Surviving a company merger

When your firm or company joins forces with another, you may feel overwhelmed or even threatened. Iwona Tokc-Wilde finds out how to cope during the crucial first few weeks

According to a study from Bloomsbury Professional, nearly a quarter (24%) of accountancy firms in the UK were involved in, or at least considered, a merger or acquisition in the last 12 months. Among the bigger firms, the most notable merger was that of BDO and PKF, resulting in one enlarged firm now operating under the BDO brand and employing 3,500 people across 24 UK locations. Other big deals included acquisitions of Navigant by Grant Thornton and RSM Tenon by Baker Tilly.

Globally, the trend towards consolidation, alliances and mergers in the accountancy and management consulting market is clearly visible too. Recent examples include Mazars introducing its brand in Ghana by merging with a local private company ET Akonor and Co, Baker Tilly creating the sixth largest accounting and audit firm in Malaysia after its merger with Moore Stephens, and PwC acquiring Booz & Co, the global management consulting firm that has its headquarters in the US along with a 3,000-strong international workforce.

A tough business climate is driving this trend. By merging with another, firms can hope to attract more clients in new sectors and geographical locations. They can also become more competitive through a synergy in services and industries served. Most mergers also allow firms to combine resources and offices, and reduce support staff and property costs. However, whatever the reason behind the merger, it is sure to affect you both on a professional and personal level. Here are some top tips to help you adjust in such circumstances.

Stay focused

It may be easier said than done, but simply carry on doing your day job. ‘Getting to know your new colleagues, new offices or a new management team can become all-consuming, but remember that the firm still relies on you to deliver exceptional client service, so stay focused,’ says Mark Sherfield, BDO’s chief operating officer, who led the integration team after the firm’s merger with PKF.

Look after clients

During mergers, contact with clients may be less regular while employees find their feet in the newly merged firm. ‘Continue to communicate with your clients and regularly update them to make the transition as smooth as possible,’ says Jon Newcombe, director of professional services at specialist financial recruitment firm Twenty. ‘But, rather than writing to them, meet in person to explain what’s happening.’ Even if you are not directly responsible for client accounts and relationships, you can help by directing any queries they may have to the appropriate partner, director or manager.

Embrace change

Most mergers mean that everything will change – from policies and procedures to dress-down days – so be open-minded and accept this as inevitable.

‘Your old” way might not be the best way for the merged firm, so be prepared to learn and adapt and try to limit the number of times you say but we used to do it like this”,’ says Sherfield. Merging two organisations really means merging two different cultures, or two different ways of doing things, and it takes time and effort. ‘Just remember it isn’t someone else’s responsibility to create the culture of the merged firm – every single person plays a part, no matter the level or role,’ Sherfield adds.

Be patient

Expect hiccups too. ‘Not everything will be seamlessly merged overnight – trust me, there will be issues with IT!’ says Julia Poulter, a legacy PKF executive and now a senior manager within BDO’s not-for-profit assurance team. BDO’s chief operating officer confirms: ‘Merging two firms together, whatever their scale, is a significant task and not everything will integrate perfectly overnight.’ Also, office rumours and speculation will be in overdrive, but you must avoid listening to either. ‘Take what’s being said on the grapevine with a pinch of salt – your management team should look to pre-empt this by making any big decisions quickly and telling you about them as soon as possible,’ says Sherfield. 

Speak up

And what if you do have any questions that have not been addressed? ‘Use the channels that your management team set up for you – for example, a dedicated Merger Questions” email address, a section of your intranet or staff engagement group,’ advises Sherfield. Ask your older or more experienced colleagues too.

‘Many senior people in accountancy firms have been through at least one merger in their careers and understand what questions people may be mulling over,’ says Sherfield.

‘Most communication during this period will come from the top down, but you have every right to voice any concerns you may have and communicate how you’re feeling about things,’ adds Newcombe.

Be a team player

However, be careful you do not come across as negative, especially when it comes to integration with your new colleagues. ‘Avoid getting into a them versus us” situation,’ says Newcombe. ‘Instead, concentrate on quickly trying to establish a united front with your fellow professionals, firstly to make everyone feel more comfortable but also so you position yourself in the spotlight for all the right reasons.’

Get involved

Go the extra mile and volunteer to be a part of the integration team or other merger-related projects. This will keep you in-the-know and allow you to showcase your expertise to a new team of people.

‘I joined a specially set up new ways of working” group that looked at how we could use the merger to think innovatively about the way we work,’ says Poulter. ‘Co-locating two firms was our first challenge and it was a chance for us to do some clean slate thinking, where we didn’t just take the ways of one firm or the other but looked at adopting the best way for the new firm,’ she explains.

Open up to new opportunities

Staying visible like this could lead to great things as mergers can super-charge your career. ‘This may be via a stronger international network with exciting career development opportunities, exposure to a new sector or business area, the ability to work from a different office or with new partners, or simply the opportunity to work for a firm with different scale and scope,’ says Sherfield. Prior to the merger with BDO, Poulter had been with PKF for 12 years. ‘That’s a long time and some would have said that if you cut me down the middle I’d have been branded PKF like a stick of rock, but I saw the merger as an opportunity and seized it,’ she says.

Expand your network

A merged firm provides an ideal environment for networking, says Sherfield: ‘Don’t just think about getting to know the person you now sit next to or work with, but take advantage of networking opportunities across the firm – you’ll make some useful contacts for both your clients and your own career.’

Be your firm’s ambassador

Before speaking about the merger with anyone on the outside, you need to understand why the merger has taken place. ‘You also need to be clear on how to describe the merged firm and how clients, targets or potential recruits can benefit from working with it,’ says Sherfield. ‘This is important, even if your specific area hasn’t seen a marked change following the merger – you still need to understand, and talk about, the bigger picture.’

The ‘bigger picture’ seems to be what all mergers are about. ‘We all worked to create a firm that is better than the sum of two halves and I’m proud to have played a part,’ says Poulter.

Have you worked in a company or are working in a company undergoing a merger? If so, tell us about your experience and any initial challenges you may have encountered and overcome to adapt to the new company model.

"Don’t just think about getting to know the person you now sit next to or work with, but take advantage of networking opportunities across the firm – you’ll make some useful contacts for both your clients and your own career."

Mark Sherfield - BDO