by Simon Chaplin
09 Apr 2009
All small or medium-sized practices (SMPs) must fight for business in an increasingly crowded professional services marketplace. GreenStones, an ACCA Platinum Approved Employer, is no exception - but the strategy employed by its director, Simon Chaplin FCCA, shows how even a small firm can market itself successfully. And a key element of this strategy is the firm’s Approved Employer status.
Based in Peterborough, UK, GreenStones works mainly for local businesses, although loyal customers can also be found further afield. The team of 15 comprises Chaplin, sole director, nine professional team members (either part or fully-qualified ACCA), and five administration and support team members, including a payroll manager and a bookkeeper. GreenStones primarily prepares accounts for its customers, as well as providing tax planning advice and business consultancy.
Although the services on offer may be traditional, Chaplin's approach to business certainly is not: 'I want to be as innovative as possible,' he says. He does this by running initiatives such as a regular business club, where customers meet to hear experts talk on subjects such as 'how to recession‑proof your business'. The firm also hosts a highly informative website, where visitors can access a range of free advice on many subjects, find out more about Chaplin's philosophy, and meet his team.
Peterborough is the commercial hub of an extensive, semi-rural region. There are plenty of accountancy firms to choose from in the city, ranging from small and large independents to branches of major top-20 practices. GreenStones has been an ACCA Approved Employer since 1997, but when Chaplin took over the firm in 2005, he realised that the programme could offer further advantages, especially if the firm raised its status.
Calling on experience
'Until very recently, recruitment has always been a challenging issue for us, as I'm sure it is for any small practice,' explains Chaplin. 'In our case, however, not only were experienced team members hard to find, we also had to compete for them against local firms, as well as employers in London, Cambridge, and other big centres nearby.' Peterborough's central location also meant that talented accountants could easily commute to other cities, so local rates of pay often had to match salaries available in London and other areas. 'Approved Employer status, however, helps us attract the best candidates,' he says, 'and it means we can offer something more than just money, helping us compete with the bigger players.'
Chaplin notes further advantages: 'When introducing ourselves to potential new customers, our Platinum status shows our commitment to training, reassuring customers that our team members will give them the best possible service.
There has always been an assumption that 'you get what you pay for' when appointing an accountancy firm - with the implication that bigger is better. Our Approved Employer status shows, however, that our level of training is on a par with other Platinum employers, some of which are large firms, and therefore the service our team can deliver will be of equal value.'
For Chaplin, the decision to train his team exclusively with ACCA was firmly rooted in his own experience: 'My first employer offered nothing but ACCA training, and so I've decided to do the same. As an SMP, the range of experience we can offer our students is well suited to ACCA study, and they find it relatively easy to acquire the necessary work experience.
Trainee accountants are automatically enrolled with ACCA when they join GreenStones; we pay for their training and give them time off to study and sit exams. Not everyone is able to make it through the ACCA course, as it's quite demanding, but nevertheless, if they still have talent and aptitude, we will continue to employ them, but in more specific roles.'
GreenStones gained Platinum Approved Employer status in 2006. The firm was guided through the process by ACCA UK business relationship manager Helen Simons, who had noticed that GreenStones was gaining a reputation for its innovative business approach.
In 2006, for example, it was a regional winner in the AVN Firm of the Year Awards, where it was singled out for being 'an inspiration' and 'truly… an extraordinary firm'. Noticing such enterprise, Helen worked with GreenStones to identify the further enhancements required to lift the firm to Platinum status.
'The process helped us refine some of our systems, and kick‑started a reassessment of areas such as performance appraisal,' comments Chaplin.
Despite the current economic climate, and the difficulties reported by many bigger accountancy players, GreenStones continues to grow - proof that Chaplin's approach is working. 'Our results are as good as they were this time last year; and we're on track to hit all planned targets, including our overall ambition to quadruple in size - in terms of fees - over the next four years,' he comments.
Further accolades have followed, such as GreenStones becoming a finalist in the 2008 Accountancy Age Awards, Small Firm of the Year category and highly commended in a local award for workforce development.
Even recruitment - once so difficult - is getting easier, with two new team members joining the team in December 2008. 'Local and national redundancies, together with more aggressive tactics from recruitment consultants, have changed the employment scene - the boot is on the other foot, so to speak.
'But despite a glut of potential employees, we still only want to attract the best. We value the kudos that our Approved Employer status brings, and we know that it will help us continue to be successful.'
ACCA APPROVED EMPLOYER TRAINING: THE GREENSTONES SUCCESSES
Accountant and ACCA member
'I wanted a career which I would find interesting, where I could use my brain, and which would also provide good employment opportunities,' says newly‑qualified accountant Eesha Malik. 'I settled on accountancy after some soul-searching. Some would see it as a practical option, but in fact, I was also attracted by the opportunities the profession offered for travel and for continued study.'
Eesha currently prepares financial statements for a variety of customers, a role which involves visiting customers on site, helping with any problems, and preparing management accounts and projections. She had no hesitation when deciding which professional qualification she should study for: 'I chose ACCA because of its excellent reputation - it is so highly sought-after that, after doing some research, I realised that there really was no other option.
'The fact that it is a global qualification is also another plus point, and now that I have qualified, I can say that I have found the structure of the syllabus, and the exams, to be progressive.'
Working for an Approved Employer also had its advantages, as does working for a manager who is ACCA‑qualified. 'As a student at an Approved Employer, there is no formal CPD to record and the annual return is very simple. I undertook my training with Kaplan, which was faultless. Simon personally gives us a great deal of support, and is always on hand to give advice.'
Eesha, just qualified, wants to stay with GreenStones and continue studying with ACCA: 'I am planning to complete the Oxford Brookes degree programme this year, and Simon will be my mentor for this.
'I then hope to continue my career with GreenStones, progressing to the role of manager.'
Customer manager and ACCA member
For Mark Wrigley, accountancy was a logical choice: 'It offered solid career progression and a good professional qualification to aim for. It also suited my personal skills and seemed to offer a pleasant lifestyle,'’ he explains.
Now qualified, when studying, Mark received full financial assistance, together with study and exam leave; post‑qualification, he has enjoyed a closely supported and mentored career path.
He now manages a portfolio of over 150 customers, with additional responsibility for marketing the firm and developing new business.
'In the future, I hope I will be able to delegate more of my secondary management responsibilities, so that I can develop better relationships with premium customers, and attract more of them to the firm.'
Customer manager and ACCA member
David Swann knew, even when at school, that he wanted to work in finance: 'I enjoyed business studies,' he says, 'and discussed my options with my teachers who thought, as I had a fairly analytical mind, that accountancy would suit me as a profession.'
When David joined GreenStones, he knew it was an ACCA practice and could already see the advantages that this offered. 'As my colleagues were studying for ACCA, I could learn from their experiences and suggestions,' he says. But there were practical benefits as well. 'I was offered day release tuition with a local college,' he explains. 'This gave me a set structure, as I had to produce assignments and complete exercises on a weekly basis. Having these deadlines helped me enormously, as it forced me to work hard months before I had to take my exams, and the day release course continued until I had passed all my ACCA papers.'
David has also enjoyed other benefits of working for an Approved Employer: 'Support is the main advantage, especially from colleagues who have done it all before. In addition, not having to record CPD is a great timesaver and leads to a better work/life balance. Since qualifying, I have been attending the monthly CPD courses organised by the office. These are always followed by a discussion which helps to reinforce what we have learnt, and enables us to decide how to put what we have learnt into practice in our daily work.'
David wants to stay with GreenStones, especially as it is such a thriving firm: 'I want to be closely involved in the growth of the business, along with the rest of the team. As a customer manager, I also want to continue learning, so that I can help my customers grow their own businesses which will, in turn, help us develop even more.'
Accounts team member and ACCA student
After leaving school at 16, Nathan Hopkins wasn't sure what he wanted to do, although he had always been 'pretty decent' with figures and problem‑solving. 'I thought I'd get an office job somewhere until my mind was made up,' he says, 'and by chance, I got a job with a small firm where my duties included a bit of accounting. I picked it up really quickly and so went from office junior to accounts junior within a few months, and never looked back!'
Nathan has been with the firm for over three years, and is a member of the accounts team. He prepares accounts for a variety of businesses, helps with tax planning, and deals with customer queries. 'Along with the rest of the team, I support Simon, David and Mark, and also help less experienced colleagues,' he adds.
Nathan saw ACCA as the best choice for himself, personally, and he is also enjoying working for an Approved Employer: 'It proves that the firm is committed to getting me through my studies - that support is there for anyone who wants to progress through the ACCA Qualification. The financial help I also receive means there's one less thing to worry about, and there is no undue pressure put on us to progress at a certain speed, so we can relax while we are studying.'
Nathan feels that he has learnt a great deal during his time at GreenStones. 'When I joined, I had a decent all-round knowledge, but I have definitely moved up a few levels since then. I learn something new every day in this job, and providing I continue to work hard and learn new skills, I’d like to feel I can step up to a customer manager role. I want to make sure I play as important a role as everyone else in making GreenStones the most successful accountancy firm in the area.'