’t surprising, as we believe it’s the best product out there by some margin. On the back of that, it’s about looking how we develop, I suppose what Xero would term, our ‘app stack’. We have assessed all of the solutions for tax, data capture, analytics and chosen our preferred partners. DiagnosTax, ReceiptBank and Futrli seem to be strides ahead of their competition. We can then go to clients with a package we believe adds the most value.
You alluded to the fact that there’s a real focus on Xero within the industry at the minute. What do you do within your practice to make sure the rollout of new technologies is a success?
Well, our approach is that we’ll have a tech champion, a Xero champion, for instance, and that that person will take colleagues through an onboarding process that helps them migrate from the legacy system onto the new one. It helps to standardise the way we work with Xero. Xero have been very supportive in the implementation phase. It is a case of getting clients onto the cloud with Xero and then working with the best of breed partners such as Diagnostax, Futrli and Receiptbank to successfully rollout the benefits to clients and deliver on the value-add packages that the clients have been transferred to.
Looking at the firm of the future, are there any other changes you are making to futureproof your firm, or perhaps even differentiate yourselves from the competition?
Well, we’ve wholeheartedly got behind ‘content marketing’ by bringing somebody in from outside with the expertise to get our message out to local businesses. We produce blogs, we’re currently redeveloping the website, and actively using social media. I think LinkedIn is key in the accountancy profession, we’re using Twitter and, for parts of the firm, Facebook is also relevant, like in the legal services sector. By drip feeding content to clients, they can see that we’re offering valued-added services, but they’re not overwhelmed with information. I think that that same content also helps internally with everybody’s confidence and knowledge, if I’m honest.
What do you think the key roles will be in the firm of the future, and how will they differ from the traditional practice of the past?
Well, the role that really interests me, and you’ll have heard the phrase, is ‘Virtual Finance Director’. So, for SMEs that can’t necessarily justify a full-time Finance Director, it’s about giving them the ability to use our set up and offer them a package that helps them interpret their financial data. This helps them make more informed decisions. I think that’s something that’s being brought to the table that accountants weren’t able to do in the past. Because roles like this are done in real time, your practice really becomes part of your client’s business when you’re working in a virtual role. We include the ‘Virtual FD’ service in our top ‘Spotlight’ package.
It’s clear to us that Blow Abbott are a hugely proactive firm, and there is a real focus on tax advisory, not just tax compliance. What drives that and why is that such a key focal point for you as a business?
I think there’s a huge void that’s been left by the legislative changes in recent years, that has prevented any further aggressive tax planning, and there’s a different appetite for it now. To add value in the tax arena, using the diagnostic technology available from the likes of yourselves is going to allow us to draw out that value on a more proactive basis. So, in the past it may have been that you do a standalone bit of tax planning but, with a diagnostic tool, it becomes part of the overall package. You can continually reassess a client’s position. It’s another string to the bow and it’s a very important one. It’s certainly lacking in our profession, the ability to offer good, wholesome tax advice.
What do you think the reason for that lack of good quality tax advice is?
I think it’s because you’ve got the Big 4 and to some extent mid-tier accountancy firms, that have departments dedicated to tax, that the medium to large businesses have access to that kind of advice. With the greatest technology in the world, we’ve still got a very complicated tax regime in this country, and within the smaller firms, it’s just not a skillset that you can carry and offer to SMEs. So, you almost need that extra person, or piece of technology, that you can tap into, as and when, to help you deliver that advice.
And as a final question, what excites you about the future of your firm and the space in general?
For me, it’s about being an integral part of a client’s business, helping them make decisions and seeing them succeed in a way that they would never have been able to do themselves. As a firm, we are certainly gathering pace, and it will be great to see colleagues adding value to our client’s in the same way that I do now, with the new tech that we have access to. In terms of growing ourselves, we’re looking for opportunities to work with clients and small businesses that are growth orientated, but feel a bit blindsided on the financials. Those that are starting to make good profits, and want to begin to extract those profits for themselves and their families. I think that the ability to minimise tax through the likes of Diagnostax will be key in allowing us to do that.
If you enjoyed this read, check out, ‘Tax is Changing – Interview with Elaine Kinsella‘.