An invoice financing company claimed recently that 25% of North East SMEs now consider their accountant to be their most trusted source of financial advice, putting them well ahead of bank managers.
Such surveys usually have a hidden motive – in this case to push invoice financing as the solution to cash flow problems in a world devoid of the supportive bank managers of old. But the Hitachi Capital report, which questioned 1,000 SMEs, is not alone.
As the Government struggles for a solution to our economic stagnation – and bank funding remains on lockdown – the responsibility on the shoulders of accountants to calculate a route to growth for their employer is getting heavier.
Not only has this seen increased demand in the profession, but also a greater diversity in roles. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) reckons only 31% of its 138,464 members now work in professional services, while the FT reports that only 2% of ICAEW members are out of work.
And at the grassroots level, too, this promising outlook is clearly visible. A poll last month found that two-thirds of Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) students working in the UK received a pay rise in the previous 12 months.
The average UK pay rise among ACCA students was 8% - exceeding inflation – with 73% of students in the financial services sector enjoying a salary increase, compared to 51% in the public sector.
The prospect for independents also seems bright with prominent businessman and Entrepreneurs Forum chairman Nigel Mills telling BQ: “Some of the independent accountants are actually swapping some of their fees for a stake in these start-up companies – so they’re being a lot more entrepreneurial.”
Mills also believes entrepreneurs are placing an increasing amount of importance on their relationships with their accountants – driving up demand in the sector.
“Accountants have always been very important to small businesses and always offered advice to support their clients but I think where it’s progressed is where you have grant funding, tax driven incentives such as the is scheme.
“Accountants are much more knowledgeable about these alternative forms of finance now and where it’s applicable they’re advising their clients first of all that they exist and second of all how they can take advantage of them.”
For many accountancy firms, including Tait Walker, these trends have translated into more opportunities for trainees and steeper revenue growth.
Brian Laidlaw, a partner at the North East firm, says: “There’s definitely been a shift in terms of the accountant being seen as a trusted advisor and it’s certainly something that we aim to get across to our clients.
“We’re no longer seen as the bean counter but more the advisor of a business and we’re involved in decisions, not just looking at historical data and looking in the rear view mirror, but looking forward out the windscreen.”
But these closer ties being forged between accountants and their clients – and their increasingly prominent role in major decisions – require a more sophisticated mix of skills from the professionals.
“We look for a broader skill-set than we did a couple of years ago. We used to just train predominantly graduates through a chartered accounting training scheme but we’re now seeing the benefit of taking people on at an earlier stage.
“We now take on trainees straight from school – that’s a definite change in our business and we’re seeing the benefits of that. We’re seeing younger fresher faced individuals who’ve got the drive and are willing to learn and perhaps don’t want the cost of going to university.”
Newcastle-based RMT Accountants & Business Advisors has also witnessed a surge in both the size and shape of customer demand.
Managing director Mike Pott says: “As market conditions continue to be difficult we have seen a significant increase in the number of companies and individuals looking for a much broader spectrum of business advice.
“Accountants have always been a trusted source of advice and support but this has increased over recent years. There has also been an increased demand for non executive director support from those clients looking to drive their businesses forward.”