Happy Hallidays – running an award winner

“YOU’VE GOT to get rid of time sheets.” Those are the parting, almost evangelistic, words of Nigel Bennett, managing partner of Hallidays, Stockport’s oldest accountancy firm. They literally are the last thing he wants to say and he delivers the sermon on changing his charge-out model with the zeal of a missionary.
He’s earned the right to do so. This year Hallidays won the 2010 Medium Firm of the Year prize at the Accountancy Age Awards. But it was not the 160-year heritage that caught the judges’ attention. It was the firm’s transformation over the past couple of years to turn itself from a traditional compliance-only accountancy firm to one that is focused on the client and adding value.
Hallidays has eight partners and 65 staff. It offers some traditional core services but also HR, IT and business development.
In 2010 the firm doubled the number of leads, improved cash flow, and grew fees by 5%. Timesheets were dropped in favour of fixed-price agreements, work on new practice management software was completed, a new client care programme was launched and an in-house recruitment agency was set up, not only to find its own new recruits but also staff for other local firms.
Every step of the way Hallidays has measured the firm’s progress in a way which could only indicate a ruthless determination to succeed. Bennett comes across as cheery and relaxed but there is obviously a rock-solid resolve to ensure the firm keeps improving.

Out of the comfort zone

“The truth is,” he says, reflecting on firms comparable to Hallidays, “that the standard of many accounting firms is poor. They don’t focus on the client, they focus on compliance work. Clients want a business adviser who is like a non-executive director. Very few do that and anyone who does it is going to be successful.”
Bennett concedes that the philosophy is not a new one, but insists many firms remain untouched by the thinking that sees tick-box accounting transform itself into an advisory business.
“There are two reasons people don’t do it,” he says. “It takes them right out of their comfort zone and it’s about self belief. People just don’t recognise the skills they have.”
On this point Bennett is quite serious. As a managing partner in the market for buying other small firms, he views many. What appears to disappoint him is the number that fail to look into the firm, see the abilities that they have and use them to develop business other than the standard compliance services.
But ask him what sets Hallidays apart and Bennett quickly begins eulogising the qualities of his practice management software eponymously called Practice DNA. It seems this development is the catalyst for much of the change inside Hallidays.
At first he could not convince everyone  that dumping timesheets was a good thing. They were wedded to the timesheet as a means of measuring productivity. Practice DNA was the system that converted the doubters by measuring other key performace indicators and collating them so that productivity could be measured and targets realistically set in an open and transparent way.
It’s the issue that Bennett reserves for his greatest enthusiasm. He had ditched timesheets in his team long before the rest of the firm. Practice DNA helped convince them they should follow. From that stems huge improvement in Hallidays’ cashflow, and drastically reduced the fees locked up as work in progress to close to nil.
Another initiative is the Client Care Programme which has improved and systemised contact with customers. Bennett estimates more than half the firm’s new work has come in because of this change in approach to clients. As you would expect from Hallidays, client satisfaction, or ‘happiness’ as the firm likes to put it, is exhaustively measured. Happiness stood at an average of 92% each month over the last year.
Bennett has been managing partner for two years and estimates that he probably has another five to go to take the firm from its current £3m turnover to £5m.
“Once we achieve that, that’s probably when I retire,” he quips.
With an appetite for acquisitions (the firm is currently in talks), there is more growth on the horizon as well as organic improvement underway. Bennett might make the retirement KPI sooner than he thinks. ?


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