Head of technology and life sciences at accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael, Shaun Millican
Shaun Millican, head of technology and life sciences at accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael, is helping IP-rich start-ups to grow their businesses and is plugging them into the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Accountancy is sometimes caricatured as a somewhat boring profession, dominated by bank reconciliations, purchase ledgers and spreadsheets drowning in row after row of figures. Shaun Millican begs to differ. As head of technology and life sciences at Johnston Carmichael, Scotland’s largest indigenous accountancy firm, Millican and his team get to interact with some of the most innovative and exciting companies in Scotland. And some of the entrepreneurial magic from those businesses is clearly rubbing off.
“Working with management teams that aspire to take on the world is inspiring for us,” admits Millican. “Every week we are meeting new or existing clients that have global ambitions – they won’t all be successful in those ambitions, but it’s still inspiring for us to hear that belief that they aspire to the world stage.”
Millican knows how those start-ups are feeling when it comes to setting up a business. He joined Johnston Carmichael in 2002 when the Aberdeen-based firm was opening its office in Edinburgh, its first in the Central Belt. He was one of the original four members of staff that set up the office in Scotland’s capital city, building a client base from scratch. Having studied accountancy at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and trained with another firm in the city, the chance to be in on the ground level and build something new was too hard to resist.
“There were just four of us and four telephones, so we had to get out there and win work,” he remembers. “Our story resonates with a lot of the start-up companies that we work with.
“They know that we went through the same growing pains as them when we were starting our business. That helps to give them the confidence that we know what they’re facing and how we can help them.”
That help for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) comes in all sorts of shapes and forms. In the past, accountancy firms would have simply kept records and produced annual financial statements for auditors to examine, but now Johnston Carmichael can offer its clients advice at each and every stage in their company’s journey.
“We provide a range of services, depending on what stage a business is at on that journey from developing an idea through commercialisation to exit,” Millican explains. “We provide various accounting support services, making sure their financial functions are fit for purpose no matter at what stage they are.
“We provide audit assurance services – a lot of clients will require audits, particularly after raising funds or when applying for grants. We can help with grant applications and grant audit reporting.
“We also provide an array of services surrounding investor tax reliefs like the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), such as helping clients to get advanced assurance or once they have received investment going to HM Revenue & Customs to get the authority to issue certificates.
Millican has seen the firm’s Edinburgh office grow from just four staff to its current complement of more than 120 people. But its base in the capital is only the tip of the iceberg.
Having been founded in 1936, the practice has grown to encompass nearly 700 staff and partners spread across 11 offices. Turnover has broken through the £40m barrier for the first time, with revenues edging up by 3% in the year to 31 May to £40.8m and pre-tax profits rising by 5% to £11.6m, making Johnston Carmichael not only the biggest home-grown accountancy firm in Scotland but one of the 20 largest in the UK.
The practice now has more than 14,000 clients across a range of sectors, from infrastructure firm Galliford Try to Edinburgh-based Stewart Brewing and educational charity Inspire.’ More than 500 of those customers work in technology and life sciences, including business analytics firm Barrachd – the name of which means “more” in Gaelic – and healthcare technology firm Snap40.
While Johnston Carmichael’s staff can offer a range of services in-house, the firm also connects its clients to a much wider network of business contacts. The firm is a gold sponsor of Engage, Invest, Exploit (EIE), Scotland’s premier technology investor showcase. Taking place in May 2017, the event sees 60 of Scotland’s most innovative tech start- ups pitching to global investors. By working with these various start-ups on their EIE journey, Johnston Carmichael can assist with their fundraising ambitions, access to specialist tax reliefs, or refining their pitch presentations, amongst many other things.
“When it comes to assisting companies with fundraising, sometimes it’s a lighter touch that’s needed,” Millican says. “We can provide support to the management team with its business plan or financial modelling.
“Sometimes it’s a much fuller engagement that’s required, where we’ll go out to the market and assist them in trying to raise the money.
“We’re a member of PKF International, which is a global network of like-minded accountancy firms, so we can also help companies that are looking to set up overseas. PKF has about 150 offices around the world, so we can make sure that firms get the right local advice to help them.
“A med tech start-up might be different from a software start-up or from a data science start-up but there are common issues that most of them will experience around fundraising and growth and talent. We want to try to bring our over-arching experience to bear by explaining what clients see in other sectors.”
When it comes to intellectual property (IP), the firm is also well-connected. It can put clients in touch with specialists to help them protect their innovations and it can also help those companies to harness their ideas. “What’s common across these sectors is that our clients generally have some form of propriety IP that they’re looking to exploit to disrupt the market,” says Millican. “Sometimes that’s registered IP and sometimes it’s just know-how.
“From a purely IP perspective, we will plug those clients into advisors to register IP or make sure their legal contracts are robust. Companies can make mistakes very early on with their IP and so part of the reason for us bringing our experience to the table is to help them avoid those pitfalls.”
Millican highlights the fact that some of the issues faced by IP-rich companies – such as fundraising and attracting the right talent – are the same across the board. “When to raise money, how much to raise and who to raise it from are perennial questions,” he muses. “Talent is becoming a big issue too. Part of the challenge is attracting the right talent to the team to help it grow.
“There are obviously some very established tech companies in Edinburgh that grab a lot of talent, but they also attract a lot of talent into Scotland as well. Some of those people will go on to work at other tech companies, while others will leave to start their own businesses.
“The other part of the challenge comes in attracting senior management talent. We try to help with that by plugging people into our network, especially the group of non-executive directors who we work with.”
Millican cut his teeth at accountancy firm Scott & Paterson, where he helped one of the partners to work with tech clients. When he joined Johnston Carmichael, he was given a blank sheet of paper to create his practice and so he saw an opportunity.
Fifteen years after helping to set up the firm’s Edinburgh office, Millican’s passion for technology is undaunted. “When we opened the office, the technology and life science sectors were seen as having great potential,” he explains.
“The combination of universities and angel investors in Edinburgh – and indeed across Scotland – creates a great opportunity to work with early-stage companies that are spinning out and attracting investment. That has continued and has expanded over the past 15 years.
“One of my first clients was a medical technology start-up, which we worked with for several years until the founders exited. There were lots of lessons we learned along the way.
“It’s an important sector for Scotland, with the transition from old-fashioned manufacturing to the knowledge economy. It’s going to be crucial for sustainable and innovative growth.”