Accountex London 2024: Here’s what we learned from day one

Accountex London offers so many talks, demonstrations and networking opportunities that even the most tireless finance professional could only hope to take in part of it.

iplicit is at this year’s event at London’s ExCeL, hot on the heels of our success in the FT1000 list of fastest-growing companies and the Sunday Times Best Places to Work.

From the thoughts of an ex-chancellor to insights on diversity and technology, we picked out some of the themes from day one of the event.

Accountex 2024 (2)

What an ex-chancellor had to say about the economy

Accountants like to know what shape the economy is in – and at Accountex, they were invited to hear about it from a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

Lord Philip Hammond, who was in 11 Downing Street under Theresa May’s government from 2016-19, is out of frontline politics and free to tell it as he sees it.

Lord Hammond – now a Senior Advisor at RCK Partners – outlined some of the troubling trends affecting the economic outlook.

He said Britain faced the challenges of the “four Ds”– demography (an ageing population), defence (the need to rearm in an unstable world), decarbonisation (which he said would be costly) and democracy – the need to win public consent for hard choices. 

He warned that Britain had suffered from a prolonged period of slow growth and poor productivity – but that it also had opportunities. 

“We speak the world’s favourite language, we have the world’s best legal system for doing business, we’re in the world’s best time zone for business, we’ve got an unparalleled higher education sector and great research institutes across the UK,” he said.

“We’ve got a dynamic and entrepreneurial population – we see more business startups than any other country except the United States. We’re also a manufacturing hub.”

He added: “Ironically, our low productivity can also be a strength. We know where Britain’s growth will come from over the next 20-30 years – by fixing the productivity problem.

“If we just raised our productivity in the UK to the level of Germany or the US, we would see about 30% growth in our economy in the next 20 years or so.”

He also spoke of the technological transformation which had been promised since the 2010s.

“History teaches us these big transformative technological changes always take much longer than the inventors of them expect. Look how long it took to get from the invention of the worldwide web to a PC on everybody’s desk, look how long it took from Edison inventing the electric light bulb to the electrification of industry. Decades, not years,” he said.

“The transformation that AI, automation, digitisation is going to deliver us is going to happen but it’s going to take longer than people think. We can measure this transformation in decades, not years.”

The climate needs to be on your mind

With Philip Hammond identifying decarbonisation as a big issue, the subject was discussed at an event titled The Role of the CFO and Finance Function in the Climate Transition.

Emmeline Skelton, Head of Sustainability at ACCA, shared research showing the majority of organisations are not prioritising transition planning in the face of the climate emergency. Even among organisations that do have a plan, there is a lack of clarity over responsibility and accountability.

Victoria Gillespie, Head of ESG Solutions at Alter Domus, warned that many people were “just bored of it” and that when the subject turns to climate change “they start to switch off”.

She said it was important that people “on the ground” in an organisation understood the transition policy, rather than it being a board-level subject that was not translated into action.

Jose Antonio de Mayne Hopkins, founder of Simplify Climate, said: “I talk to people well below the board level and those people are not knowledgeable on these topics.”

Victoria said the issue was often passed to the finance team but that the whole organisation needed to get involved. “You can’t just have finance in isolation being responsible. That’s too much of a heavy burden,” she said.

Accountants want a family life

How can you be successful as an accountant and still be a good parent? A session called Parenting in Practice discussed how parents could thrive at work and home. 

Sam Mitcham, Founder of SJCM Accountancy, said the issue was not just about employers being “flexible”.

“We have a responsibility as an employer, in my mind, to try and nurture our parents and believe that their children are allowed to come first,she said.

“Everybody who’s a parent knows that our children will always come before our career and that juggling act is never going to get any easier.”

Emma Crawford-Falekaono, whose experience includes Xero and IRIS, spoke movingly of caring for her second son after he was taken ill.

“We have this huge amount of guilt where we can’t be the best at work and we can’t be the best as a parent,” she said.

She said employers needed to consider parents when setting expectations and deadlines. “If you don’t have those things in place, then you’re going to lose some of the best people you have,” she said.

The session offered some practical tips, such as making family time a regular appointment as immovable as a client meeting.

Mark Jenkins, Founder of The Gap, said his business had set its core values as “family first”, balanced by “best endeavours” – which meant everyone “going the extra mile, with respect”.

He told how he had “sacked” a client worth 10% of revenue because the customer didn’t align with his practice’s core values.

And he urged accountants to consider keeping fewer clients, but with higher average fees.

“I want you all to think about how many clients you have – because the more clients you have, the more demands you’ve got,” he added.

The industry needs to work on diversity

Many accountancy practices are still missing out on the skills of a diverse, or inclusive, workforce.

The subject was the basis for a panel discussion called Empowering Voices: Why Equality = Success for Your Firm.

Host Mo Kanjilal, Co-Creator at Watch This Space, told how businesses were missing out on talent if they did not attract diverse staff.

“There are lots of statistics that will tell you why inclusive teams perform better,” she said.

Kayleigh Graham, Head of Partnerships and Growth at Telleroo, said: “There are lots of talented people out there but are we providing them with the environment to thrive and to connect and do their best work?”

Asked how companies could improve their performance when it came to diversity, she said: “One of the things I often talk about is: make it a real problem that has real numbers and real consequences – because that’s what you would do if your team was struggling with any other measure.” 

Zarah Rehman, Marketer in the Fintech Space, advocated for pay transparency so people know what criteria are linked to which rewards. 

Kayleigh gave examples of the way job descriptions and company profiles can influence the range of candidates who apply. And Sobi Hariharan, Head of Partnerships at ICB UK, called for flexible working and for employers to hire people they could trust.

Inclusivity was also on the agenda at From Culture to Code: Capitalising on Inclusion for Your Practice and Software Tools.

Adam Tweed, Innovation Consultant at AbilityNet, said there were 16m people in the UK with a disability, including 23% of working age adults.

“Disabled people represent a vast, untapped potential number of employees and customers,” he said.

The event heard from John Chambers and Aysla Brown of HMRC about the efforts it made to accommodate the requirements of disabled people.

John urged businesses to think about both their employment arrangements and their products from other people’s poit of view. “It’s about making sure your services can be used by as many people as possible.”

Julia Penny, Immediate Past President of ICAEW, said accountancy had been “fishing in the same pool” for job candidates for a long time.

“We need more people in the workforce and we’re making it impossible sometimes, but there are solutions,” she said.

She was hopeful that attitudes would change in the way they have for mental health.

“Twenty years ago, who would have ever dared to say to your employer ‘I have some mental health issues’, ‘I have anxiety’ or maybe ‘suffering from depression’. You would have been afraid that all your career opportunities would go absolutely out of the window,” she said.

There’s an opportunity in digital transformation

Alongside the big trends in the economy and society that face the profession, there were practical discussions about areas where accountancy firms could develop.

Helping clients adopt new technology – and potentially improve their businesses – could be one increasingly valuable line of work.

The opportunities were the subject of a session called App Advisory In-House: When Should You Operate in-House or Choose to Outsource.

Emily Deakin, Head of Client Experience at App Advisory Plus, told how her interest in digital transformation had developed. “I just wanted things to be done quickly, done there and then. When things take too long and it’s quite a manual process, that’s when I start looking at automation and looking at different apps,” she said.

John Toon, Tech Strategy Lead at Beever and Struthers, told of the value that reviewing a client’s processes and helping install new software could add.

“I really like doing the app advisory work. it’s one of the few jobs where we really go into the client’s business, we get to understand their business and we get to have a real impact on the business and improving the way they work,” he said.

“I really like the people side of it. I also find the people side of it really challenging!”

Frances Kay, Co-Founder of App Advisory Plus, added: “Seeing a business change – especially those reluctant people that we’ve been able to get on board – that’s really satisfying.”

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