Ade Cheatham, CEO of Cooper Parry tells BQ about the importance of drive, bouncing back from the Great Recession, and securing the future of his firm.
What is it that your company does?
We’re PKF Cooper Parry. We exist to disrupt, lead and make life count – for our people and for our clients. We work with entrepreneurial businesses – people who see the world as we do.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
As CEO, my job is to: set a clear and ambitious vision for the direction of the business and share it in a way that excites and engages all of our people, create a high performance culture of freedom, accountability, stretch and transparency and build an environment that is full of fun that attracts the very best people. I also prioritise the daily onslaught of issues and ultimately take responsibility for the firm’s performance.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I started out at a national accountancy firm and despite progressing quickly, I felt frustrated by the bureaucracy, politics, centralised decision-making in London and shocking communication. In 2003, I joined Cooper Parry, at a time when the older partners were retiring and a new group of ‘thirty-somethings’ came together. We were driven and ambitious and we wanted to create something very different from the firms we’d left. We wanted to make our mark and build the sort of business that we would want to work for. So we ripped up the rulebook and challenged every stereotype that people had of accountants. The last 14 years have been a wild ride. There have been many highs and I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people. But what really excites me is what’s to come…
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Good leaders look outwards. They understand what is happening in the market and what their competition is up to. They spot patterns and opportunities and then find the route to exploit those opportunities. They surround themselves with great people and help them play to their strengths. Great leaders also have an infectious energy, vision, desire…and limitless belief.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
In the early-to-mid-2000s we went to market with all guns blazing. Our firm was set up to serve the entrepreneurial market and we experienced fast growth and rapid expansion. Everything appeared to be going beautifully. But in 2008, the recession hit us hard. We made the mistake of thinking that size was everything. We’d overstretched, lost our focus, and if I’m honest we were too arrogant. We lost a lot of money and we had to restructure fast. We reduced our headcount by over 130.
It was a horrible and very painful time. We lost some great people and it left a cloud hanging over us. Coming back from that was probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced professionally. Having got our costs under control, we did a lot of soul-searching and strategising. And we refocused. We went back to our roots, but without the complacency and overconfidence of the past. We stopped dabbling in lots of areas and we focussed on competing in the markets where we were strong and where we knew we could compete and win.
Within two years, we had the largest market share of privately owned, local business in the East Midlands, turning over between £5m and £200m. We now have a team of 430 people across our 2 offices in the East and West Midlands. And because we put our people first, we are back in The Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list after a 7-year absence. Last year we came 32nd and we want to be No 1 within the next 3 years.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I try to eliminate disruptions. I often switch off my phone and email so that I can focus on the most important thing that I have to do at any one point in time. I also try to eat healthily, exercise regularly and sleep well.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Definitely not an accountant! I wanted to be a professional footballer, playing for the mighty Port Vale. Until I realised I only had a left foot…
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Politicking, gossiping and unnecessary negativity – It really winds me up when someone offloads on me, moaning about another colleague. What do I do about it? Well, I simply say, ‘Are you going to speak to them about it, or am I?’
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
I see a firm that relishes change. A firm that’s still ripping up the rulebook and rebelling against its profession. A firm that VERY MUCH puts its people first and where everyone goes BIG, dares to dream and achieves more than they ever thought possible.
We’ll also have scaled quickly. We’ll be five times the size we are now, with a turnover of £150m+. We’ll be the most exciting and dynamic firm in our profession.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
You can’t do everything yourself. So, build a great team around you. A team full of people who are better than you!
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
3 things: 1) Don’t worry about what others think about you. Stay true who you are, and don’t take yourself too seriously. 2) Look in the mirror regularly. Learn about your strengths and passions and focus on these; not your weaknesses 3) Find your Ikigai...(Google it!)
Oh, and can I add a 4th? Play all in.
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