PracticeAccounting FirmsBest Practice: Alliotts’ Chris Cairns

Best Practice: Alliotts' Chris Cairns

From the Great Wall to the Masai, Alliotts partner Chris Cairns explains why the firm takes an international approach to business

JUDGING by the languages on display in the offices of London and Guildford-based Alliotts, the independent accounting practice appears more like the biblical city of Babel than a firm of accountants nestled in the idyllic Surrey countryside.

According to Chris Cairns, partner, between 60 and 70 languages are spoken throughout the office; a reflection of the cultural aspect of staff and client. Cairns himself speaks “a bit of French” and stresses to Accountancy Age the importance of the firm’s multi-cultural make up and approach to business.

Though not a large firm – it has two offices and 14 partners – its aspirations and client base are truly global. A core area of focus for the firm, explains Cairns, is mining the rich vein of high-net wealth individuals and foreign direct investment coming into the UK.

“They come from all over the world. [International] has been a core area for us since the 1970s. We set up Alliott Group [the firm’s worldwide accounting alliance] and have that potential to provide international experience,” Cairns says.

Off the Great Wall approach

The firm also claims to be specialist Chinese accountants. Alliott Group has five offices in China, while the firm has a dedicated China desk, ran by partner John Luk – a Chinese national who joined the firm in 1988 – who specialises in helping Hong Kong and Chinese owned businesses, and HNWs, to set up, do business and invest in the UK.

“We specialise in Chinese companies and individuals looking to invest in the UK. We understand the differences in business cultures,” Cairns says, while Luk’s ability to communicate fluently in Mandarin and Cantonese helps to alleviate any misunderstanding in cross-border communications.

Cairns has had his own unique China experience, having taken some of his own clients to the Great Wall of China “to help them to attain a new clarity about business” in an environment that was completely different from anything they may have experienced before. “We used the trip to strip away all the extraneous “rubbish” that people may have, in order to attain total focus and clarity. There is real inspiration in standing on the Great Wall of China and seeing that incredible view. It just doesn’t work in a hotel room at Heathrow,” he says.

Even more off-the-wall, Cairns has spent time with the Maasai. The Maasai Life Leadership project was set up in 1999 to help managers learn how to survive in hostile business environments by taking them to live among the Maasai people in a remote corner of northern Kenya.

“At that time, although I had a successful job as a partner in an accountancy firm and a good personal life, I felt my life was lacking focus and direction. I decided it was time to take radical action and signed up for an unusual management training course in the wilds of Africa. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and changed my life.”

Expanding footprint

Cairns, who specialises in the burgeoning tech sector – particularly bioscience and software – is also keen to harness German investment into the UK. He says a lot of firms are “very focused” on looking towards the US for tech clients. While the US is the leading country for FDI by tech companies, he says Germany is number two. “Around Europe very few of our competitors are looking at that market,” he says.

This requires a boots on the ground approach and, as proof of that, he paid a visit to Dortmund earlier this year to meet with Alliott Group members, strengthen links with the country and to encourage German businesses to consider the south-east region of the UK as a viable alternative to London as a location for their expansion into the UK.

Typically, Cairns advises on company structure, statutory requirements and incentives including R&D tax relief and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) from the perspective of expanding into the UK from overseas.

“We are seeing a lot more cross-border stuff. We have been doing it for 45 years. Not many firms of our size have that level of expertise,” he says. “We have big firm resource with a mid firm approach. We can either deal with it in house or through Alliott Group.”

He adds tax is one of the primary considerations. “You have to be able to expand tax legislation. You have to be able to understand all the possible options they have. You need that level of resource in house and an ability to scale.

“We could have a client with a big piece of work come in to do very quickly. An ability to react and deliver is important.”

Cairns is also considering expanding Alliotts’ footprint in the UK. He says the firm currently has a formal but ‘low key’ presence on a tech campus based near Oxford that is very focused on the space industry. “

Cairns has a desk within the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre (ESA BIC) on the Harwell Technology Campus near Didcot. This is very early days and he has only been established there for a few weeks but felt it was important to have some sort of presence there and a larger office would have taken longer to set up. “We decided to act on this and have now got a formal presence on Campus” he says.

Indeed the firm benefits from the location of its Guildford-based office, which lies close to a research park described by Cairns as a “real hub” for tech companies.

Alliotts Accountants in numbers

Offices: Two (central London and Guildford)
Partners: 13
Staff: 100
Service lines: Full service offering especially focussed on international business

Chris Cairns CV

2009 – present: Partner at Alliotts Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors
2003-2006: Trustee, Action for Children
1997-2009: RSM Tenon
1994-1997: Price Waterhouse Coopers
1990-1994: Brooking Knowles & Lawrence Accountants
Specialisms: Technology sector particularly bioscience and software, Corporate Finance, Entrepreneurial businesses.


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