Michael Lerner tells Accountancy Age how Wilson Wright has refreshed its partner base to address its ageing senior workforce
WHO ARE Wilson Wright? It’s a strange question to ask about a company that’s 123 years old, but senior partner Michael Lerner concedes it’s one that’s been asked too many times, including by prospective partners who are looking to grow their reputation at an established accountancy firm.
“We’re looking to get our name out there,” explains Lerner, who reveals that in 41 years of working at the practice – now serving as senior partner, this is his first interview.
Instead of taking interviews and posing for photo-shoots, Lerner has been gently expanding Wilson Wright over the past four decades, gradually transforming it into a nine-partner practice that’s grown by 50% in the past three years and has recorded a 65% increase in fee turnover in the last four years, figures that could easily place the firm on Accountancy Age’s Top 50+50 list.
London has always been at the accountancy firm’s core. Formed in 1893 by Wilson Wright just 13 years after the Institute of Chartered Accountants (now the ICAEW) received its Royal Charter; the company is neatly compacted into a single office in the heart of bustling Holborn Circus.
In 1957, Harold Gould, owner of the firm at the time, acquired another accountancy practice, a moment that has been labelled the start of Wilson Wright’s expansion.
Fast-forward 59 years and moves to Chancery Lane and Kingsway, Lerner and his 55 staff have been in Holborn Circus for the past six years.
“We’ve always been a small firm, it’s just the type of practice we’ve been,” says Lerner, who firmly believes that the reputation of an accountancy practice shouldn’t be determined upon its size.
“People don’t always need the Big Four for their business. Because of their size, they can’t offer the same quality of service that we do,” the senior partner argues, putting Wilson Wright’s success down to the “maintaining of personal services to an enhanced quality and its retention of clients”.
One of Wilson Wright’s clients has been with them for 60 years, being served by three generations of partners, a fact which Lerner is immensely proud.
However, it’s not just the retention of clients that’s been key to Wilson Wright’s success; it’s also been the retention of staff.
Some employees have been with the practice for over 20 years, but Lerner concedes that the firm’s ageing workforce has also been a major concern for the company in the past.
Alongside maintaining and growing the practice, Lerner cites bringing new blood into the firm as his biggest challenge, knowing that at some point all of the firm’s older partners would retire quickly in succession.
“Around 2004, we had somewhat of a crisis, our youngest partner was 48 and we needed to bring some new blood in,” Lerner says, describing the firm’s partner pool as an “inverted triangle”, whereby the average of its most senior staff was between 50 and 60.
But under Lerner’s leadership, Wilson Wright refreshed its partner base, with four partners under the age of 40 now within the practices’ ranks.
In 2012 Lerner brought in three young partners – Nikki Crane, Lee Davy Martin and tax partner Craig Nicholson, employees who have blended in well with the firm’s experienced heads.
“The new partners have shown us how to bring in new clients, and we’ve shown them how to keep them,” Lerner says, admitting that he’s trying to become more tech-savvy like his younger co-workers.
“I’ve started to embrace social media. I’ve finally started to use Linkedin,” says Lerner, who insists that technology has for a long time played an integral part in success of the company, whether it be using it to cope with clients or the administrative burden which plagues many growing accountancy firms.
It’s also been used to expand Wilson Wright’s reach, as the firm look to gain more exposure in the accountancy world.
Another way the firm has been able to gain exposure – and expand its ability to serve international clients, is through joining global association DFK International.
In December last year Wilson Wright, along with fellow London-based firm Carter Backer Winter, joined the top-ten global accountancy association – a partnership Lerner describes as a “great opportunity to gain exposure” as it looks to compete with firms of similar and larger sizes.
The embracement of social media and technology is just one of many reasons why Lerner’s been able to remain in the hot-seat of Wilson Wright over the past four decades – and given the way the firm has been growing in recent years, it will be fascinating to see how much the firm is flourishing when he’s celebrating his half-century at the practice.