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Best Practice: BHP’s John Warner

JOHN WARNER, BHP’s (formerly Barber Harrison & Platt) quietly spoken managing partner, has chalked up an impressive 38 years at the firm, the Yorkshire and Derbyshire chartered accountancy practice.

That’s a good innings by any standards.

When he started at the firm in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and punk rock were dominating the nation’s consciousness.

Since then, his firm has seen seven mergers with the most recent, Clough & Company in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, adding another slice of valuable SME businesses to its growing portfolio, while Clough’s clients can reap the benefits from BHP’s membership of the Kreston international network.

Back in 2010, the firm launched its inaugural five-year strategic vision (it’s now in its second iteration) to be “the independent advisory firm of choice in our region”. Fast forward to 2015 and it has seen its income stream explode from £8m to £18m through a mix of organic growth and mergers, all serviced by 270 staff located in six offices peppered throughout the region.

In 2011 the firm merged with Leeds- and Harrogate-based Mitchells Group, which further underscored its position as the largest independent firm of chartered accountants in Yorkshire. The main trigger for its expansionist plans was “a significant change in partnership”.

Warner tells Accountancy Age: “We had significant change in the partnership – three long-standing partners retired and three younger partners joined, so we set out a five-year strategy to focus us into a regional rather than a local practice.”

And the business has come a long way since its birth in 1867 – the year Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for London’s iconic music venue, the Albert Hall.

Warner reports strong sectoral growth across the region with the firm’s “very strong corporate finance team”. Its Sheffield team is, perhaps unsurprisingly, strong in an array of advanced manufacturing like aerospace, nuclear, oil and gas while its York office boasts a strong and growing client base in leisure and tourism.

Its Leeds office is equally strong in the professional services sector while across the whole region it is very strong in healthcare such as doctors, dentists, nursing homes, and charities and not-for-profit.

Warner said: “We are strong in audit and tax compliance but the market is moving so we need to add ‘value’ – that awful word. So we’re developing a really strong consulting and advisory team. We do a lot of traditional audit work and on top of that you build understanding of your clients so you can help them grow by offering other services.”

Unlike some similar sized accountancy practices, its audit practice is thriving – despite the seemingly unstoppable rise in audit thresholds, where the latest stats show one in 20 firms has quit the market in just the past year.

Warner, a Warwick law graduate who switched to accountancy soon after graduating, qualifying in 1980, believes the audit thresholds rises will have an impact.

“While some companies will decide that they don’t want an audit, our relationship with those companies is that we’ll continue to do significant work with them but will be more advisory and compliance-based” with the added bonus that the work is “more challenging and interesting for our staff”.

With a growing list of regional academies on their books, the firm continues to expand it divergent service offerings to its core SME client base such as tax planning, forensic accounting and business recovery and insolvency.

Reflecting on close to four decades in the profession, Warner cites the seismic shifts in technological advancement and the increasing sophistication of clients as the biggest changes affecting the way business is conducted, managed and run.

The on-going globalisation of business was a key reason why it joined the Kreston international network some five years ago.

“It’s been very useful for our client base,” said Warner, “many of whom have recently been looking at setting up subsidiaries or branches overseas. “Having that international reach enables us to compete for bigger and better clients”.

With such a strong, independent brand in the region, BHP passed on the opportunity to bolt the Kreston element to its name plate, unlike other firms such as James Cowper Kreston and Kreston Reeves

Currently 48th in the Accountancy Age Top 50+50 Survey, its April merger looks set to see it break through into the next tier.

In the wider practice market, Warner foresees more mergers on the horizon as more baby boomers look to enjoy the fruits of retirement and look at succession. 

And it is succession at BHP that Warner takes very seriously, citing a range of internal personal development courses to help grow its own succession lines, constantly looking for new and engaging ways to develop its own people in the firm.

The key to enjoying ongoing success for any self-respecting regional practice is to “differentiate your practice”, enthuses Warner.

“Ours is a large regional player that can offer all the services in-house, but very much with an advisory ethos. We are really developing corporate finance, tax planning and consulting for growing businesses. We feel we have real quality within those offerings – with very good staff delivering them.”

Going by its last 140 years or so its next 40 years at least, looks decidedly assured.

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