What it really takes to grow your accounting firm with Heather Townsend from The Accountants Millionaires’ Club
Heather Townsend, founder and CEO of The Accountants Millionaires’ Club, is committed to helping accounting leaders grow their businesses. She offers coaching and networking opportunities to help firm owners become better leaders.
Accounting leaders often use the wrong goals to measure success. As important as getting more business is, they often overlook the value of creating healthy work cultures and developing efficient practices.
As bookkeeping becomes more automated, Heather predicts an increased demand for CPAs to serve as management accountants rather than financial accountants.
Although Heather Townsend set off to study engineering at Oxford University, she ended up in an entirely different field after graduating. It’s a good thing because her friends didn’t have much faith in her engineering ability.
“They’d laugh and say, ‘Look, Heather, if you ever design a bridge, tell us so that we can stay well clear of it’,” recalls Heather on a recent episode of the Accounting Leaders Podcast.
Instead of a traditional engineering trajectory, Heather has spent her career helping clients build million-pound accounting firms. Her forte: bridging the leadership gap accountants face as they transition into managerial roles.
As founder and CEO of the London-based Accountants Millionaires’ Club, Heather uses her learning development expertise to help executives, accountants, and partners scale strategically.
Heather and Stuart McLeod—Karbon Co-Founder and CEO, and host of the Accounting Leaders Podcast—discuss common struggles faced by accountants looking to expand, the fetishization of growth, and where Heather believes the accounting field is headed.
Education is essential
After finishing university, Heather initially started out working in logistics and supply chain management for the supermarket retailer Tesco.
But feeling that her greatest strengths weren’t being used, she pivoted into the accounting industry with the professional services firm Binder Dijker Otte (BDO). Heather was drawn to the opportunity because there was potential for her to grow as a learning and development professional.
“I was in a role doing a little bit of coaching, a little bit of business partnering, a little bit of internal consultancy, a little bit of learning design, and a little bit of delivery,” she tells Stuart. “Ultimately, [my work] was grounded in two things: What does it take to grow our practice through our people? And what does it take to help progress our people’s skillset?”
It’s an area of corporate environments that gets a bad rap. As Heather puts it, HR is thought of as “the pink and fluffy lot”—a perspective she refuses to accept.
Instead, Heather believes that genuinely investing in employee education can make all the difference in a company’s success. Rather than viewing training as a time to “have fun in the classroom,” she sees it with a business-centered mindset.
In this way, Heather’s stance as both a developer and an educator differentiated her from her peers.
“If you read any of my stuff,” she says on the episode, “you’ll see it’s very how-to practical.”
“I’m not the sort of person that sells the sizzle and then doesn’t provide the bacon or the instructions for how to eat it.”
Heather’s time at BDO served as her own training ground for what would eventually become The Accountants Millionaires’ Club, an organization that trains accountants and firm leaders to successfully grow their businesses.
Transitioning from accountant to manager
Many of Heather’s clients face a common hurdle: navigating the transition from CPA to business leader.
Let’s set the scene: an accountant starts their own firm. As a one-person entity, they take care of all accounting services for their clients while also managing sales. Their business gains traction. Word-of-mouth spreads and their revenue steadily grows.
Eventually, they reach their personal capacity, so they decide to hire a couple of part-time employees for more support. Suddenly, they have new costs to cover: office space, systems, training resources, applications, and benefits.
Not only do they feel the financial squeeze of their additional costs, but they’re also experiencing an entirely new challenge: a team that requires leadership.
“Efficiency suddenly starts to matter,” says Heather. “Many people fail to get much beyond that point because they never quite crack running it with a team.”
It’s also at this point when accountants need to raise their prices. “The rock-bottom prices they charged when it was them in a study don’t work anymore,” she says.
Once a business has adjusted its prices and either grown its team or begun outsourcing work, accounting leaders face a new issue: trust.
“This is the point where you have to move from being the business. You’ve got to start to get some members of your staff to be truly client-facing to start to run that portfolio,” says Heather.
It’s a colossal task—and not all accountants possess the natural skills needed to weather the transition successfully. But without learning efficiency, trust, training, and management, their business won’t thrive.
The offshoring approach to growing a business
Offshoring is a route that many of Heather’s clients take, especially in the early stages of growth.
It’s a practice that’s become common in UK accounting firms, and Heather attributes much of the trend to challenges in the hiring market.
Like many parts of the world, the hiring landscape is cutthroat. “There’s a shortage [of CPAs], and they’re expensive,” she explains.
But Heather adds that the benefit of offshoring isn’t solely to improve profit margins: “A lot of people do it because it’s a flexible resource.”
An often overlooked benefit to offshoring services is the ability to quickly shift the amount of outsourced work as demand ebbs and flows. As a result, firms can get more support when needed without worrying about financially supporting employees during slower seasons.
Recommended viewing: How to manage an outsourced team with Karbon
Scaling isn’t always profitable
There’s a problem in the accounting industry that Heather describes as “the fetishization of growth.”
Take accounting leadership awards, for example—growth is more often than not one of the primary questions on award applications. And across the industry, it’s put on a pedestal and celebrated as a sign of success. But according to Heather, it’s a shortsighted perspective.
“I’ve judged a lot of UK accountancy boards, and through the work we’ve done with our members, with the 10-plus years of helping small accountancy firms grow, I’ve seen most of the books of these high-profile firms,” Heather shares on the podcast. “And let’s just say, not a pretty picture.”
According to Heather, the success that we see on the surface often doesn’t mirror reality.
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life writes about misguided goals, a problem that Heather believes many accounting leaders face.
“Very often, as an accountancy firm owner, we have the wrong goals. We have the wrong idea of what success means,” she explains. “The real skill [lies in] the other parts of growth, and in my opinion, that’s often what’s missed out in the marketplace right now.”
“People think growth is ‘How do I win the next big piece of business?’ but it’s just so much more than that.”
To Heather, growth isn’t just about adding more business. It’s also about creating a positive work culture and a profitable and efficient organization.
Changing demands for accountants
Heather believes that accounting leaders face many challenges beyond scaling with profitability in mind. She also thinks the future of accounting is changing and leaders must be prepared to adapt to the changes.
With advancements in machine learning, the future of bookkeeping will (eventually) be automated. That means a major shift in accountants’ roles from financial accounting to management accounting.
The problem? Young up-and-coming accountants aren’t formally learning how to make this pivot. Instead, they must learn these skills on the job.
But, as always for Heather, it circles back to robust learning opportunities—like those provided by The Accountants Millionaires’ Club.
“We aim to be that one-stop shop for growth,” Heather says. “For us, it’s not just about coaching or networking. It’s about the strength of the community and being able to really help our members through that 360 degrees of growth.”