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Best Practice: NWN Blue Squared’s Nick Lawrence

RELAXED AND AFFABLE, Nick Lawrence cuts a contented, sanguine figure when he considers his rather unorthodox route into accountancy when he founded Blue Squared in 2007.

To date, his rather varied career has taken in posts as a management accountant for an insurance broker, finance director posts at a PR firm and an insurance broker, while he’s also launched several entrepreneurial ventures including a record label, an IT support business, a disaster recovery business – ironically the only unsuccessful endeavour – and, as if that wasn’t enough, a part-time international DJ career.

The firm has grown rapidly in the years since, and ‘NWN’ was added to the name in 2011 when the firm merged with Nieman Walters Niman.

“The music’s always guided me in what I’ve done both personally and work-related,” he explains. “When I was working as a management accountant for an insurance broker in Cheltenham in the 1980s, I always found myself leaving work to come down to London for gigs. After a while it just made sense to get closer to the music by being in London.”

And get closer he did. Today, NWN Blue Squared specialises in providing compliance and advisory services to creatives, and primarily artists ranging from 2012 X Factor hit Lucy Spraggan and power-pop songstress Karen Harding through to hip-hop artist Roots Manuva and indie/dance act the Happy Mondays and many more household names besides in the firm’s more than 1,000-strong client base.

Working so closely with creatives and artists with whom they share such an affinity is clearly a great source of pride and satisfaction for Lawrence and his 30-strong staff, who are evidently keen to engender a positive, fun atmosphere in the office, with gigs and other social events a regular occurrence.

“Going out to gigs to see artists that you love with people that you work with is fantastic. It’s such a great buzz,” Lawrence enthuses. “It happens on a regular basis that I bump into clients whether they’re bands, management companies, agents.”

Account-management model
It’s very much a labour of love for Lawrence, who places a huge amount of importance in enjoying work, investing in and cultivating relationships with clients.

That policy is one he’s operated before in his IT support business – an area regularly seen as one lacking in personality – where he hired individuals based not only on technical ability, but “also had the personalities to be able to establish relationships with the clients”.

“Absolutely key is the recruitment policy,” he tells Accountancy Age on one of the key founding principles of the firm. “You have to ensure you have the technical abilities to deliver an exceptional and professional service, but also you have to ensure you have individuals with the appropriate social skills to establish and maintain a connection with the client.”

Indeed, the firm has established, and is close to completing, a transition to an account-management model, where staff members are assigned specific clients, with a minimum lifespan of the relationship between staff member and client set at five years. Creatives, Lawrence points out, generally appoint advisers based on trust, and so a regular point of contact goes a long way to securing that.

“Some of them don’t want to know about it [compliance issues], some can’t get on with it anyway, and they have skills more suited to a different part of their brain. They often have to get into the right mindset to do their accounts and that means they can’t create,” he says.

It’s part of a structure more closely resembling a traditional business than a typical accountancy firm, with a board of directors and a non-executive director instead of partners.

Lawrence’s role, too, is strategic rather than client-based and sees him instead focused on developing the business.

“It shouldn’t be any more than that,” he says. “You can’t be pulled in too many different directions. When you’ve got individuals managing businesses at the same time as servicing clients, you’ll find they make very, very slow progress. You can’t have your head in a client’s balance sheet for too long. If you do that, the value of your balance sheet will decrease.”

A proper gig
To that end, Lawrence has sought out new and exciting ways to cultivate goodwill and boost the firm’s standing among clients and business partners and hit upon an idea.

“We’ve long had a relationship with Xero, and they selected us as a partner in order to raise our profile,” he said. “Where most firms would have done something more traditional, we decided to put on a gig.”

The show was held in the basement of Smith’s at Spitalfield Market and featured the talents of folk singer/songwriter, Carrie Tree; world champion beatboxer Faith SFX; DJ and owner of Jazzman Records, DJ Jazzman Gerald as well as Lawrence himself.

Key to the success of the show, however, was that neither NWN nor anyone else sold anything from the stage or had stalls set up.

“We want to give people what they want,” he explains. “When you go to those kinds of events, you often have some say ‘right, let me explain to you about certain aspects of life cover…’ and you realise you’ve been hoodwinked. We didn’t want to do that. No name badges, no nothing. Just a proper gig.”

The artists and DJs – whom NWN acts for were paid the going rate – were filmed, which gained the firm web assets it’s still uploading more than a year after the event.

“What I wanted to get to was that kind of disruptive element of conversation, where it’s unexpected and different,” Lawrence explains. “I wanted people to say ‘by the way, I went to this gig the other night and I saw such-and-such and it was fantastic. It was put on by my accountant.'”

The other major upshot of such an event was, of course, that his team enjoyed themselves and clients had the chance to network.

There was, he says, a chance for business to occur naturally and to “enhance the relationship between us and the clients”.

“The accountancy industry seems to be struggling for some kind of relevance. It’s steeped in tradition within an economy that is embracing technology and changing its approach to service. It made me consider that there’s some kind of imbalance there.”

Such an approach, Lawrence hopes, will go some way to changing that.

NWN Blue Squared in numbers
Offices: Two, main office in Woodford, the other in South West London
Staff: 30, including three directors and one non-executive director
Fee income: £1.5m
Service lines: Compliance and advice
Specialisms: Creatives, entrepreneurs, leisure, property & construction

Nick Lawrence CV
1993 to 1997 Minet Group Finance Director
1997 to 1999 Weber Europe Finance Director
1999 to 2006 FITE IT Founder & Managing Director
2007 to 2011 Blue Squared Finance Founder & Managing Director
2011 to 2013 NWN Blue Squared Director
2013 to present NWN Blue Squared CEO

The Accountancy Age Best Practice Interviews are sponsored by Intuit QuickBooks. Click here to find out more

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