Top 60 league table - Young guns

More than a quarter of the UK's Top 60 firms have a partner under 33. Alice Nixon spoke to nine of them about making the grade at such a tender age.

Age is no bar for the young and talented in the accountancy profession.

This year's Accountancy Top 60 survey of accountancy firms found that over a quarter (27%) of the firms have partners under the age of 33, and two even have partners who are still in their 20s: Matthew Hall, 27, at Wilkins Kennedy and Damon Brain, 27, at Duncan & Toplis.

But although the youngest partners of a considerable number of firms are in their very early 30s or younger, such young appointments are not generally the norm - and the few who achieve it arguably represent the future leadership of the profession.

Accountancy spoke to nine such young partners, each the youngest of their particular firm and most appointed at the age of 30 or under, to discover how they rose to the dizzy heights of partnership so quickly.

Of the nine, only those in Big Four firms were immediately made equity partners; all the others must pass a two or three-year period as a salaried partner before they will be considered for equity partnership.

And only those in the Big Four achieved first class degrees at university - and only one of those at Oxbridge - but all who obtained a degree did so in a subject relevant to accountancy or business. Two of the nine did not pursue a university degree but went straight into their accountancy training.

And all but one qualified with the ICAEW, while the other qualified with the ACCA.

John Staniforth, 30, Kingston Smith

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 24 (ACA)

Age made partner: 28

University degree: 2(1) in economics, University of Warwick

Area of work: general practice

I was always keen to become a partner mainly because of the closer client contact. As a partner you become an absolutely vital part of a client's business. Plus you're working more independently with your own client portfolio, and I also always enjoyed the new business side of things and getting involved in marketing.

At an early stage I was already working fairly independently and the partners knew I'd get a piece of work done on budget and on time, so they'd never need to think of it again. I was already running quite a large portfolio for a manager as well, and I'd also managed to start winning a few clients.

Clients may be a bit disbelieving that I'm a partner at first meeting - but it's like anything in life, you have to earn people's respect. They soon realise you know what you're talking about and although you're quite young, you're pretty experienced. Often clients are the same age or even younger, setting up businesses for the first time. That's another reason why it's important to have younger partners so that you can match the age groups of clients.

Kingston Smith's always looking to make partners up if we think they've got the potential. We try to make up partners at a young age partly for succession planning reasons, but also to drive the business forward and create new business opportunities.

I hope to spend the rest of my career with Kingston Smith but who knows what will happen in the future? My goals for the medium term at least are to establish myself as a partner, and build my portfolio to a substantial size.

Sarah Dodds, 30, MacIntyre Hudson

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 25 (ACA)

Age made partner: 29

University degree: 2(2) in management and business administration, Reading University

Area of work: general practice

Once I qualified, I knew practice was the route I wanted to go and from the outset aimed to become a partner. I was fortunate in that I was given opportunities early on to get involved beyond the number crunching side. I got myself involved in business development and marketing activities quite early on - establishing myself in my own right so people then knew me. And from there I built up my own contacts. Ultimately my main aim is to become a well respected professional in the area.

I enjoy meeting new people and dealing with the clients on a regular basis - getting out and about. You need technical knowledge but you also need to be a people person. As a partner you're looking at the bigger picture, looking more at the running of the office and the staff issues rather than just being an accountant. I like all the different challenges at this level.

But on the more negative side, there's the office politics and my main dislike is all the red tape, the bureaucracy, the form filling. You end up dealing more with the administrative side of it than you perhaps do with what you're good at.

I think people can sometimes be a bit taken aback by my age when they first meet me. And I think also being young and female is probably slightly harder than being young and male. But I don't think I've had a problem with the age thing particularly. Once you know you know your stuff and you're confident, I don't think age should come into it.

Tina Allison, 33, Horwath Clark Whitehill

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 23 (ACCA)

Age made partner: 31

Training: Began training contract at age of 18

Area of work: audit partner in not-for-profit unit

The appeal of being a partner was the challenge of earning my own income and running a business, and it's always been something I wanted to get to. It's ultimately being the decision maker - for your client the buck stops with you. I also like the diversity and meeting people - everything's different, there's no routine as such. And pretty much the job can be what you want it to be. You get out what you put in.

I think in our practice you get to partner when there's a business case - it's not so much focused on your age. I think what helped me is I qualified quite young, and specialised in audit for the not-for-profit sector which was very much a growing business area, so I had the opportunity to develop higher client handling skills and to work with senior partners from quite an early stage in my career.

I've also always been interested in the business world and was always keen to achieve the maximum I could achieve. I'm always asking myself whether I'm getting the best out of me.

Initially there may be some surprise at my age when I first meet clients.

There is, I think, an in-built assumption that age always brings wisdom.

It's very much about matching the right partner with the right client.

There will be some clients who expect someone of greater years in front of them, but most people generally are fairly accepting. What really matters is proving yourself with clients. If you're delivering and they're happy with what you're saying to them, I think age gets forgotten very, very quickly.

Chay Took, 30, Spofforths

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 24 (ACA)

Age made partner: 29

University degree: 2(1) in accounting and finance, Aberystwyth University

Area of work: general practice

I wanted to become a partner because I always fancied being self-employed and seeing what was going on from the top. I think I probably achieved it at a young age because I fit in well with the firm's ethos. Being a locally-based firm it's important you get on with people and make them feel comfortable, rather than coming across as the technical, stuffy accountant.

I've also always been happy to put my head above the parapet and inquisitive as to where things are going and where my part is in it, and wanting to push my part further up. Even when I first started I was keen to be making phone calls or drafting letters and getting involved in front-of-house stuff.

Partner appointments in a firm our size I think very much depend on the timing of people leaving at the other end as well. It is to a degree a case of being in the right place at the right time.

I don't feel I've had more to prove because of my age - in most cases, clients knew me anyway, so it was just a transition really, a paper change.

And as far as staff are concerned, it's actually a big positive because it shows other accountants coming up three or four years after me what the opportunities are.

I'm looking forward to the future and am excited about building my own nest. It's early days still, I'm still learning the ropes of being a partner but my intention is to build my portfolio over the next few years and push my way up the firm.

Simon Blake, 32, Haslers

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 24 (ACA)

Age made partner: 29

Training: foundation accountancy course at what is now Huddersfield University, followed by four-year training contract with Price Bailey

Area of work: corporate finance

For me partnership was a long-term objective. I'd always recognised that practice was where I wanted to be, so I just worked hard without pressing particularly for promotion - but I think it was recognised in me by the partners around me. And I worked very closely with the senior audit partner and the senior corporate finance partner around that time and that led to their invitation to me to progress through into the partnership.

My move into corporate finance enabled me to specialise and the partners to establish a new department around myself.

I think I probably had more of a problem myself with my age when appointed partner than the people around me. But I think there's a huge opportunity for people in their late 20s, early 30s to get partnership roles. It should be much more the norm. Practices are still very traditional and are probably not thinking ahead enough to be bringing partners in young - particularly as we see more and more young entrepreneurs coming into business.

That match of expectations between youth and experience is one that we need to constantly juggle to make sure our clients have the best overall service and can both relate to partners in the same age bracket as them while also having the benefit of older partners' experience.

I really like the variety of work as a partner, both of situation and client type. But I dislike the traditional culture within accountancy of long hours, and the loss of balance between family and working life.

I think our generation of 30-year-old business leaders has got to tackle that.

David Burlison, 31, KPMG

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 24 (ACA)

Age made partner: 30

University degree: First in banking and finance, Loughborough University

Area of work: corporate recovery/restructuring

Once I qualified and decided to move across to the corporate recovery and restructuring area, I saw that as a longer term career path, and partnership was definitely part of that.

Working in the restructuring area, you're dealing with companies and banks in difficult situations where often companies are failing - so trying to turn them around is quite satisfying and enjoyable work.

It's very much a case of taking and applying what you've learned through the accountancy exams and audit into a very commercial environment. You need to get on with people very well because obviously you're working very close to management in very difficult situations. I like being able to run several cases at once, and having the freedom to run them, consulting more senior partners as and when you need to. You're given a lot of leeway to act.

I do feel taken seriously as a partner despite my age. I've been here from the restructuring team's early days, and I know the bankers we deal with very well and the corporates themselves know the banks are not going to put in people who can't do the work. In that environment you can very quickly demonstrate your capabilities.

I tend to look at my career no more than three or four years ahead, and definitely for the next couple of years I see myself staying with KPMG.

Beyond that, I think, working in the environment I do, one of the natural progressions at some point is to become a turnaround CEO or FD at a company, and instead of advising people how to do it, actually do it myself.

Andy Morris, 32, Deloitte

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 24 (ACA)

Age made partner: 32

University degree: First in maths, Oxford University

Area of work: specialist audit (enterprise risk services)

Since I started my career with Andersen, I always wanted to make it to partner. Partnership allows you take things on to another level and actually lead projects and initiatives, which I enjoy doing. I like the way being a partner will open doors. New clients particularly tend to treat you slightly differently - they trust you more.

It's also more entrepreneurial. You feel that within a safe environment you can take a fair degree of entrepreneurial decisions yourself and go off and pursue those things knowing that you have the support of the firm behind you.

Being an approachable people person, able to engage with people of all levels in the firm is important, and I think being younger probably helps with that. You're not so far from being where you were as a graduate.

I haven't ever felt that people don't take me seriously because I'm young.

Maybe I just don't look young enough! But no-one's seemed shocked, and clients have all been very supportive - and in many cases I was already taking on a quasi-partner role anyway.

Tim Dunn, 32, Menzies

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 25 (ACA)

Age made partner: 28

University degree: 2(1) in economics, Essex University

Area of work: general practice

I think one of the overriding factors for my appointment was that my personality fitted well with the culture at Menzies. I was very keen on ensuring clients received a very high level of service, and I was very technically sound and keen to get new business in for the firm - all the sorts of things I'd expect a partner to demonstrate. In addition, one of the partners above me here was promoted elsewhere which left a gap.

So I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

I like managing my own portfolio and my own time and being responsible to a degree for my own destiny. I like the challenge - to make things happen, to effectively manage change and bring new work in. I also like the variety of what I do and dealing with people.

But on the downside, I dislike the ever-increasing regulation and administration.

You don't quite get enough time to do what you're qualified to do.

Occasionally you might not get a bit of business because people think you are too young or too inexperienced. But a lot of clients I've been responsible for as partner, I'd worked with for a number of years as manager so it was a fairly smooth transition.

Philip Secrett, 33, Grant Thornton

Vital statistics

Age qualified: 26 (ACA)

Age made partner: 30

University degree: masters in manufacturing, engineering and management, Manchester University

Area of work: capital markets and corporate finance

I started on a specific accelerated partnership programme that Grant Thornton used to run when I joined back in 1994, which meant seven years from starting training to partnership - so I set out to become a partner from day one.

People do read into age, and it can be difficult with the people I'm working with on a daily basis, but it's never really been a big issue.

Building and maintaining credibility is of course key. And if you can't do that, irrespective of your age, then you're not going to be able to work with the client and probably shouldn't have been made a partner in the first place.

To become a partner, you need drive, commitment, motivation, a self-starting outlook, tenacity, resilience - with a clear perception of risk management and commerciality. And there's got to be an ability to actually run and grow a business in a successful way.

I really like the ability to act in an autonomous and entrepreneurial way. Corporate finance is a fast-growing aspect of the business - and I want to continue to be contributing to that.

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