In May this year, Steve Harcourt FCCA took on the role of regional managing partner for Azets, a firm that has grown rapidly over the past decade to become one of the largest SME-focused accountancy practices in the UK.
He is now responsible for the 150 people based in Azets’s Coventry, Nottingham and Tamworth offices in the East Midlands, but he has had an eventful journey to the top.
After A levels, Harcourt trained as an accountant while pursuing his musical ambitions. A semi-professional trumpet player, Harcourt needed a flexible approach to pursue his accounting qualifications (AAT and ACCA) while considering a career in big-band jazz. But after working with small accountancy firms in the Midlands while also backing the likes of Gary Barlow and Katrina and the Waves, he decided to join Big Four firm EY, which had just started to recruit newly qualified ACCA accountants.
'Office life is changing rapidly and forever, as is the support needed by our clients'
Five years on, Harcourt wanted to return to working with SMEs and owner-managed businesses, so he joined the then relatively small family firm Baldwins as a senior manager in their Stourbridge office, in 2007. 'I really welcomed the chance to get back to advising clients,' he says.
Three years later, and just as his second daughter arrived, Harcourt was asked to become a partner in the firm’s Nottingham office, which at the time was going through a merger with another local firm.
This was at the beginning of a long period of mergers and acquisitions at Baldwins, which included, in 2016, a move to becoming one of the anchor firms of what was then known as Cogital Group. This allowed Baldwins to invest further, growing from a network of 27 offices to more than 60.
The group recently rebranded as Azets and is now firmly placed among the top 10 accountancy firms in the UK with a combined UK fee income of £270m.
‘I have been on the journey from when the firm had seven offices to where it stands now,’ Harcourt says. ‘We have always taken pride in our work with the SME market. We do so much more than preparing their annual accounts and tax returns; we aim to become the client’s confidant, the adviser they trust and lean on.’
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 coincided with a period of consolidation and transformation for the group. ‘We needed to make sure we were all pulling in the same direction,’ Harcourt says, adding that the group has invested significantly in its staff and trainees.
Transformation has also come through the digitalisation of Azets’s services, which Harcourt says creates advisory opportunities by using digital data and real-time information on client performance.
‘It means we can be analytical and provide really targeted advice to clients,’ he says. ‘We can offer consistent systems and infrastructure. It also means that as a firm we can be more flexible about how and where we work.’
Regional managing partner, Azets
Managing partner, Nottingham office, Azets
Partner, Nottingham office, Azets
Senior manager, Stourbridge office, Azets
'Managed shared audits could open up opportunities, as would restrictions on non-audit services'
This flexibility, of course, came to the fore during the lockdowns of the past year and continues today.
‘There were challenges, especially when onsite audits needed to become offsite, but we found better ways to carry out the work and adapted quickly,’ he says. ‘Our offices are now open again, but we are looking at hybrid working, and still need to react quickly if we need to close an office. We are always very mindful of our staff; they are our number one priority.’
Adapting for the future
Looking ahead, Harcourt says that, in many ways the biggest opportunity and biggest threat for both Azets and its clients is adapting business models to the ‘new normal’ that is an uncertain, post-Covid world.
‘SMEs across the board recognise that getting this transition right will be key in order to compete, survive and thrive in future,’ he says. ‘Staff are being encouraged to "work from anywhere", and we’re investing in infrastructure and systems to support this. Office life is changing rapidly and forever, as is the support needed by our clients.’
At the moment, the firm is focusing on organic growth, but it is also looking at further acquisitions – in particular, niche firms that could bring in an expertise or specialisation.
Harcourt also believes that opportunities will open up as the audit market goes through a period of reform. The prospect of managed shared audits – one of the options put forward in the current government consultation – could offer opportunities, as will possible restrictions on the non-audit services provided to audit clients by the very largest firms. ‘We think we can provide high-quality audits that are good value as well,’ he argues.
It might have been a long time since Harcourt was paid to blow his own trumpet – his time away from work now mainly consists of driving a trailer around for his horse-loving daughters – but he clearly believes that the Azets big band can remain in tune with the needs of today’s SMEs.
Azets UK fee income (2020)
Number of offices in the UK
Members of staff in Coventry, Nottingham and Tamworth
Trainees taken on in Coventry, Nottingham and Tamworth this year