'The new breed' - accountants embrace the entrepreneurial spirit

Business and practice software developer Sage claims to have discovered a "new breed" of accountant willing to embrace technology and an entrepreneurial approach to running their practice.

In a survey of 267 practitioners entitled A new breed of accountant, Sage asked them to define themselves according to their growth ambitions and business aspirations in the following categories:

  • Sole practitioner - offering traditional services to established client base; No plans to grow practice further
  • Town leader - Established leading consultancy in area, active actively involved in networking across the city
  • Multi-practice aspirer - Currently small practice, but aspire to build and to grow using opportunities of technology, taking very much a business approach
  • New breed - Entrepreneurial attitude, open attitude to technology, active networker

Overall, 59% of respondents regarded themselves as entrepreneurial and 67% said that aspired to grow their practice in the future. One in five accountants described the spirit in which their practice was run was "entrepreneurial", while 35% described their practice as "progressive".

With so much entrepreneurial zeal coursing through the profession - and knowledge about how to run a business - many accountants would consider setting up on their own. Three-quarters of respondents confirmed that they would consider leaving practice if a suitable opportunity arose.

On first sight, the "new breed" might appear to be a generational trend, but the entrepreneurial attitude persisted across the age spectrum, including the largest demographic group of accountants (36%) who had more than 20 years' experience in the profession.

Thirty-eight percent considered themselves to be a sole-practitioners, offering traditional services and with no real plans to increase their practice size.

A further 4% described themselves as "town leaders" - active networkers who had built their firm into the leading consultancy in their area.

"There are all types of individuals and firms that have different outlooks," said Greg Ford, managing director of Sage's accountants division. "There are people out there either qualifying, starting their own practice or merging. Their needs and requirements are changing and that's being driven by the clients, who are also getting more aspirational, entrepreneurial and demanding.

"Or they are people who are very content with where they are today and happy to see things continuing - because they can see growth."

Sage's research also encouraged Ford to claim that the accountancy profession has overcome its technophobia. Eighty percent of respondents said technology was critical to the functioning of their business; 39% felt they were proficient with technology, while 61% said they copeed, but sometimes needed assistance.

Nearly a third (28%) of practitioners viewed technology as a source of income. A fifth of them provided IT services, while 58% offered training on accounting as well as other business applications.

To back up the findings about practitioners' attitudes, the Sage Pulse study questioned 1,300 business managers, half of whom confirmed that accountants were their most trusted source of general business advice.

Three-quarters of business owners said their accountants had a very good understanding of their needs and requirements, and almost two-thirds said their accountants provided practical advice above and beyond just financial information.

"What struck a chord was the importance of the accountant as a business adviser," said Ford. "It's something that Sage recognises - but it's important that accountants realise it. We are seeing more and more of that coming through, for example with accountants working as remote or interim FDs."

Sage does not just conduct market research to just to win snappy media headlines. Surveys such as this also feed into the company's product development and marketing plans. Last year's equivalent study highlighted the need for a collaborative environment where accountants could share data with their clients. Shortly afterwards, the company rolled out the hosted Sage 50 Professional Online system.

This year's findings are reflected in the reformatted and rebranded Sage 50 product line, where the accounting program formerly known as Line 50 is now accompanied by ancillary programs including payroll, CRM, HR, forecasting and applications in the Sage Practice Solution family.

Ford explained that the Sage 50 suite was about more than just accounting solutions. "We are thinking not just purely around bookkeeping product, but what you can do with it," he said.

Clients are turning to accountants for new kinds of advice on topics such as HR, he continued. "Accountants need to respond to those needs and fulfil them soundly in the way they fulfil other needs such as final accounts and government e-filing. For Sage those needs go hand in hand with helping accountants to align more tightly with their clients."

Sage's conclusions are markedly optimistic, and if correct could stimulate sales of the company's integrated software offerings. Yet research conducted by other suppliers could throw some doubt on the Sage survey's aspirational claims.

While claiming to be entrepreneurial and strategically minded, many accountants can suffer from the "cobbler's children" syndrome and fail to apply their knowledge and advice within their own businesses. Eighty per cent of accountants told MYOB last year that they intended to grow, but 43% told MYOB they had not created a business plan to deliver that growth.

MYOB general manager Simon Crompton commented at the time: "Two-thirds of firms want to grow, and 96% say IT is important to their success. Yet almost half aren't planning; almost a third aren't controlling their resources; and a third are bogged down in admin and compliance. They want to grow, but they can't."

More recently, early returns from TSG's IT benchmark survey suggest that businesses are more tech-savvy than their accountants, and more likely to take a strategic approach to funding and managing technology projects.

Sage's Ford responded: "The data is what it is. We're not saying that every single accountant has got strong entrepreneurial aspirations. There is an evolution taking place. There are people who are business-minded. Our job is to support those practices by understanding what their needs are."

By John Stokdyk, for AccountingWEB.co.uk

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