Staying flexible to succeed with Gary Bell of FLB Accountants

  • Gary Bell, founding partner of FLB Accountants in the UK, celebrates the benefits of having a small firm: being more agile and in control of the culture.

  • Some of FLB’s most interesting clients are helpful recruiting tools for new accountants. Potential hires are drawn to the variety of clients served, which includes environmental tech, the British film industry, and venture capital. 

  • FLB is a hybrid office, with employees working in the office three days a week. Gary believes it’s important to have face-to-face interactions so new employees can learn from seasoned employees. 

Gary Bell is a founding partner at FLB Accountants in London, Epsom, and Reading in the UK. Since 2008, the firm has enjoyed serving a wide variety of companies, including some in Britain’s booming film industry.

“We're working with some of the really big studios. We’ve got deals going on with Apple TV, Sky, and Netflix,” Gary shares. 

Besides businesses in the film industry, the firm also works with clients in private equity, environmental infrastructure, technology, and small business, among others. Gary credits FLB’s size and client mix for preparing the team to weather today’s storms. He finds that as a smaller firm, they can adjust to the changing landscape of accounting faster. 

“Those mid-tier and upper-tier firms are slower to embrace change for all the right reasons. If you look at those firms that are slightly smaller [and] more agile, they're able to embrace change and move with it very quickly,” Gary says. 

On episode 43 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, Gary shares his experience serving a wide mix of clients with host and Karbon CEO, Stuart McLeod. He also discusses the benefits of operating a smaller firm and explains why hybrid work is the best of both worlds. 

Size matters

Stuart and Gary discuss how changes in fee structure at large firms are impacting smaller firms like Gary’s.

According to Gary, a growing number of bigger firms are increasing their rates to compensate for rising prices across the market. Since many companies are priced out from using their expensive services, they shift to using smaller firms. 

Smaller firms offer a lot of advantages. For starters, they tend to be more flexible with their pricing. They’re also more agile; without the red tape found in larger firms, smaller firms like Gary’s are more responsive to the market.

That gives us the benefit of actually almost outshining some of those larger firms, while they put in place the process and diligence steps they need to in order to embrace changes. Bigger firms are definitely on the same page moving in the same direction—just slower.
Gary Bell, FLB Accountants

As for the hiring challenges presented by the Great Resignation, FLB isn’t immune. But having a more balanced work culture instead of the high-pressure grind of big firms appeals to many candidates. 

“We've always tried to maintain a culture that has some pressure at some points in the year, but there's also some lower-pressure times. A lot of the résumés we're seeing now are from people where you get the impression that the pressure cooker at bigger firms just keeps on going,” Gary says of the latest crop of job seekers. “And they're starting to think, ‘Well, there's more to life than just working 60-70 hours a week.’”

Accounting for innovation

Gary enjoys working with FLB’s wide variety of clients—and he’s not the only one. He finds that being on the front lines of innovation is an attractive recruiting tool for younger accountants. 

“The film and TV spin on it actually encourages people to think, ‘Well, this is enticing, this is exciting.’ It’s the same with our technology team, who look after businesses of all sorts, whether it be SaaS companies or your traditional resellers,” Gary explains. 

The film industry in Britain has boomed in recent years, in part because of tax incentives that encouraged studios to set up shop in the area. In 2019, $1 billion was spent in the UK on the film industry, with projections to grow exponentially in the next three to five years. According to Gary, positioning FLB as the local expert in accounting for film has opened the door for more business in that vertical

Similarly, on the environmental tech and VC side, Gary’s happy to be part of the movement to make Britain more sustainable. 

“We're working with private equity firms that are building portfolios of solar sites, wind farms, anaerobic digestion, or hydroelectric. The play for them is the long-tail revenue. It’s an investment strategy where they are building out a larger portfolio that creates a 7-12% return every single year,” Gary says of the sustainability movement. 

Recommended reading: How to help your clients become carbon neutral through advisory 

A hybrid lifestyle

FLB has 110 employees spread across three offices, with plans to grow its staff by 20% in the next year. Everyone follows a hybrid work schedule, spending three days in the office. 

“I probably get hours back every single week because our client base is now happy to say, ‘Let's not bother meeting. Let's just jump on a team call,’” Gary says.

Though he enjoys not having to travel for in-person meetings, he’s quick to acknowledge the benefits of having at least some in-office time:

Water cooler moments

Gary appreciates the culture that comes from interacting with each other in the office. He feels that without that face-to-face time, you lose some team spirit. 

“We often refer to those water cooler moments because actually, good ideas come from there. You get that check-in point with the team to say, ‘Is everything okay?’ [And someone saying,] ‘Actually, you know, I've got a problem here. Can you help?’” 

Training days

Gary finds it important for both new and established employees to be in the office for training purposes, as the seasoned veterans can coach the more junior associates. While the veterans could probably be at home five days a week without a problem, the junior associates would miss out on valuable learning time with their experienced teammates. 

“For things like feedback, if you're face-to-face with someone, you can give immediate feedback and say, ‘No, do it like this,’” Gary explains. “Whereas if you’re trying to do things remotely, what typically happens is, ‘I know how to fix it, I'll just fix it.’ And the individual doesn't get the feedback to learn from.”

Cutting into the future

With an agile firm, cutting-edge clients, and a hybrid work environment to foster innovation, what’s next for Gary and FLB Accountants? 

For Gary personally, it’s the long overdue and often-rescheduled travel with his family. His recent trip to Greece, booked before the pandemic, took four tries before actually happening.

For FLB, Gary plans to have the company dig in harder on the verticals it’s developed.

“In the sectors discussed, it's starting to niche a little bit more. On scale, the margins are much greater, growing the team, attracting the talent and just more of the same,” Gary says of the company’s future. 

Whether it’s figuring out how to better manage carbon offsets or how to work out international shooting schedules for a film, FLB plans to stay flexible to deliver exactly what their clients need.

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