PracticeAccounting FirmsProfile: Ian Little, FD of Access Accounting

Profile: Ian Little, FD of Access Accounting

Access Accounting group FD Ian Little tells our reporter how its carbon footprint software will keep it one step ahead of rivals and why his planned switch within the company is not a step down but a move back to the sharp end

Ian Little, Access Accounting FD

Ian Little, Access Accounting FD

It’s always a risky business experimenting on yourself. You either have to be
slightly mad, unconcerned by the consequences, or supremely confident in what
you are doing.

With Access
it was probably the latter when the business began testing its
new carbon footprint software on itself. Group finance director Ian Little
reveals, somewhat surprisingly, that it was something of an enlightening

‘We’ve collected our own data and it has caused us to sit up and think ­
there were spikes in some months but then we discovered having an overseas
reseller conference was a huge carbon hit. We’re not banging the green drum but
it is making us think about what we will do in the future.’

Not banging the drum? That must be hard to resist given that Access has
gambled on business leaders’ increasing awareness of the environment to launch
what it believes is the first technology, built into a core financial product,
that measures a carbon footprint.

The testing has taken 18 months and countless discussions with the Department
for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Carbon Trust on what the IT tool
should measure.

Little’s conversation is all about acquisitions, integrating software
packages for SMEs and his unlikely step of giving up his group role to occupy
what looks like a lesser job. But right now, the topic he talks about most is
the carbon counting tool. ‘The facility to account for carbon emission is in the
version of [core financial software] Dimensions just released. It has been very
well received and lots of people are talking about it.

[Some clients] have specifically asked to move up to the latest version to
see it and know more about it,’ says Deloitte-trained Little.

He stresses that the company’s staff do not view themselves as ‘green
warriors’, instead providing a service that could eventually impact on all
companies whatever shape and size ­ by recording their carbon emissions.

‘Essentially what we’re doing is enabling businesses to track their
footprint, their emissions from their business activities. We’re not pushing any
environmental message but looking to facilitate businesses to understand the
impact they have on the environment. We’re expecting it will be more standard to
report on this.’

‘The business must have a reason to upgrade. As an FD I’d only look to
upgrade in the event that there’s benefit in doing that. I’m always on the
latest version at Access of course, beta testing the next version!’

Little joined Access in 1997 as business development manager and provided FD
services to Access specialist centres around the country. It was three years
before he took over full responsibility for the finance function. His time in
charge has included three acquisitions and restructuring the group in 2006.

That probably reflects his background in corporate recovery which began at
Deloitte. In fact, he was among the first trainees allowed to begin their
training outside of audit. Which means he had the opportunity to work on the
liquidation of BCCI, something he refuses to make a big thing of.

But he does believe his beginnings in corporate recovery have been a major
advantage. It’s given him an ability to understand a business quickly and,
perhaps most importantly, win the support of company directors. Corporate
recovery, he says, ‘really causes you to get on quickly’.

Commercial understanding is a critical factor in the software business which
has a reputation for being ferociously competitive. And stealing a march on the
competition is clearly one of the things uppermost in Little’s mind. Great play
is made of being first to market with the carbon measurement software.

Little admits that it is only a matter of time before its rivals offer their
own green accounting software, but Access is already thinking another step
ahead. ‘Clients have asked us: will you benchmark and collect information ­
which would be a very valuable service, but whether or not we do that I don’t
know, because our main priority is to enable business to account efficiently and
help them operationally. Certainly the software we have would aid any
benchmarking that occurred.’

While meeting compliance on measuring carbon footprints might not be a
priority for SMEs yet, Access’ sales pitch revolves around the biggest companies
expecting a more ethical and socially responsible approach from its suppliers.
‘Many of our clients trade with the FTSE 100, or are part of a listed group, and
there is some internal and external pressure to report on this sort of activity.
There’s a general acceptance that the climate in reporting on carbon emissions
will grow.’

The green move is just part of Access’ growth as a business, which has seen
it enter into the merry-go-round that is business software consolidation.

Setting itself ambitious turnover targets of £30m by 2010 and £100m by 2017,
the group is hot on the trail of acquisitions.

Its biggest deal was the purchase of close allies and resellers of its
accounting software, Armstrong Consultants, which Little oversaw.

Due diligence was not as intensive as can often be in such transactions, due
to Access’ existing knowledge of the business. ‘We knew what we wanted to check
out,’ says Little.

Other deals planned for Access will see it aim for software suppliers to
vertical markets, upon which Access’ core financial system can be bolted on,
providing the construction industry, for example, with an end-to-end business
software suite.

‘We’re looking for youngish businesses with a good technology product, and
good leadership that want to stay and grow it,’ he says.

One of the main reasons for Access’ strategy is that the model of SMEs
running separate software products is going out of fashion. Instead they want f
ully integrated systems.

‘Nowadays its difficult to sell a core finance system because there’s not a
lot of difference between them. What sells systems is business process
improvement and its integration with other systems in the business.

‘Five to 10 years ago you talked of accounting software. Now, most of the
suppliers sell wider systems, bringing in a lot of business processes around it.

‘Our marketing message is as much to the sales director, IT director as well
as the FD ­ who will always be key ­ but we don’t look to sell just into finance
but business as a whole.’

Part of the process of making sure Access’ core financial product keeps up to
scratch will see Little make the surprise move to become finance director of
Access Accounting Ltd, which looks like a step down. ‘We’re in the process of
looking to recruit a new group FD. I’m looking to move back and focus on Access
Accounting Ltd, which has had very little of my attention over the last three or
four years.’

After hitting the acquisition trail, he wants to take up a more operational
role alongside MD John Beech, which he says means the move cannot be viewed as
backwards. ‘For me it’s onwards and upwards ­ another step in my career to take
it into different areas of the business and develop myself. I was aware people
would look at it as being stepped over but there is a great need to develop
better software, more software, to support and market it.

‘The main focus of the group FD is one of continuing the growth through
acquisition and their integration ­ I’ve done a fair bit of that and I am deeply
entwined in the limited business and want to stay there and elevate that. The
group FD role going forward will be less hands on,’ he says.

It’s as much about getting his hands dirty, as having green fingers.

Little’s credentials

Access Accounting group FD Ian Little left university in 1987 with a mind to
enter commerce, and began training at Touche Ross in corporate recovery.

He was in the first batch of ICAEW accountancy trainees allowed to work
outside of audit, a move that worked well for him and the institute.

‘I’d left university not wanting to go into accounting, I didn’t want to be
an auditor. I got involved in corporate recovery at Touche Ross, dipped my toe
in the water, enjoyed it a lot and they offered me a training contract.

‘The key thing was the commercial development they gave me as opposed to
theoretical or technical accounting – it was much more commercial in terms of
running distressed businesses.’

Little admits it was ‘important’ that the ICAEW had broadened its path, or he
would most likely have taken the CIMA route instead.

‘Had I not had the opportunity to work in corporate recovery I wouldn’t have
done it, I may well have gone into industry and commerce and maybe looked at
CIMA if that’s what I needed to do.’

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