Interview: RSM Tenon CEO Chris Merry

SELLING THE FUTURE has a bit of a bad reputation at the moment.

For example, the chancellor’s prophecies of better times seem somewhat … optimistic.

But new RSM Tenon CEO Chris Merry has to project a robust, stable, high-quality future to his staff, partners, lenders and clients.

Meeting Merry at the firm’s West London office, the serial professional services executive is relaxed and amiable – but there is a hint of an edge.

Pointing at an RSM Tenon advertising poster behind us on the wall depicting a murky, empty road scene, he is clearly perplexed at what message is trying to be portrayed.

“They’ll be changed by the next time you come in,” says Merry.

The firm’s previous branding was strong – that of an entrepreneurial advisor and mentor. After the acquisitions of Bentley Jennison and Vantis offices, the branding went out the window. The poster issue is indicative of a business that grew out of control, and was difficult to coordinate and position as a single entity.

“Its strategy … was perhaps less clear than I would have liked over the past couple of years,” he says diplomatically.

Coming into the business in February, Merry is starker about the situation the firm faced after its January profit warning and executive exits.

Its lenders, Lloyds, were “completely surprised”. “The level of trust between us and them was about zero [at that time],” admits Merry.

But within a month, the bank had agreed to extend its loans out to October.

Such a “remarkable achievement” was primarily down to chairman Adrian Martin, consultant and former BDO chief Jeremy Newman, as well as CFO Adrian Gardner.

So selling the future, at least in the short term, was achieved satisfactorily as far as Lloyds were concerned.

With efficiency savings underway, including a 10% reduction in staff, the key for Merry has been identifying the changes that need to be made, and then communicating those changes and what they mean to the remaining employees.

On the process side, Merry cites the lack of a single company-wide time recording system as the type of issue being dealt with.

A crucial part of the plan is also calming the nerves of any jittery clients while maintaining an appropriate level of service for them.

Obviously, Merry wants a leaner, fitter business at the end of the process. But can he keep the good people through the upheaval?

“It’s too early to tell,” says Merry. “A people business is about confidence.”

He cites the example of the turnaround work he undertook at professional recruiters Whitehead Mann, explaining that many people don’t want to leave in the middle of the problem. They leave when things have been tidied up and they think about the next stage of their career.

Mindful of this, Merry again flags up the importance of strategic direction and communicating this. “They want to see overall direction … ‘do I want to be part of it?’.”

He is also keen to point out that, while turnaround experience is “a plus”, his board restructuring programme is not about bringing people in to undertake a short-term project. “We’re definitely in it for the long term,” he says.

Merry is effectively criss-crossing the country to visit the firm’s offices. Beyond the message that there will be a future, he is starting to formulate a message to encompass what RSM Tenon’s team provides.

“We provide the beginning to end of business ownership [services] – and also advise the owners,” explains Merry.

Perhaps mindful of the global markets even for small entrepreneurial businesses, and as the second-largest firm in the RSM International network, Merry wants RSM Tenon’s people to think about the opportunity to “more actively engage” within the network.

“We should play a full part in that. Perhaps it’s been underplayed in the past,” he says.

It has been suggested that 17 October is something of a D-Day for the firm – the point at which it relays its year-end figures to the market. The market will of course expect an update on whether its banking facilities will extend beyond the end of that month.

Merry is confident it will extend beyond that date. And following the firm’s embarrassing accounts restatement, Merry says the firm and auditors PwC are “working our way through it”.

Being a listed company has given plenty of air to RSM Tenon’s dirty linen. But Merry doesn’t blame the listing for the cause of its problems. Whether RSM Tenon would want to remain listed in the future is perhaps moot. However, de-listing is not an easy process, although the firm has just moved from a ‘premium’ listing to ‘ordinary’, which gives it more leeway to undertake transactions without requiring shareholder approval.

A better structured firm, however, places its future back in its own hands.

“Let’s run the business properly and deliver – then we have choices,” says Merry.

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