As well known for his own wealth as the celebrity clients whose assets he helps protect, accountant Anthony Bell is also a very smart businessman.
While he cringes at being called things like ‘celebrity accountant’ or ‘accountant to the stars’ he can’t deny it’s good for business. His accountancy firm Bell Partners has never spent a cent on PR or marketing but he’s a known name throughout Australia.
That’s not to say his high profile client list of actors, sports stars and TV personalities isn’t backed up by good business. Bell Partners has been named BRW’s Most Productive Accounting Firm every year since 2003, an accolade that doesn’t come from who you work for, but by what you do.
Bell, 39, is worth an estimated $26 million and now employs around 100 people. It’s safe to say he’s enjoying the wealth he’s created for himself, while helping clients create and protect theirs.
Innovate to stay ahead
So what’s the secret to his firm’s continuing success? The answer is innovation. “If you keep doing the same, you get the same, and somebody will come along and overtake you,” he says. “We’re constantly evolving the firm, constantly looking to innovate and grow. No two years should ever be the same in your business plan. You need to keep the things which have really worked well in the past but keep trying to find new things.”
One way Bell does this is to make sure he can offer his clients what they need as they grow. “We don’t want to be in a position where our clients’ businesses outgrow us. So when we saw they needed legal advice and IT help, we opened up those departments within the business. Why recommend someone else when you could do the work yourself, inhouse? We’re not just about accounting and taxation although they’re still at the forefront of our business. It’s about looking at where the need is and constantly reinventing yourself.”
There are now 22 different departments within Bell Partners including a law firm, IT advisory, wealth creation and finance. The main office is in King Street Wharf but there is also a Queensland office and a third due to open in Sydney’s Norwest Business Park soon.
“Many people advise you to work on your business, not in it, but I’m still very much a working accountant, using the tools of my trade. I do probably think of myself as a businessman more than as an accountant though. From my point of view, the best business card you can have is your business. If we want to showcase as ourselves as great business advisors, we have to prove that we are a great business.”
Never spent on PR or marketing
Bell believes 100 percent of business comes from word of mouth referral; something he’s very proud of. “I’ve never spent a cent on advertising or PR. We don’t even sponsor golf events or that kind of thing you often see with accounting firms. It works well because it’s free and A-class clients tend to refer other A-class clients.”
There’s no doubt either that the high profile celebrity clients have helped get Bell’s name out to a wider audience. “I hate being called a celebrity accountant, yes,” he admits. “But how can I can complain about it? It hasn’t been bad for us. I also wonder whether they mean I’m an accountant to celebrities or I’m a celebrity accountant. If it’s the latter, surely there must be better things to talk about?” he jokes. “It’s great to get free media on your business though. It means you must be running one hell of a place!”
Bell’s own personal life has also attracted much media attention. When his multi-million dollar boat sunk in Sydney Harbour in 2008, it made the papers, as did his role as MC at Michael Clarke and Lara Bingle’s engagement party. Add to that his previous relationship with newsreader and weather girl Sami Lukis, his penthouse apartment, Aston Martin and rumoured close friendship with Russell Crowe, and it’s no wonder he’s a tabloid target. Thankfully the media attention has been overwhelmingly positive.
The company has tried to steer away from becoming a specialist in any kind of field, although there are a couple of industries they have more experience in. “We try to be available to all lines of business, we’re still general practitioners. This means we have a real variety of both clients and expertise. We’ve grown to the point where we now have specialist management teams within the business but they don’t work in isolation.”
What makes the firm different
Company culture has always been of the utmost importance and Bell thinks this is one of the things that makes Bell Partners stand out above more traditional accounting firms. “We want to be different, from the appearance of our office to the way we do business.” (The Diptyque candles in reception and waterside location did not go unnoticed).
“We work in much more of an advisory and consultative way rather than just doing someone’s accounts. We’ll look at a small-to-medium business client with $10,000 to spend and we’ll say to them that $5,000 is for preparing the tax return and statutory corrections, and the other $5,000 is looking forward and strategising, giving them advice on their business’ future.”
It’s a good time to be an accountant too, says Bell. “People are really interested in their wealth right now, since the GFC. They know wealth doesn’t come easy and they want to be smart to protect it. Our wealth creation and financial advisory business has become very strategic and tactical.”
Bell likes recruiting new blood fresh from university and moulding graduates into his unique way of doing business. “These days I don’t believe anyone goes to university with the sole career plan to be an accountant for life. We’re interested in getting people and showing them some of the differences in doing work at this firm instead of going to what some people think of as being the bigger better accounting firms.” As many as 80 percent of Bell Partners staff came in as graduates and have worked their way up. Many heads of department started as graduates and staff retention is high. “From time to time we’ll take on guys from other places to bring in some new IP to the firm, but generally we train them our way from the start.”
Work hard, play hard
While Bell Partners might be a nice place to work, it certainly isn’t easy. “People can struggle to get their head around the speed at which we work,” says Bell. “We start at 8.30am and that means you’re in, have had breakfast and are ready to really start working hard at 8.30am. You have got to be disciplined people to do things properly and with method. We put a lot of internal strategy around that. But at lunchtime we want people to stop work, get out of the office and have a proper break. There’s also a gym which is free for staff to use.”
Bell says staff questionnaires are filled out regularly to gauge how company culture is going, including questions like ‘Have you made some of your best friends at work?’ He adds: “We like to feel their pulse every now and again. If you’re going to spend 50 or 60 hours a week with your colleagues (maybe more than your girlfriends or husbands) you need to have some fun and good friends around you.
“People build great relationships here that last. Retention is good and people think it’s a cool place to work. This means when it might be time to move on, they’re considering more than just their pay packet.” He adds: “Staff retention should be at the forefront of any business because it’s good for your clients to have consistency and it’s very costly to replace people.”
Plan more, get more
The biggest mistake small business owners make in Bell’s opinion is not spending enough time planning. “Look at it this way: you can have a 60-minute output where you just jump straight into it for 60 minutes and see where it takes you, or you can plan for the first 10 minutes and get a lot more out of the remaining 50.”
He adds: “It’s time for micro business again. Don’t think of yearly outcomes, think of weekly ones. You shouldn’t get to the end of a year and need to wait for your accountant to tell you whether you’ve done well or not. Have week-to-week management sessions with your staff. If you work this way, you can react quickly to change. And that’s what flexible SMEs should be good at.”
Bell thinks SMEs are well placed to take advantage of great opportunities post GFC. “I don’t think there’ll be another opportunity like this for another 20-to-30 years. Buyers aren’t only looking for cost efficiencies but also relationships. The larger players they may have been used to before are just too big to be able to provide that. So the smaller businesses can not only go in and undercut them on price but really bash them in terms of the level of personal service they can provide.
“Put it this way: the overall pie may be smaller but the pieces of it available are larger. My advice is to use this time to develop great relationships. It’s an exciting time.”