IN THE quarter of a century since the formation of Shelley Stock Hutter the way accountants market themselves and their services has undergone fundamental change. In many ways the firm co-founded by Lynton Stock in 1989 embodies that change.
Professional practices have historically been atrocious at doing their own marketing - the highest echelon of firms excepted. With annual fee income of £5.3m, Shelley Stock Hutter could easily have fallen into the ‘atrocious category". And though Lynton Stock accepts that marketing is not his speciality, the practice nevertheless grasped the nettle early.
"We have spent a lot of time over the last five years developing our marketing strategy, which is quite heavily focused on social media," explains Bobby Lane, head of Denver Chase International , SSH's outsourcing arm and who is also responsible for new business and marketing.
According to Lane, who spent six years working in media and marketing, the key to winning business now is all about accessibility and "getting your message out there" using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
"When someone hears about you the first thing they do is to go online. If you don't have an online presence they are going to wonder why not, and once you have got an online presence they want to know that you are accessible," Lane says.
If Lane is to be believed, he has taken calls in the middle of the night and even met clients on Boxing Day. "Years ago we had client that was starting up and we were doing the payroll on Boxing Day," he says, adding that on another occasion he ended up helping with a delivery of thousands of toilet rolls while going through a client's management accounts. "It's all about your clients feeling you are there and they are able to access you."
An integrated offering
But this is not to say that Shelley Stock Hutter is all hat and no cattle. While marketing and building an effective and credible "introducer network" has been key, more important to the firm's success has been its model in which it essentially embeds its accountants within the management teams of its clients.
Indeed, one of the firm's most notable clients Addison Lee, the London minicab company, described Shelley Stock Hutter as a "branch off our tree" and "invaluable" to its growth from a £6m turnover business in the early 1990s to more than £200m at the time of its £300m sale to private equity firm Carlyle Group in 2013.
"We have been involved in the whole process. We acted for them, still act for the directors' business interests and act for Addison Lee on ad hoc projects and due diligence work," says Lynton Stock. "We have been able to nurture start-ups and, as they grow, take them all the way through."
Shelley Stock Hutter has been able to help clients like Addison Lee because of its ability to offer a "fully integrated" service, Stock explains. Through SSH it offers traditional audit and accounting services, which is supported by the Denver Chase outsourcing operation it set up in 2004.
"Both sides of the business support eachother," Stock says. "It allows the traditional side of the practice to offer a really good quality key client accounts service and we can sell book-keeping services to Denver Chase clients."
According to Lane, continued loosening of the thresholds at which companies are exempt from having an audit - rising from a £350,000 turnover limit in 1993 to 5.6m in 2004, and £6.5m in 2008, with more increases expected this year - have made statutory accounts market more competitive than ever. Offering complimentary outsources services has become more important to firms as a result.
"If you're going to pitch business on the back of going into a client and saying ‘we can do your accounts', they would say ‘why would you do my accounts that much more different to anyone else?'" says Lane. "The reality is very difficult to win business off the back of stator compliance services. You need to develop a range of complimentary services that gives you another reason to get in front of someone and get through that door."
Big firm mentality
When Stock set up the firm, one of the founding tenets was to combine the big firm philosophy he experienced when qualifying with Price Waterhouse in 1982 within a small firm environment.
Back in the 1980s general standards at smaller practices were not as "good as I wanted them to be", Stock says. "It wasn't very highly regulated."
"I wanted to import much better standards" that would be combined with a smaller firm's ability to change things quickly, he explains. "I had been privileged to see the bigger picture in terms of quality of service and I wanted to instil that."
Stock says the firm also differentiates itself by being less regimented in its approach to billing than the larger firms.
"We are regimented in terms of our time costing and time recording but much less regimented in terms of billing for every second," he explains. "Clients hate it if they think you are going to charge them every time they pick up the phone to you. Your fees have to have an inbuilt buffer to cater for that."
However, costing projects correctly has been built up over years of experience in understanding what clients will want to know and what challenges they are likely to face. "We have had some harsh lessons along the way," says Lane.
"We quote for a job", adds Stock. "It doesn't matter if it is going to take three days or three weeks. Clients can live with that. If it does get out of kilter after three to six months we have that conversation."
Since its formation, growth at Shelley Stock Hutter has been impressive. According to the Accountancy Age Top 50+50, the 83rd ranked firm grew fee income by 6% to £5.3m, and now employs 38 staff, including five partners how earned an average of £1.06m each in 2013.
But where is future growth going to come from. Lane naturally believes outsourcing will go from strength to strength. "Businesses of tomorrow are going to be more open and have a much greater requirement to outsource their services and plug their skills gaps with professionals," he says.
Interestingly, Stock expects the firm to pick up more work preparing accounts under IFRS on behalf of Big Four audit clients. "We are very well placed to step in and be the recommended firm of any of the big firms," he says.
International is another big area for the firm. Last year, Accountancy Age revealed that the firm was actively looking to join an international network as a result of greater inward investment work and domestic clients expanding into fast growth foreign markets.
That aspiration was fulfilled at the start of May when the firm announced it is joining international alliance Abacus Worldwide as a new independent member firm.
Lane has been appointed a member of the Abacus Advisory Board. He will work alongside the five existing members. In addition, Lane will also assist with the addition of member firms elsewhere in the UK and Europe.
At present the firm is required to use independent practices for client work based in foreign jurisdictions, whereas an international network would give the business scope to support its clients in a wider sense.
"Ten years ago we had a loose alliance with a New York firm. The reality is a lot of our clients are driving it now. It would be much easier to work globally," Lane says. "We have got international connections it's just not formalised."
Shelley Stock Hutter in numbers:
UK fee income: £5.3m
Accountancy Age Top50 +50 ranking: 83
UK partners: 5
UK offices: 1
Bluffer's guide to the firm: One Boxing Day a partner went onsite to process a client's payroll; in an emergency, the firm was able via its client bank to successfully locate a specialist doctor for a client's daughter travelling in Australia and it often answers night time calls.
Lynton Stock's CV
1989 - present Founding partner, Shelley Stock Hutter
1982 Qualified, Price Waterhouse
Bobby Lane's CV
2003 - present Partner, Shelley Stock Hutter/Denver Chase
2008 - 2011 Treasurer, The Patients Association
1998 - 2003 Finance director, Rowland Worldwide
1994 - 1998 Chartered accountant, BDO
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