‘It’s important to focus on people first and then technology’: BDO’s managing partner on growing your firm

'It's important to focus on people first and then technology': BDO's managing partner on growing your firm

Paul Eagland, managing partner of Top 10 accountancy firm BDO, sheds light on navigating success in uncertain times

After increasing revenues by 8.5 percent to £464.1m, BDO are celebrating a successful year of growth, enabling further spending on people and technology.

Despite the backdrop of uncertainty with Brexit around the corner, the firm saw revenue growth for the sixth consecutive year, with profits increasing by 19.7 percent to £109.4m.

Following the announcement of the firm’s annual results, Accountancy Age spoke to BDO’s managing partner, Paul Eagland future strategies and the challenges the industry will face.

The technology game

Eagland said: “When looking at investments, it’s important to focus on people first and then technology. We often hear that the world is changing faster than ever before through digitisation and automation and we do subscribe to that but our starting point is investing in a technology that’s really going to add value to something we all do.”

BDO is continuing its focus on automation, analytics, and innovation, including using Robotic Process Automation for tasks such as mining and testing data as well as speeding up business processes and the creation of internal reports.

One example is the firm’s Next Generation Audit Tool, which so far they have invested over £100m euros in globally, enabling them to use software and technology to audit a complex global business no matter where they are in the world.

“Another investment area is automation,” Eagland added, “Some people call it robotics. When you see this software in progress it’s actually quite straight forward.

“If you’re preparing tax returns for individuals, for example, there are elements of this you can definitely automate. This is what brings us back round to people, because the staff who review outputs and engage with clients now need to have the skills to be able to interpret that data and make sure they are advising clients effectively.

“This is why you have this quite interesting interplay between investment in technology and investment in people.”

Why do people remain key?

Reflecting its focus on people, BDO this year appointed 11 new partners and promoted a further 14 internally. A total of 1,115 people were promoted outside the partner group, amounting to over a quarter of its entire UK headcount, and 306 trainees were brought on.

Eagland spoke on training: “As young people join us, we don’t train them in the same way as I was trained, where I used to sit down with a pen and write ledgers (and I’m not even that old!).

“The key skill is now not how do you get the data, but how you interpret it and help clients make sensible decisions from it.”

The firm have both qualitative and quantitative aspects to their future people strategy.

“On the qualitative side, our proposition is to attract people and encourage them to be themselves. Our principle is that each individual should be really comfortable that if they join us, they can be themselves.

“The quantitative aspect is definitely to continue the growth. We’re already starting to plan for next year’s school and university leavers and our current calculations is that it will be an increase on this year’s number.”

Eagland takes a positive view on retaining staff.

“The accountancy profession as a whole has had this tradition of most of the large firms, including us, classed as ‘training offices’, meaning you basically promise to train the next generation of accountants. There’s a general philosophy that you’re making that investment not just for your own organisation but for the wider benefit of the profession.

“We want our people to feel that at every juncture whether they have just qualified, become a manager, or become a director, they can just focus on their own individual career. If that means staying with us then that’s great but equally we acknowledge the world is very dynamic and individuals want to make their own personal choice and so long as they’ve had a great time with us and are great alumni for the firm, that’s a really positive outcome as well. It’s not at all unusual for people to leave us and come back in a few years’ time. I left the firm once for six months and came back!”

Agile and flexible working is a hot topic, and one which BDO recognise is important to embrace should they wish to stay competitive and desirable to new talent.

“We’re the sort of organisation that would flex wherever we can. If individuals want to work a certain way, work part time, or take a career break then why wouldn’t we engage with that? The world isn’t nine to five anymore, it’s very flexible. Flexibility in BDO is across the spectrum, not only catering for employees with children, but also for those who are carers for people with disabilities or those who have a strong interest in another field that they want time to be able to focus on.”

The importance of diversity and inclusion

BDO’s success spanned growth across all three of its service lines in audit, tax, and advisory. Continuing to support a diverse and inclusive work force is a large part of achieving this.

Eagland said: “The most important thing for me is we have a business where people feel very comfortable being themselves and being able to talk about what each of us thinks we mean by inclusivity and diversity.”

He honed in on the importance of factoring in absolutely everything when it comes to diversity and inclusion. This means not only thinking about areas that are easy to label such as gender and race, but also considering everybody’s individual situation.

“For example, we need to consider what it feels like if you’re an introverted person and you feel your best is given when you’ve got time to do private thinking as opposed to being thrown in a group and writing on a board and brainstorm.

“Regarding diversity and inclusion, we’re trying our best but we know there’s always more we can do. There’s always going to be more. Although we break one another down into these particular groups, we end up having common desires.

“At an organisational level it’s about creating an environment which allows people to experiment. We don’t have policies that are so scientific that tell people what we can and can’t do.

“Whatever we do, we have to make sure we keep our clients happy.”

Navigating the future

BDO’s client base sits firmly in the mid-sized, entrepreneurial-spirited businesses, which the firm describes as the “UK economic engine” because they are responsible for a third of UK turnover but only make up under two percent of businesses by number.

Through its ‘new economy’ campaign, the firm has put forward public policy ideas to hopefully help the UK economy thrive and tackle structural issues around skills and infrastructure as well as patient capital.

The firm are gearing up for what is set to be a challenging year ahead.

“I think the biggest challenge this year is the way the profession has been portrayed in the media. The challenge for the profession as a whole is to restore public trust in the profession and we have contributed to this by spending a lot of time with the CMA, the Institute and other professional bodies, and with government departments. This has been a huge focus and will continue to be for next year.”

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