Dynamic, bold and confident

At the start of its second century of business, UK accountancy firm Bishop Fleming aims to be far more than a practice based in the South West and West Midlands. Managing Partner Andrew Sandiford and Marketing Director Paul Seymour talk to Neasa MacErlean.

As part of their firm’s centenary celebrations, Andrew Sandiford and Paul Seymour both ran in the Bath Half Marathon in March. They were members of the largest corporate team to enter the race in its 37-year history. Colleagues came from each of the seven Bishop Fleming offices, alongside clients and other friends — a team of 120 entrants in total.

“It’s been great,” says Seymour. “It’s a good example of different people across the firm coming together for a common cause. It creates a buzz, and alliances that might have seemed unlikely.” As every distance runner knows, performance on the day is the product of weeks of training. To that effect running clubs were sparked off in each office. “In 2018 we launched a wellbeing programme: this is a natural extension of that,” adds the Marketing Director, explaining why the event fits so neatly into the ethos of the 31-partner practice.

Participation in the race is not just about trying to do the right thing by the community — even if the firm has pledged to raise £100,000 in various activities in its 100th year. There is something more elusive than that. “If you want knowledge about accountancy you can google it,” says Sandiford, vocalising a conundrum that must face most professionals now. “But we bring experience and knowledge into our relationships with our clients and with each other. That’s the essence of what we offer now.” And maybe that is right. We have all read IKEA assembly instructions or followed IT installation steps only to end up in a mess. It is the people who have done it before who usually save the day.

2019 is a big year for the 350-strong firm. It was founded 100 years ago just as the war was finishing. But, for all that the history is interesting, today’s firm is using the centenary to develop its rallying call for the future. A rebrand, new intranet, redesigned website and other developments are all being created under a new firm marketing campaign: ‘It’s what we bring together, that sets us apart’. Newly arrived in the UK Top 30 accountancy firms, Bishop Fleming believes that the quality of its relationships (within the firm, and without) will make it a dominant firm in the region and — as business connections become increasingly important — a national practice.

There are no particular plans to increase the footprint of the firm in terms of adding to its seven offices. Its expansion aims are of another sort, or, as Sandiford says, “The nature of business is changing.” He continues: “Where offices are located will be less relevant as time goes by. We will pick up work ‘off patch’. It’s not necessarily about more dots on the map but about having a known reputation and credibility.”

Part of the thinking that underlines the repositioning of the practice for the next 100 years relates to empowering all 350 personnel in terms of business development, not just the partners. Social media is an example where everyone can play a part. “We have heavily invested in it,” says Seymour. “We use animated and video content. And we’re currently planning a ‘Social Media Jam’ – an internal festival of social media designed to further upskill our people.” Younger people are more natural users of social media — and the firm’s leaders believe their involvement is vital. “Not all interesting businesses are the fourth generation family business,” says Sandiford. “Some of the new businesses happen very quickly. It’s going to be more difficult for a 60-year old trying to strike up a relationship with a 22-year old entrepreneur. We want our 20-somethings to be engaged with the 20-something entrepreneurs. We are building diversity of relationship. We don’t want the typical partnership group trying to appeal to all people.” And Seymour adds: “The earlier that we can connect with the young entrepreneur businesses the better.”

To attract and retain young talent, Bishop Fleming puts a significant part of its marketing effort into reaching them. For four years now, the firm has featured in the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ run by The Sunday Times “That positions us nicely as a firm,” says Sandiford. “People know what they are getting. It is what sets us apart: we don’t want superficial relationships with one another, clients or the community.”

The strength of these relationships is such that Bishop Fleming sees itself as becoming an internationally-focused practice as well as a national or regional one. For instance, while the Brexit debate raged on painfully in 2018, the firm put on four well-attended conferences concentrating on international growth. With speakers from the US, Ireland and Netherlands, the practice drew full houses to these gatherings. How did it achieve that? “Rather than adding to the Brexit ’noise’, we simply focused more on the international opportunities,” says Seymour. Many of its clients are multi-national in that they export, import and employ foreign nationals. And, for its part, Bishop Fleming is part of Kreston International, the 200-strong global network of accountancy firms.

So far, Bishop Fleming has demonstrated its ability to flourish in difficult times. Last year’s 6.5 per cent growth rate (bringing annual revenues to nearly £24million) is around the same as the rate it expects to post for 2018/19. And the approach outlined in the centenary campaign is aimed at helping the practice succeed among the top tiers. “Our marketing strategy means we are moving from working on lots of little opportunities to fewer, bigger, better ones.” Its sector approach and international ambitions are examples.

But there is one factor that probably defines Bishop Fleming at the start of its second century more than any other. And that comes through in many of its activities — including the Half Marathon race. “We are dynamic, bold and confident,” says Seymour. “It’s the character we have in the firm that will set us apart.”