Moving your business abroad – can you retain the same clients?

A different lifestyle, better weather, interesting culture, or the opportunity to grow and expand – there are many reasons why accountants and bookkeepers might want to relocate.

We talk to experts on how to manage the process and talk to a successful accountant who made the move nearly ten years ago, and never looked back.

Making preparations

Preparation is important, so the earlier the better.  The amount of time you need will depend on whether you are moving wholescale, or just testing the water.

“There are so many reasons for a business move – expanding markets, better distribution, easier access to appropriate staff, and, of course increasingly, remote working has become a lifestyle choice for many who don’t want to be tied to a desk, engaging with a widely dispersed workforce,” says Erica Wolfe-Murray, a leading business and innovation expert and founder of Lola Media .

Research is the key to a successful relocation but you cannot just rely on desk research, she says.

“You have to talk to as many people as you can find – both those who have done it successfully and those who have failed.  You will often learn more from the latter.  They may also be able to provide you with helpful fixers, legal teams etc.  And don’t just start with one location – have options.”

Should I keep my home in the UK?

“It really depends on the nature of your business, whether you are closing down all operations here, starting a new smaller satellite office, or just remote working with your laptop,” she says. “The bigger and more complex your requirements at the other end, the longer the lead time needs to be.”

Then there is the question of what to do with your home and business premises in the UK.

“Decisions about property remaining here need to be made in context of what your longer term plans are, whether you own or rent, whether you are closing your operation here or mothballing it,” she explains. “Only you will know whether you want to burn your bridges or may want to return.  Explore both scenarios fully before you make any decision.”

What is your long term strategy?

VHR Technical Recruitment have opened offices in Abu Dhabi, Valencia, and the Czech Republic, and as international recruiters, say you should only move abroad if it suits your business’ long-term strategy.

“Can you cover costs, losses, manage disruption and staff turnover?” says Ryan Abbot, divisional director of VHR. “Consider the worst-case scenario where you are over the next three years, and compare that to the worst-case scenario where you’re considering moving to.”

With Brexit, lots of businesses are uncertain, lots of smaller businesses that depend on their networks are feeling uncertain. One big company moving will have a ripple effect on the whole industry, so we may see more businesses cutting their loses and making a move. Carving out territory before all your competitors arrive is a smart move, and it’s vital to take that first step as soon as you’re sure it’s the option for you, he says.

What factors affect a move?

Mr Abbot says it is important to really research and understand what you will be facing in your new country. Don’t forget to think about:

Schooling – how will your family cope with the new system, and will you have to pay? What is the admissions system and how far in advance do you need to apply?

Tax – you need to understand exactly how much you’ll be paying, and how the tax system works wherever you’re going to.

Culture: History, politics, and other factors can drastically alter how viable a move might be, so take some time to research where you’re going, and make sure that everyone involved knows what part they have to play.

“VHR have worked in the Middle East for over a decade, but setting up our first Middle East office (Abu Dhabi in 2015) meant reviewing our technology and communication methods to facilitate the best possible co-working between and across our offices. The 42° heat at the height of summer was the hardest adjustment to make!he says.

All of my clients are from the UK, and most of my work comes from word of mouth

The pros and cons of relocation

Mr Abbot says the potential advantages of a move could be better business rates, less tax, better access to candidates or client work, and greater certainty over the future.

Drawbacks include the large initial cost of a move, potential language barriers, cultural differences and homesickness.

“Start by appraising your business plan for the move, how it aligns with your overall aims and objectives, and whether it makes long-term sense.”

Make sure it’s financially and legally feasible. Then look at your team. Who would move? Who would thrive in a new environment? Are there any language issues? There are so many things to consider, give yourself as much time as possible to cover all the bases.

If you’re leaving for good, one option is to liquidate your UK property to help with overhead costs. Potentially keep it and rent it, so if you do ever need to return, you have that stable base of operations waiting for you.

What if I want to return?

A move back is probably much simpler than an outward move, says Erica Wolfe-Murray.

“Unless of course some considerable time has elapsed – in which case you need to bear in mind how fast markets evolve and change.  Have you taken this into consideration and researched what is happening here?”

“First of all, keep your UK bank account open,” says Mr Abbot. “This gives an official line of communication that you can access whenever you feel like you might need to return. The only way you can officially move your company’s registration to another country is by dissolving it in the UK (closing it down) and incorporating it through the relevant registrar of companies in another country.”

Alternatively, you could register a new company in a different country and use your existing company name.

“This will be permitted because both companies will be part of the same group. These processes, however, can be time-consuming and costly. But it will mean you can simply return when you need to.”

Case study – accountant Paul Smith

Paul Smith FMAAT, 48, is a Licensed member of AAT and runs his own business Paul R Smith Ltd from Halifax and Florida.

He set up his own business in 1999 and since 2008 has been based in Florida but working with UK SMEs, doing everything from book keeping, payroll, tax and income.

He comes back to the UK four times a year for up to a month at a time to catch up with clients and attend training and CPD sessions run by AAT. For the remainder of the time, he uses AAT online resources and podcasts for information, and talks to clients by phone, Facetime audio or WhatsApp audio.

“The time difference between the UK and Florida actually works well for me,” he says. “Clients appreciate being able to discuss tax matters with me at 8pm UK time, as it doesn’t interrupt their working day. I can also log onto their online accounting systems in my evening time, when I won’t be disturbing them.”

He moved for the lifestyle and the weather, having had a serious motorbike accident in 2001 which meant he has titanium plates in his body and is likely to suffer from chronic arthritis as he gets older. He is now much more active and is training for a half marathon.

He was one of the first to get a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone system which means that his phone is routed through the internet. This enables him to have a local Halifax number which clients can call without having to pay the cost of an international call.

“I still keep my own house in the countryside in Halifax, and I come to the UK for three to four weeks,” he explains. “All of my clients are from the UK, and most of my work comes from word of mouth, so I don’t have to explain that I’m based in Florida, as people already know. My sister works for me in the UK, and she can visit clients if they need any face to face help.”

He has a ten year old daughter who goes to school in Florida, and an American wife. He says being married to US citizen did make it easier in terms of settling and working in the US.

“I find that I am more efficient working this way. I got my Green Card (which enables you to live and work permanently in the US) in 2013, that was five years after buying my first house in Florida. My wife is from California, but we decided on Florida because the eight-hour time difference between the UK and California wouldn’t have really worked, and it is a long flight back to the UK.”

He did look into taking exams to qualify to be an accountant in the US, but decided he had enough UK-based work and the US tax system was more complicated and very difficult from that in the UK.

“The only drawback of still being a UK resident is that I pay tax both in the UK and in the US. The advantage is that I am still able to use the NHS, and to visit my dentist in the UK.

“I guess I am living a lifestyle that other people only dream of. Some of my friends have moved to France and work from there, but they have given up their homes in the UK. Another friend moved his business to the east coast of Yorkshire, having seen that I was able to continue working successfully after relocating to the US, the move for him across to the coast didn’t seem so daunting.

“Technology makes this lifestyle possible. There is no way I would have been able to do this when I started my first job in Keighley in 1987. The office didn’t even have a computer and all work was done manually and written into books. I like having the freedom and I think I have the best of both worlds.”

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

Related articles