Armstrong Watson - 150 years with you
Armstrong Watson is a fast growing business celebrating 150 years of delivering exceptional accountancy, financial and business advice to our clients across the UK.
An exciting opportunity has arisen for a qualified Audit & Assurance Senior to join our growing team at our Fairview House office, Carlisle, working with a wide range of predominately owner managed businesses, both locally and nationally.
Paul Dickson is managing partner of accountants, business and financial advisory firm Armstrong Watson, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. He talks to Jonathan Lee about the firm’s heritage, visions and ethos - and his ambitions for the future.
You are only really good at something when you love what you do.
These words are displayed on the wall behind Paul Dickson, managing partner of Armstrong Watson, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Paul, 46, speaking to in-Cumbria at Armstrong Watson’s Carlisle HQ, is starting his 20th year with the business and his seventh since taking over as managing partner. He clearly loves what he does.
And he has a clear vision.
“The future is about making sure we achieve this reputation of being the go-to firm for family-owned businesses in the north of England and Scotland.
“So that our competitors are saying that, bank managers are saying that, and other professionals are saying that and we have that reputation in the marketplace.
“We achieve that by making sure we are focusing on making sure Armstrong Watson is a great place to work, a great firm to do business with, and all the things we have committed to in writing in our book of culture.
“We are proud of the firm’s heritage and its history, where we have come from, and what we have achieved over the last 150 years.
“But it is about the here and now and where we are going. It’s about the current people and how we deliver for the clients.”
On both fronts for Paul that comes down to the people.
“The two things that we are focusing on in terms of our people is making Armstrong Watson the best accountancy and financial services firm to work for.
“If we get that right, then we make it the best firm for our clients to do business with.”
It’s one thing of course to have a vision. It’s another to deliver it.
Again, Paul and the senior leadership team, have a clear plan.
“As a leadership team we have said, if you could define what an Armstrong Watson person looks like and distil that down, and distil that into our behavioural competencies and core values for the business and then it’s making sure we have the right people with the right skills in the right seats.
“We have this statement ‘We’re With You’, and that’s twofold. It is about clients and supporting our clients, but it’s also about supporting our people and making it a great place to work.
“I am in the process of going around talking to the whole of our team and it’s about providing the best working environment, and the right training and career path. Everyone is entitled to grow and develop within their team area and through good line management has a clear direction. It’s making sure we deliver on those promises.
“Everyone has a development plan. Everyone is rewarded and recognised. Everyone can have a positive experience to share with friends and colleagues. We are serious about making that happen.
“Our new People Director got into HR because people spend more time at work than anywhere else and she wants to make sure that it’s a positive experience for everybody.”
It’s also about people being able to see the bigger picture.
“It’s about our people understanding that they are not just doing a set of accounts. That might be the function of what they do, but it’s ultimately helping our clients to run more successful, more profitable businesses.
“Because by doing that it makes sure our clients are more prosperous and creating wealth and that helps them, their families, the people they employ, with their standard of living.
“You get more of a buzz knowing you are helping somebody achieve that than you would if you just felt you were just sitting behind a computer doing a set of accounts.”
It’s a message shared with every new member of the Armstrong Watson team on their arrival. And Paul and the team use a classic quote to ensure the ethos sticks in the memory.
“Everybody who joins Armstrong Watson we tell them the story about John F Kennedy walking around NASA Space Centre back in 1962 and the story goes that he goes up to the janitor and asks the janitor what he is doing and he says: ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr President’.
“If you love what you do, it shows. If everybody enjoys being part of Armstrong Watson and they’ve got a passion about what we do that will feed through into what it is that they do, and our clients then get the ‘Armstrong Watson Experience’.
“When I look back and see what we have achieved over the last five to 10 years, we have got some really good people in the business and I’m not sure we were strong in that area ten years ago, and we really focused on developing our people. We have got our own academy which is really good.”
For all the ethos, whether it’s working, whether it’s delivering for the business, comes down to facts, and real, measurable feedback.
“We measure five pillars of client advocacy every month on a net promoter score. We are getting in excess of 70 per cent to 80 per cent scores. Last month we got 77 per cent.
“We instil that in all of our people. Everybody in the business knows that we measure that. We are clear about it and they are focused on it because it comes from me right through the business.
“We have just started to tell our staff the great feedback we get from clients. Now and again we get some bad feedback, but we make sure we act on it.”
Satisfaction comes from hearing from clients that the firm has helped remove stress and worry from their lives, maybe meaning they no longer have sleepless nights.
“For some clients it is about taking some of that stress away from them. We had that feedback from a survey last month that we help people take away the stress and the pressure and the worry because they know that we are there for them and we will help through whatever they are facing.”
One of the areas Armstrong Watson clients are most concerned about – as revealed by the firm’s annual family business survey - is Brexit.
“If you look at what is going to happen in agriculture. The government has agreed to maintain the current subsidies until 2020. But what happens after 2020? That’s going to be about who is in power, what sectors are vying for government money, like the NHS for example. That potentially is going to have an impact.
“We are going to have to make sure that with issues like that we are supporting our clients because they will need that support.
“We are seeing clients already with the fall-out over exchange rates where their margins are being squeezed and they have not been able to pass them on.
“We have heard about some clients who at one point were seeing seven per cent per week increases on the suppliers they are using because they were using overseas suppliers.”
There’s also a knock-on implication for Armstrong Watson from Brexit if Scotland opts to go it alone and votes for independence due to the firm dealing with lots of cross-border clients.
“That’s a challenge for our clients and a challenge for us. If independence does happen it will also be a massive opportunity for us because those people in the Borders will need a huge amount of advice.”
Technology and innovation are key areas for development.
Technology is going to be increasingly important to make the firm more efficient and analyse data in real-time to help clients.
“That’s the next step for us, in line with what we are saying about our quest to help them run more successful businesses,” says Paul.
And innovation is why the firm launched the Family Business Portrait Project with in-Cumbria and professional artist Helen Perkins.
It’s also why the firm launched a partnership with Alec Blacklaw and the Business Improvement Program with the first course of its kind set to take place in Cumbria next month.
“What they were doing in Australia we thought we could do that with our clients and make a real difference for them and help them run better more profitable, more sustainable businesses.
“No-one else was doing it. And that’s another of our strategic imperatives to make sure we are the most innovative firm of accountants and financial advisers.
“This is about being innovative with our clients and coming up with something that our competitors aren’t doing.”
That innovation will stand Armstrong Watson in good stead as it sets out on its next 150 years...
Paul Dickson’s top tips for running a successful business
1) Focus on people – I don’t think it matters if you are making widgets or a business like ourselves, you need good people and you need to make it a good place to work so people buy-in to what it is you are trying to do.
2) Getting the right people in the right seats with the right skills – that is absolutely fundamental, because then it just happens and you are not worrying about it.
3) Don’t be afraid to change if you haven’t got the right people - but do it with humanity.
4) Focus on the harsh facts – not the why, don’t try to justify them or pontificate about them, just focus on the actual facts, the issues that are there, and deal with them, and address them.
5) Keep on top of finances and cash – because if you are doing that and running a tight ship you can deal with some of the things that you might not otherwise be able to deal with and it allows you to do some things that if you are worrying about the money, you can’t do. If you are not in a good place financially you perhaps make some decisions which you wouldn’t otherwise make.
Paul on leadership
“I read a book by Jim Collins – From Good to Great. It’s about looking in the mirror when things go wrong. And looking out of the window when things go right. That’s about giving praise and saying we achieved that because of our people. And when things go wrong what could I have done to make sure that didn’t happen? And you learn from that.”
Three words Paul Dickson would like to be described by his team
Fair - always.
Cares – about our people and our clients.
Passionate – about what I am trying to do.
Mike Lee, Palace Cycles, Carlisle
“We have been with Armstrong Watson ever since my dad and grandad formed Palace Cycles in 1947. We may have even been with them before that, but certainly since the business existed in the form it is now.
“They were Armstrong Routledge in those days. I recently found the original set of accounts from the first year of trading. We made a small profit of £400 in the first year.
“In a town the size of Carlisle that relationship and that history means a lot to me.
“We have always had good business advice from Armstrong Watson, and consistently strong advice as well. In fact their advice has been a major factor in the success, longevity and sustainability of our business over the last 70 years.
“When I ring up Armstrong Watson they know me, they don’t just know my business, and that matters to me.
“I value loyalty. I know a lot of other accountants. I am sure they are all great. But I think they know they are not going to pinch me. They know I wouldn’t go. So they don’t bother to ask!
“I value the three generations. It’s important.”
All the details for Audit & Assurance Senior in North West, Cumbria on one page.