THE CHALLENGE OF SOURCING TALENT is indiscriminate - the biggest, smallest, and the best firms find the process tough, painful. Not only that, once found, keeping them can be equally challenging.
In a recent Best Practice interview the British Accountancy Awards' Overall Independent Firm of the Year, Lamont Pridmore, lamented the low numbers of people qualifying in their area.
"If you look at the number of chartered accountants who qualify in Cumbria, it's single figures every year. Some years it's seven, some it's two, some it's none," chief executive Graham Lamont told Accountancy Age in June last year.
Similarly, others such as Price Bailey and AC Mole & Sons cited talent management as their biggest issue.
And so, with such problems in mind, Crunch Accounting, based in Brighton & Hove, have hit upon a way of circumventing such barriers - its own academy.
Set to take up to 12 trainees a year, Crunch's students will spend two years both undertaking theory modules and on-the-job learning before they become fully-fledged members of the team.
"We have four apprentices here already," managing director Darren Fell tells Accountancy Age. "We've done a fantastic job creating this training programme, but we wanted to go to the next level, so we've got an additional space in the Old Perfume Factory facing Hove station. We've got our old office back again, which is another 800 sq ft and we're creating a dedicated academy."
Within three months, the students could have passed through a number of modules and find themselves on a 'pod' - Crunch's rather hipster name for their eight-strong teams of staff - with programme leader Laura Hughes checking their progress regularly. The pod will then be assigned a range of clients to manage. "So they can be in the work environment very quickly, and when it comes to the next module they can go down to the academy for a few hours for the next course," Fell explains.
Specifically aimed at micro-businesses - it deals with clients with up to four directors and ten employees - the firm estimates it will have around 5,000 clients by its March 2014 year-end, accruing at a rate of 200 new clients per month at the time of writing.
An online- and telephone-only firm, Crunch was established in 2008 and now boasts 100 staff, with the headcount expected to double over the next 12 months.
Fell, however, is not an accountant, but having successfully founded and sold his previous start-up, Pure360, he decided to set up the firm when he met former HM Revenue & Customs accountant Steve Crouch, who serves as FD.
The online and telephone methods offer a low-cost way of operating, and one which has seen the firm grow rapidly in the six years it has existed - so much so, Crunch claims to be the fastest-growing firm in the UK based on Accountancy Age's Top 50+50 2013 figures, which show at 71% jump on 2012.
It's a big claim, but it's a strong indicator of Crunch's ambitions and direction of travel. Similarly, Fell believes Crunch is the UK's first online-only firm.
What is certain is the model allows for a lot of flexibility for both clients and the firm.
"There's no need to physically meet," Fell says, citing the time-consuming nature of travel, waiting and eventually holding what can be "jargon-filled" meetings.
Instead, Crunch aims to "automate everything that can be automated" for clients, with its accountants available by e-mail, phone and Skype-style video calling whenever a client requires; effectively eliminating the time and costs involved in meetings.
Break with tradition
Crucially for clients, they each have an assigned accountant, ensuring a degree of familiarity and understanding.
"I had two bad experiences with traditional accountants, which started off with fantastic meetings, but over time they stopped phoning me back," he explains.
"Because we're aimed at the micro end of the market, their needs aren't that complex, but these people need a lot of hand-holding. Our pods divide out all the things a traditional accountant would do. The selling, dealing with HMRC is done by the account manager, and all the technical issues like VAT and tax credits - that's the accountant."
The flexibility of the model means the firm can grow without having to undergo major changes, or affect their ability to keep in meaningful contact with customers.
"We found that often with traditional firms you'll go to a meeting and meet someone who's very qualified in accounting, very bright, brilliant as a sales person," Fell says. "Then the experience is maybe in six, nine or ten months they may have grown the practice by carrying on doing sales like that, dealing with HMRC but they have very little time left to keep expanding it and bringing in new chartered accountants. And all that affects their ability to call back [clients]."
The division of responsibilities within Crunch's teams means such a scenario is unlikely to occur, Fell says.
"It allows us to stand back, take a look at the business, scale it and keep the customer service pristine," he says.
Crunch Accountants in numbers
Offices: One (Hove)
Fee income: £3.6m
Service lines: Micro businesses, freelancers and contractors
Miscellaneous: Has launched own academy for apprentices
Darren Fell CV
2011: Launched GoLimited.com
2009 - present: Crunch Accounting founder and managing director
2008: Launched FreelanceAdvisor.co.uk
2001-2008: Pure360 founder
2001-2002: Pan-European Account Manager for Colt Telecom
1997-1999: Sales executive for More Group
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