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Anthony Bell: Making it big in financial services

Anthony Bell doesn’t always do things like the rest of the mob. And as Camille Howard discovers, it’s clear that going his own way has worked out very nicely, allowing his boutique business to beat big companies in the competitive financial services sector, while retaining the benefits of being an SME.

Anthony Bell exudes confidence. And deservedly so. As the founder of Bell Partners, a business advisory firm, he doesn’t see himself as a traditional bean counter. Instead, he’s a businessman. And a pretty good one at that, if the number of entries in BRW’s hot lists are anything to go by, finishing as the top financial services firm for the last five years.

It’s not bad for a guy still in his thirties. It would seem the 36-year-old enjoys his success, with the luxury cars, the beachside penthouse and the designer threads, but when he opted out of his father’s firm 10 years ago he could barely imagine the kind of accomplishments he would later achieve.

While there may have been some grand plan for Bell to succeed his father in his business, he wasn’t happy with what was on offer in the accounting industry. Sensing a relative lack of innovation, Bell took the largely unprecedented step of leaving his father’s firm, starting his own, and buying his father out a short time later. Not a traditional succession, but then it’s clear that Bell isn’t interested in tradition.

“The stable of products on offer then had been in place for many, many years—balance sheet work, profit and loss work, those sorts of things,” he says.

So instead of entering into a partnership arrangement with his father, he opted to direct the business more “autocratically”.

“I wanted to have a shot at it by myself.” But not wanting to lose the knowledge, skill, and experience his father could bring to his business, Bell brought him in as a consultant.

Although the succession of his father’s business may not have been planned, Bell says he has had his own exit strategy in place from the start. “Business has really changed since the 90s, where people wanted to be an accountant or a lawyer or supermarket attendant for life,” he says. “I wanted to build a pretty good business that was saleable, and the double benefit there is that if you decide to keep going with it you have a pretty good business. If your sole goal was to build something for sale, that’s a pretty good place to start.”

Again breaking with tradition, or at least the norm, Bell decided against a partnership arrangement in the business, despite the name. At the time he got his start, Bell felt the old style of firm was outdated, and limiting. “I have a problem with the partner model, not to say that some of them don’t work, but a lot of the ones I saw seemed to be just partners sharing rent.”

He saw problems with the fact the some partners were able to call more of the shots based on their equity share, which in turn can lead to uncertainty with the other employees. So, he decided on a corporate model with a CEO and someone driving the business and making the decisions based on communication and feedback from his management team. “I wanted a very clear direction of where the business was going to, with no uncertainty for anyone who works there.”

He realised he wanted all his staff to feel like they have a partnership in the business, not just those with ‘partner’ after their name. But the name suggests a little more, he adds, with ‘Partners’ referring to not only the staff but also his clients. “We’re accounting partners in business, we’re partners in our corporate structure and the way we do our work, but to staff members as well saying they work at Bell Partners, they could be seniors or juniors or whatever, but there could be some self-esteem driven by the corporate identity in which they work in.”

Bell’s staff are the most important part of his business, and he works hard to recruit, manage, train and retain the best. As well as remunerative inducements, Bell says his secret to keeping his talent within the company is to offer new recruits a career, rather than a job, with a focus on on-the-job training and mentoring offering career progression. So from an early point, a career pathway is identified for each recruit and is fostered by the rest of the team. “We had to deal with the remuneration issue, but we also had to deal with work–life balance and the type of work they wanted to do.”

This is where he uses the careers of some of the older, more senior staff to make good “poster children”, and Bell takes advantage of making an example of those who started as undergraduates and worked their way up.

In terms of hiring, he makes it his policy to recruit out of uni and develop juniors into the managers of the future. Rather than look for academic stars (they do have do be university graduates, though), he looks for the right culture fit, and says he prefers to hire a person based on “will before skill”.

“If someone’s got a great will and is a self-starter, I’m far more interested in them than someone with great qualifications,” he says. “If I can get skill and will then I’m pretty happy, but if I can get the will, I can train the skill into them.

“There’s been the odd manager that we’ve taken on at an intermediate level, but in terms of our senior management structure, they’re all home-grown.”

He says he’s not afraid to hire at senior levels if he has to, but admits he’d rather promote from his own talent base. “If we have to go out of house, I need to look at what haven’t we done enough of to bring the talent base on. And that doesn’t have to be so much about training, it could be that we’re not selecting the leaders of tomorrow properly.”

To help foster his talent base, each new staff member is put into a management group, where there’s an immediate senior, a manager, an associate, and department head. So one or two will be watched in a management group so they can be properly trained and counselled.

Unfortunately, you can’t get it right every time, so Bell Partners makes good use of the probationary period, conducting full reviews to see if they’re meeting expectations. If staff are under-performing at this stage, he offers counselling to help find out why and see how the team can help them reach potential. If they’re still not “getting a hold of it”, Bell takes the view that they’re better off parting company, not just for the benefit of the business but also because he says it can affect the culture of the rest of the office.

It’s Bell’s focus on training and counselling to foster future leaders that drives the business to success. Bell and his management team conduct between two or three training sessions per month with his staff, with additional sessions for hot topics or if the team is behind on a particular issue.

The training is split into technical training, for when new legislation or announcements are made, such as changes to tax laws, but there are also more creative sessions, which involve help in managing the business and developing client relationships. “We work on their ability to solve business problems, to identify the issues businesses have, and so we put a lot of the ‘softer’ skills on them.”

His own training involves attending seminars once every two months, and he takes senior associates with him and debriefs afterwards to see what they all got out of it. He also reads books, and has a particular interest in reading about other successful businesses.

As well as recruiting and training staff, Bell recognises the need to work hard to retain them. “We can’t presume that they’ll stay forever unless we keep providing a place they want to stay at.”

To enhance this Bell Partners conducts 360-degree reviews four times per year, so they know how well they are performing. “I think what you have to do, particularly with generation-Y, is meet them in the target areas about what they want out of their career and provide them with a challenging basis to move forward on.

“We want to feel like it’s an equal relationship–we’ve given them as much as they’ve given us.”

So, as well as offering competitive remunerative structures—everyone has key performance indicators and a bonus structure—Bell also tries to offer something a little different, from the management team all the way down to the juniors. There’s a firm social club that runs events on Friday nights, he takes teams to conferences, as well spontaneous adventures like afternoons playing lawn bowls.

While the work hours are 8.30am to 5pm, and he tries to get everyone out by that time, it’s an industry that requires some long hours. And for those with family commitments, Bell says he’s designed a model that allows for remote access, where each team member works on laptops.

Innovation & Growth

Bell draws on innovation to make his business stay at the top in such a competitive field. “There’s a vital need to reinvent ourselves every year.” So although they started off as a “different” type of accounting firm, Bell acknowledges that different very quickly becomes the same if it’s not refreshed regularly. And this is where the boutique size of the business comes in handy. “We’ve been able to listen to our clients, and offer them products they want. We want to be a one-stop-shop and offer the services the big firms do.”

So he looks at the big, national accounting firms and strives to compete on the same playing field, even though they are a fraction of the size. This means that the products he offers are on par with those of bigger firms.

While it helped to have the existing clients his father’s business was servicing, he was also developing his own reputation and bringing in his own clients, which was made easier by his connections with his rugby club. “All the guys playing rugby were amateur players, and they all had their own businesses.” So they became early clients and relationships spread from there, relying on word-of-mouth referrals to grow.

Bell says the business concentrates 100 percent on servicing clients, spending no time on looking for new clients. At the moment all clients come from word-of-mouth referrals, and this pretty much sums up Bell’s marketing practices.

In fact, he’s never spent a cent on advertising, concentrating on building the brand through other ways, such as his stints on talkback radio programs and spots on television (such as on Mornings With Kerri-Anne). Although he says he doesn’t chase the attention, being on the radio, on television, and on BRW’s radar (Bell Partners has been the named the most successful accounting firm five years running, ahead of the likes of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young) means a lot in terms of recognition, as well as being a free branding tool. “It’s cost-free marketing and we get tremendous branding for entering these kinds of things and winning them.”

Branding is one thing, he admits, but it’s also about credibility in the marketplace for how clients see the firm. Perception of clients is everything for Bell Partners, and with 80 percent of Bell’s clientele being SMEs, he has found it extremely helpful to be a small to medium business advising other small to medium businesses. “Our clients come to us for advice and ask: what did you do when found this… and how did you handle it when there was a cash flow crisis. The fact that we’ve been through it ourselves can be pretty valuable.”

But it comes with added pressure to be a good business owner, too. “I knew that for clients to be attracted to us they had to see us as a pretty good business too,” he explains. “I knew we needed to have a well-run practice ourselves in order to be able to confidently say that we can help you with your growth, advisory and profit improvement.”

There are now around 70 members of staff, which has meant the business has been able to steadily grow its clientele and services, but still remain a boutique offering. That growth means the business is now up to the $10 million mark, with a healthy 25 percent increase from the previous year. And all growth has been funded organically.

The business basically handles everything in the usual accounting offerings, as well as wealth creation, IT (headed up by an IT expert, not an accountant), finance (offering brokering services) and a new investment (private equity) division, offering a complete one-stop shop for their clients.

While the inclusion of the finance, investment and wealth creation divisions seem a natural addition to the accounting side, you’d be forgiven for thinking the IT department was a tenuous link. Not so, says Bell. “We had clients coming to us and asking for IT advice, and we decided that we should include that service.” And that’s the same thinking behind the other departments. “We wanted to be able to offer everything the big accounting firms could offer, but at the boutique end. So if they had an IT department, we needed an IT department.”

Today Bell’s time is divided, with 20 percent of his focus on working on the business and 80 percent on the clients. “I’m a big believer, in our game, that you have to be on the tools.” Although he recognises the importance for business owners in other industries to be working on the business rather than in it, he maintains that the accounting industry is so technical that he needs to be on top of the tools and working with clients to keep them happy.

“If I head up an advisory team, you’d like to think I’m the best at it. So you like to think that a product gets to the clients not because it’s been delegated but from a management structure the clients have got access to.

“And I’m in the business of giving out business advice, so it keeps me pretty sharp, staying with our clients’ businesses. I learn tons from them. And that’s one of the things that fuels my creativity and ideas. So I’d hate to take myself out of that playing field.”

Bell’s five-step plan

1. Put yourself last. Don’t come to work viewing your profit. The best businesses are those that focus on delivering their best product. And strangely enough they tend to go on to profit quite well, too.

2. Constantly innovate. Stare at your competitors on a daily basis, and what they are doing, what they’re not doing.

3. See things before they happen in the business.

4. Always be recruiting. Even if you’re not looking for staff, if you come across great recruits, grab them and “warehouse” them.

5. Never wait to see what happens.