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End of an era: leading through change – interview with Amanda Francis.

2018 brought a change of leadership for Buzzacott, former Managing Partner Amanda Francis shares her thoughts on eight years of leading through change and muses over her 35 years and counting at Buzzacott.

Tell me about your journey to becoming Managing Partner, did you envisage that’s where you would be when you joined the firm? 

Not at all. Since qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, I have only ever wanted to work with charities. I stayed at Buzzacott due to the firm’s commitment to the charity sector, and was promoted up through the ranks becoming a Partner in 1994 and then Charity Team Leader shortly thereafter. In 2010, I took over as Managing Partner from Mark Farmar. Mark and our then Chairman, Anthony deLacey, had effectively transformed the business, introducing the Team structure and giving the firm a very stable foundation and a strong reputation for high quality and specialist work. 

When I was elected as Managing Partner, I made clear my intention for “evolution not revolution” - I wanted to build on what Mark and Anthony had established. My wish was to continue to build our reputation for high quality work, to differentiate us from many of our competitors and to develop an organisation where people would want to learn, develop and stay. Buzzacott has never pretended to be all things to all people and I was determined that we should continue to build on our strengths, developing further the niche areas we had become known for and continuing to work in collaboration with other professionals to provide our clients with the best possible service and added value.

The Buzzacott values and culture have been a focal point during your leadership. Why do you feel they are important?

Staying true to, and believing in, our values has helped Buzzacott grow from strength to strength, enabling us to attract high quality people that train and stay with us and also helping us to adapt to changing times. Having a clear culture and set of values has better enabled us to deal with change. They act as the yardstick for our decision making and ensure we always consider the people impacted by those decisions or by the advice we give.

In particular, our value of client focus has remained key. This also applies internally as well. We are all clients of one another when we work as part of a team. Any successful organisation has to change with the times and I believe passionately that in order to do this, you have to listen to your clients including your team members. If you don’t, you will get left behind. Examples of this are clear if you look at what has happened in parts of the commercial sector in recent times. Many businesses have struggled and failed, partially because they haven’t been responsive to their clients or customers and the changing times and needs. Two key ingredients for any successful business are a happy team of people and happy clients.

During your eight years in leadership, you led the firm through significant change. How have you dealt with that and what advice can you pass on to other budding leaders?

Human beings often fear change and its implications. This fear has to be faced – it is necessary to accept that change is inevitable - you have to embrace it and recognise that with change there will always be opportunities. Never run away from change or say that you’ll deal with it tomorrow. When change happens, concentrate on the positives.

Buzzacott became a UK top 25 firm in 2012, how did that make you feel as Managing Partner?

It’s just great and testament to all the hard work of my predecessors and fellow partners and our staff team. It demonstrates that you can still, even in this day and age, be a successful business whilst remaining independent and putting your values at the forefront of everything you do.

We have a lovely office space, right in the heart of the city.  What motivated the decision to move to Wood Street?

Our heritage is that of a “city” firm and retaining that link with the City of London is important to us - it also allows us to work easily with many other professional firms and advisors for the benefit of our clients. By 2007, we were outgrowing our premises in New Fetter Lane and they were in need of significant modernisation.  We moved in February 2011 returning to Wood Street, coincidentally across the street from the location we had left 14 years earlier.  Our current home has allowed us to develop an office space that reflects who we are - we wanted a space that was modern, open plan and large enough to house everyone in the one building.

Being a firm with multiple specialisms, the ability for us all to be under one roof is very important. Having just the one UK office encourages open face-to-face communication, an environment where people can bounce ideas off each other, and so give clients the best possible all-round added value service.

What’s been your proudest achievement here for the firm?

I have not, and could not have achieved anything on my own – the entire Buzzacott team, however, has many things to be proud of.  Most recently, our refreshed brand and new website. This was the culmination of three years of work, really understanding our employees and our clients and how we can visually represent that relationship and be more helpful to clients. This new brand, together with our reputation as a good employer, is an outward facing sign of Buzzacott’s modern outlook and willingness to evolve. There is a lot of hard work and soul searching that goes into maintaining that modern outlook and spirit so the brand, in a way, is a symbol of our achievements and success over the past few years.

Personally, I’m hugely proud also that we have retained our independence and we continue to be successful. As a firm we are true to our values - values are important in today’s world and we’ve proved that they work.

You’ve been at Buzzacott for more than 35 years, joining in 1987 as a graduate. Can you think back to why you decided to pursue accounting as a career and why you chose Buzzacott? 

I’m afraid I simply fell into accounting. I studied maths at university and, at the end of my course, I was told my options were teaching, actuarial work, further academic study or accounting - in 1987 there was no such thing as “careers advice”! I took a chance and explored accountancy. I interviewed with two firms, got offers from both, but obviously accepted the one from Buzzacott.

The two firms I interviewed with could not have been more different – one was what later became one of the Big Six (before the days of the Big Four!) and the process was remarkably slick and enticing.  However, Buzzacott seemed to have more character and it intrigued me. I also liked that it was a medium-sized firm and so would provide me with a broader range of experience.

Why did you decide to specialise in charities?

Again luck and timing played a very significant part.  Soon after qualifying, I decided that if I was going to stay in the profession, I wanted to work with clients I felt a particular affinity with and whose work I felt drawn towards.  The late 1980’s saw the beginning of a transformation in the governance and accountability of charities with many charities requiring soon thereafter formal accounts and audit for the very first time.  This coincided with a small firm called Godfrey Lord joining Buzzacott and bringing with it a number of charity clients which, together with those charities already served by the firm, gave us the critical mass that allowed us to develop and build our charity specialism. This was just the opportunity I was looking for and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m a firm believer that, in one way or another, we are all in this world to serve and, to me, that’s what the charity sector and the people within it do so brilliantly. I hope that by using my own skills to help charities, I too give a little something back to society.

Who has had a real impact on your career?

Throughout my career, I have met so many inspirational people – many of them clients.  From within Buzzacott, there have been two people that have had a massive influence on my career, my outlook and the way I work with clients: Bobby Vincent and John McNiff. 

Bobby was passionate about the charity sector and had the foresight to see the impact of the legislative changes on the sector and the vision to see how Buzzacott could help.  Our specialism and reputation in the charity and not for profit world can be attributed very much to him.  His enthusiasm was contagious, his “can do” attitude gave me confidence and his encouragement gave me the determination to learn and succeed.  

John joined us from Godfrey Lord.  From John, I learned client skills, the importance of listening to and understanding clients’ needs and concerns, the significance of looking at more than just the numbers on the page and the need for client focus and exceptional service.

Both very different characters, but both taught me so much about the work I do and how I approach it.

Is there a moment that stands out for you with regards to your clients?

I’m proud of all my clients, they vary in size and activity hugely but they are all selfless and work tirelessly for the good of others. Many of my clients are people who you may sit next to on a train or bus not realising that you are next to someone who has done amazing work, established projects and helped many, many people. I’ve met some truly inspiring people in my career.

Looking ahead what do you think will be the big changes for accountancy firms and the professional services industry?

During my career we have seen some massive advancements in technology.  It is sobering to recollect that when I joined Buzzacott 35 years ago there were hardly any computers used.  Nowadays, we all carry mobile telephones around in our pockets or handbags that are more powerful than the computer that sent the first rocket to the moon.  The pace of development will not slow and artificial intelligence will, in many ways, revolutionise the way we all work and live.  

For the accountancy profession, I believe much of our compliance work will become more and more automated and regulated. This will necessitate change but, as I said, change leads to opportunities. Machines are very good at doing and following instructions and rules. However, our profession deals with people who will continue to need advisers who can interpret, who can outline options, and who can explain solutions to complex problems in a manner that can be understood and implemented. One outcome of this may be that we see more and more multi-disciplinary professional firms with advisers with different skill sets and expertise coming together to provide all encompassing advice to clients.  

I learnt early on from a great teacher that my job is to look beyond the numbers.  We are in a people business and inter-personal skills will become more and more important – it all comes back to client focus.

Article taken from issue 7 of Beyond the Numbers