Small-town firms must establish trust and loyalty with existing clients, and aim to provide advisory services beyond the simple tax return. Doing so helps cultivate a strong community referral network, an essential source of business.
Technology can’t replace the entire accounting industry—there’s still tremendous value in the human approach to financial complexities.
Marilyn Davies from New Zealand-based firm Tandem Group, discusses establishing a comfortable office culture, successfully adopting a tech stack, and returning to the office post-pandemic.
When you see yourself as more than a tax preparer, you’re on your way to becoming a great accountant—even more so when you can put yourself in your client’s shoes.
Marilyn Davies, Director of Tandem Group in New Plymouth, New Zealand, understands her clients better than most. The firm primarily serves farmers, property managers, and manufacturers, and has made a name for itself by showing up for its rural clients just as enthusiastically as its high-net-worth commercial clients.
“If I like the people, I like the business,” Marilyn says. Hailing from a rural town herself, she enjoys being able to help the people of the Taranaki region whom she knows so well.
Over two decades in, and having expanded to three offices and taken on five business partners, Marilyn maintains her low-stress philosophy for leading her team and interacting with clients.
She joins Stuart McLeod, CEO of Karbon and host of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, for a conversation about finding new employees in a tight-knit community, ensuring the tax return is just one piece of what you do, and planning for the worst case to boost your business’s resilience.
Marilyn and the Tandem Group team weren’t early tech adopters. In 2006, the founders of Xero visited their office to dig into what the firm would need in a software, but they weren’t ready to take the leap just yet.
When they finally decided to move to cloud-based accounting, they went all-in on day one—and even slapped a Xero sticker on their window.
“We just went, ‘We're going for this. Either we're doing it or we're not.’ That's sort of how we do things. And if we are, we're boots and all.”
To Marilyn’s surprise, it wasn’t too difficult to get clients to switch to the new software platform. All they needed was the push of knowing the accountants they trusted were sold.
But the team wasn’t fully on board with the move, leading to some early internal struggles as the firm grew. They were overwhelmed by the details of managing workflow and responding to clients quickly.
That all changed when the team adopted Karbon.
“It’s taken all the stress away,” Marilyn says on the podcast. “You’re not worrying about missing things.”
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Getting comfortable with a tech stack hasn’t been the only challenge for Tandem Group. Its unique location has made it hard to attract up-and-coming talent.
New Plymouth is small, with a strong native community, and it’s hard to entice new people to move there. It didn’t help when, according to Marilyn, a TV program predicted that the New Zealand accounting industry would all but disappear by 2030, discouraging potential future accountants from following that career path.
While Marilyn has taken advantage of outsourcing—specifically to India—to support her team, it’s not quite the same as bringing on accountants who can build deep relationships with the locals.
“We sit and plan what we can do with clients. They will ring us and say, ‘You're the only people we can talk to. This is what we want to do. Can you help us work our way through it?’ And we will sit with them and enjoy that process—but we need people to help.”
This advisory approach is a major contributing factor to Tandem Group’s success.
“The tax return should be a byproduct of what you do.”
The pandemic has continued to put extra stress on New Zealand’s economy with pressures on shipping, reduced tourism, and high overall inflation.
Tandem Group has stayed busy guiding its clients through the sea change, focusing on what they can provide their customers now—and in the event of another unforeseen obstacle.
“We’re doing a lot of planning on making things better, not worse,” Marilyn says to Stuart.
She believes in making COVID an opportunity, not a disaster. That means dipping into local community spirit (especially if you live in a fiercely connected small town) and thinking creatively on behalf of your clients.
Marilyn is grateful her firm managed to stay relatively insulated from COVID's effects due to the viability of remote accounting. But she estimates about 70% of her team were itching to get back to the office. They were tired of endless Zoom calls and missed the supportive environment they were accustomed to.
“Work plays an important part in people's lives," Marilyn points out. “We run a really healthy team environment, and people like that.”
For Marilyn and her team, creating a healthy work ambiance—where even frequent interruptions can be energizing—is key in good times and bad.
Rural or not, any accounting firm can benefit from the lessons Tandem Group has learned. Marilyn highlights two components young accountants need to reinforce a growing practice:
1. A strong referral network.
It’s not just small-town accountants who should be embedded in their communities. There’s no better marketing than word-of-mouth.
2. A reliable IT person (or team).
As the role of technology grows in the industry, you can never have too much backup, especially since your team can only function as well as the tools it uses. Plus, clients who see that you can solve frustrating computer-related problems quickly will appreciate your services even more.
These are just a couple of the steps you can take to position your firm squarely as one of the businesses to survive something as potentially devastating as a pandemic—and show others how to do the same. Be ready for the next global challenge and you’ll be the liferaft they reach for.
As Marilyn says, “Those people who have resilience are still going to be there.”