If ever there was a way to give young people the incentive to study hard, a
stint of 12-hour nightshifts as a labourer at a soda ash plant raking out kilns
should do it. It certainly worked for the then 18-year-old Kevin Dickens, now a
sprightly 59, when he saw an opportunity at two-partner firm Howard Worth to
train as an accountant.
Forty-one years on and a lot of hard work and dedication later although
without the grime, sweat and heat Dickens, an upbeat and jovial northerner,
has never regretted his decision, despite not following in his father’s and
Northwich in Cheshire, where he grew up, was an ICI town and his father,
grandfather and several uncles were all employed at the chemical giant’s factory
as labourers, plant workers and boilermakers, among other jobs. He says: ‘Those
early days at ICI gave me all the incentive I needed to study hard and qualify
Howard Worth’s senior partner now presides over a team of nine partners and
more than 60 staff. Dickens has also just become the president of the
UK200 Group, an umbrella
trade group of 600 professional partners. He is as determined to inject as much
of his passion and dedication into his presidency as he did into his
Aiding small businesses
And what a year for it. With the global economy in freefall and forecasts of
worse to come, Dickens plans to use his year at the helm of
UK200 to ‘highlight the
plight’ of small and medium-sized businesses across the UK.
‘For far too, long government policy has been dictated by the needs or whims
of the macro-business market. It’s swayed by lobbying and the well-funded
lobbyists are the macro-businesses,’ says Dickens.
He is, however, slightly buoyed by chancellor Alistair Darling’s announcements
in his pre-Budget Report that he would provide small business loans of between
£1,000 and £1m.
‘I’m very critical of this government but I am massively encouraged by some
of the recent announcements, particularly in relation to the European Investment
Bank funding,’ he says. ‘Business entrepreneurship has been stifled by a lack of
enterprise funding and unwillingness by the banks to promote the Small Firms
Loan Guarantee Scheme.’
To stave off further business collapse, the European Central Bank has also
announced an initiative to lend £9.8m worth of loans.
Banks hamper growth
Dickens says two of his firm’s clients are already seeking loans of £5m each
and other clients are keen to tap into the initiative. Clients, he says, haven’t
run out of business ideas or the desire to keep their companies growing; their
biggest obstacle is banks’ reticence to lend. And Dickens is furious that it is
the UK’s small and medium-sized companies that are suffering for the mistakes
made by the largest banks.
‘About 99.9% of banks’ bad debt comes from macro-business rather than SMEs,
because they have simply been financed without guaranteed lending,’ he says.
As part of the government’s recapitalisation scheme launched at the end of
last year, it was agreed that banks receiving government funding would maintain
the availability of lending to SMEs at 2007 levels. And although in November one
of the recapitalised banks, Royal Bank of Scotland, announced its commitment not
to increase the cost of SME overdrafts for at least a year, little other sound
or movement has come from the other banks.
Time for change
It was hoped that the wheels of power would click back into motion come the
New Year but so far little has changed to the benefit of SMEs. In fact, the
latest Bank of England data survey showed banks continuing to tighten small
business lending terms and increase profit margins.
The Federation of Small Businesses said the survey underlined the struggle
facing companies in gaining access to finance on reasonable terms. The FSB said
it was looking to last month’s launch of the government’s £1bn loan guarantee
scheme and a faster flow of European Investment Bank funding to
Such is Dickens’ concern about the banks’ current reluctance to lend to the
SME market that UK200 is to conduct a national banking survey to find out the
problems on both sides of the fence in order to try and ease the pain for SMEs.
‘I want to see the banks taking note of the feedback that we receive,’ he
says. ‘Clients are ringing banks but no one rings them back for weeks. It’s
impossible to get the decision-makers to phone clients back.’
Significantly, however, Dickens says that they are discovering that bank
managers are ‘hugely disincentivised’. He says: ‘Bank management are closing
their ears to complaints.’
UK200 is also finalising plans for a national roadshow where it will host a
series of events with one of the UK’s top economists as guest speaker. Who that
will be has yet to be revealed.
Dickens says one of his priorities as president is to visit as many member
firms as possible to stimulate involvement in UK200. This is an extension of his
work as last year’s vice-president and Dickens explains that some members are
less active than others and he wants to ‘get out there to those inactive members
and encourage them to talk to other members’.
He adds: ‘One of the things we do as a business is to run regular seminars on
how to improve profitability for clients and professionals, including some
detailed technical briefings and profit improvement workshops. And that’s what I
want to do as president.’
Where seminars are of general benefit to members, they are put into UK200’s
knowledge base, which members can access via the internet. Other member firms
are following suit.
Sharing it around
UK200’s wide range of knowledge and skills is more beneficial when shared,
especially in a downturn. It has 600 partners in 148 UK offices with combined
fees of more than £250m (and 150,000 SME business clients), which puts UK200 up
there in the top ten UK firms. In total it has 120 member firms in the UK and
more than 50 international associates.
‘My self-imposed task was to encourage all the members to participate fully
and to not only use the enormous resources of UK200 but to contribute to
enhancing these resources,’ Dickens says of his vice-presidency last year.
‘I think the UK200 Group and our membership has been a driving force of our
growth over the past ten years. Working with the best makes us strive to be the
best,’ he adds, referring to his own practice.
To ensure he can fulfil his goals as president, Dickens has reduced his
working hours at Howard Worth to three days a week. He devotes the other two
days to UK200. ‘I have also reduced my income and share of the profits at the
firm,’ he says.
Dickens, it seems, was always destined to rise to the challenge of leadership
having become the youngest ever chairman of Cheshire & North West Chartered
Accountants at the age of 34. One of his career-long passions has been in
developing and maintaining standards in the profession and he hopes his tenure
will allow him to continue this interest.
Taking a global view
When not crusading for improved standards, Dickens specialises in tax and
business planning for family-owned businesses and claims to have seen every
problem under the sun and found solutions for most of them.
He is also a member of UK200’s Quality Assurance Committee. As well as
working closely with the local Chambers of Commerce and other business support
organisations, Dickens is a regular speaker on tax and financial issues.
UK200 isn’t limited by our national borders either the reach of small
businesses can be global these days thanks to the internet. During 2008, UK200
expanded its global presence to more than 50 international associates
accountants and lawyers in nearly 30 countries.
Through UK200’s membership of the IAPA (International Association of
Practicing Accountants), members are able to provide international expertise to
clients and prospective clients in 50 countries as well. Last May UK200 hosted
the IAPA European Conference in London.
‘Lots of clients are opening up offices in places such as Mexico and
Lithuania, so the international reach gives our clients an edge,’ Dickens
By the end of his presidency Dickens wants to increase the UK membership of
UK200 by ten firms. There are already six applications for membership under
review. It is not, however, a club that’s easy to join. Firms have to commit to
a strict quality assurance review before admission and undergo annual quality
reviews; most accountancy institutes submit firms to quality reviews once every
In the current economic times, where auditors’ ethics and practices are
coming under the spotlight again, firms could do worse than put themselves
forward for rigorous annual quality reviews.
Looking for solutions
Dickens, although far from disheartened by the hardening economic conditions,
understands what it means for both UK200’s members and their clients. ‘I will be
providing a sounding board for firms to talk to me, so that we can find a
solution within the group.’
Leading by example, Dickens cites a recent case that cropped up with his
firm, which he referred to a member firm in Liverpool because of a potential
conflict of interest. ‘And I know the clients will get the best advice there. I
will encourage more inter-trading in the group,’ he says.
‘The group has been good for us as a practice, so I would encourage any
practice to join us.’
Two of the biggest obstacles Dickens foresees as a hindrance to UK growth in
the SME market are banks’ reluctance to extend credit and people’s refusal to
take risks. Those issues will be enough to keep him busy for the next year.
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