As the fastest growing accountancy firm in the UK, Azets is committed to future merger and acquisition opportunities as it aims to establish the firm as the largest provider of services to the SME market. Sara White talks to the firm’s leadership team Dawn Marriott and Chris Horne
The foundation stone for the UK business was HG Capital’s acquisition of Baldwin Group, with a raft of acquisitions of around 60 small and mid-tier accountancy firms to build the group’s UK presence. Most recently in March 2021, Azets announced the acquisition of Roffe Swayne, an accountancy and tax advisory firm based in Godalming, Surrey.
Rebranded as Azets in 2019, the group reported fee income of £270m for year end 2020, up 20% on 2019’s revenue of £220m and is ranked ninth in the latest Accountancy Daily Annual Top 75 Firms Survey.
A new senior management team is now in place at the firm with chief executive Dawn Marriott in post since October 2019. Unusually for the accountancy world, Marriott does not come from an accounting background but rather solid business experience. A recent strengthening of the team also saw the appointment of Chris Horne as group deputy CEO. He has been with Azets since the acquisition of Campbell Dallas in 2017, when he oversaw the sale of his firm.
Dawn Marriott, CEO at Azets said: ‘It is all about SMEs and owner managed businesses; the acquisitions gave us 120,000 clients and half a billion in revenue with the UK business and our Nordic operations under Visma.
‘Now we are embarking on phase two of building the business, and driving innovation is very important and inspiring the workforce. It is all about becoming more efficient, and the benefits of being in a larger organisation for the people and clients.
‘Everything that we do in terms of transformation is part of our aim to be the best accountancy firm for SMEs, and to support employees to thrive and to have a long-term career.
Chris Horne, group deputy CEO of Azets said: ‘The accountancy profession is a very long established model and the partnership model can make it difficult to transform quickly. The pandemic has changed the way the business approaches SMEs.’
Marriott said: ‘When you’re trying to do something at the scale we are, it is about being able to challenge things. When you haven’t grown up with a profession, you can question how things are done.’
With the speed of acquisitions, there were always going to be questions of scale and integrating legacy systems. ‘With all the acquisitions, there is the challenge of systems and cultures, we have create a single reporting system but have kept some of the legacy systems and then implemented integration layers which wrap over the top of legacy software.
‘There is one HR system for payroll, recruitment and talent all on one platform, and that is rolled out across the business. The systems for clients have interlays, if they already work and are fit for purpose, then we use them.
‘One of the biggest investments has been in data security. If you imagine 60 firms would have different approaches and that has been an area of significant investment over the last two to three years, and this has really scaled up over the last 18 months,’ said Marriott.
Azets is working hard to create a homogenous firm with a single culture across the business, and the emphasis is on giving staff the chance to grasp promotion opportunities and also to get involved with the major change programme from contributing ideas on how to improve processes through to changing legacy systems.
Internal communications are very important especially during the times of the pandemic as the firm had closed all its offices. Now that the offices are reopen, staff will be given a flexible working option, splitting time between home working, collaboration in offices which have been redesigned in some instances to accommodate social distancing requirements, and making client visits.
Horne said: ‘We were very quick to mobilise our staff to work from home and closed all our offices last March, and invested in the equipment we needed to make sure that worked effectively. At the same time we introduced flexible working – the key focus from the start was to give staff flexibility.
‘As the pandemic matured, we recognised the opportunity to provide people with the option to work from anywhere, from home or from offices, wherever they need to be.
‘Our offices reopened on 12 April and what we’re planning to end up with is a flexible working environment, working from home, offices and clients. Some people will be returning to different office space as we have done some renovations over the last few months.
‘In our offices we have created open collaboration spaces, we want to be pioneers of the work from anywhere concept,’ Horne added.
‘It is all about the ability to take people with us,’ Marriott said. ‘If I dare say it, one of the positives that has come out of covid is that it has made the leadership team so much more accessible.’
One of the results of the work to instil an Azets culture and create a single culture, albeit a long-term project, has seen more opportunities for staff to move around the business, not solely being promoted within their specific office. This has opened up career opportunities around the business, which is one of the key objectives of the leadership team.
Horne said: ‘One of the biggest challenges is creating a strong culture – people are now moving from one office to another, and people are applying for promotions at other offices. There are similar tools and working practices so this offers a national career.’
One of the challenges of the pandemic period has been Azets’ commitment to maintaining its extensive training programme.
‘We gave a lot of thought to our trainee programme – we take on a lot of graduates and have 900 trainees across the business. And the number we take on each year has doubled with 150 new trainee joiners in 2020 and a similar number joining the firm in August/September this year,’ said Marriott.
All the training over the last 12 months has taken place remotely with online sessions and the ubiquitous use of the all too familiar Team and Zoom. Each trainee has also been allocated a mentor, which is standard for the training programme, as well as a named buddy to help them settle into the firm. This has been an area of concern, but a number of measures were put in place to ensure that trainees felt engaged and fully supported on their training programmes. However, the inevitable lack of human contact and lack of opportunities to shadow staff and learn on the job can be a downside of home training.
Now that the offices have reopened trainees will be able to split their time between home and office training. ‘We will have specific days when trainees will need to come in, as well as their mentors and trainers. It is important to support them as much as possible,’ said Marriott.
‘The feedback from trainees has been very positive,’ said Horne. ‘It is a really tough time to start a new career – they have mentors and buddies. It is clear who they can shout out to for support.’
While business and clients are the priority, the Azets philosophy creates a strong team culture, which has been nurtured throughout the pandemic period. Clearly, the end of office based working raised new challenges with online socialising and events replacing conventional face-to-face activities, while there was support for parents home schooling and for lone parents.
‘We have organised lots of social events online so that people can network with each other,’ explained Marriott. ‘During the third lockdown we had a lot of feedback from parents struggling with balancing home schooling and so we decided to organise entertainment for the children every week for an hour with story telling, bake offs, art competitions and magicians so that they could do something while parents could take an hour’s break themselves.’