When I get asked why a client should be appointing me as their accountant I always go back to my founders’ story, I find that tells them all they need to know about me. A founder story is also useful to find out about why they are in business. The details can be really insightful and are often surprising.
So here is the story about why I set up Seagrave French.
The early days
I had a great start in accountancy being offered a job in a small firm after my A levels – I never went to University as our family needed me to work and help with the bills. I worked for an impressive man, David Atkinson, who was seriously disabled because he suffered from multiple sclerosis. He walked with a cane and his speech was very poor. So poor that he used to use a typewriter to give instructions.
This meant that he used to rely on his staff to help communicate with clients and so I got the chance to join client meetings at a very early stage. I used to watch him do the very best for his clients and I knew that being a partner in an accountancy firm was what I wanted to do. I learnt a lot from David and I owe him a great deal.
Two things stood out for me in the early days, I assumed that computers would be used extensively at an accountancy practice and in fact in the interview said I wanted the job as I was looking forward to using a computer. On arrival, it became clear that they were not used at all. In the end, this was the best thing for my training, as I was taught how to do the job manually. Even though we now use IT a lot to help make us efficient I still think about the old manual process when I’m doing my work.
After my probationary period, I asked David why I got the job and he told me that during the interview he asked me when I could start and I said straight away whereas the other applicants said they needed a rest after their A levels. My desire to start straight away secured my first job.
The firm provided great advice to their clients [and great training] and the partners were all certified chartered accountants but there was not really an encouragement to study for and obtain the professional qualifications.
After a few years, it dawned on me that to be a partner I needed to be qualified. The first issue was my A-Levels. I had discovered girls, beer and cars when in the sixth form, having previously only been interested in computer games and sci-fi. They distracted me to the extent that I effectively had no A-Levels to speak of.
This was a problem because you needed a certain level of qualification to start your professional exams. There were certain exemptions that cut out some of the studies.
So the first thing I had to do was gain the equivalent of A-Levels and so I embarked on a BTEC in business and finance. This was taught at ‘night school’ and so for three nights a week, I attended Clarendon College to study. I also had to pay my own costs for this.
After a year I managed to pass the course with distinction and I was now where I should have been had it not been for the girls, cars and beer. I also found myself in a dry spell when it came to romance and able to concentrate on my studies.
Without an employer sponsor Chartered accountancy was not available to me back then and so I decided to become a Chartered Certified Accountant or ACCA. The qualification allowed you to do the same as a certified chartered accountant but was less well known.
I found out that if you obtained your AAT qualification it exempted you from the first stage of your ACCA exams and I knew that my BTEC exempted from the first two stages of AAT. So after a year of AAT, I would be a part-qualified accountant.
Back to college, I went in September, another 3 nights a week, plus I had retained my Saturday and Sunday job at B & Q [to contribute to the family finances], so was working full time plus three nights a week at college and working Saturday and Sunday. I was also clubbing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, who knows where to energy came from.
I passed the AAT exams and qualified as an Accounting Technician, and got ready to start my ACCA exams proper.
But there was a problem, the course was not available at night school, you needed to attend one day a week in the day.
So I spoke to David and asked if I could have the day off in the week and work back the extra hours on the other 4 days. I was hoping he might reward my ambition by saying I didn’t have to work all of the hours back but he quite rightly agreed to my plan to work the hours back later.
In the early days, I found the exams quite easy but as I got to the later stages they became much harder. As they should, otherwise there would be no point in bothering. But having to do all the study in my spare time was proving too hard, particularly the revision period just before the exams. My peers were all enjoying 4 weeks of paid study leave whereas I had to use my holidays.
So I decided to find an employer who would support me with time and a financial contribution towards my studies, and so after 5 years, I took a job at a medium-sized independent firm, where I stayed for 15 years.
Big Firm, Little Jason
My next firm was so much bigger, with 6 offices and qualified staff. There was no one at my old firm other than partners who were qualified but here there were seniors who were qualified, and it was expected that you study and passed your exams.
I was appointed to look after some of the clients brought in by a new partner who had joined from Price Waterhouse. He had quite a lot of audit clients, something I’d not really done before, but had assured the firm I could handle it.
They also had a different way of preparing accounts which I had to learn from scratch. I had to teach myself how to do a lot of stuff in that first year but they seemed to like what I was doing and I moved up the ladder.
I qualified in 1997 and became eligible to practice 2 years later.
So now I could be a partner in an accountancy firm I just had to persuade them to let me in.
The problem with becoming more senior in any job is that you rise through the ranks doing your job well but then at some point, you become a manager or even a partner and everything changes. Instead of doing the work you have to manage and train others to do it and just because you’re good at doing doesn’t mean you’re good at training or managing.
I’d taken the step up from doer to manager quite well because I’d had such good training myself and tried to emulate that. I’ve mentored some great people and one of my greatest achievements is seeing how people I trained and nurtured have become successful.
But the job of a partner is to pick up new work and I’d never done that before, how would I prove that I could bring in clients. In the end, I think they knew that I would be leaving if I wasn’t made a partner and so I was given the chance in 2003. I later found out that they would save the employers national insurance by promoting me and that had tipped the balance.
In July I achieved my ambition of becoming a partner in accountancy practice at 32, the youngest partner they had ever had. I was given a small portfolio of clients and told to crack on.
In those days networking was the ‘go to’ method for winning work so I was thrust into the world of schmoozing as I called it. In the beginning, it was awful. I was expected to walk into a room full of people who I didn’t know and just talk to them and try to make contacts who would lead me to clients.
On more than one occasion in the early days, I turned up walked around the room, couldn’t find anyone to talked to and went home with my tail between my legs.
I played golf, went on treasure hunts, competed in quiz nights and spent a lot of time eating and drinking, back to my three nights a week at least, getting home late and exhausted. I made some good contacts and friends from the schmoozing but it appeared to be a low return method for getting new clients. After a while, I observed that the same people were at the networking events and it was really more of a social thing.
I found that I was good at converting good leads into clients because I was so enthusiastic amount the firm that gave me the chance to be a partner and slowly my portfolio grew, but I thought that more leads were the answer to grow quickly.
I persuaded the firm to engage in telemarketing and as the appointments grew the clients increased until the point where I had the biggest portfolio in the firm. I was still relatively young and having grown up there I didn’t feel like I had the ability to make my voice heard. I felt like I was still seen as little Jason. I had 21 other partners by now and couldn’t get my opinions heard.
I struggled to understand what our proposition was to attract clients, it seemed to have become ‘we’re big and have lots of experts’ but I didn’t see that we were very proactive. I started to develop my own proposition and think about what a firm would look like if I was in charge, and I wrote it down.
What would my firm look like?
A great team, highly motivated, trusted and valued.
A standard process, documented, quick and efficient.
A system to ensure that business advice and improvement for clients is a priority.
Using IT to improve service and efficiency.
Partners concentrating on clients and business development only.
A great place to work.
Friendly and approachable, and fun to work with.
That’s when I realised I was at the wrong firm and that I never needed anyone else to allow me to be a partner in an accountancy practice, if that’s what I wanted I could just do it myself. It had taken 20 years to achieve my ambition with hard work and determination, only to finally understand that if you want to have your own firm all you need to do is decide to do it.
So I did.
And here we are, 12 years later doing exactly what I always wanted, but on my own terms.
The firm wouldn’t be how it is if not for all of those experiences along the way, and the people who have believed in me.