After founding his own accounting practice in York in 2000, Peter Atkinson was an early convert to cloud accounting as the way to help clients develop their businesses and grow.
Atkinson, who runs Atkinsons Chartered Accountants with his son, Chris, and a team of seven, was one of the first firms in the north of England to embrace cloud technology through Xero accounting software.
“The writing was on the wall,” he said. “Effectively it changes the way that we do accounting and our relationship with clients.”
Atkinson decided early on that he wanted his firm to take more dynamic approach to dealing with clients, rather than following the more traditional route of bringing clients financial records up to date at the end of the year.
“With cloud accounting you are up-to-date all of the time,” he said. “You’re always up to date with knowing how the business is doing because of the way the accounting system works and we’ve got the same access as the clients to those records and results,” Atkinson added.
“You can say to the clients we know how you are doing but let’s see if we can improve it… it’s much more dynamic and you’re very much working as part of their team, in partnership with them to drive it forward.”
Having access to the same data and accounting systems as their clients meant that “we can help make their businesses grow and it leaves the entrepreneur free to do what they are good at which is the front-facing stuff,” he argued.
“We can help them to spot opportunities and capitalise on the good things.”
Since launching his own practice, Atkinson has always been concerned that traditional methods of historical accounting reports are as useful to clients as “an ashtray on a motorbike.”
“The day to day stuff is what is really important,” he said. “We wanted to help [clients] run the business rather than just produce this historical piece of information which was not much good to anyone,” he said.
“Cloud accounting is about management information, it’s about producing real important key performance indicators for the business and bringing to the fore the sort [of] things that businesses need to improve things.”
The real-time accounting system helps Atkinson offer strategic business advice. “You’re almost like a finance director for them. It leads into the provision of value added services.”
One client who benefitted from Atkinson’s more hands-on approach is Rana Harvey, the founder of the Monster Group, an online retail business near York that supplies customers worldwide with products including catering equipment, weighing scales and retail display equipment.
Harvey’s experience with Atkinsons features in Inspirational Accountants, a book by Steve Pipe.
As a promising local businesswoman, Harvey took part in the Goldman Sachs 10, 000 Small Businesses Programme where she realised that a good accountant was essential to business growth, prompting her to hire Atkinson’s services.
Atkinson first sat down with her to identify her business needs. He discovered that she had opted for the more traditional route of running the business and catching up on financial information afterwards.
“[Rana] had a really good handle on a lot of the metrics of the business and key things that drive it, but not a full picture. By moving into the cloud we were able to give her a better picture of how the business was performing… which really helped her to drive the business forward,” he said.
“We looked at where she was first of all and then we formulated a plan to say ‘we can move you to where you want to be on the cloud’. We pointed out the benefits about more up to date, better and dynamic information in terms of how the business was performing,” he said.
“And she grasped that straight away because it was something that she recognised the need for… She’s a very dynamic person who wants to grow the business quickly and this helped her to do it.”
The positive results of switching to cloud accounting were quickly apparent for Harvey’s business, allowing her to give high quality information to her financial supporters, boosting their confidence.
“She got better information so she could highlight products and processes that she was making real money on,” said Atkinson. “It helped give her sustained growth, better cash flow, and then really cemented into her plans the sort of rigour needed to underpin it.”
Making full use of tax breaks was also key to Atkinson’s strategy for helping the Monster Group to grow. With a warehouse full of goods, Harvey qualified for an embedded plant and machinery allowance that was often missed by regular accountants.
Her research and development role also made her eligible for certain incentives.
Atkinson said a holistic approach underpinned his work with clients. “We’re going to help you to grow and develop your business but you’ve got to think about your own personal balance sheet first,” he said.
“That’s equally key really – saying where does the business want to be and how do we get it there but also where do you want to go in terms of your personal balance sheet… in terms of how to extract properly, how to build your wealth in terms of investments, pensions, or in property,” he said.
“It’s very much a two-pronged approach to say we can help to build the business but we can also help to build your wealth as part of that profile.”
In Harvey’s case, Atkinson’s efforts not only helped her Monster Group to grow, but allowed her to buy her dream family home and car.
Atkinson has also recently reaped the benefits of embracing cloud technology. In early May he signed a merger with BHP, another Yorkshire accountancy firm.
He believes the merger will help his business develop more success stories.
“It’s just great news in terms of the staff and the clients because there is no real change but an opportunity to work with bigger and better clients and add to the resource pool using the good offices of BHP,” he said.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.