Steve Leith is a partner and Head of Tech & High Growth at Cooper Parry
While at university, I did some work experience at GT with a Partner who became very supportive of me joining the firm. I applied. They rejected me. Not the best start. But I wrote to the Partner and said, ‘If you think I’m a really good fit – can you rethink?’
Eventually, the HR processes were overridden, I joined GT, spent almost 20 years there, and that Partner, Sacha Romanovitch, went on to become CEO. She was a big influence on my early career, as was the Partner who ran the team I joined in 2001 and worked with for 15 years.
Being part of a highly market-focused team kept the profession attractive to me. And the consistent exposure to how a Partner operates in the market gave me a mould to follow in my role as a Relationship Partner today. It showed me how important connecting into the community of people in your sector is, and for the last ten years, I’ve been doing that in the tech space.
Cooper Parry has been dubbed ‘the rebels of accountancy’. Sure, that sounds like a contradiction. But that’s the point. We’re smashing stereotypes. We don’t do grey and we don’t do suits.
"Culture is at the heart of it all. Why? Because happy, engaged, motivated people produce the best work for clients. And they always will. "
That’s why we were named the 8th Best Company to Work For in the UK. And that’s why so many people from the Big 6 are hearing about us and wanting a piece of the action (including me).
We work with ambitious, high growth, entrepreneurial businesses – much like ourselves – from hubs across the UK. Location is meaning less and less, though. We’ve been doing remote audits for a number of years now, and since the pandemic started, we’ve shifted to ‘Working From Anywhere. Anytime. Forever’ – a decision built on trust, made possible by continued investment in tech.
In the Tech & High Growth team, we support venture and PE-backed businesses through the challenges of rapid scaling. But when I first joined Cooper Parry after 20 years at GT, the challenge was to build the brand not only in a geography we’re not known in, but a sector too. Finding a way to be heard above the Big 6, whilst differentiating amongst the other firms in the Top 20.
I want to demonstrate that choosing an accountancy firm based on its revenue number is outdated. I want people to ask themselves why they make that decision.
The capability we have in this firm, the excellent people we’re attracting, we can deliver the same quality as big firms, but with the agility and attention businesses need, at fee levels that make sense.
Regulatory pressures from the top into the Big 6 firms have caused a cascade of businesses to be serviced by the wrong firms or overcharged significantly. It’s still a wide open market – my challenge is to tap into that for our Tech & High Growth team to be the go-to team for growth companies in this sector.”
I’ve worked with clients on too many challenges to count, but personally, I think the journey to making Partner took me out of my comfort zone. Working out how to differentiate yourself in an organisation that has its own strategies and priorities, spotting the market opportunity.
"You need to build a niche that will follow you for years to come; a platform not just to make Partner, but to be successful after that. That starts with very small, deliberate, conscious steps, saying ‘this is where I want to be. This is what I want to do.’"
There’s definitely an air of entrepreneurialism to it, seeing it, mapping it out. Without that, I wouldn’t have got to Partner at GT.
Joining Cooper Parry two weeks into lockdown #1 and onboarding as a Partner 100% remotely was a huge challenge too. I enjoyed that joining phase though, because I knew the cultural fit between myself and the business was strong. And I think that’s a key factor to think about for anyone, in any business. Do you see the world in the same way?
Looking to the future, I think tech is impacting the accounting profession much slower than people think. Sure, in the last five years you could argue collaboration software, remote working, data analytics and tools. But fundamentally, it’s still not changing the way accounting operates or the way audits are being done.
We’re not going to be replaced by machines in the next ten years. The tech might be going that fast but the profession isn’t. Are growth companies going to need support from a Relationship Partner? Yes. Will I be using different tech tools in my role? Yes. The tech stack needs to keep evolving – a big reason we’re continually investing in technology at Cooper Parry and looking for new tech-based partnerships.
More efficient, effective finance functions in our markets can only be a good thing, and in the space I work in, businesses are investing heavily in decent tech themselves, meaning we can leverage the tools they’re using.
The profession is still seen in a particular light by the new generation of accountants, particularly in the way practices treat their people.
"How does the profession think it’s going to attract Gen-Z and future generations if it stays as it is? That question isn’t being asked enough. We need to strip away the old stereotypes, lead with a heavy focus on employee engagement and culture, and make practices a place that people want to
work at. "
That’s what attracted me to Cooper Parry. We also won “Best place to work in Europe” – this shows just how deeply we care about the experience of our people in our firm. In any industry, that has to be the starting point for prolonged success. But I believe we have to keep challenging the status quo in the profession, go beyond the stereotypes and inspire the next generation to want to be more than just “an accountant”.