I ran away from the theatre to become a bookkeeper

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In his own words, Stephen Levine is probably the only person who has ever run away from the theatre to join accountancy.

After decades of running theatres around the UK, and working on major gigs with Alice Cooper, Kings of Leon, and Ozzy Osbourne, Levine suddenly switched tack to found his own business, Elbess bookkeeping, using his AAT bookkeeping membership as a springboard into a new career.

“I was just about to become a father for the first time in my mid-forties and so where before I had moved around the country, I now had a reason to stay where I was,” he said.

“So I looked at my skillsets and the bits of my job that I really enjoyed and I always enjoyed doing accounting so I thought right, I’m going to get trained in this, and that was the first step into AAT.”

Levine, who always had the ambition to run his own business, revels in the autonomy of setting his own agenda, but he admits that working from his home in Folkestone is a huge shift from the lifestyle he was used to.

“I have actually sat and processed invoices while Motorhead are doing a drum sound-check in the background. That’s very much the environment that I used to be in. I do find I’m having to build new networks,” he said.

I have actually sat and processed invoices while Motorhead are doing a drum sound-check in the background.

But he finds that his interesting background, working for some of the biggest entertainment companies in the country, is a good conversation starter when looking for new clients, and also a boost to his business.

“The theatrical niche gives me an expertise. I also have a bit of experience with catering so I’m trying to get into those kind of fields. What I think works well for customers is when you understand their business and that’s something that I’m trying to work on,” he said.

Levine’s interest in the theatre world began with his father’s own love of amateur dramatics. While he never took to the stage himself, he was gripped early in life by the buzz of organising major events involving household names.

“My mum always told me I should be an accountant because and I think she was probably right but the theatre was much more exciting so I ended up working for a company called Apollo Leisure,” he said.

Levine’s job took him around the country, with postings in York, Manchester, Birmingham and a stint at the London Apollo in Hammersmith when it was starting to become known for its comedy, and hosted major hits like Irish musical, Riverdance.

He was then given the opportunity to run the Beck theatre in Middlesex, a community venue of 600 seats, which allowed him to develop a valuable range of business skills.

“When you’re running a theatre for a big company you have to take on a lot of roles. You’ve got to be the big host and welcome people in. You’ve got to be talking to all the acts and trying to persuade them to come, but a large part of my job, probably 50%, was accounting,” he said.

“So I was doing budgeting and forecasting. I was entering information into ledgers but I didn’t [at the time] understand about double-entry bookkeeping.”

From 2001, Levine was running the Leas Cliff Hall, which was instrumental in putting South Kent back onto the gig circuit for leading performers in the music industry like Ozzy Osbourne and Paul Weller.

In one of his most surreal experiences, his theatre was taken over by the police and special protection officers during the 2005 general election when local Conservative MP, Michael Howard, was pitted against Labour rival, Tony Blair.

“Obviously there was the possibility that he was going to get elected as prime minister and so we had the full prime-ministerial security put in place, with airport-style metal detectors and a ring of fences all around us,” he recalled.

“The police went around and put sensors on all the doors so that you could tell which ones had been opened and that was a very strange world to inhabit for this little while,” he said.

By 2014, when Levine decided to settle in Folkestone and found his own business, he began his AAT bookkeeping qualification with much of the expertise he required already.

“I found a lot of the skills that I already had fitted very well as a bookkeeper,” said Levine. He boosted his knowledge further by volunteering at a local property management firm to get more experience outside of the entertainment world.

After obtaining his AAT accreditation as a licensed bookkeeper, Levine launched his own firm in February.

“It’s still quite new and fresh, but things are going in the right direction,” he said.

He is currently dividing his time between working with his new clients and networking events to draw in more business. “I am starting to have a turnover but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Levine’s advice to other bookkeeping  professionals founding their own companies would be to “make sure you’ve got the customers before you make the jump” as finding the first one is always the hardest.

Adjusting to a self-employed routine is also challenging, he cautions. But the lifestyle definitely has its advantages. “I really like that I’ve got self-determination now and I’m deciding which route I’m taking and what I’m doing,” said Levine.

However, even though he no longer works full time in theatre, Levine admits he still has a strong urge to perform.

Could it lead to another career change? “My natural calling was to call the lottery numbers,” he laughed.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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