Scott Barnes: Grant Thornton to answer £500m question

THE ‘GROWING PAINS’ associated with Grant Thornton’s acquisition of RSM Robson Rhodes must now seem a way off.

But then bringing on board a firm that required sprucing up was never going to be easy. Now Grant Thornton appears to be fighting fit.

Supplementing core audit and tax functions, its advisory services line has had a storming year, growing 21% to £248.7m – now representing more than half of the firm’s £471m fees in 2012/13.

Financial services consulting has had a big part to play in that growth, with CEO Scott Barnes expecting more of the same in the next year.

“Our strategy is to attack large corporates through advisory,” he explains.

Regulatory advice to banks and insurance companies has proved fruitful, while forensics and government infrastructure work have contributed. While there is an “element of truth” in risk and forensics performing well due to the six-year limitation on litigation (which takes us to the start of the financial crisis), the big jobs have been key for the firm. Big assignments, such as work with HBOS and monitoring the trustee work at RBS have also impacted the figures positively.

The Audit Commission’s shift from undertaking local government audit saw GT pick up some key contracts, hence its 9.2% audit service line growth.

Tax was flat for the firm, with Barnes explaining that a lack of mergers and acquisitions work affected the service line.

But overall, the firm’s performance has been stellar, particularly when compared to its peers. It looks likely to hit its £500m revenue target next year – a year earlier than planned.

“We’ll revisit our plan this year,” says Barnes. But a change of direction is unlikely, particularly with the business operating like a well-oiled machine. So don’t expect a big cost-cutting push without further investment – or look for another big acquisition.

“While revenue is just one stat, in order to sustain you have to grow the top line. I don’t see a big transaction in the short-term, and all firms have been through an efficiency drive.

“Our strategy has been to look at niche areas, so in financial services we have acquired the likes of Navigant and SMART. FS will continue to be important…we’ll continue to look at advisory deals.”

With business sentiment creeping up, depressed functions such as corporate finance should grow, with a subsequent positive knock-on effect on tax, he predicts.

But with further investment in specialists and people predicted, are GT partners happy at a modest growth in their profits? Average profits per partner grew 4.2% during the year.

“Most of the partners get it,” says Barnes, “that we have to invest. We’re seeing profits growing now, while some other firms…”

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