Golf's loss was firm's gain

Golf's loss was firm's gain

Mike Hughes meets John Warner, managing partner at chartered accountants BHP.

It was a small matter of 38 years ago that John Warner joined BHP as a chartered accountant. But those first steps on the ladder were not what I would expect from the immaculately dressed polite, almost reserved, gentleman in front of me. After university he spent a year “playing golf and working in a pub” before a “significant” number of job interviews followed.

“Ending up in accountancy was not necessarily by choice” he admits. “But once I was in I thoroughly enjoyed it - I certainly wasn’t good enough to stick with the golf.

“I’m a Sheffielder, so was looking around for something in this area, having been away for three years studying Law at Warwick University. That wasn’t a degree I particularly enjoyed.

“But I did very well in my accountancy exams and, reasonably quickly, was given a career path to partner, working with SMEs and getting to know clients.”

The practice was very different then, operating only in Sheffield with 46 staff. It now operates in Sheffield, Leeds, Chesterfield, York, Harrogate and Cleckheaton with 280 staff.
Growth generally has been confident since the 1970s when it was Barber, Harrison and Platt. There have been significant mergers since then in 1991, 1996, 1998, 2006, 2011, 2013 and this year with Clough & Company. Not a company to sit back on its laurels then.

“The size and quality of the client base has also increased significantly as the region has changed,” says John, who has just marked his 60th birthday. “It was one of the main aims of growth to have the resources to work with bigger and more ambitious companies and individuals and to attract the best talent. It is a very competitive landscape for recruiting staff and the size of the business now is such that we can give people the opportunity  to grow.

“The brand is very strong in South Yorkshire, and getting stronger in the North and West. It is important that the standard of the BHP offering is the same at all our offices, which is down to our recruitment and internal culture and values.

“The whole partner group shares those values and is embedding them across all our offices.”

The company is just coming to the end of a five-year plan, triggered by a change in the line-up of partners back in 2010, with three long-servers retiring and five new partners appointed. That push was to make the firm a more regional player, so it is on to the next five-year plan, which has just started with the Clough merger and the setting up of a consulting arm to make BHP more advisory-centric.

The next step will be an advisory arm called BHP Prosper to again expand what it offers across Yorkshire and now internationally with the firm joining accountancy network Kreston which works in more than 100 countries.

Alongside long-standing and constantly developing specialisms in sectors like charities, manufacturing and academies, the newcomers are always a key strata for BHP. “SMEs are an important part of the plan – we have a good market share in the region and with exporting playing an earlier role in business plans than it used to do, the international side of things is really positive.

“We want to be able to add value to an SME and feeling that we can work with them on a wider range of services than just an audit. Our target market is established SMEs looking to grow and both sides of the table will look at how they can get on and have empathy.

“It is about building trust and confidence and understanding a business.

“Given what we have achieved in the last five years, clients will look at us as a business and see how we have grown and that we try to be alert to all opportunities and have the skillsets in place to help.”

Perfecting that set of skills relies on astute recruitment. BHP has taken on eight school-leavers and eight graduates in the last year, who go through different training regimes at the company. Once they have the qualifications, personal and commercial skills are developed as part of a structured programme.

“It’s important that we are not just seen as technocrats. We need to see in our incoming staff the ability to go beyond just being an accountant and be more commercial than we have been in the past.”

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The flexibility to look at people closely and encourage their personal side to be a key factor in whether you give them a chance may go back to John’s own interview, with director Graham Stuart-Harris. Graham, who is still a regular face at BHP’s offices, summed up the young man facing him with a single line note on his CV:“Works in a bar. Says he gets on with people. Offer him a job.” While that reference may be less used in today’s jobs market, the principle cannot be beaten – it’s the person who matters most, not the paper he or she may have in their briefcase.

“We have a business game that candidates have to go through now and we often think ‘would we have ever got a job if we had this 30-odd years ago. But things have changed and businesses have become more complex, instead of a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) there is now VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) to look at a situation.

“But thankfully, there are good graduates and good school-leavers out there.”

His view is that the SME sector across Yorkshire is working well and building into a vibrant foundation as the region aims for more devolved powers. “Both Sheffield and Leeds got very good City Deals and have already started to get devolution. The Government is supportive of what is happening.

“We do top 100 surveys of SMEs in our regions and they are growing nicely, taking on employees and securing growth. There is a real feeling of confidence.

“There are always ups and downs – I think retail continues to be very difficult – but the Advanced Manufacturing Park is a fantastic beacon for the sector and I see that as a real leading light for the South Yorkshire area.”

Out of the office, he and his wife take their dog walking on the North York Moors and the Dales to blow away any lingering cobwebs. The golf is still a hobby as well, with an aim to play the top 100 courses, as well as a season-ticket passion for Sheffield Wednesday. John is a fascinating mix. He has deep knowledge and understanding of the older traditions - which firms lose track of at their peril – and of the 21st Century needs of an accountancy business.

And he shows the value of experience while also being a living example of how character mixed with an open-minded boss can take you down a route you had never considered into a lifelong career.