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The Top 40 Networks & Associations 2016: PKF Francis Clark on joining PKF International

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AS the dust settles around the result of the EU referendum, notions of collaboration and being ‘stronger in numbers’ are lingering in the atmosphere.

But over the past few months, as the nation was deliberating over its international allegiances, South West accountants Francis Clark was forging some of its own.

In April, the Top 50+50 firm joined forces with PKF International and rebranded as PKF Francis Clark. It has been just over five months since Andrew Richards, who’s about to hit 30 years of service at the firm, was appointed managing partner, overseeing just under 60 partners at a practice which is collaborating left right and centre, having in the same month as the PKF deal, completed a merger with Dorset-based practice Princecroft Willis.

However it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Richards in his new role, which he describes as “challenging” having taken over from Les Burnett who spent 17 years in the position.

Identity crisis?

First on the to do-list for the new managing partner was to reassure staff that the move to become PKF Francis Clark would be the right one, with some partners fearing that the deal would compromise the firm’s identity of a strong, independent accountancy practice.

“The partners that looked after the smaller clients in the firm were concerned about putting the prefix before our name,” explains Richards, which he said was “the biggest issue for a lot of people.”

The other fear from some partners was that joining the international network would allow the South West competition to say that Francis Clark has been taken over, that it has become a national firm and ‘abandoned its local roots’.

Richards also “had some difficulties” with Francis Clark’s small London office over the proposed partnership.

“There were some difficulties over territorial rights, but two of my colleagues went to a PKF conference in Romania and they came back with such positive views from what they’d seen, so after that the decision became pretty easy.”

For weeks leading up to the deal, Richards spent a lot of time travelling around the South West, visiting several Francis Clark offices, reassuring staff that the partnership would be a good move and that the firm’s legal position showed that the deal was not a takeover, but a professional alliance.

He also had a few tools at his disposal to help convince those who were tentative to the move, including personal assurances that Francis Clark would be able to remain independent.

“Before I put the vote to the partnership to join, I received an email from John Sim, the CEO of PKF International, confirming that there was no wish to create a national partnership in the UK and that their aim is to become the best network of independent firms in the world.”

As well as the letter, Francis Clark’s previous relationship with PKF enabled Richards to convince partners that the joining PKF would be a move in the right direction.

“In the late 1970’s, the firm was in a network with Pannell Kerr Forster (now PKF). In 1982 we changed our name from Francis S. Clark and Co to Pannell Kerr Forster, and we traded until 1985 as Pannell Kerr Forster.

“Pannell Kerr Forster firms then wanted to become a national partnership, and we decided not to as we wanted to be an independent firm. But we always had a good association with both PKF’s UK and global outfits.”

It wasn’t until April 2013, when Top Six firm BDO completed a merger with PKF, which created a firm with nearly £400m in revenues, that PKF came back on Francis Clark’s radar.

“What stood out about them then is that we knew the quality of the worldwide firm; we had that history with them and were keen to take the name back. And we also thought that if we could be one of the first firms in PKF in the UK, we could influence what was happening.”

Business as usual                                                                   

Three months on since the network was made public, the day-to-day running of the firm has been the same and the firm’s culture has been left untouched, but the international opportunities for collaboration for PKF Francis Clark are, according to Richards, seemingly endless.

He says that because of the partnership, his firm are already working on establishing relationships with firms in Germany, Spain and Malta, and is sure that there is more to come.

“I think people are starting to see opportunities that can come from us having joined PKF,” says Richards. “I was in Milan last week and I met 120 partners from other firms and certainly the quality of some of those firms is exceptional.

“We now can with confidence refer work to any jurisdiction in the world where PKF has an office – 300 firms in 150 countries across the world. We have confidence that the quality of advice that we get back will be one timely, and two of a very decent quality – that’s the bigger picture,” he explains.

But it’s not just international opportunities that have emerged from joining the network.

“The easier wins are closer to home in that the UK firms within PKF are coordinating quite well now, and can now share resources,” explains Richards.

“We’re looking to help one another so it’s always nice to have a friend near home that you can get a second opinion from or that it’s going through some change in their practice. For example we’re considering a change in our audit software, so we can get a second opinion [from a PKF firm].”

Looking ahead

With the PKF partnership already starting to bear fruit, Richards is able to turn his attention to other matters, such as managing 59 partners – a result of the merger with Princecroft Willis, but he seems to be taking it all in his stride.

Sometimes it feels like herding cats, but as I see it, the merger was beneficial for us in terms of partners added because our cultures are so aligned. They have brought new things to us and we’ve brought new things to them. But 59 partners… I think that’s enough for a while.”

Richards says the practice is now in a period of consolidation, and through collaboration, is looking to shave costs where possible.

“We plan to have a look at how we can share costs with some of the other UK firms and how to deliver some of service lines throughout the UK and perhaps the world. Things like our marine expertise, which we’ve gained through our merger, we think will be beneficial for when we collaborate with other PKF firms.”

PKF Francis Clark in numbers

  • Top 50 ranking: 25
  • Number of offices – 8
  • Number of staff –  656
  • Number of partners – 59
  • Fee income – Circa £39m
  • Service lines – Audit and Accountancy, Private Client Tax & Tax Planning International Tax Corporate Finance, Grant Advisory, Renewables, Innovation & Technology Tax, Trusts & Estates

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