Accounting Firms » The tech-enabled accountants

A specialism such as landed estates, with its associations with heritage and tradition, might not seem like the first place you would expect to see change come from.

But clients in this most long-established of fields are just as demanding as any other when it comes to wanting access to real-time information using the latest tech.

“If you look at everything else you can do on your iPhone, from ordering a taxi to buying your groceries, why should your accountant still use clunky processes?” said Matthew Burton.

Many Saffery Champness clients, who include entrepreneurs, sports and entertainment stars and high net worth individuals, do not want to receive confidential finance documents through conventional email, with its potential lack of security.

With that in mind, Saffery Champness is working on a dedicated client portal. It would be accessible from clients’ phones and give them all the up-to-date information about their accounts in one place.

It is part of a pro-active approach to adopting technology, following the appointment for the first time of a dedicated IT partner, Julie Berry, who joined the firm in September last year. She had previously worked as director of IT and infrastructure for the international law firm RPC.

The appointment is a sign of the importance of technology to the Top 20 firm’s strategic plan. In order to avoid training fatigue and manage the transition for employees, a change management specialist has also been appointed.

“Technology is fundamental to our business going forward,” Burton said. Since taking up his role as managing partner in April last year, Burton has identified four key areas which Saffery Champness will focus on for the four years of his term.

Other than technology, those are people, chosen markets and client service. “We have always been a heavily advisory-led practice,” he said. “And we are now seeing the role of the accountant change from being a service provider to trusted advisor.”

As technology takes over some of the tasks previously done manually by people, that leaves accountants free to focus on giving clients advice.

In a people-led business, the relationship with clients has become more important than ever.

Challenges to come

Determined not to be all things to all people, Saffery Champness has focused instead on developing expertise in key areas. These are private wealth, landed estates, not-for-profit organisations, professional consultancy services (particularly legal and recruitment), sports and entertainment, and entrepreneurs, particularly those in the hospitality and leisure sectors.

While the compliance side is taken as read, with firms of the size and prestige level of Saffery Champness clients are looking for specialist support and advice.

“The differentiator is the service you provide, supported by technology,” Burton said.

His strategic plan has put people and tech at the top of the agenda for the next four years, but a specialist unit within Saffery Champness is examining what will come after that in the accounting industry.

The Horizon Scanning group meets regularly to focus on what the firm will need to prepare for in the 4-10 years after the current term.

Topics include the future of HMRC policy in the digital age. As more companies go online, tax policy has been steadily adapting to this new tax base. An indicator of this was Philip Hammond’s inclusion of a “digital services tax” after 2020, aimed at tech giants with global revenues of over £500m a year.

“HMRC is saying the tax base is going to change, but the question for us is what services do accountants need to offer?”

Key to this question is the emergence in recent years of the concept of “aggressive tax avoidance.” While parameters were once clearer between evasion and avoidance, the citing of aggressive avoidance as a separate category which can put clients on the wrong side of compliance even with the best will in the world has complicated matters.

“It is understandable that the government is looking at this issue, given that we have had plenty of stories about household names not paying their arguably fair share of tax,” Burton said.

“But it can be a reputational issue even if it is not a legal one. Clients want certainty. It makes it challenging relationally for advisors.”

Burton, who joined Saffery Champness in 2004, is certainly at the helm during a time of substantial change and growth for the firm and the industry at large.