Date posted: 1/12/2016 6 min read

Are you ready to establish your own practice?

Chartered accountants on both sides of the Tasman talk about the greener grass of establishing their own practice after working for big firms

In brief

  • Should you stay in a big firm, or branch out and set up your own practice?
  • Establishing your own practice enables the freedom for work-life balance
  • Clients want advisers who focus forwards and help them from a holistic perspective

Michael Hanrahan FCA had been working in a big accounting firm for around five and half years when, one day, something different happened as he was about to get off the train to work.

“I just had this realisation that I didn’t really want to go into the office at all,” he says.

“I really wanted to get on the train back to where I had come from and forget about it.

“So that was when I realised that maybe it was time for a change.”

Up to that point, Hanrahan had followed a fairly typical career path for a chartered accountant.

After completing a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney in the late 1970s, he had joined Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PwC), then one of the top ten global accounting firms.

After five and a half years in auditing, he was highly trained but realised he had hit something of a career wall.

“I just felt that if I was going to keep doing that for the rest of my life I wasn’t going to get too excited,” says Hanrahan.

“At the big accounting firms back then it was an ‘up and out strategy’. They would train you incredibly well but you would need to keep improving if you wanted to move up the food chain.”

This was the point at which Hanrahan realised that he should either stay the course, or make a change.

“I realised that I didn’t want to keep going up, and that I wanted to get out,” he says.

Once made, it was a decision never regretted. Hanrahan began a three-decade career in private practice with his own firm, which today offers mortgage broking, risk insurance and financial planning from offices in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt and the city’s CBD.

“I’ve had two main drivers,” he says. “To own and run my own business, and to offer the full suite of holistic advice to clients, not just doing their tax returns.”

Across the Tasman in Wellington, Trish Love CA’s story has similarities with the career trajectory of Hanrahan.

The first seven years of her career were spent at another global accounting group BDO.

Progressing from junior accountant, whilst studying, through to business services manager, she ran a team of accountants and had significant client-facing time.

She then moved into a corporate role, as financial controller of the internet arm of Telecom NZ, now Spark, which rolled out the internet in New Zealand in the 1990s.

Then life intervened for Love as she started her family. This also proved to be one of a number of catalysts for career change. She started her own business with a cornerstone client, Transpower NZ. Today, she is the founder and chief executive of the eponymously named Love to Grow, a business which offers not just accountancy services to small- and medium-sized businesses, but also virtual CFO services and entrepreneurial leadership education.

Love to Grow provides highly tailored services to around 500 New Zealand businesses each year and, through its online education arm, is reaching out to businesses globally.

The aim of the business is to help SME business owners “achieve the type of wealth they want to have”, Love says.

She has created an acronym around the word “wealth” to explain that it means your preferred combination of Work, Enjoyment, Achievement, Love, Time and Health.

“Love to Grow exists to help business owners achieve theirs,” Love says.

“Love to Grow enabled me to raise my four children, and as they got bigger the business did too, in turnover, size, and my ability to work more,” Love explains.

“I was trained as a chartered accountant and as my business grew, I realised that I’m a classic entrepreneur as well.

“I think strategically I know where we need to head, but have no idea where that will end up because of such rapid world change and I’m comfortable with that.”

Initially, the story of Love to Grow was one of evolution rather than developing towards a pre-determined point.

Love built her chartered accountancy practice slowly so she could continue to service Transpower, but subsequently realised she wanted to focus more on small business.

“About eight years into the Transpower gig I decided I also needed to take my own advice from a risk management perspective,” she says.

“I needed to diversify and over three years I effectively handed the role back internally so it wasn’t too big a shift for me, nor them.”

With the core tax management work with Transpower no longer the main focus, Love was then free to drive the next evolution in her business: the creation of their “virtual CFO” offerings focussed on helping businesses grow.

I was trained as a chartered accountant and as my business grew, I realised that I’m a classic entrepreneur as well.
Trish Love CA, Wellington

“13 years ago we started CFO work, to better become the accountants our clients wanted us to be,” she says.

“We could also see the traditional accountancy landscape was heading for change so we needed to be adaptive.

“Clients want advisers who focus forwards and help them from a holistic perspective, and because I had grown my own business from scratch and also had senior corporate experience, I had self-awareness of what business owners personally face.”

After adding the “virtual CFO” offerings to the business, Love ventured into business education around seven years ago, creating the third division of Love to Grow.

Today, she spends around half of her time driving the education business, although as the sole owner of the business she is still the signing partner in the chartered accountancy practice, with the help of senior staff who capably manage most things.

The education part of the business started, she says, because she needed to be a strategic CEO, “but I realised I was only being a glorified team leader".

I lacked some strategic planning and practical implementation skills, so wanted holistic business expertise from a variety of advisors. The programmes we offer now are largely sourced in what we needed for ourselves as a small business.”

Now a New York-published author on business strategy and entrepreneurship, Love’s vision is to collaboratively grow the online part of her business and reach “millions of people internationally online”.

“Of course we realise that there’s a very low conversion rate online and we have to be realistic,” she says.

“But even if we reach online customer numbers in the low hundreds of thousands outside of New Zealand we will have made something significant, so I’m looking at the future now in a global context and while that is unknown, it’s also very exciting.”

Over in Sydney, Hanrahan has also succeeded in creating a financial services business, with chartered accountancy at its core, but which offers a wide range of services.

After several “experiments” with joint ventures in areas such as financial advice and mortgage broking, he has brought all of these business lines “in-house” at Hanrahans Accounting Services and Hanrahans Financial Planning.

The business also includes one of Hanrahan’s daughters, who also started off as a chartered accountant and is now a financial planner.

“Back when I was working in a previous partnership, accountants certainly weren’t doing any financial advice, it was unheard of,” he says.

"But I always thought this was a good idea and had this in the back of my mind, and that is the business model we have built up over time.

“Recently we added aged care advice to our list of services, and while we do cross sell products into our client base we only do that when it is appropriate.”

At his core, though, Michael Hanrahan says he remains a chartered accountant.

“If a customer comes in we always say we are chartered accountants,” he says. “That is fundamentally what we are. We do all those other things too, but we would never forgo that recognition and we treasure that and talk it up.”

Love has a similar view, but she also believes the profession has undergone major change.

“20 to 30 years ago most of what we did was compliance and tax returns but now that is balanced with a much wider perspective. I think those old ways entered their twilight zone a while back, and some accountants are still adapting to improving efficiencies,” she says.

“I identify as a chartered accountant for my own clients and also draw on those skills heavily in the business growth and leadership programs we run publicly.”

“My accounting skills are one of the anchors upon which I base my discussions, because much of what we teach about business growth and money management is sourced in a numbers perspective.”

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.