Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

How to future-proof your firm

Accountants must become future focused to adapt to the transformative nature of technology in the 21st century

In brief

  • The concept of disruption has transformed many mature industries and accounting is no different
  • Acknowledge that this disruption is just another stage in the evolution of the profession
  • While the specific challenges might change, the fundamentals of good business remain the same

By Nikolas Hatzistergos FCA

We’re all familiar with the concept of disruption and how, more recently, it has transformed many mature industries such a transport, manufacturing and retail.

The accounting industry is no different.  

At the recent World Congress of Accountants, talk focused around the need for accountants to be more future focused, with professionals recognising the transformative nature of technology in the 21st century.

Today’s technology puts more power in the hands of our clients. Where previously our intellectual property was based on interpreting data and resolving complex accounts, the latest tools empower end users to do a lot of this work themselves.

Rather than being threatened by such disruption, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s just another stage in the evolution of our profession.

In its 120 years, William Buck has seen a steady stream of trials appear and threaten the industry. Two world wars, a number of depressions, Y2K, the tech boom and the GFC to name just a few. Some have forced us to rethink the way we do things, while others have come and gone in the blink of an eye.

In most cases they have been hard to predict and, in some cases, even harder to contend with. But in any challenging situation you only have control over what you can control. And my belief is that while the specific challenges might change, the fundamentals of good business remain the same.

The following are the five key attributes that every business needs to focus on to help them weather any storm.

The power of brand

In a service-based industry, reputation is everything. And a good reputation is made up of a mix of experience, quality and continually delivering results. These factors feed into your brand — that public persona that tells the world who you are and what you stand for.

For a brand to last the test of time, there needs to be substance not spin, and a commitment to delivering on your promises.

A quality brand has the potential to meet any challenge. Consider brands that have had to adapt to massive changes in the environment or industry they operate within. Apple and IBM are two examples. They have been able to continually reinvent their businesses, to cope with disruptions, based largely on the strength of their brands.

The first step in building a strong and lasting brand is to invest in understanding what makes you different or unique, and then working to promote those points of difference. Consider the unique value proposition that your brand represents and how you are going to communicate that to your customers.

For 120 years, William Buck has stayed true to its roots as a firm that serves the middle-market. And we’ve evolved with one view in mind, to keep making difference to the lives our clients and the community.

This clarity around the brand has been one of our staples, enabling us to attract and engage a continual stream of clients and member firms. And it is no more evident than in our brand positioning “changing lives”, which recognises the significant impact we have on clients throughout their lifetime.

It can be easy to navel gaze and feel satisfied with your last achievement. Once you rest on your laurels, you are vulnerable to the next big change. Instilling a culture of innovation to continually adapt is vital.

Knowledge is substance

Brand alone is not enough to enable you to survive. Think about the way that a long-established brand such as Kodak failed to adapt to the challenge of digital photography.

If brand is your outward appearance, your intellectual property (IP), or knowledge, is the substance that sits behind it. IP for an organisation isn’t something that develops overnight and isn’t built on the minds of one or two people.

It’s about identifying specialisations and putting in place the resources to develop expertise in them over time. It is about attracting and retaining the best people, and enabling the knowledge to spread across the team.

These specialisations provide your firm with an inherent flexibility through the balance that they bring to your portfolio of services. In many ways, they spread the risk across different disciplines. If there is a downturn in one area, you have the ability to focus and build on other parts of the business.

This plays out at William Buck, where the brand provides the platform for different services and niche specialisations to evolve based on the needs of each geographic market.

Structure for flexibility

In order to adapt quickly to challenges, it is vital that your organisation has flexibility in its structure. If you plan to be around for the long-term — decades, not years — then you need to have a structure that can be adapted to the business model as it changes while remaining true to your established brand values.

The evolution of William Buck over 120 years is a demonstration of this. As an opportunity or challenge has arisen, we’ve adapted to prosper. From a family business, to partnership, to the adoption of a network structure to achieve a national presence and now expanding borders to work internationally, we’ve never been stuck into one mindset that has prevented us from changing as required.

It can be easy to navel gaze and feel satisfied with your last achievement. Once you rest on your laurels, you are vulnerable to the next big change. Instilling a culture of innovation to continually adapt is vital.

Alignment is key

Although structure is important, more crucial is the alignment of your people to the shared vision and goals of the organisation. This needs to be clearly communicated and every action taken by an individual, division or the firm must work its way back to the vision.

This aligned vision provides your with a clarity of purpose and provides a framework that your people can operate within, empowering them make decisions to take your firm forward into the future, while providing an intrinsic flexibility to cope with the bumps along the way.

Strong leadership

Every organisation needs strong leadership. In most accounting firms, this is a shared responsibility and doesn’t land on the shoulders of a single person.

Leadership isn’t necessarily defined by the structure of the organisation, but it is more about having the right people, in the right places, throughout the business. Leaders need the ability to instil the common vision or outlook to every employee, ensuring that the sum works better than the parts.

Your leaders must be intimately connected to the organisation and its workforce, as well as the broader business and economic environment. There’s no room for egos among your leadership group. As soon as you shift focus from the organisation to the self, you open the door for challengers to come through.

It’s humbling to be part of the current leadership team at William Buck. As today’s custodians of a 120 year firm, we could easily become overwhelmed and paralysed by history. But it’s important to keep looking forward. I continually ask our people to think big and dream bigger, because everything is possible.

Nikolas Hatzistergos FCA is the chairman of chartered accounting and advisory firm William Buck.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.