How to stay in the black
Anthony Bell wasn't satisfied with the usual accountant's role of recording history, he wanted to make a difference to the businesses of his clients.
In the mid 1990s, accountant Anthony Bell could often be found sitting in the reception of successful Sydney companies observing the scene.
The ambitious young businessman would visit advertising, law and marketing firms, among others - any organisation except staid accounting firms. Bell, now in his 30s and the chief executive officer of Bell Partners chartered accountants and business advisory firm, yearned to watch the best in business at close range. And no, he laughs, he was never evicted.
"I wanted to see best practice," he says. "Prototypically accounting firms were not the most dynamic, but also the proprietors let the appearance of their firm back up the reputation of the profession," Bell says.
Formed in 1997, Bell Partners now has more than 50 staff and has repeat recognition through Business Review Weekly awards: it has been awarded the most productive firm for three years running and was ranked in the top 10 fastest-growing firms last year.
Operating out of new offices on King Street Wharf in Sydney, the Bell Partners headquarters is, as you might expect, "pretty funky". A concierge service ensures parking is never a hassle for clients, who enter the office at street level.
"We've taken accountancy back to retail level," Bell says. "We didn't want clients to lose half an hour parking."
He is adamant, too, that top-class service extends to all clients and that a "star-chasing" mentality is frowned upon at the firm.
"We don't differentiate between the client base. We always say that a $100,000 retainer can be linked to a $100 tax return. We really see our clients as our distribution model."
Not the retiring type
The rise and rise of Bell Partners is impressive. In 2000, Bell took the unusual step of buying out his father's 40-year-old practice, Donald F. Bell & Co. Most sons just wait for their father to retire or die, but Bell did not want to wait. "I sensed that accounting firms needed to be doing more than simply recording history," he says.
The takeover was the toughest negotiation of his life. "A lot of people thought I was mad - why would you buy something that you'll naturally inherit? But what it did give me was autocracy and freedom to develop the practice the way I wanted to do it."
Bell was at the start of his career and wanted to pour profits into training, hardware and software. His father, edging towards retirement, was more inclined to concentrate on yield. "I just sensed that it wasn't going to work," Bell says.
The bulked-up firm had no external funding and relied on profits to fuel growth. Five years later, the staff pay sheet makes interesting reading: Donald Bell now works for his son.
The determination to do it his way is typical of Bell, who prefers to recruit graduates and "train them our way". He also takes a very structured approach to career paths and staff development. Quarterly reviews allow management and staff to have their say. Performance wins out over mere experience: if a 23-year-old is outperforming a 43-year-old, the promotion will go to the former.
Bell says: "We're working in an outcomes business and there should be rewards for additional outcomes beyond expectation ... We try to lay out a track for our guys from the moment they arrive in the place - no matter the level at which they start. We do a dual-sided review once a quarter to get feedback on how they think management is doing and how management thinks they are doing. Promoting off the floor has been one of our keys to retention in a hard recruitment market."
Growth is managed carefully, based on predictive models. Staff members are hired in advance of rush periods to ensure the team is not put under unnecessary pressure.
The CEO has some guiding business principles:
- Never be driven by profit.
- Loyalty to customers is the key to long-term relationships.
- Start the first day of a relationship with clients and staff with a view to finishing your careers together.
Rolling up the sleeves
There is a saying about his profession that Bell dislikes: "Accountants don't make history, they record it."
It is not enough for him: he wants to make a difference to his clients' businesses, bottom lines and lives.
Brought up in the working-class suburb of Maroubra in Sydney, Bell now enjoys the trappings of success - in fact, he believes you should celebrate success. He has worked hard for the privileges and says business is about achievements, not money. The former rugby player's favourite quotes are revealing: "If you're going through hell, keep going," from former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, and "You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don't take," from Canadian ice hockey legend Wayne Gretsky.
Bell is always prepared to have a go. He started out in the late 1980s when "accountant-bashing was a common pastime" and relied on word of mouth to let potential clients get the message about his firm's service ethics and quality of advice. The referrals came quickly during strong business cycles but, more importantly, when markets hit tough times.
"We are not afraid of advising our clients through tough times," he says. "It's actually when our advice is sought the most, particularly in crisis recovery or business rescue."
Bell has no plans to ease off. With growth at the firm of 30.8 per cent in 2004, he continues to relish the chance to challenge staff and stretch the boundaries.
What motivates him? "I think the sight of the staff coming through the ranks of the firm. The confidence that the small things will be done well. And the opportunity to challenge ourselves every day and push limits and benchmarks."
Bell Partners wants to stay boutique: large enough to handle the likes of BHP Billiton and small enough to do a tax return for a schoolteacher. The firm prides itself on being small enough to provide face-to-face service (it is not uncommon for Bell to turn up at clients' homes on the weekend to attend to some pressing business matters) but big enough to match or outdo a multinational operation.
The usual accountancy tradition of appointing other partners has been resisted: Anthony Bell is the boss in a single-partner firm, but he has surrounded himself with good people.
"I set up an effective and detailed management structure immediately. This has evolved somewhat over the last eight years, but the core of it is still the same today. I resisted merging into other partnerships because I didn't believe the small-firm partnership model was a good one either for growth or for continuity."
It seems an appropriate model for a man who admires hard-nosed businessmen such as advertising legend John Singleton, retailer Gerry Harvey and real estate whiz John McGrath.
They are self-made men who started with little. They are resilient, committed and determined. "They have passion and enthusiasm - not a bad couple of traits to have," Bell says.
Does he fit the same personality type?
"I hope so."
- Learn from the success of others
- Treat all clients equally
- Don't be driven by profit.
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Published on: Wednesday, December 16, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus