Grant Thornton’s managing partner in Leeds, Andy Wood, discusses some big changes over lunch with BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes.
Grant Thornton has more than 42,000 staff in 729 offices around the world. And they have each played their part in bringing in revenues of $4.6bn. In Yorkshire, Andy Wood is recruiting partners and growing his team as demand keeps rising.
But as BQ readers from entrepreneurs to executives know, in business there is little time to congratulate yourself on a job well done, so Andy’s new CEO, Sacha Romanovitch has got the company focussed on her strategic review - Vision 2020 - and a radical change of direction.
“On the back of a really strong few years under Scott Barnes we appointed Sacha, who has really risen through the ranks and is the first female CEO of an accountancy practice anywhere in the world and I think she exemplifies why we are different.
“We are not one of our big four competitors, we don’t want to be part of a big five and we are no longer part of the mid-tier. But we sit very nicely between those groups of firms – and that makes us interesting.
“Those principles have been with us for a long time, but they have come to the fore as a result of changing market conditions, with a lot of M&A in our sector. That is the backdrop to Sacha’s appointment and she is bringing fresh insight and fresh ideas.
“Grant Thornton is evolving like any other brand or business and we think the time is right for us to do things in a slightly different way.”
Those are the headlines, but the story beneath them is about Shared Enterprise, which is well underway and effectively making 200 entrepreneurs out of Andy’s team and the other 41,800 GT staff worldwide. The company’s partners have signed up to an operating model that shares the power with every employee, from the ideas they come up with to the money they get for solutions.
It will be digging deep, going well past the occasional ‘we’re all in this together’ half-hour meeting and A4 email to create an environment in which everyone thinks and acts like an owner. It covers the whole Grant Thornton process, crowdsourcing a business plan with employees who can sit on the powerful oversight board and be rewarded straight from the company’s profits
Sacha puts a lot of faith in the model, which has proven itself with impressive returns on the Esop index (the FTSE-calculated UK Employee Ownership Index) and says she thinks it can double profitability by the totemic 2020.
So what does that mean for Andy Wood and his team? How does a global sector-leading initiative that every other company will be watching so closely work at LS1 4BN? “It is a matter of realising that we don’t have all the answers, so why not ask the people who work for us and take advantage of the broad range of age and experience and share ideas,” he tells me as we watch the snow settling outside our cocooned private dining room at Bowcliffe Hall.
“Clearly a bright 20 year old just out of university will have a different view on life to someone like me.
“So we have been gathering those views for the last six to eight months, but now we need to be sharing the responsibility for them, so that our people can grasp those ideas and make them happen locally.
“It is both exciting and challenging, to be honest. But anything in life that is worth having comes with a little trepidation.”
One of the obvious spin-offs of such a game changer is that it gets noticed by potential new staff, which is just what happened with Simon Davidson, who is a recent boost for the regional operation. Moving from Deloitte, Simon says he was attracted by GT’s ethos “which mirrored my own” and he will now lead Andy’s new Finance Transformation Team across the North of England, focussed on improving the performance of finance functions across all sectors.
“Financial transformation is about seeing what is troubling the FDs, which could be system-related or people-related or about the year-end,” explains Andy. “Simon has become very well-known for helping these teams make their operations better and creating opportunities for us in that marketplace.
“He will sit on the consulting team, the vast majority of which is in London. But there has been a real desire to replicate in the regions what we have been doing in London, and Simon is one of the first examples of how we are now playing in the regions.
“He is a family guy with young children and didn’t want to be dragged down from York to London all the time. He wanted to work with entrepreneurs in Yorkshire - and we can give him that.”
There will be more like Simon, as Sacha’s bold shift attracts attention and the right calibre of people think it is the right move to join now and help form her image of the new Grant Thornton rather than wait to see what happens and miss the opportunity.
“One of our biggest challenges for business is attracting talent,” says Andy. “How do we bring in, develop and grow the right people in such a tight market. The strategic review and Vision 2020 is one way we will do that because it sets us out as being different and progressive and that is attractive.
“Our purpose in all this for me is to help the whole of Grant Thornton shape a vibrant regional economy - who do we want to work with, what do we want to speak out on and what do we want to be known for?
“Those are the three pillars and some are more relevant than others in terms of what we are doing in Yorkshire. The first is around how we work in the large corporate market and in financial services, so perhaps less relevant in this part of the world.
“The third pillar is around the work we do with government and not-for-profit, creating that environment where businesses can flourish.
“But it is the second pillar that really gets to the heart of what we do in Yorkshire – working alongside dynamic businesses and helping them grow with our support.”
The global nature of implementing Sacha Romanovitch’s 44-page Strategic Review could be off-putting for a six-staff engineering business toiling away in a yard in Horsforth or Castleford, but that is why Andy is in his job. Like so many regional heads of powerful multi-nationals, he is both an appreciator of what his boss is doing and a translator for small businesses. One of the top questions his team faces each day will be ‘What does that mean for me?’ but Andy’s strength of personality and the trust he earns means multi-national messages become multi-regional and then town by town and business by business.
“There is no size-cut off here,” he insists. “It is about taking Yorkshire businesses at face value and looking for those characteristics that will lead to growth. We grow relationships and trust throughout the region – just as many of our competitors do in a similar fashion – but it is about how we do it through the personality of our firm and our people.
“We have to grasp the opportunity nationally and locally, which is exemplified in the appointments and promotions we have made here in the last few months. We have made five partner appointments in Leeds and as many directors, which is a serious investment in the region.
“But they are all the right blend of personality and character and they get what we are doing so they gel with us as a team. The first thing I will think about when I am considering someone for a job is whether they have bought into what we are doing to the extent that I could put them in the leadership team tomorrow with no concerns.
“We do our homework in the markets so that we already know and trust the people we might bring to Leeds and have seen that they are well-liked and well-connected so they can open some doors for us.
“We are nothing without our people and I am now settling my team in and the early signs are really positive. I would never say no to anyone who is a marketable individual, but I am not actively looking as I have been in the past.”
2020 will be here in a frighteningly short time, so the pressure is on Andy and the GT team globally to make headway and forge visible results to back up the CEO’s proudly-announced vision. “Achieving the right financial results is one measure,” said Andy. “But the more important one is that we want to establish a reputation as the go-to firm for growth. If that was the case by 2020 then that would be an excellent result.
“Personally, it is important that I am visible and that I listen to those people on my team who ask for five minutes of my time. No one can give me a better compliment than to say I am really grounded guy, to me that means I am accessible and trusted.
“What you see is what you get with me, and I have built my personal brand around that for many years as I work with my staff, clients, markets and operations.
“That keeps me really busy - I’ve certainly noticed that Friday nights have never come around so fast during my 16 months in this role. But you need that amount of time to work out how you are going to deliver and what you might do differently.”
That workload over a decade with GT needs an antidote, and for Andy it is Pilates and running. He will go out for a run at least twice a week for maybe three or four miles, often first thing in the morning. He tells me he used to look for reasons not to do it, but now the fitness is good, the weight is staying off, the mental relief is kicking in and the Pilates is looking after the framework, so the urge to relax and run is always there. There is no musical accompaniment, this is free time to let the mind wander.
“I just run, and whatever comes into my mind, I let it, and inevitably some of that will be work-related,” says Andy. “It is often only a couple of days later that I realise I have been thinking through an issue and it has enabled me to come up with a solution or a way of approaching something that I may not have come up with if I had not given myself that time.
“You carry around with you things that have influenced you in your life and for me one of those things is that my dad died in his late fifties and I was in my twenties.
“It’s not always front of my mind, but it is clearly important, so if I can watch what I eat, go for the occasional run and keep the weight off then that makes sense to me as a 46-year-old dad of two. I also have a lot more I want to achieve in this profession.
“I don’t turn my phone off, but I am better than I ever was at switching off when the chance arises.”
The work-life balance is such a precious thing for a business leader who has responsibilities at home and in the office and needs to show commitment to both. From what Andy tells me he has got it spot-on, which is also good news for a busy client base. “There is much more confidence and activity locally and more money to invest. Sources of funding have become increasingly available and there is a real appetite to spend it, which is good because for too many years businesses have felt constrained and have had to sit on their hands a little bit.
“That all helps us boost the growth plans of these businesses and shape that vibrant economy we have in Yorkshire.”
The further good news for the county’s businesses is that companies like Grant Thornton are showing that global operations can matter to science park start-ups or the family business that is trying to find a few thousand for a new piece of kit.
Such multi-nationals now know how to be an embedded and accepted player in local economies, which can only broaden the choice and level of support for our aspirational entrepreneurs.
Bowcliffe with an extra serving of 'Wow'
It was as if the gods of Bowcliffe had decided this beautiful old house still wasn’t looking dramatic enough. So for just an hour or so leading up to the latest BQY Business Lunch – this time with Andy Wood, the managing partner for Grant Thornton in Leeds - they allowed it to snow and the manicured lawns became white blankets that definitely had the ‘wow’ factor. So much so that Andy and I even ventured out after our meal to see the view from the stunning Blackburn Wing perched among the trees a few yard from the main hall. Well worth the effort.
Bowcliffe deals in perfection – from the manner of its staff to the decor and furnishings and the food on the plate. And what a plate it was. Andy opted for the Chicken, Ham and Leek pie, a white bowl full topped with a golden crust and sitting alongside some of the most tempting chips I had seen in a good while. But, Andy, what about that feast across the table from you?
My plate was beautifully arranged with a slice of very tender pork, the softest black pudding and a square of dauphinoise potatoes. As a black pudding fan, Andy looked envious, but there was a safe distance between us. The log burner in the private dining room of the Driver’s Club glowed on to the dark wood panelling that give this space such a special feeling – and that was before the puddings arrived. The weather was right for two portions (one for each of us, of course...) of hot Rhubarb Crumble. The finest Yorkshire forced rhubarb was generously spooned into our dishes and topped with a very tasty crumble and a quenelle of ice cream.
What a treat this place is – a real touch of class and comfort that is a million miles away from the A1 crush and rush nearby.