Four accountants share their successes from a year of lockdown

From regularly reinventing businesses to being a shoulder to cry on, accountants have been at the very forefront of steering businesses through a turbulent 12 months.

Here, four accountants tell of their achievements and challenges during a year of lockdown.

“We turned our bars into bottle shops”

Jo Wilkinson is head of finance at Leeds-based North Brewing, whose taprooms have been closed for much of the past year.

“One of North Brewing’s best-selling beers is our coconut coffee porter, Full Fathom 5. Yet, it’s been impossible to fully fathom recent events. It seems I’ve spent much of the past year forecasting, then reforecasting, before another announcement on the news forces me to reforecast yet again.

“Back in March 2020, things looked bleak. We had no forecast revenue stream as our taprooms were closed, while distribution disappeared because the bars we supply were also shut.

“We have seven sites in Yorkshire, and as soon as the government’s rate reliefs were announced, we contacted our landlords to reduce rent. We also spent time talking with the council to get all the reliefs that we were entitled to. North Brewing used furloughing and we took out a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) too.

“All that time spent on spreadsheets modelling scenarios paid off in May. This is when we switched our bars/taprooms to bottle shops. As only one staff member is needed to manage a bottle shop, it’s kept costs low. They’ve done an amazing trade because they’re based in suburban areas. With everybody working from home, customers regularly visit on their daily walks.

“Even though some sales channels dropped off, new ones have arisen. Last year we started selling beer through click-and-collect apps and home delivery services, as well as establishing subscriptions and online tastings.

“At the same time, my workload has changed. I spend less time poring over accounts, and more time speaking with people. Because we’ve adapted so rapidly with closings/re-openings, our finance team has been in constant communication with HR and operations managers. It highlights the crucial importance of hiring people, not calculators.

“All our sites are closed, but there are opportunities once we make it through the crisis. Our online services have boosted brand awareness, and we’ve enhanced local community links. Plus, when we reopen, everybody will be desperate for a pint. Make mine a Full Fathom 5.”

“We used data to help clients pivot”

Warren Munson is the founder of Dorset-based Inspire Accountants.

“In the past 12 months, the accountant’s role of being a trusted adviser who supports clients through tough times has become more important than ever before.

It’s something that’s been evident from the very first days of the pandemic. Back then, we were managing a juggling act between supporting clients and running our own business, wondering how the pandemic will affect us.

We got on the phones and spoke to every client – trying to gather information and put our arm around them. Many of them were worried about running out of cash, but also had concerns about business models. ‘How am I going to operate virtually?’ ‘Do I have the technology to do that?’

“By using data analysis skills, Inspire helped support our clients in pivoting. In those uncertain first few months, we made some simple introductions between clients so they could help each other out. We have a nursing home client that struggled to get PPE. We put them in touch with an engineering client that had a cutting machine, and produced their visors. Likewise, one of our distillery clients started making hand sanitiser, but lacked dispensers. We introduced them to Muc-Off, a client that makes bicycle cleaning products, which provided them with containers.

“Throughout the year, we’ve acted as a sounding-board, listening to clients and asking challenging questions to make them think differently. Communicating to clients via content has also been critical – we’ve been sharing knowledge through webinars, emails, social media posts and our website. At one stage last year, we were running a webinar once every three days.

“As a managing director, it’s been difficult because I want to have conversations with clients and staff, rather than leading from behind a laptop.

“In the same way Covid-19 is an opportunity for clients to reset, it’s also an opportunity for the profession to start again, particularly smaller firms that haven’t thought about the years ahead. Supporting clients through good times and bad will be key. It’d be crazy for any firm not to build that into its service model.”

“It’s so important to get clients to think ahead”

Ria-Jaine Lincoln MAAT is director of Milton Keynesbased Ria-Jaine Accounts, with clients in the hair and beauty sectors.

“All of my clients are in the hair and beauty industry, spanning sole traders to super-salons. It’s been difficult for them – a constant struggle. Since March last year, I’ve been helping them with cash flow and staying positive. The recent January lockdown was the worst, with lots of tears from my clients. It’s been really sad.

“The sole traders who didn’t qualify for government grants because they’re newly self-employed have been hit hardest – they’ve lost 100% of their income overnight, and many can’t afford to pay their rent. These businesses can’t innovate or pivot – you can’t really do your lashes over a Zoom call.

“Aside from helping clients with grants, I’ve also been reviewing costs levels, budget controls and tax flows, and doing more forecasting than I’ve ever done before – lots of management accounting. I’ve also regularly referred to the books from my AAT studies 12 years ago.

“But it’s just as important to get clients to think ahead about how long their cash will last. Much of this is using content to get information out to people to focus on their cash flow skills – social media posts, videos, reaching out to trade organisations such as the British Beauty Council. I’ve also been busy signing my clients up to Float, a cloud-based cash flow tool. It shows data in graphs and looks pretty. It’s perfect for my visual-focused clients who aren’t engaged by using spreadsheets.

“In fact, I’m having more conversations with my clients about managing personal finances, payment holidays and income/expense assessment. Sometimes I use my personal experience of living in a domestic abuse refuge. Ringing up your gas company to tell them you can’t afford to pay your bills takes its toll. Ultimately, it’s reminding clients they’re not alone. I’ve also been talking more with clients about mental health.

“This year has been horrendous, but the resilience we’ll learn from this experience will only serve us in the future – whatever that looks like. Some of my businesses are worried they’ll have to start over, but when they rebuild, they’ll know more about marketing and business management, who their customers are, and the ups-and-downs of business than ever before. This year won’t be for nothing.”

“Use this pause to put useful things in place”

Ele Stevens is founder of Hertfordshire-based The Barefoot Accountant

Ele Stevens has more than 250 clients, mainly in the creative arts and music sectors.

“With so many of our clients deriving their income from gigs and festivals, it’s been heartbreaking to see what’s happened to them this year with the shutdown of live music. Yes, some musicians have made money from live-streaming or merchandise, but others have given up, dipped into savings, or worked for no money or as Ocado drivers.

“The prospect of another summer without live music could cripple them. Then there’s the newly self-employed, who have received no government grants. Telling them there’s nothing they can do, other than claim Universal Credit, has been awful. When the pandemic first hit, all of our clients emailed us at once, asking for help. Giving advice is the best thing we can do, such as signposting them towards government grants or HMRC’s Time to Pay. We’ve also encouraged them to use tools that’ll help them run their businesses in the future. It’s about using this pause in business to put things in place that’ll help them when things pick up again.

“We’ve also been checking in on clients’ mental health more. The Barefoot Accountant has been a shoulder to cry on.

“As long as the government keeps extending the furlough scheme and SEISS, we can muddle through. But I don’t think we’ll see the real financial fall-out until next year, with potential increases in tax rates. Until then, we’re here to help them.”

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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