It’s no surprise that many accountants’ major worries start with their changing roles in a world of digital disruption, but forward thinkers are acting on several other big concerns that keep them awake at night.
As accountants respond to client pressures around new technologies and operating models, their role as trusted advisors has arguably never been more important – or valued. They are, nevertheless, facing pressing challenges.
We quizzed four accountants about the concerns that worry them most.
Is digital disruption a friend or foe?
From the media and legal sectors to education institutions and retailers, digital disruption is forcing many industries to evolve or die. Accounting is no different.
Andrew Dickeson FCPA, director of taxation services at Staples Rodway in Auckland, says the impact is being felt right now as smaller firms, in particular, find some of their traditional accounting work being done by online software products such as MYOB and Xero.
The key, he believes, is for firms to change their mindset from being bookkeepers to “value-added business advisors”.
Dickeson, also the New Zealand branch president of CPA Australia, adds, “People want more value for money from their CPA.”
In response, Staples Rodway is growing its internal IT team and rolling out cloud-related services for clients, allowing them to analyse their financial results in real time while also using predictive analysis to promote growth opportunities.
"The key is for firms to change their mindset from being bookkeepers to value-added business advisors,” Andrew Dickeson, FCPA.
Any kind of disruption can be viewed as a threat, Dickeson concedes, but “conversely, you can turn it on its head and turn it into an opportunity”.
Business strategist Devini Goonetilleke FCPA believes the real threat to her business and clients is in ignoring the risk of not using digital tools and data.
Tech-savvy, she says business success relies on a combination of people, processes and technology. “I don’t see digital as a disrupter. I’m actually working with clients to make digital an enabler.”
How can I balance personal and professional ties?
The crisis facing dairy farmers in Australia following massive milk price cuts is very personal for Justin Gordon, CPA and partner at Strategem Tax & Accounting Services.
He grew up in a small dairy farming community and now works in the regional Victorian city of Bendigo, where he has friendships with many farmers facing crippling debts.
“You get emotionally attached with clients and you feel for them, but you’ve also got to keep your professional hat on and realise that you are still doing everything that you need to do, both professionally and within our firm to help,” Gordon says.
To help dairies fight back, Strategem is offering financial analysis tools that allow farmers to monitor five-year business trends – factoring in stock numbers, milk prices and other seasonal issues – to give them a strategic edge.
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The move has also had the side benefit of generating more business for Strategem, proving that out of adversity can come opportunities.
“We’re finding that this is giving us some growth rather than just waiting on traditional work such as tax returns,” Gordon says.
How do I beat the compliance conundrum?
Globalisation of accounting standards through IFRS has placed extra pressure on auditors such as Vickie Fan, FCPA and managing partner of Fan, Chan & Co in Hong Kong.
She loves her work but concedes that long hours, Hong Kong’s company ordinance changes, potential legal liability and competition with the Big Four has made it difficult to recruit experienced auditors or woo young accountants.
In short, auditing is not sexy.
“It’s not an easy career path (and) it’s almost impossible at the moment to get someone with experience in the industry,” Fan laments.
“Sometimes I like difficult issues because I can learn how to tackle them and also set some challenges that might turn into opportunities,” Vicki Fan, FCPA.
In response, she says her firm has built a quality team of auditors who champion a culture of auditing excellence, teamwork and job satisfaction.
“Sometimes I like difficult issues because I can learn how to tackle them and also set some challenges that might turn into opportunities,” Fan says.
Other firms facing similar issues are focusing on factors such as flexible work conditions and the promise of ongoing education to attract auditors.
Justin Gordon agrees that auditing is not seen as glamorous. His firm counters the problem by spreading auditing work across the entire team of accountants to give them exposure to the work and create a multi-skilled unit.
While staff may only do auditing for a couple of weeks a year, Gordon says they now “look forward to it as an opportunity to (build their skills) and get out of the office”.
Do I have to lower my fees?
In tandem with compliance challenges, pressure to lower fees is also a massive issue for regional firms such as Strategem.
Funding cuts for not-for profit organisations have led to them asking for a cut to auditing fees, while competition from budget-priced firms and metropolitan Melbourne firms spreading their net to the regions adds to the squeeze.
“It’s very challenging,” Gordon says.
“A lot of our clients don’t understand the compliance that is required at our end to make sure that we are meeting all of our professional standards.”
More client education is one answer, along with technology solutions to cut firms’ internal operating costs.
How do I protect my brand?
Unlike most people in the corporate world, Goonetilleke professes to not having any great business-related fears.
“I can’t afford to have fear and most businesses can’t either because it stops people from achieving their goals.”
It is really critical to me to have a good reputation and to be thought of as a problem solver,” Devini Goonetilleke, FCPA.
However, she acknowledges that the one thing she cannot bear to think about is having her personal brand damaged.
“I protect that above everything. It is really critical to me to have a good reputation and to be thought of as a problem solver,” says Goonetilleke, noting that her name is her brand as she does not use a separate business moniker. Her focus at all times is on delivering results for clients and earning the trust of all stakeholders, from regular staff to executives.
“You build this good reputation and you have pride in it. That’s the thing that counts the most.”
What’s the best way to grow my business?
With competition on the rise, many firms are considering alternative options to win new business. Fan, Chan & Co, for instance, is expanding into mainland China cities such as Shanghai.
Strategem is giving clients discounts for referrals and implementing a staff-incentive program whereby they can earn a bonus of 30 per cent of first-year fees for any new work they bring in.
Staples Rodway is also being innovative as it considers rolling out company secretarial, HR and payroll services for smaller businesses with insufficient scale to employ internal specialists. The rollout of HR services has already been a success.
“That helps us offset a diminishing market in that traditional bookkeeping role,” says Andrew Dickeson, who expects more accounting firms to move into providing innovative new services. The aim is to become a one-stop shop for clients.
“You have to go to the market with offerings and show value-add.”
Of course, business growth can also be enhanced by personal growth. Dickeson practises krav maga, a form of self-defence developed for Israeli soldiers that draws from a range of martial arts.
“It’s great after a stressful day at the office.”