At the 2019 British Accountancy Awards, Sterling Finance won the graduate and non-graduate programme of the year award, and did so in a category that included KPMG, Kingston Smith and Seimens.
These firms, which feature in the Top 20 of Accountancy Age’s 50+50 list, have multi-million-pound incomes. Sterling Finance, in contrast, has 11 employees and provides family businesses with accountancy services, financial management and business advice.
Explaining the success behind the firm’s graduate scheme, the firm’s CEO and founder Kamlesh Rajput says: “First of all, it is all driven by our vision. We put our clients at the heart of our vision, and we treat clients as our family. The experience we want to give to our client is that which we would give to our family in the same situation.
“We decided in order to maintain these values, the graduate and non-graduates we recruit need to go through a certain process to understand the values of our company.”
Rajput and his team realized that for a company of their size, it would be in their interest to take graduates in and fund their education, while ensuring that they understand the ethics which the firm is looking to uphold. In return, Sterling Finance gives graduates a great platform from which to succeed.
Humble upbringings inspired graduate scheme
This vision stems from Rajput’s own humble upbringings. Born in Baroda City in India to a poor family – his father was a tuk-tuk driver – Rajput had bigger dreams for himself. He migrated to the UK, married, but struggled for 10 years to get into a career in accounting.
“They need to have an attitude of life-long learning – and that is what we want to maintain.”
In 1997, his then-boss Dr Ian Kennedy suggested Rajput study for the ACCA qualification. Dr Kennedy paid for his fees, and after few failed attempts, Rajput passed. By 2002, he had founded Sterling Finance, and the ethical values instilled by both his upbringing and the ACCA can be seen in his firm today.
“We don’t want our accountants to be machines and fast workers, and rely purely on accuracy,” he says. “We started giving in-house training to our staff. That needed to be done across the board when we could not pick and choose the candidates – then we started to roll out the graduate programme.
“We started giving them the softer skills, and we also engaged external coaches. We accepted from time-to-time that when everything we do is driven by deadlines, we need to accept and understand mental health issues. We now have external coaches where staff can pick up the phone and say – I need help.
“We want to give them the ability to detect problems, and the ability to find a solution to problems – they may not have the complete knowledge and skills, but they need to find the solution by getting the right information.”
Rajput places this approach to problem solving as being a higher priority than staying on top of technological advances. While he acknowledges the need to do so, it’s the soft skills that are timeless.
“They also need to achieve their own dreams as well, so we take care of that too.”
Explaining how his firm has made the change to cloud accounting, he says: “It still brings different issues now, and our staff need to have more skills in terms of communication, interpersonal skills and written communication.
“Above all, they also need to know that when they learn about new technology, these skills will be very quickly outdated, and they will have to learn new skills constantly – even using a simple Sage or Xero software – there are changes coming every few weeks. They need to have an attitude of life-long learning, and that is what we want to maintain.”
Sterling Finance has a constant budget for training, compared with 10 years ago when training budgets were prepared for a full year in an annual review. This, he says, is at the core of ensuring that graduates and existing employees can add value for their clients.
“We know why we are committing our resources to training – because we want to maintain this attitude of treating clients like family. So, there’s a huge pressure on our budget, but we are maintaining it OK,” he says.
“We can only grow and double our practice if my existing staff are up to speed with problem-solving ability, up-to-date with using software, and they increase their own capacity. The existing staff have a clear career path of development within our company, and within our group. They also need to achieve their own dreams as well, so we take care of that too.”
No holding back
Sterling Finance’s clients are often surprised by the firm’s approach. They don’t hold back when chasing their clients, and are willing to contact them at any time of the day. Rajput says: “If somebody’s payroll needs to be done on Friday morning, and they have not given us the information by Tuesday afternoon, there will be a call on Tuesday evening, there will be texts, WhatsApp messages, and emails.
“We chase them hard sometimes, even during unsocial hours, to make sure that we take care of these things. Clients may not have time, or they may not have the priority in the right order, but we do this for them.
“The reaction of our clients when we provide this service is to say ‘please don’t drop this approach – we really appreciate it.’ More often than not, they are happy to admit they are disorganised, and they find that this really adds a lot of value.”
It is by instilling this client-first approach from top to bottom at Sterling Finance that resulted in this relatively small firm taking home the award at the expense of much, much larger competition. One of the judges put it down to the firm’s ‘humanist’ approach to developing its graduates, and both employees at the firm and its clients see benefits.
“If we want to succeed then every member of the team needs to succeed.”
Rajput says that his clients were very happy to hear the firm has won the award, saying: “When we shared with them the news of the award, they were extremely happy. They take pride in telling their fellow entrepreneurs and the businessmen and women that their firm is Sterling Finance, they are proud. It’s been good news for my clients as well!”
While the vision may have come from Rajput and his experiences, he puts its success down to the work of the team which has worked together to realise what he set out to achieve.
“Our success is down to teamwork, and it will always be down to teamwork,” Rajput says. “If we want to succeed then every member of the team needs to succeed, and this is the core value that we have – that we need to work as a team and grow together. This is where we are investing quite a lot at the moment.
“We don’t think we are doing anything unique; we believe this is a necessity in a modern accounting practice. You hear about firms making cosmetic changes, like how they dress and how their office looks, but we have taken the route of delivering value and experience, and that’s the route we are happy to take.
“We want to be the practice that embraces the client with family values. We are very happy to have difficult conversations, but the end-vision must be to the benefit of the client.”