Best Practice: AC Mole & Sons

by Calum Fuller

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25 Feb 2013

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THERE ARE PLENTY OF COWS in Taunton, but not many cowboys. Yet in 1902, Albert Charles Mole - after a sojourn to the Wild West and a run-in with a gun-toting cowboy - returned to Taunton to establish his own accountancy firm.

AC Mole - though a general accounting practice with service lines encompassing accounting, audit, tax and more - has had a pioneering role in accounting technology in the UK. So much so, that HM Revenue & Customs regularly directly consult the firm on technological changes. In 1997, the firm filed the first electronic tax return, and followed that up in 2001 with first internet return.

It has led to partner Paul Aplin (pictured right) chairing the ICAEW's tax faculty and managing partner Steve Golby (pictured left) taking a similar role at the Bank of England's local business panel, allowing the firm to "take views from the coalface directly into Whitehall".

Splitting time between their responsibilities was initially difficult mainly due to time constraints and travelling, but having fallen into a routine, the pair now find the two roles easily manageable.

"It was a fairly smooth shift [dealing with his and Aplin's take-up of external work]," Golby says, thanks to open discussions held with colleagues.

"It's very easy to measure the time Paul might spend on it [ICAEW work]", he says, adding that remuneration is unaffected by their extra-curricular activities.

"We're pretty communist in our profit-sharing arrangements", Golby quips, adding on a more serious note that "once you come up with complicated profit-sharing schemes, that's when the rot sets in".

Both spend around "three or four" days a month in London, fulfilling institute commitments, meeting clients, ministers and civil servants. And while it is not necessarily chargeable work, both Golby and Aplin - along with their fellow partners - feel their efforts have yielded both tangible and intangible benefits for the firm.

"It gives smaller firms - and more importantly, their clients - a voice on a national level", says Golby, while the spin-off for AC Mole is the cachet that comes with the territory; Aplin, Golby and their colleagues are held in high esteem locally by competitors, clients and non-clients.

"If you want our unique selling point, I guess that's it," says Aplin. "I can actually go and sit down with a minister and say ‘I can see where you're driving with the policy, but at the coalface, this bit will work, and this bit won't'. Most people doing that kind of lobbying don't come from this kind of background."

While clients have, in the past, expressed concern over the firm's relationship with the taxman, Aplin feels there has "always" been a clear distinction, with them entering dialogue with HMRC purely to advise on improving administration.

"In the past, we've had people at director-general level spend the day with us just to see how we produce tax returns - not from their angle in Whitehall, but to see things from our perspective. The impact of coming out and seeing what it's like is much greater than sitting across a table in Whitehall."

Unsurprisingly, technology is still the firm's main driver, as it has been for the past 20 years. Chief among the issues Aplin and Golby find themselves addressing is preparing their clients for real-time PAYE.

The scheme, to be rolled out nationally from April, will see PAYE reported on or before the date payment is made, while changes to a person's circumstances will be made straight away rather than at the end of the financial year.

"It's the biggest area of concern", admits Aplin. "We run about 250 payrolls for smaller businesses, and those issues for us are absolutely huge. It all comes down to the on-or-before requirement and advances versus loans."

A case in point for Golby is a client he recently helped in restructuring their business, only to find their payroll would have to change yet again - having just lost half of its workforce.

"Potentially, we're going to have to run payroll weekly instead of monthly", says Aplin. "From where we're sitting, it's not the intellectual argument over ‘an extra business burden', it's an extra bill and we have to explain to our clients why the bill is going up when the amount of national insurance and PAYE they pay to HMRC won't change by a penny."

In spite of those issues, Golby and Aplin are reasonably confident Albert Charles Mole would like what the firm he founded has become.

"It's personal service", Aplin says. "If you're competing for work against a large, national firm and you can offer continuity and a personal service - taking interest in your clients - you can pick up some pretty big work.

"I hope he'd [Albert Charles Mole] be rather pleased. We still act for some of the clients he took on 110 years ago."

The ambition, though, is not to "empire build", Golby and Aplin explain. Instead it's to focus on giving their clients what they want and build on their specialist areas.

"What we're interested in is giving our clients what they want and doing it in a way that gives us a decent profit and allows us to pay our people the going rate", they say. "As long as you're attracting new business and giving your staff a decent career, what more would you want to do?"

AC Mole key facts
Offices: One, in Taunton

Staff: 45 including nine partners

Service lines: Accounting services, agriculture, audit, business advice and corporate finance, financial services, IT services, tax

Bluffer's Guide: Somerset-based firm with strong tax technology offering. Punches above its weight in influencing HMRC strategy

Fee income: £3m

Miscellaneous: Not one AC Mole employee has a undergraduate degree in accountancy

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