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Future Accountant profile: Alastair

Alastair Barlow is an accountant, consultant, and the founder of three businesses – including flinder

Tell me about your business

We’re four years old, quite a young business. And with big ambitions, we set off with a very clear direction on what we wanted to achieve, with a complete blank canvas of how we saw a modern accounting business, or business services firm. And so in many ways, we weren’t tainted by having any legacy SMP experiences — SMP being small, medium sized practice experiences.

We do some accounting, but actually, that’s not really what we’re about. We’re about helping businesses make better decisions. We use technology, data and experiences to help them do that. And not just financial data, but data across the business, and technology that we have either adopted outside the world of accounting, or have built or are building ourselves.

What’s the link between being a really tech driven business and embracing real human contact?

I’m a fan of offshore outsourced service centres, we adopt that for parts of our business. But what I took away from their use at a previous firm was that they were too detached — there was a big disconnect between the service centre and the client or the relationship partner. We have a delivery Centre in India to do more transactional work, but we have accountants based in London, and they go out to the clients. We implement as much technology as possible to streamline processes  — we’ll use tools like Dext as much as appropriate for our clients.

We will only work with clients that are interesting to us as business advisors and professionals and push us, and listen when we challenge them. And we can add value because there’s so much complexity in the business, and they can’t do it all on their own.

What’s going to happen in the accounting industry in the next few years?

There’s a lot of buzz around compliance versus advisory. And there’s a lot of views on it. But at the end of the day, there’s enough space for everybody to play where they want to play. Some accountants will go, ‘I don’t know what advisory is, I’m quite happy doing my year end accounts’. And there are like 5.6 million SMEs that need annual accounts done, so there’s going to be a huge market for people to do accounts.

But I think what is driving the focus on advisory is the fact that technology companies have come into the market and are streamlining what was a human process for compliance. There’s also the thought that people value advisory more, so they’re more willing to pay. You’re going to be harder to disrupt or harder to displace if you could perform advisory work, and there’s going to be greater margins in it. It’s gonna be more engaging for your people to work on, and potentially help retain staff as well. 

Is it more challenging to embrace tech from the beginning, or transform a traditional business?

We were fortunate because we developed our business and launched our business from a blank canvas with technology. But on the flip side, we developed a business with no clients, no staff, and no capital, whereas others will have had those advantages. 

On one side, it was harder for us because we grew from scratch. But it’s harder for someone else, because they’re having to transform clients, perceptions, people’s behaviours, adoption and more. So both are difficult in their own right.

When new people join, we’ve still got to bring them along the journey. We hire for attitude, we hire for our values, our core competencies, so we’re hiring people that tend to be able to adapt to technology and embrace challenges. But nonetheless, they’re still saying, ‘This is radically different from where I’ve come from’.

Is there a single lesson you’ve learned from the last four years?

I guess I could be so bold and say, ‘Don’t be afraid’. But what does that mean? I think there’s an element of ‘Don’t be afraid’ that means just really push the boundaries, and really go for what you believe your clients value, and do everything in your power to deliver that

The other thing that’s important is collaborating with other accountants. I think that’s something that until a few years ago didn’t really happen. I speak to a lot of accounting firm leaders, and I think there’s a huge amount of collaboration among some accounting leaders. It’s really a good area to challenge each other and learn from each other.

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