Eating with the gods

Eating with the gods

From his lofty perch accountant Andrew Potts shares with Brian Nicholls insider hints on starting up a business.

It was too rare an opportunity to miss: invitation to a business dinner served at your table suspended, like you and your fellow seated guests, 100ft high in the air. So there two dozen of us sat, swaying higher even than the rooftop height of Sage Gateshead alongside, as we raised our knives and forks, our glasses too, and gazed at Tyneside’s skyline, rather than downward at the long drop to the concrete surface discomfortingly below.

Dine by the Tyne, as this novel dining experience was called, seemed an appropriate setting for the interview with a rising name in accountancy, Andrew Potts. As we and the other diners were belted into what had resembled spaceship seats at ground level earlier, we had secretly nursed misgivings. Would these slender straps really keep us in place? Would the fixtures joining our seats to the long steel dining table hold fast as we were raised skywards?

We were re-assured briefly by the presence of two uniformed members of Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service – until we learned they were fellow diners who’d be as dependent on safeguards aboard as we were. And as canopied table, chairs and occupants were hoisted steadily, we stared increasingly, and warily, at the thin twin cables of a towering crane raising us aloft, reducing to Lilliputians the spectators who seconds before had been life size, as higher and higher we went.

Andrew, indeed probably all of us perched aloft and eventually chirping to background music like bonny budgies – melodies in, rather than on, the air – had never eaten in odder circumstance. Our delight, in the end, was sky high so to speak. The long drop beneath our feet was a consideration initially, but soon we felt as secure as those abseiling window cleaners must feel who are occasionally to be seen sprucing the Sage’s rooftop like spiders attending to their webs.

Dine On Tyne 03“Yes, initially it’s like looking from the window of a plane,” Andrew agreed. “But then, when you feel your feet dangling and sense the evening air against your face you’re reminded this is different. I was especially conscious not to drop a fork overboard. I had cold hands and had been taking photographs, so I also worried in case I dropped my phone. ‘Here we go,’ I thought. But all was well.

“Who in their right mind came up with this idea? Who’d have thought of stationing a crane on the banks of the Tyne to serve food from?” But possessing an accountant’s sharp eye towards the innovation of others, he applauded the enterprise. He thinks that, like the open top buses, regular sky dining would be a great attraction for local tourism. “Things like this could set this area apart.”

The disadvantage of aerial dining, of course, is that you can’t play musical chairs between courses to network, which made it particularly pleasurable for BQ to sit alongside Andrew, someone with a good tale to tell. His company, KP Simpson of Jarrow, is a financial supporter of small businesses and self-employed individuals. “They’re our target market,” he affirms. “It’s one I’m very comfortable with, and which we’ll continue to go after.”

It’s one he’s also comfortable with, qualified both in accounting and taxation, and having himself met the challenges and concerns of setting up in business for oneself. A former pupil of Harton Comprehensive School in South Shields, and avidly keen on sport even now at 35, he wanted to be a journalist initially.

A local magazine published his interviews with the like of Peter Reid and Bryan Robson, then managers of Sunderland and Middlesbrough, Steve Watson the former Newcastle United defender and midfielder, and Sherwin Campbell the one-time Durham County cricketer. The Shields Gazette recognised his name during a school careers day. But, uncertain how to get through the door of a newsroom, he didn’t follow through. He started working with figures rather than words, on a North East Chamber of Commerce training course.

At 17, no shirker, he had three jobs simultaneously. Mainly he worked for A Line Cleaners, whose contracts included one with a national cinema chain. He was assistant management accountant and payroll clerk, calculating the payroll for around 200 weekly and 100 monthly staff, along with year-end returns. He pitched in with cleaning when the company was summoned to clean and tidy a Birmingham cinema after the blockbusting premiere of The Perfect Storm.

He was also working for a firm now part of Sports Direct, and as a barman in Raffles wine bar, South Shields. On opting for accountancy at 18, however, he worked full time for three years with Willis Scott, the Sunderland firm with whom he began studies for ACCA qualifications, gaining better insights at the same time into how business works.

A spell followed with Stephenson Coates the Jesmond, Newcastle, company firm while his ACCA day release studies went on. Then at GR Stenton & Co in home town South Shields, with whom he stayed for nearly seven and a half years, he had five staff to control and minded the interests of 300 clients.

But by then he was married, was a father and had a house – and need of more money. Here his sports enthusiasm paid off. He played right back 10 years for Cleadon in the Wearside League, and also for Birtley in the Northern League (he has only just retired now from Sunday League football). He also played cricket for Marsden in the Coast League and Senior League, and now plays for Whiteleas in the Combination League. Golf? A little of that too.

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Andrew found many people in these circles had their own businesses. So he started book-keeping by moonlight. “Within six months I was making more money self-employed than I was in the employment,” he recalls. “It was really taking off. I left the job and set up for myself in the bedroom. I’d never imagined we’d be where we are now.”

In 2008, 10 years after his entry to accountancy, KP Simpson was set up, and four years later it was incorporated. The name KP Simpson was formed linking the initials of Katie, the Potts’ daughter, with Simpson swiped from Simpson Close where they lived. “I just liked the ring of that name,” he says.

Clearly others like the name too, because KP Simpson now has 723 clients, not only in the North East but spread around the country also - from Glasgow area, Edinburgh, Manchester
and Liverpool in the North, to London in the South and over to North and South Wales. The reach goes beyond too.

Initially clients largely comprised solicitors, taxi drivers and taxi firms, personal trainers, and members of the medical profession such as surgeons, doctors, anaesthetists and dentists – a niche market Andrew had divined. Now too KP Simpson looks after also owners of corner shops and restaurants, and a growing assembly of self-employed contractors working in the like of Azerbaijan, Norway, and Holland.

“We strive to deliver the best customer service, which I think is why we have taken off so well. We treat everyone as a person, not a number, giving them standards of service and care we’d expect ourselves.” It’s a familiar enough success formula, but confirming also it can work whatever the nature of a business.

Besides accounting for sole traders, partnerships and smaller companies, KP Simpson guides individuals and limited companies through payroll, book keeping, taxation and tax planning, and services in VAT, PAYE, and Construction Industry Scheme accounting. It works on business plans, cash flow forecasts and client management.

Andrew, his wife Julie and their two children - daughter Katie, eight, and Louie, three - live at East Boldon, and Julie’s also one of the 10-strong team, about to become 11, who having gained 200 new clients during the past year, have relocated from Hebburn to Albert Road in Jarrow.

An early priority there is to help clients meet a hindering new regime of dividend taxation announced in the Chancellor’s recent Budget, and the new rental regime simultaneously announced hitting small-business owners who’ve previously tried to raise capital through buy to let. Andrew predicts many may try to sell properties off shortly, rather than fall foul or struggle as the situation changes.

Working closely with clients – including 200 more during the past year – also opens new doors, Andrew has now launched into property management, and is looking also at entering an import export business, again through a client, and with a focus on China.

What advice, then, for others thinking to branch out? He has three golden rules.

“Do your market research. Many people enter business on a whim, thinking they can immediately make a lot of money. But really hard work in research is needed. Who’s your target customer? What’s your market? I found out only after a couple of years what our market is.

“Also, network. People won’t come if they don’t know you’re there. You have to talk to as many people as you can, and networking is the cheapest way to do that. Try to strike relationships with people who can assist you, but whom you too can assist. If you just take, take, take you’ll be found out. It’s got to be about scratching backs and working for each other.

“Finally, hard work has no substitute. Be prepared too for early days of not getting returns your efforts might deserve. Eventually the returns will pay for themselves because a
lot of the good you can do will have been unseen and initially unpaid for.

“And while your accountant may interface with HMRC on your behalf, be as honest and open as possible if you are contacted by tax people personally. They’ll not be trying to victimise or pick on you, but will have reason to be making an enquiry. If you put your blocks up straight away you’ll antagonise the enquirer and prompt them to look harder.

They don’t want to penalise - just want you to pay the right amount of tax. With good dialogue, even if you have some difficulty meeting your immediate liabilities, so long as you’re felt to be trying to do everything right, they’ll try to assist and give you time to work with them.”

For all of us that evening the sky was the limit. But Andrew had no regrets about getting both feet on the ground again. He was already looking forward to running in the Edinburgh Half Marathon, and after that the Great North Run, the latter his second participation. He’d already done an 11 mile training run the day before. He deserved celestial sustenance.

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Dine On The Tyne: a lifting experience

Fresh as the air around us Chris Wood, executive chef of Hawthorns brasserie at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Newcastle, led a safety-harnessed culinary team on this occasion.

“I’m passionate about using the best fresh and locally sourced ingredients,” he said, and freshness like the air around us pervaded throughout. We started with what resembled a decapitated dippy egg but was in fact was egg shell containing a celeriac mousse.

Then followed: Gin and juniper carpaccio of roe deer with gooseberries, horseradish meringues, and hazelnuts. The fish course was Craster smoked salmon, lobster and celeriac remoulade, ceviche of hand dived scallops, wasabi and peas. Main course was guinea fowl breast, leg bon bon, Carroll’s heritage potato, woodland ceps, and baby spinach. Dessert was minute sticks of rhubarb, with aniseed meringue and vanilla custard.

Two splendid 2015 wines provided by Bonbar and the Assembly Rooms accompanied: a South African Chenin Blanc and a French Carignan Vieilles Vigne Rare Vineyards, these Languedoc vines being over 50 years old.

Perhaps only one word aptly describes such an enjoyable repast on high: heavenly.