“Every day look for 1% improvements. Just look for small gains. Don’t try and change the world overnight. Just make one small change each day or each week that you’re comfortable with. It will make a massive difference”. – Gareth Burton, Assure UK and Progress Accountants.

Today I’m bringing you an interview as part of a series of interviews I conducted at the Accountants BootCamp which was held in late April ‘23. I had the unique and rare opportunity to interview a few award-winning UK accountants who travelled to Australia to attend the event.

For this episode, I’m joined by Gareth Burton (https://www.linkedin.com/in/gareth-burton/ ) the founder of two businesses, the first one is Assure UK which niches in the UK Pension market where they are Specialist Pension Scheme Auditors, and provides Assurance Reports for Independent Trustees, Master Trusts, Pension Scheme Administrators and other Service Organisations. While working in this field he recognised these professional practices were not being served appropriately by their accountants, and he drilled down into offering a double-niched service, via his second business Progress Accountants: Accountants for forward-thinking professional practices with more than three employees.

Summary of the episode:

  • Why Gareth Burton decided to start two firms.
  • The 100 1% improvements in 100 days.
  • Why Gareth decided to start his own accountancy firm.
  • The 100 1% improvement.
  • The technology used in that business: Xero, Dext, Microsoft, BreatheHR, MyWorkPapers.
  • How Microsoft’s change to Teams has changed the landscape of the industry.
  • Finding a niche within a niche.
  • The transition from commodity to service-based business.
  • The key takeaways from attending the accountant’s Bootcamp.
  • How Disney would run an accounting practice.
  • Customer service and customer experience.
  • Gareth’s advice for new accountants: “Look for small gains”.
  • Making one small change each day or each week.

The original Accountants BootCamp was held in the 1990s at Sanctuary Cove on the Gold Coast. At the re:Boot event, we were fortunate enough to have attendees and speakers from the original Accountants BootCamp in the 1990s, including Aynsley Damery, CEO of Clarity. The three-day workshop focused on delivering repeatable, scalable services that benefit both the firm and the client. Many attendees used Clarity’s software platform to assist in delivering these services. And in case you missed it, Aynsley Damery joined me on a previous episode of Cloud Stories in May 2021, where we discussed “How to double your clients’ profits in 5 easy steps”:

For all of these interviews, we are walking through the beautiful ground of Sanctuary Cove, so there is a little bit of ambient background noise, which I hope adds to the experience!

Could you share with our listeners who you are and where you’re from?

Gareth Burton:                So my name is Gareth Burton. I’m from the UK and I’ve got a specialist audit firm called Assure UK and a general online accountant called Progress Accountants.

Heather Smith:                It’s quite exciting that you have two separate businesses.

Gareth Burton:                Yes. One complements the other.

Whereabouts are your businesses based?

Gareth Burton:                One is based in London and the other one is based in Banbury.

Heather Smith:               Okay. You travel between both of them.

Gareth Burton:                One’s completely virtual and the other one has its main head offices in Banbury where most of my teams sit.

Heather Smith:                I went to work one day in Banbury to do a stock count for sausage rolls.

Gareth Burton:                Nobody comes to Banbury to see Banbury’s cross.

Heather Smith:               Being a good accountant, that was one of the very rare inventory counts that I did.

What made you decide to start up two businesses?

Gareth Burton:                I ran a business for 10 years. And I wanted to improve it by 10 times. So I was in partnership with somebody. And we decided that it wasn’t right for us both. So when I set the new business up, I decided to keep my main momentum. I was going to make 100 1% improvements. Yeah. And then, as a result of creating Assure UK, after about three years I’ve looking for an accountant who was more proactive and more advisory, but didn’t find anybody. So I decided to create my own firm that would help me and others go through the growth journey, and provide them with the management information they needed to grow in a safe and secure fashion.

Heather Smith:                And in a sustainable fashion.

Going back to the 100 1% improvement, how many days was that? Was that over 100 days?

Gareth Burton:                It was a hundred days. So we moved our server to the cloud.

Heather Smith:               That was more than one day?

Gareth Burton:               A few days. So we moved from an in-house server to Amazon WorkSpaces. That was one of them. Then we moved to Xero at that point as well. We were using a system with different accounts that we moved to Xero. We changed our expenses from being manual to using Expensify. We implemented Receipt Bank.

Heather Smith:               Now Dext.

Gareth Burton:               We just kept looking for how could we make things quicker, faster, and smoother.

Heather Smith:               I love that. You have a book, Gareth, and you have a TED talk, but it might be 100 minutes long. Everyone talks about the 1%. But saying 100 1% in 100 days. That’s massive.

Gareth Burton:               Every day look for 1% improvements. Yeah, so whether it’s an improvement to your desk, whether it’s better lighting for your desk, whether it’s with your standing desk, having a squeegee mat underneath your feet, so it makes it more comfortable. You know, I’ve just travelled to Australia. The last time I travelled, I noticed I was dehydrated. So I looked at a number of YouTube videos, and people were recommending the collapsible water bottle. So you will see me with my collapsible water bottle will be to stay hydrated.

Heather Smith:               Absolutely. And you can actually take some tablets like Hydralyte, we call them here in Australia, to help you stay hydrated. And simple things like maintaining water, and maintaining your brain function, which is so important for what we do so. That’s really, really exciting. If we can go to that business, you’ve told us that you implemented Dext and Xero, and you went to the cloud.

What other technology did you use in that business?

Gareth Burton:               For HR, we use Breathe HR because originally we were paper-based performance management. We moved to Breathe HR audit systems, obviously now based on the cloud. The latest change we’re making is we’re moving from CCH ProAudit to MyWorkpapers. We’re implementing a new audit system. What are the changes? The most recent changes we’ve made is we’ve actually we’ve done now than 10 years with Amazon WorkSpaces. And we’ve been very impressed with Microsoft, that we’re moving to a Microsoft-based work Centre, which, when you’re an Apple user, like me, was quite daunting.

Heather Smith:               That’s a big change.

Gareth Burton:               It was a massive change. But if it makes things quicker, faster, smoother, better integration, then anything that makes the journey easier for clients. We move clients to serve for signing their accounts electronically (e-signatures). Portals are obviously very important.

Heather Smith:                The Microsoft change is an interesting one because I kind of I’m a much smaller business than you and I do a lot of training. So I sit with both of them. And I know that that’s fundamentally wrong. But I need to understand what issues the client is going through and test the environment into what they’re going through because they do work differently. But Microsoft, especially during COVID, and teams just seemed to come into its own, didn’t it? So many people seem to just take it take over and start using it. So that was interesting.

Gareth Burton:               I think during COVID we all changed. A few days before COVID happened, the team’s logo seemed to appear on our desktops. I think it was been rolled out by Microsoft. In the past, we’ve done all our calls using a conference calling facility called Powwownow.

Heather Smith:               Pow wow now?

Gareth Burton:               I have to say my team lifted. I was trying to say, look, perhaps we should move. Within three, four months, I would say that we you know, we were fully on teams, we were using it. It was nice to see people’s faces when you couldn’t go to the office. It gave us a sense of community. It was a way of staying in touch when you couldn’t be in touch.

Heather Smith:               Absolutely. Now, let’s talk about your other firm.

Which was the advisory firm that you needed to help you? What does that look like today?

Gareth Burton:               Progress Accountants is very small. This is my little pet project. One we’re still developing is based on Xero. It’s paperless. But we have changed the focus slightly. And I realised that not everybody wants to be completely paperless. So it’s all based on customer service. There are some clients who can pick their paperwork up from their office, or their home, to make the experience easier.

Heather Smith:               And to that, there are going to be firms out there that can actually take advantage of niching and offering that service like you are. Because depending if that’s the client that you’re comfortable working with then that’s completely fine. And realistically, some very wealthy clients don’t want to go digital.

Gareth Burton:               That’s true. The one benefit I’ve had from day one with my original firm is that it is a completely niche practice. And actually, one of my goals for last year was to find a new niche. We ended up that we found a niche within a niche. We found a new range of clients that use their expertise on pension insurance. And they needed help as well. And once you start looking within your niche, you will find other opportunities, and perhaps a group of clients that will pay even more than the original group.

Heather Smith:               Yes, absolutely.

In case anything happens in that particular area, do you have a niche that counterbalances that niche?

Gareth Burton:               I think on the pension side, we have an assurance product.

What’s assurance in this context?

Gareth Burton:               Assurance looks at internal controls, what clients want, nonfinancial, not based on numbers. But they’re interested in a business’s internal control. So if you’ve got a data centre, and you’re worried that what happens if the power goes out? Do they have an uninterruptible power supply?

Are you doing technology assurance? Is it what I would call an app advisor? Are you looking at the workflows and the processes?

Gareth Burton:               We do look at their workflows and processes, but these tend to be larger companies. We do help clients implement technology. I’m obviously technically quite strong. So, you know, one of our clients runs a Fashion business. We did an e-commerce website or helped him implement e-commerce. So people could order online and move into Xero. Got into an online payment solution.

Heather Smith:                He must be happy.

Gareth Burton:               Surprisingly, he wasn’t when we first recommended him to do it. But now we’ve seen the results. Then, lockdown happens. He’s got a business that can be anywhere.

Heather Smith:              He can be anywhere.

Gareth Burton:               It can be anywhere, but it’s also a hobby for many people. And what he found was locked down the whole world suddenly became his customer. And you would have exchange rates going in the UK’s favour. If you’re exporting, that’s good. That’s good for customers and good for him as well.

Heather Smith:               You have made a massive journey out to Australia. And you’re here at the Accountants Bootcamp, called the re:Boot camp.

At the end of day two, what have you got out of attending the re:Boot camp?

Gareth Burton:               I think the transition in what you do from being a commodity to more of a service and focus on relationships, not a service. I think that’s the key bit I’ve spotted and packaging your offering. So it meets the specific needs of your target audience. Specifically, you may not be doing as many clients, as perhaps we serve now. But the fewer clients we serve, we will provide a greater level of service to them. And we’ve already got some excellent client service feedback. We do monitor that very closely. But this will take you to the next level. Excellent. That was excellent.

Heather Smith:              And of the things they brought up lots of case studies today, one of them was like, how would Disney run an accounting?  And just thinking about that. And it just does mean as accountants visiting Disneyland could potentially be a tax-deductible trip. Not that we’re giving tax advice. But one of the good places out there and there was mention of a florist in England and also the Karuna. Yeah, I’m not sure how to pronounce it with the Karuna shoes from Singapore and replicating that, and I think, looking outside our industry and then reflecting it back and how we can do that.

It sounds like you got the tech happening and now you got them thinking about the customer service bit.

Gareth Burton:               From a customer service a bit we do client surveys, experience builders, to make sure that we understand what clients like, what they don’t like, and how we can improve our service to them because sometimes, well, there’s two business one, you need to keep doing what clients will read like, yeah, and sometimes it can just be a niggle. It can be easily sorted. But it’s a big frustration for your client. So you need to make sure they’re heard. We also employ an independent service provider reviewer. And they interview a selection of our clients, and draw that feedback together to say this is what they like, this is what they don’t like. These are things that you need to be writing about over the next 12 months. So that we give them content that they want, you know, and not just hit them with content that they don’t want. That’s not valuable to them.

Heather Smith:               It sounds like you’re already doing an awful lot of that, doesn’t it?

Gareth Burton:               We’re in a good place. And I think from the customer’s experience, point, you mentioned earlier, we will be implementing that as well.

Heather Smith:               Yeah. It sounds like look, it’s been really astonishing to me that so many cutting-edge leading firms have actually come here, award-winning firms and said, Hey, how can we push this further and bouncing off each other bouncing off the presenters… Sharing ideas, it’s just been a very collegial and community-orientated event.

Gareth Burton:               Absolutely amazing. I’m always amazed at how helpful other accountants are. And you know, the accountants are here. And other events I attended in the UK. I’m always surprised by how far they will go to improve what they’re doing.

Heather Smith:               Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for joining me on the cloud stories podcast. Is there anything that you’d like to leave our listeners with?

Gareth Burton:               Just look for small gains. Don’t try and change the world overnight. Just make one small change each day or each week, which or whatever you’re comfortable with. Yeah, it will make a massive difference.

How can people get in contact with you?

Gareth Burton:               So my name is Gareth Burton. My email address is Gareth dot Burton at Assureuk.co.uk.

Heather Smith:               Excellent. Thank you so much for being on the Cloud Stories podcast.

Gareth Burton:               Thanks, Heather. Have a great evening.

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