Secrets to our success: Tax Assist Accountants

With economic recovery expected to be driven by small business growth, the Forum of Private Business is seeking stories from thriving firms as part of its Get Britain Trading campaign in order to pass on the secrets of success to other entrepreneurs.

What’s your company called and who is behind it?
TaxAssist Accountants. We were formed in 1995 by qualified accountant John Westgarth FCA with the specific remit to service small business. John remains a non-executive director and the Board now comprises CEO Karl Sandall, Business Development Director Sarah Robertson, Finance and Operations Director Phil Sullivan and me, James Mattam National Marketing Director.

What sector(s) do you operate in etc?
Accountancy and Tax for Small Business Owners

What is your start-up story?
We began in 1995 but have been helping start new accountancy practices all across the UK and now have over 200 offices looking after the tax and accountancy needs of more than 40,000 small businesses.

How did you seize the opportunity you saw and what barriers did you have to overcome?
Back in the 90s when self employed workers were expected to complete their own tax returns, John Westgarth FCA set up his business helping hundreds of small businesses locally in Norwich, but realised it was something he could replicate across the UK.

What products or services to you provide?
Accountancy, Tax, Payroll, VAT, Bookkeeping and Company Formation to name but a few.

What are your sales and marketing strategies? What do you think about using newer platforms such as social media etc to reach customers?
We stand out from the crowd in the accountancy industry, operating from open and friendly shops where business owners and high rate tax payers can come in and ask us about what they need to complete for Companies House and HMRC.

Social Media has been a great PR platform for us so far and we recently came second in a review of the Top 50 Accounting Firms in the UK. That’s not bad going considering it includes the ‘big four’ accounting firms who look after blue chip clients! Social media is all about people and not brands. That’s a core difference in our approach to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?
We monitor what our competitors are doing, but certainly don’t believe in following in their footsteps. We pride ourselves on standing out from the crowd and our clients love that we bring a human side to accountancy, rather than just being another ‘grey’ service provider.

Do you have any other thoughts about your market and how you operate in it?
Everything we do centres around small businesses. Small business owners don’t need to be talked down to by their accountant, they need help! There is an abundance of jargon out there and our communications breaks that down so that it actually means something to a business owner.

How important to success are repeatable business processes?
Accountants join our network because we are able to provide them with a solid infrastructure and the support that they need. By having these business processes in place, they are able to concentrate their efforts on looking after their clients.

What have you done to make sure you get the right people with the right skills in place?
It has been a learning curve, but through trial and error, we have come to understand what we are looking for in an accountant that can service small business owners. We now have a thorough application process to ensure that they are right for us and also that we are right for them.

We also work hard to ensure our members and staff are well looked after because once you’ve found the right people you don’t want to let them go! I have been with the business for more than 12 years and there are many more who have been with the business even longer.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers, customers and other business relationships effectively?
Regular scheduled meetings with a pre-planned agenda. We don’t always get it right but when something needs fixing, more often than not, we realise it’s down to a lack of meetings with the partner involved.

What about tips on the legal side of running a company?
Small business owners are weighed down by the mound of red tape facing them, but the toughest and most complicated element at the moment has to be employment law. It can go badly very easily if the employer isn’t informed, so we recommend small businesses find a good employment law service to help create contracts and also have in their back pocket if they need a second opinion.

And finance and cash-flow tips?
Direct Debits are the way forward. Regular monthly payments for clients help ease the costs whilst delivering a regular cashflow. Whilst it doesn’t prevent all bad debts, it certainly makes a difference to waiting and chasing an invoice to be paid. There are a few good Direct Debit providers out there and we work very closely with an organisation to offer this facility to small business owners who cannot always access this from their bank cost effectively.

Any thoughts on the future of your company?
TaxAssist Accountants has come a long way. We now rank 26th in the AccountancyAge Top 50 but our goal is to complete our network of accountants in the UK. We need about 150-200 more accountants to open practices here. It is achievable but we are looking for the right kind of people to be able to run their own practice and that takes time.

Beyond this we have interest from companies wanting to take our brand in to Australia, Canada and the USA. We opened in Ireland three years ago during a phenomenally bad recession and they are going strong with 20 offices so we feel that the model can cope with any economic climate.

What are the most important things to remember when starting and running a company?
We are finding that banks are lending to businesses but won’t take the risks they used to. Your business plan must be perfect and needs checking by a professional where the figures are concerned. You can be optimistic about your idea but if the numbers don’t stack up then the banks won’t lend.

I read a statistic recently from the British Bankers’ Association which said that banks accept over 39% of business plans the second time around so if you are turned down then make sure you review the business plan and try again. Successful entrepreneurs never take no for an answer!

What new Government policies would help you run a business?
The raft of employment red tape is already colossal and when small businesses are already being scrutinised by HMRC’s taskforces and battling to keep their heads above water, the government and HMRC should really be encouraging or incentivising employers to take on new staff, not making the process more difficult. At the very least, we would like to see the Government exempt micro businesses from RTI.

HMRC has vastly underestimated the upheaval RTI will cause; both in terms of migrating to the new system and the ongoing administrative burden on small businesses.