PracticeAccounting FirmsProfile: Peter Jenkins, Numerica FD

Profile: Peter Jenkins, Numerica FD

When most people take a year off, they relax, travel around the world, play a few rounds of golf ... but not Peter Jenkins. The man who is now finance director of listed accountancy consolidator Numerica took time off to start his own company, and famously appeared alongside his wife on game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Jenkins’ career has been quite far-reaching, as he has been an accountant in both practice and in industry.

He sees this experience as an asset in his current role on the ICAEW council.

The chartered accountant speaks about his career as one long learning experience. And he believes gaining new understanding in each job is crucial. ‘I’ve learnt something in every job that I’ve done. If you’re not learning, then there’s a problem.’

Jenkins began his career as an accountant almost by chance. After studying economics and statistics, he realised he ‘needed to get some sort of qualification, and thought accountancy would be a good thing to do’.

He qualified with Neville Russell, a medium-sized firm, where he gained a breadth of experience, and then went to work at Coopers & Lybrand for four years.

By that time, he realised he wasn’t cut out for practice work, so decided to go into industry, joining Lex Service and becoming FD of one of its franchises.

But it was his next assignment at Coca Cola Schweppes Beverages, the franchise holders for Coca-Cola in the UK, that stands out in his mind.

At first he worked on planning and project evaluation with 15 accountants.

But the company was then reorganised, and he ended up working with 50 people, half of whom did not come from the profession.

He organised the people into teams based on areas of the business, instead of putting them together according to their skillsets, which he says, was ‘one of the most successful things I did’.

This allowed the people he worked with to learn from each other, and taught Jenkins a lot about working in industry and commerce. ‘I learned about skills other than the traditional ones of an accountant. I think accountants in industry really need to be highly focused on the commercial aspects.

‘Being a good financial director these days is not just about controlling the numbers of the internal controls, although those things are still very important. The skills a finance director needs are driving the business, strategy and profitability.’

One of the experiences he learnt the most from was starting up his own company, Demyst, which was an e-learning project. This was the role he took on when he decided to take a year off. The idea came to him during the dotcom boom, as he was working for Regus, worldwide operator of business centres.

‘I wanted terribly to set up my dotcom business. I thought: “I’ve worked 20-odd years in safe jobs in accountancy and as a professional in industry. Something’s happening here; maybe I should be part of it”,’ he recalls.

But things did not go as planned. He and his wife Anne – who is also an accountant was on the ICAEW council and former president of women in accountancy – were unable to secure funding and found there was not as much interest for their e-learning products as they first thought. Soon afterwards, the dotcom bubble burst.

‘Our problem was our timing, we were too late into it,’ he explains.

‘The first week of April 2000 was the seminal point of the dotcom boom, and if you hadn’t got the money raised by the end of the first quarter, you weren’t going to get it.’

But the experience was not a complete waste, and the company did not sink without a trace.

It still has ongoing contracts, such as a product Demyst developed for the ICAEW’s teaching arm, and is still being run by Anne on a part-time basis.

The experience was not wasted on Jenkins. ‘I learned it was incredibly hard work starting from scratch without any infrastructure around you. There are very different challenges from being in an established business to a complete start-up with a blank sheet of paper.

‘You have to do everything. You don’t have any sort of support or infrastructure. You have to get involved in absolutely every aspect of things, which is interesting and fun.’

Jenkins has not entirely given up his idea for the company’s future and its original product. ‘I genuinely believe that the vision and opportunity we could see still exists. Not everybody can get face-to-face training.’

He adds that there are two problems with e-learning: products have not been developed well enough, and people are not ready for them. ‘A few people have tried it and it’s not been terribly successful, but this is because it’s not been done very well,’ he says.

‘I think e-learning’s time will come. The market is not there now, but it will be in two or 10 years.’

It was during March 2001, that Jenkins and his wife were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. ‘I guess we’d got to the stage where funding was getting pretty low. We had not been earning for 15 months and we’d spent a lot of money trying to get Demyst on the road, although we weren’t on the breadline.’

An avid watcher of the programme, Jenkins got on the show at just the right time, and won £125,000, which gave him the flexibility that enabled him to re-enter the established business world at Numerica.

At the time the programme came on, he’d already started talking to Numerica’s chief executive Tony Sarin about his integrator project.

‘In May 2001, I decided I would go with Numerica because the funding we were offered for Demyst was not on our terms,’ he said, adding that it was because of the win that he was able to go with the new consolidator, because there was no salary at the start.

‘The Numerica proposition was that we were all going to run with it for six months on an unpaid basis.’ He also had to put money into the business to pay the advisers’ fees, all of which he would not have been able to do without the Millionaire win.

‘Tony was an executive director of venture capitalist New Media Spark. We presented Demyst to him in December 2000 and he called me in February 2001 saying that he had some good news and bad news.

‘The bad news was that he had decided not to fund us, but the good news was that he was thinking of leaving New Media Spark and setting up Numerica. He was very impressed with my presentation and my background and said he’d like me to join him.’

A year and a half on, the listed consolidator is doing very well, especially when compared with rival Tenon. Numerica’s fee income has grown 14% and its share price has also climbed steadily.

Tenon, on the other hand, has seen its fee income grow only 9%, its share price has slipped and it was fallen one place in the Accountancy Age Top 50 league table.

According to Jenkins, the secret of his company’s success has been its approach to integrating the firms it acquires and its research into the accountants it takes on.

‘We concentrated a lot on integration, getting the businesses to gel as one. That’s not just in terms of the system. It’s also making sure the people gel together and operate as one team, that they refer work to each other and that regions don’t compete with each other.

‘Also, we’ve been cautious with our acquisition programme. We’ve taken time to do due dilligence properly and it has been granted a lot of importance,’ he explains.

The FD does not believe that Tenon and Vantis, the other listed accountancy firms, are its only direct competition. He believes the company more often finds itself pitching against Baker Tilly, Grant Thornton and BDO for

‘People ought to be looking at how well we are doing against all of the other firms,’ he says. And with firms becoming LLPs and publishing their accounts, the comparison will be easier.

In fact, he adds, Numerica has already compared its figures to those of RSM Robson Rhodes. Calculating as if his firm was not listed, he found that Numerica’s growth rate was about the same as Robson Rhodes.

‘It’s interesting in life how one path leads to another. Doing Demyst and trying to get funding brought me into contact with Tony in the same way as going on Millionaire enabled me to get the funding.’

Being on the television show, says Jenkins, was fun. And he still remembers the question that had them baffled. ‘Who did the voice of Sher Khan in the Jungle Book?’ The answer still eludes him!


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