Should you become an accountant just because you’re good at numbers?

Alasdair McGill, the co-founder of accounting firm Ashton McGill, is proud to call himself an accountant. However, that wasn’t always the case.

“I don’t think I ever went into accountancy because I wanted to be an accountant,” he explains.

“I was interested in business. I was interested in people and I was good with numbers.”

Compared to service-focused industries like technology, retail or fashion, the traditional way of practising accounting can feel a little dowdy – more of a process than a service that really connects with people’s needs and aspirations.

Something about it left McGill underwhelmed.

“Accountants generally, we’re taught to be technicians. We’re not taught soft skills. We’re not taught how to deliver great customer experiences – it’s just not part of our training. We’re focused on the task of how to do a tax computation, how to prepare a set of accounts, how to do a set of accruals and prepayments, but not how to understand how that’s received by the customer or the client. With some of the language we use, there can be a disconnect with the client.”

McGill trained initially as an accountant and gained an ACCA qualification while working for Ernst & Young (EY) in the late 1980s, but his interest was never fully accounting-focused.

His role at EY involved a lot of corporate finance and business planning work, and he says he was always curious about “what happened afterwards” with the businesses he was involved with. So he decided to take the leap and go out into industry, leaving EY in late 1993.

Starting out as a financial controller, he was soon promoted to financial director. Then in 1996, he became the managing director of the group, a role he held until 2001. Over the next decade, he was involved in a number of different businesses and also set up two of his own.

This is the pathway that led to the creation of Ashton McGill. Originally the firm was set up as a consultancy, helping businesses transform the way they provide services to customers.

McGill’s two children – both designers – heavily influenced the path he took. His daughter, Rebecca, 28, is a textile designer, while son, Andy, 26, is a graphic designer and marketer (as well as co-founder of Ashton McGill). Their work inspired McGill to enter into a new sphere – service design.

“I’ve always believed that we should build businesses that are designed to solve customers’ problems,” he says. “So I studied service design to help gain the tools to create a better way of running a business.”

Ashton McGill carried out service design work for brands like Volkswagen, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and the V&A Museum. McGill also spent two and a half years as head of entrepreneurship at Dundee University between 2014 and 2016.

Accounting came back into the picture when Xero approached Ashton McGill to help create a customer experience programme for Xero partners.

“The two parts of my world (accounting and design) started to collide. Initially, I said no, as I was enjoying being a designer,” McGill notes. “But we had one particularly bad experience with our own accountant and that was the turning point. In the spring of 2017, we started the process of designing the business model for Ashton McGill. We believed that there was a better way to deliver accounting services, but wanted to validate that.

“So we went out and had more than 100 conversations with business owners and asked them to tell us about their experience with accounting – what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they wish their accountant would do less of.

“We captured a rich amount of information and that helped us design the service we eventually took to the market in 2017.”

Since then, they’ve grown the business and now have a team of 10, working with around 180 clients.

For McGill, elevating the role of accountants is now a personal mission, especially around service and design. He’s also proud of the service accountants the profession has given during Covid.

“Over the last year, so many accountants have done invaluable work, but often, we don’t shout about it,” he says. “Last year was hectic for us, but we did whatever it took to help our clients survive.”

McGill and his team postponed a lot of their work and freed up time to help their clients – through one-on-one calls, workshops and group Zoom calls outlining the latest Covid-19 information. They also provided work on furlough claims free of charge.

As the pandemic continued, McGill noticed many of their clients had to change their business models, so he created a ten-week business model innovation workshop for business owners, which they also used to raise money for the NHS.

Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for Ashton McGill going forward is recruitment and finding the right people for the business, McGill says.

“We’re not in a hurry to grow. We want to build the right business with the right people in it and for the right clients. It takes time to do that. We want to focus more on how we can make life easier and better for our clients.

“We’ve said, ‘let’s look after ourselves for a bit’. Let’s not put more pressure on the business. We’ll spend that time redesigning services and rethinking them. I realise there’s a privilege in that, but for two or three years of building the business, we worked incredibly hard. So we’re rebalancing that and taking the opportunity to let the team relax a little bit.” 

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

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