The accounting industry may be all about dollars but it’s no license to print money.
Running an accounting firm has never been more challenging as new technology has slashed revenue and margins from more traditional accounting, tax and auditing services.
Times have changed since I founded a firm 22 years ago and I’m often asked what I would do if I were starting out today.
I would still begin with the same base: build an integrated accounting and financial services business. The difference is I would buy an accounting firm with only $500,000 in annual fee revenue.
This accounting firm should have many individual-return clients and many small, simple business clients. Ideally, I would have about 40 business clients each paying about $5,000 in annual accounting fees, 100 small mum and dad clients paying about $1,000 and another 400 clients paying $200-$600 to complete their tax returns.
I would then analyse this database of 540 clients: the majority should be 28-45 years of age, meet minimum income levels, and live within a 20-kilometre radius of the office. We need at least 90 per cent of their email addresses because we’ll invite them, as well as their family and friends, to regular wealth management seminars.
This diverges from the advice of many other consultants to the accounting profession who advocate focusing on large businesses rather than small clients. The industry has been predicting the end of small clients for decades but tax is inherently complex and they need the advice of a qualified accountant.
Those clients who ultimately don't use one of our insurance, lending or financial planning services would be sold after three years, leaving plenty of time to reach their family and friends who may become accounting clients.
My accountants would be trained in soft sales skills and we would use the accounting database to generate new leads, allowing the financial planning practice to be built from scratch. These related services and referrals are what makes many smaller clients profitable.
It also recognises the significant difference in value between accounting and financial planning firms: if I buy the accounting firm on a dollar-for-dollar basis and introduce financial services, I've turned that dollar into a four-dollar capital value.
Our goal is to double the accounting revenue to $1 million and the financial planning revenue from zero to $1 million over the next five years. On a 50 per cent profit margin, this integrated financial planning and accounting firm would make a true annual net profit of $1 million.
Technology is a disruptor to the accounting profession but by embracing technology, systems and processes, you can also build a successful, integrated planning and accounting firm.
This combined accounting and financial services business would have minimal staffing: a senior accountant and a mid-range accountant with great sales skills. The financial planning team would consist of two advisers because most of the day-to-day work would be outsourced.
This is another reason why relatively simple mum and dad tax returns and small businesses can be profitable compared to larger clients who require complex tax, structuring and planning advice. This type of relatively straightforward work can be outsourced, whether this be offshore or within Australia, underpinning our 50 per cent profit margin.
I would launch the first business practice in Brisbane with systems embedded from the start to underpin productivity and efficiency. In the second year, I would roll out in Sydney and Melbourne and in the third year, I would launch practices in Adelaide and Perth.
Over a seven-year period, we have built five branches each returning a net profit of $1 million with gross revenue of $1 million from the accounting practice and $1 million from the financial planning practice. Together, the five branches are producing a $5 million net profit.
Further efficiencies can be gained by pooling some of the administrative functions and appointing a chief executive to run all five branches.
Using the industry’s rule of thumb valuation (accounting firm fee revenue is worth $1 per $1 and financial planning fees are worth $3 per $1), each branch is worth $4 million. Together, the five branches are valued at $20 million.
However, the great thing is that, unlike most businesses, it is worth even more using a multiple of earnings. The combined five branches are worth $30 million using six times earnings before interest and tax (EBIT).
There’s no denying that building a successful business is complex, but at its heart it's 5 per cent strategy and 95 per cent implementation.
The success of this proposed business model relies on buying the right kind of accounting firm with the right clients, nailing efficient and effective processes including outsourcing, and hiring accountants who are technically adept but can also engage clients in related services.
Running a professional services firm has never been more challenging but integrating the complementary disciplines of accounting and advice, I believe offers both the growth potential and resilience to create a profitable and sustainable business.