Best Practice: Saffery Champness’ Jonathan Fox

NO MATTER how you look at it, Jonathan Fox is an anomaly.

His route to taking the managing partner role at Saffery Champness is by no means a standard career progression in accountancy. Indeed, quite incredibly, he claims to be the only person on Earth to have held the top job at an accountancy firm, a law firm and a barristers’ chambers all in one career. And to top it all off, he’s done it without accountancy or law qualifications.

“It’s very much a two-way experiment. To give a non-accountant a go at running the firm – having only been a partner for 20 months – says quite a lot about the firm. It’s a bit of a leap of faith for both parties, perhaps more so for the firm than me”, Fox tells Accountancy Age.

Progression into accountancy’s top 20 began on Boots’ retail graduates’ scheme, before moving into professional services, followed by a stint in legal work and, eventually, accountancy with Safferys in 2009 as an executive partner.

Within a few short months, though, he was managing partner, something that, as a non-accountant Fox readily acknowledges is unorthodox.

The accountancy profession has, of course, suffered since the financial crisis struck in 2008, but Safferys – largely under Fox’s tenure – has made light of the turbulence, posting its best-ever results twice in as many years.

For the year ending 31 May 2012 the firm grow 9.23%, with its tax arm growing more than 14%. Over the last 12 months, fee income has grown from just over £56m to around £59m.

Perhaps the biggest growth area for the firm has been its film, sports and entertainment team, which it acquired from RSM Tenon in October last year as revealed by Accountancy Age at the time. Today, it represents the largest such team in the profession, having taken 100% of its clients with it.

In the past, the team has provided advisory services on tax and compliance as well as audit services for blockbusters including The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight, Love Actually and Casino Royale, and while – by Fox’s own admission – other areas, such as the corporate arena, are “difficult”, it has done little to impede Safferys’ growth.

The driving force behind such economy-defying results is relatively straightforward, Fox says, with a nod to his predecessor Rob Elliott, whose work he has built on.

“I think it’s because we’ve stuck to the core principles of what we’re good at,” he explains. “In the good times, it was very easy to get distracted. It would’ve been very easy to diversify into areas where lots of bright, shiny things were available, and Rob [Elliott] said ‘no, we’re going to stick to what we’re good at doing’, and that’s what we’ve done. I’ve tried to learn from my older, wiser partners.”

Redefining the day job

Fox’s assumption of the top role ushered in one simple, but fundamental, change; there is a clear delineation between management and client work, and as a non-accountant, Fox has no portfolio of clients, and instead focuses on running the firm.

That demarcation, while partially motivated by Fox’s lack of accountancy qualifications, harks back to his “stick to what you’re good at” mantra – a theme he returns to several times during our conversation.

“The reason I was recruited [in an initial executive partner role] is to support a partner who has both the day job of running the clients, and the day job of running the firm. That’s a bloody difficult thing to do. What I don’t have [now] is the day job of running the clients, so I have the luxury of not having phone call from the client at eight o’clock at night to say ‘what about my tax return?’.

“That’s why I was recruited. My job is basically to run the firm,” he says simply, acknowledging he has arguably redefined the managing partner’s role in separating management work from client work.

“Because I don’t have any clients in the day-job sense, I probably have redefined [the managing partner role]. I’ve probably made people realise just what the other managing partners have to cope with: being a managing partner and also having a client base.

“When you see someone like me working very hard who has no clients, it’s very easy to measure. They can see the cost to the business is X, the number of hours Y. If you throw in £700,000-worth of clients to manage as well, I think you start to see what they have to deal with.”

Given the established structure now in place, the obvious question, then, is what will happen once Fox decides to move on – will the firm continue in drawing a line between management work and client work, or revert to the traditional way of doing things?

For his part, Fox is keen on serving another term as managing partner after the post goes to vote in November, so the question is purely a hypothetical one at this stage.

“They might try and recruit someone like me [in the event of losing the election],” Fox muses. “My job is to put myself second. Being a non-fee-earner, running a business like this, my job is to make my boys and girls look the best and to look after the clients, and I think I’ve been successful.

“I am the only person in the world to run a law firm, a barristers’ chambers and an accountancy practice. Nobody else has done it. The success – you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to do it – is putting other people before yourself and being interested in people.”

As it happens, interest in people is very much the theme for Safferys at the moment, with the battle for talent the biggest challenge for the firm.

For Fox, the key element for attracting the best talent is engendering a “positive, fun, inclusive culture” at Safferys.

“I always describe my time within the firm as my ‘incubator time’,” he explains. “What I’m trying to do is to incubate managing partners and the partners of tomorrow. I’m trying to develop people, so people come through to management and partnership roles from within.”

With no sign of the firm’s upward curve plateauing – let alone falling away – any time soon, Fox and Safferys can afford to have some fun.

“It’s tough for people at the moment,” says Fox. “I think trying to engineer a degree of fun into work – not being silly – is a big challenge. It’s about doing serious things, but not taking yourself too seriously. Your clients, in a people-based business, pick up on morale, and if morale’s down, you have no business. It’s about engendering a bit of fun and keeping the culture of the firm alive.”

Saffery Champness in numbers:
Offices: 12 – Nine in UK, one in Guernsey, two in Switzerland
Staff: 497 in total, including 61 parnters
Service lines: Accounting, audit and assurance, business advisory, corporate finance, forensic and litigation, fund services, local Guernsey services, local Swiss services, offshore fiduciary, outsourcing, tax, trusts, VAT
Specialisms: Corporate, entrepreneurs, international, landed estates and rural business, not-for-profit, private wealth, professional and consultancy business, property, regulated entities, sports and entertainment
Fee income: £58.8m
Miscellaneous: Joseph John Saffery established an accountant’s office in London’s Guildhall chambers in 1855, while the Champness and Maclerie partnership was created in London in 1868. They merged in 1982, along with Cowper & Co to become Saffery Champness.

Related reading