Opportunities in leafy Godalming

UK accountants Roffe Swayne are building worldwide connections from a small town in the countryside. Marketing Director Virginia Cook and Forensic Partner Kate Hart tell Neasa MacErlean about the firm’s aims and ambitions, ways and means.

In the past, an accountancy practice based 30 miles away from the City of London might have been seen as a local firm. But Godalming-based Roffe Swayne reaches into markets locally, regionally, nationally, internationally and in London.

In many ways, its home base between the Surrey Hills and the South Downs is no ordinary location. These beauty spots house many of the capital city’s most powerful and wealthy individuals – people who commute each day during their career and then retire to the countryside. Old taboos – which discouraged people from using the firm next door – might have prevented them consulting local advisers. But, over the last decade, these cultural restrictions have largely fallen away, making it easier for ambitious players like Roffe Swayne to compete with the top drawer.

So the 90-person, eight-partner practice advises companies which earn as much as £200m a year as well as entrepreneurs and high net worth individuals with high-tech, global, complicated interests. “They might live in Surrey or London but they invest all over the world,” says Virginia Cook. “And we need to be able to help them move quickly when they need to, which is why we have also created a base in central London as so many of our clients travel between the two places.”

Cook has been with the firm less than a year. While she plans to raise its game from a marketing and BD perspective, she has stepped into a practice which was clearly doing well without a senior marketer. It does not (yet) disclose its turnover but it will say that this rose 10 per cent in 2016/17. And research which the new Marketing Director has carried out with its major clients, as part of a new CRM programme, shows many 9/10 satisfaction scores. More than that, the practice had over the years branched into areas such as forensic services and had set up 11 specialist areas from tech to niche audits such as Global Investment Performance Standards, Grant audits and FCA regulated businesses.

Nevertheless, in 2016 Roffe Swayne did feel it was time to recruit an experienced marketer. “Technology is causing quite a bit of disruption in all professional markets,” she says, referring to a central reason why the firm is now re-examining its identity and offering. “That is driving the need for us to change our business and to harness technology in the right way for our clients.”

This autumn, Cook and her assistant will be able to move the marketing/BD agenda into a second phase. Having carried out numerous pieces of consultation and research – with staff, referrers and large clients – they will be able to feed into reviews of the firm’s positioning and services which Roffe Swayne’s new managing partner, Jeremy Gardner, is leading. It is part of the Marketing Director’s role to ensure the programme stays on course, despite competing calls on partner and fee-earner time. She says: “My job is to keep my eye on the prize.”

Whatever the outcome of these reviews, Cook is fairly sure of the nature of some of the initiatives she will be making this autumn. These include extending the client relationship programme to the next tier down; setting up client service training; instituting client planning and development schemes with fee-earners; rethinking the website; and doing more on social media. In the last couple of years, the number of the firm’s followers has quadrupled (to 700) on Twitter and has trebled (to 330) on LinkedIn. But there will be more emphasis in future on fee-earners building their own reputations on these routes. Another initiative will be the establishment of events which enable clients to meet one another – particularly entrepreneurs and company directors.

The Forensic Accounting team is one of the most innovative in its own marketing, and is likely to be seen as a model for other parts of the firm. Partner Kate Hart is head of this unit and is already a regular sender of Tweets and a blogger on LinkedIn. The latter is, she says, “a useful forum to show that you are doing what you say you are doing”. In a market which is attracting many new and inexperienced advisers, Hart is able to demonstrate her knowledge by discussing innovations in her caseload and by referring to her 16 years in the sector. Even in today’s fast-moving world, it can take decades to build a reputation. For the first time this year Roffe Swayne features in Who’s Who in Legal for its forensic team and Hart has contributed two chapters to Kogan Page’s Forensic Accounting & Finance: Principles & Practice, published in August.

An outsider could look at Roffe Swayne and ask if it is changing too fast. The reviews it is undertaking of its clients, referrers, the views of its staff, its positioning and services could mean that no part of the practice will be untouched and also includes a re-examination of its values and intent. Cook comes to the job with some experience of change-based consultations to assist the process, and she knows precisely what needs to emerge. “It is very important to be clear on what we are doing and who we are doing it for,” she says. “We are in the process of discovering who we are best placed to service and who likes working with us.” And, with no concern in her voice, she talks of the firm’s plan to continue to grow at over 10 per cent a year for the next three years (at least). “All the signs are that this is achievable.”

Many people reading this article will have no idea where on a map to find Godalming, the location of the practice’s headquarters. On the one hand, that matters little in the internet-connected world. On the other hand, Godalming is just five miles from the campus of the University of Surrey, one of the UK’s fastest-growing high-tech institutions. The Marketing Director is already starting to think about making connections with this prominent neighbour.

The leafy lanes of Surrey and the streets of its market towns clearly provide more opportunities than city-dwellers might expect.