I am no oracle of ethical behaviour. Nor can I tell you where to find the goal posts of life, nor how far they can be bent. I know not what your objectives are, nor how righteous nor malign your conduct. I know only that we do not see the world the way that it is, and we see it only in the way that we think it is.
Please indulge me in ten minutes of your time, so that I may show you how I see the world. And then you may conclude, of your own accord, how righteous or malign my own conduct.
Ordained in the unexceptional world of UK state sector education I excelled at being slightly better than mediocre. And in everyone’s opinion (including my own) I would not meet the target for university admission; not that I even wanted to! After my inauspicious experience of UK secondary school, the last thing I wanted was a few more years of university education.
Actually, I did go to university. It’s just that I had twelve gap years first!
Hence in 1980 I left school with my three tawdry A level grades, I went to work and I had a vast plethora of jobs. I’m a qualified lifeguard, I worked as a cider maker (outdoors, even in winter), I’ve stood for eight hours a day packing boxes in a plastics factory, I’ve worked as a cook, a barman, a motorcycle courier, a computer operator feeding punched cards into a mainframe, a security guard at an art gallery, and as a junior finance clerk managing customer credit accounts in the South West regional office of Woolworths.
Discriminatory use of this eclectic history on my CV enabled me to secure my fist role as a clerk in a Top 20 firm of accountants, which soon led to a move into the Big 6. It was the Big 6 in those days (now the Big 4) and ranked at number two back then was Coopers & Lybrand where I studied and qualified.
Before Coopers & Lybrand merged; and merged again; and became PWC, I had already left to join a small firm. Newly qualified accountants can always find a promotion and a significant pay rise by moving from a major firm to a minor one. I also gained a personal parking space and half a secretary. That sort of package simply does not come along that quickly by staying in one of the top firms.
Nor do the top firms suffer so badly in a recession. Around one year after my move, the recession of 1991 struck, and I was made redundant. Last one in, first one out, and given my level of salary the two partner firm where I worked engineered a big financial saving by laying me off. Finding a new position was impossible, the local job market was dead, and the London job agencies said “don’t even think about moving to London, stay in Nottingham, you’re more likely to get work there”.
I sat out the recession at Stirling University. I had no problem securing a university place. As a professionally qualified mature student, with three A level passes, and an interest in maths, computers and business, I naturally chose to study Japanese. It’s a long story. If you ever meet me in real life I might share it with you. There were thirty of us at the start of the Japanese course and just six of us at the end.
This coincided with the tail end of free Government grants and the start of the new student loans so I had some money, but it wasn’t much. The University also gave me somewhere to live – in year one – during term time only. That was handy because I had spent the summer of 1992 living in my car. And when the Uni wanted me out of halls for the holidays, I lived in my car again! As soon as my grant cheque turned up at the start of year two, I went to the car auctions in Glasgow and I bought an ex NHS Ford Transit ambulance. I lived in that for a year, on and near campus! I was a legend in my own lifetime at Stirling University!
Returning to the world of work in 1995, and having chosen to do that in London, it proved exceptionally difficult to get back into accounting. I worked in the tax departments of big banks instead, doing tax returns for wealthy customers, first at Coutts & Co on The Strand and then at the Bank of New York in Mayfair. That was followed by a short spell in a proper firm of accountants which then led me to the British Medical Association.
With the advent of Self Assessment, the BMA was setting up a new division, tax and accounts for doctors and doctors only! The plan sounded excellent, this organisation was well respected, the clients would all be professional people with enough income to pay accountants’ fees, and I was offered a nice salary, a parking space, and half a secretary (again), and for the first time, a company car. It was the only time I ever had a company car. It was not the only time I was made redundant. The numbers did not add up, the whole operation was too costly and the BMA shut it down at the end of 1997. Their business plan had failed!
Which then led me to Proactive. A lot of doctors were upset at the failure of the BMA’s one year exploit and they needed to find another accountant. The BMA sold the block of fees to Grant Thornton which further upset some of the clients, particularly the ones who had left Grant Thornton a year earlier and were now being “sold” back.
“Paul, do you do tax and accounts on the side?”
“I do now!”
My first handful of clients were all doctors. I do not recommend the destruction of your employer’s business as a spring board to launching your own, but that’s sort of what happened. Augmenting my fledgling business with a bit of contract work with other accountants, I established a solid, viable, stand alone business by 2000.
Those first three years were tough. And, as an insurance policy against failing in business (and deciding if I even wanted to continue being an accountant) I started teacher training and subsequently gained my PGCE in ICT for key stages 3 and 4. One year of teacher training, and one year with a teaching job was enough. In any case, I was running Proactive concurrently and it had become a stable business. Moreover, it did not involve having to deal with recalcitrant 14 year olds who didn’t want to study. As a teenager I found school tedious, as a teacher it was even more tedious. Not the teaching, but the bureaucracy.
Inadequate sanctions for unruly students was what really did it for me. Why argue about the importance of understanding spreadsheets with students, when (in my other job) I could argue with clients about the recoverability of VAT? In schools I was fighting a loosing battle with the hierarchy and the government. I could see myself being drawn into the same compliant mindset where staff simply went along with the system because they knew they couldn’t change it. That’s where civic duty has taken a back seat to self interest. It’s different in accounting, I can, and I do take cases to court. A head teacher has too much at stake in the game, and (on account of the ongoing working relationship with the same teachers and same students) a head teacher will sometimes let self interest trump civic duty. Whereas, a judge in the UK justice system has no self interest in the disputes of HMRC, taxpayers and their accountants. I would rather a judge be the arbiter, than a head teacher.
All of this has made me the person that I am today!
I really enjoyed teaching my A level students about relational databases and so on. And the A level students wanted to be in my class, whereas too many of the GCSE students did not. Nobody ever goes into a teaching career for the income. It’s a mixture of service, compassion, empathy and a desire to make things better. It’s about placing more importance on your civic duty than on your financial rewards.
In business, I really enjoy using my maths skills and my computer skills to help clients to grow their businesses. Would you like to make more profit in less time? They nearly always answer “yes” and then they baulk at the hard work involved in overcoming the initial inertia. Just how hard is it to write a business plan? Damn near impossible for 95% of UK businesses apparently. If you want to elevate your business into the top 5% of UK businesses, all you need to do is write down your plan! And then follow it! Do it on paper or in a digital document, but write it down you must.
Sir John Harvey Jones: “the only good thing about no planning, is that failure comes as a complete surprise and is not preceded by a period of anguish and fear.”
Writing a business plan is easy, picking up the pen and starting is the hard bit. Proactive has a system that can help.
In addition to having a business plan of my own, nowadays I also have a life plan. My business plan has been so successful that I reasoned that a life plan could help as well. This had lingered on my mind for a long time after I left the BMA where I had met many eminent people. This group included well respected psychologists and psychiatrists. As well as being medical professionals, many of them were authors and lecturers and a few were professors.
As a result of those conversations I now read a lot of non-fiction and I attend a lot of seminars. A wide variety of books on business, history, self development, culture, ethics and so on, upwards of 200 so far. And I attend diverse seminars, the Chamber of Commerce, Royal Society of Arts, Institute of Directors, Royal Institution, and all sorts of business conferences, again 200 or so and counting.
Currently I’m reading old classics, slowly working my way through “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (it’s hard work) and “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith (that’s easier). Both are fascinating books and I wish I had learnt more about these things in my school days, especially the first bit of “The Wealth of Nations”. Everybody running a business should read the first 40 pages (out of 524) in that book.
What this all means is that I am an accountant like no other. In my own right I am also an author and an award winning public speaker. Many accountants do not excel in communication. I like to communicate and (given my background and all the types of people I’ve met) I hope I speak your language. I also speak five foreign languages, badly, and I don’t use them in business.
I’ve been a home owner and I’ve been homeless. I’ve had good salary packages, and I’ve had spells on the dole. I’ve worked some of the worst manual jobs imaginable and I’ve worked for some elite employers. Maybe it’s no longer there, but when I worked at Coutts & Co the building contained an “on demand” private apartment staffed with a butler, just in case any senior staff had worked late and had missed the last train home. Contrast that with this, I once lived in a homeless hostel, and I moved out after two weeks because sleeping rough was better (and safer) than sleeping in a doss house.
Over my accounting career (starting in 1985) my clients have ranged from hairdressers and taxi drivers, to wealthy financiers and the Nobility. I have worked for bosses who were intelligent legal experts and knowledgeable tax partners, and for one who was a Faginesque back street accountant. I lasted ten and a half days at that one, walking out on a Monday lunchtime. I had said to myself on the previous Friday evening to not go back on the Monday, and foolishly I had. The philosophy at that place was you want a set of accounts, what sort of accounts do you want then?
And this brings me back to where this article started. I am no oracle of ethical behaviour. But, I have seen far more of life and of business than many of you will ever see. At the top end of society and at the bottom, and at many points inbetween. Yes, there are better places to be, and there are worse places to be, and I have not quite been to the far flung reaches of that spectrum. But, in spite of that, I have learnt a lot about humanity and about myself, and about the standards I want to uphold.
As I write this dialogue, at the start of 2021, I have been an accountant for 35 years, and I have been running Proactive for the last 24 years. I have balanced the business ambitions I’ve developed as an accountant, with my sense of civic duty learned as a teacher. In each of these roles I have studied legislation, and coincidentally I have experience of UK courts as a claimant, as a defendant, as an expert witness, and as a litigant in person. I attend quarterly CPD courses run by a gentleman who has a law degree and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Tax.
I am well aware of the law on tax and accounts, both statute law and case law. I can apply the “Duke of Westminster” case and I can get your tax bill down as low as it can legally go. At the same time I cannot help you to defraud HMRC, because then both you and I would be committing offences under the Fraud Act 2006 and under the Money Laundering Regulations 2017. My concept of civic duty tells me that (amongst other things) taxes need to be paid in order to support a democratic society.
I cannot tell you where to find the goal posts of life, nor how far they can be bent.
However, by using my unparalleled background, my varied experience and my professional knowledge, I can tell you (in a business sense) when you are breaking the law, and when you are inciting me to be complicit in that. If I say that an expense is not allowable, I am saying it with good reason. If I say that the VAT is not recoverable, then I’m telling you the rules. I have a business to maintain, and a reputation to uphold, and I cannot afford to tolerate wilful indiscretions and then put my name to those accounts. I cannot overrule High Court judges nor established case law, and I use the “Duke of Westminster” case to help me establish where the goal posts are in business, and how little they can be bent. If your self interest makes you think you’re above the rule of law, then you need to closely examine what is really in your own self interest.
It’s my job to keep you on-side with Government. You get peace of mind. So do I.
I also have a reputation for dismissing clients who resist all my efforts to help them and who persistently fail to develop any business acumen. I narrated this podcast about the weedkiller letter on 20 Dec 2010. It’s probably worth another four minutes of your time to listen to it, and discover the logic of this policy.
No matter what life throws at me, I seize the day, and I make the best I can of even difficult situations. This is the way that I see the world . . .
• Law abiding accountants work best with law abiding clients.
• Tenacious accountants work best with tenacious clients.
• Proactive accountants work best with proactive clients.
I’m all three. And I can show you the secrets of success. Is that something you’d be interested in?