This article was first published in the November 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Planning for Brexit seems like a contradiction in terms. While the process of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) has been for the political classes and the media an exercise in confusion, prevarication and uncertainty, wrapped up at times in something approaching collective hysteria, the accountancy profession has been exercising its strengths of thought leadership and planning ahead.

As David Noon, Deloitte’s global Brexit leader and partner, says: ‘Brexit is a business risk like any other. It can be planned for and contingencies can be put in place, even if they are not ultimately needed.’

Looking at firms’ websites shows they’ve been developing a plethora of material for clients on Brexit, although communicating when you don’t know what to say can be quite tough. One Big Four audit partner comments: ‘After the referendum we were getting regular updates from our central Brexit team. But since then firm-wide communications have slowed. We still don’t know a lot, so we have to carry on and make assumptions, and we encourage our clients to do the same.’

Businesses need ‘broad thinking’ to cover every possible outcome, Noon says. ‘Planning needs to consider both the direct and indirect impacts. Many organisations are covering supply chain and people, but businesses also need to consider data flows, funding requirements and how to maintain contract coverage.’ Deloitte’s quarterly CFO survey reported in Q2 that there has been a marked shift towards more defensive balance sheet strategies.

Andy Minifie, national managing partner at Haines Watts, which focuses on the small and medium-sized business market, says companies with international experience are often more able to prepare than those that don’t. ‘Only businesses that are used to trading outside the EU are really preparing well; the others are aware of the changes but struggle in knowing what to do. The main thing they can do at present is sit down and look at how they may be affected. To do nothing cannot be right.’

There is a current belief that, whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, next March will bring clarity. But in reality British business will remain in a state of flux for a number of years while it gets used to its new systems and regulations. And this state of flux is already having an impact on business thinking.

One senior manager in corporate finance at a Big Four firm says that his clients are factoring life post-EU into their deal-making. One private equity client in the prepared food sector, for example, is looking carefully at the impact of food tariffs under World Trade Organization rules. The British-based factories use root vegetables from continental Europe in making the dishes the client retails. After Brexit, such supplies could become more expensive. ‘We helped our client look at the possibility of increasing raw material costs and the impact that could have on the overall valuation of the business,’ says the senior manager. ‘It is interesting to note that despite those risks, once we’d crunched the numbers – and factored in the potential increase in costs – the deal went through in any case.’

As the Brexit clock ticks, Noon is clear about what businesses should do. ‘Preparing for a scenario of most change is prudent. We’re giving this advice to audit, consulting and tax clients across all sectors. This will enable companies to consider the biggest possible impact on issues such as supply chains and access to talent, and ensure they are prepared for any outcome.’

Peter Williams, journalist